Hitler: A Biography – Volume One: Ascent 1889-1939, by Volker Ullrich

Book of the week: A portrait of the failure who became Führer detects early signs of a Final Solution, says Robert Gellately

March 3, 2016
Men marching behind flags with swastikas on them
Source: Alamy
Gathering pace: nationalism surged in Germany in the early 1920s at the time that Hitler entered politics

Little wonder that we are still trying to explain Adolf Hitler, from his meteoric rise, to the scale of the crimes that he ordered or inspired, to his no less dramatic decline and fall. In this first German biography of Hitler since Joachim Fest’s classic account from 1973, Volker Ullrich builds on the wealth of materials discovered since then, and utilises a surprising number of barely used or recently found primary sources. In a most impressive and massive account, he adds telling details and subtle nuances to the dictator’s portrait and provides a fresh perspective on his rise. The result is a must-read book that is bound to be a critical and commercial success.

The well-published author delves into his subject’s upbringing and shows how the 20-year-old Hitler, poorly educated, untrained and with no future prospects, hit rock bottom in late 1909 when he landed in a shelter for the homeless in Vienna. Astonishingly enough, just over 30 years later in the autumn of 1941, he could claim to be the most powerful leader on the planet and ruler of a vast continental empire. Then by October of that year and impervious to the warnings of his economic experts who told him that the two-front war was unwinnable, he refused to contemplate a negotiated peace, and left a trail of death and destruction worse than anything Europe had seen in its long history.

To unravel the many mysteries, Ullrich looks for clues in archives and libraries near and far. He suggests that had it not been for the First World War and the social revolution that it sparked, Hitler might well have remained an unknown figure on the margins of society. In August 1914, when he volunteered to fight for Germany, he was part of a worldwide generation that gleefully rushed to their national colours. Although he won well-deserved honours, he was a loner apparently devoid of leadership qualities. As early as 1915, however, he began attaching special meaning to the war. In a February letter to a Munich acquaintance, he struck an ominous note, saying that when he and his comrades made it home, he hoped that they would “find it purer and cleansed of foreignness”. Surely, he wrote, “the daily sacrifices and suffering of hundreds of thousands of us” would “smash Germany’s enemies abroad but also destroy our internal internationalism – that would be worth more than any territorial gains”.

Instead, upon his return to Munich in late November 1918, and convinced that the home front had stabbed Germany’s undefeated army in the back, he found a city riven by revolution. The next year, and in a move that appeared completely out of character, the 30-year-old Hitler took a decisive leap into politics, and by early 1920, he was able to draw an audience of 2,000 to one of his speeches. A confirmed, if recent, radical anti-Semite, he indicated privately to Heinrich Heim, a young Munich law student, that he had already reached murderous conclusions. Ullrich has located one of Heim’s letters from August 1920 that quotes Hitler as saying, “As long as Jews remain with their pernicious effects, Germany cannot convalesce. When it comes to the existence or non-existence of a people, one cannot draw a line at the lives of blinkered [German] ethnic comrades and even less so at the lives of a hostile, dangerous, foreign tribe.” Thus, he gave a preview of his redemptive version of anti-Semitism, linking the salvation of his country to “pushing out” the Jews, although what that meant would keep changing.

When his messages found an ever more enthusiastic response, he became “the king of Munich”, so much so that in 1923 he attempted an ill-considered and poorly organised coup. After its ignominious failure, he would make certain never again to be too far ahead of the people, views he developed in Mein Kampf, the autobiography he wrote mostly in prison, which revealed how he thought and what he planned.

Nonetheless, no matter how popular Hitler became after leaving prison, the movement he inspired proved incapable of a breakthrough until the first national elections after the Great Depression hit in 1929. Early the next year, in a private missive, Hitler was again declaring himself a prophet, claiming to predict “with near oracular certainty” that he would have power within two and a half to three years. This time he was right.

Ullrich convincingly shows that once Hitler became chancellor in 1933, the nation would get onside with bewildering haste. Although Nazi thugs used terror, we should not exaggerate its continuing significance, because even during that spring, the atmosphere changed rapidly in favour of National Socialism. The author quotes revealing contemporary sources, such as one that mentions how, as stormtroopers marched past, old women stared in wonder, with one exclaiming “You can really see it, can’t you. How things are looking up everywhere.”

In April 1933, Hitler whispered to the Italian ambassador Vittorio Cerruti that he wanted more than the recent (failed) boycott of Jewish businesses. Appallingly, he predicted “that in 500 or 600 years the name Hitler will be universally glorified as the name of the man who, once and for all, eradicated the global pestilence that is Jewry”. Indeed, his anti-Semitism would grow more virulent by the year.

Initially the regime’s existence rested on its ability to cure unemployment, and in accomplishing that task faster than the governments of the major capitalist countries, it earned society’s deep gratitude. Although the Nazis had crushed the left-wing parties as well as the trade unions, the author cites a member of the banned socialist underground in June/July 1934 who muttered: “Major segments of the working classes have lapsed into unquestioning deification of Hitler.” Another such observer concluded resignedly in February 1935: “Those workers who were previously indifferent are today the most submissive followers of the system and the most fervent believers in Hitler.”

We learn more about the dictator’s private life, including his largely “normal” sexual relationships with women. Ullrich points to Hitler’s “self-concealment” and supposed abilities as “an actor” in politics, as if they were unique vices. Yet like many leaders, he stylised himself, massaged his public image, sheltered his private life, and struck different poses as the occasion demanded.

The main reason the country overcame mass unemployment was through reckless military spending, a priority of Hitler’s from day one, given that fostering economic recovery and social harmony were prerequisites to his adventures in foreign policy. With every paper victory during his first six years in power, he changed, becoming more confident and assertive, and on his 50th birthday in April 1939, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was delighted at the enthusiastic public response to the two-day celebrations.

Ullrich’s book’s first volume breaks off shortly afterwards, a point at which the unchallengeable dictator could look back on the glory of his astounding success since those dark days in Vienna. Even after Britain and France finally gave up trying to appease him and guaranteed Poland’s independence, Hitler took on “the martial pose of a field commander” and would soon lead a fearsome military machine to another easy triumph. The socialist-in-exile observers took a grimmer view, for they claimed that their country was “heading for the second world war that seems lost right from the start”. Although they could not possibly imagine the scope of the catastrophe to come, this time it was their predictions, and not Hitler’s, that would be proved right.

Robert Gellately is Earl Ray Beck professor of history, Florida State University. His books include Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany, 1933-1945 (2001) and Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War (2013).

Hitler: A Biography – Volume One: Ascent 1889-1939
By Volker Ullrich
Translated by Jefferson Chase
Bodley Head, 1008pp, £25.00
ISBN 9781847922854
Published 3 March 2016

The author

Volker UllrichHistorian and journalist Volker Ullrich was born in Celle in the German state of Lower Saxony. “I grew up in Hankensbüttel, a small town in the Lüneburg Heath. My mother and my older brothers had been evacuated to this place from Berlin because of the increasing allied air raids.” 

“I now live in Hamburg together with my wife Gudrun, a former high school teacher who I met in the Sixties at the University of Hambug. My son, Sebastian, studied history as well and, like his father, he holds a PhD in the field. He works as an editor at the publishing house C.H. Beck in Munich.”

As a child, Ullrich says, “I was thirsty for knowledge, I think, and I read a lot during my youth, mostly on history, in which I have always had a special interest”.

His undergraduate years at the University of Hamburg, Ullrich says, were “decisive for my intellectual formation, especially the student movement of 1967-68, which formed my political worldview”.

What sort of undergraduate was he? “I must have been a diligent and ambitious student, I guess, because I passed all my exams rather quickly. The University of Hamburg was a very attractive place to study history in the early 1960s, by the way. The historian Fritz Fischer taught there, and his book Griff nach der Weltmacht [Germany’s Aims in the First World War] provoked West Germany’s first important historical controversy after the war.” 

Ullrich spent time as a lecturer in politics at Lüneberg University, and later worked as a research fellow at Hamburg’s Foundation for 20th-century Social History, but in 1990 he became head of the political section of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

“Being a journalist seemed more attractive to me than an academic career, because it allowed me to concentrate on my desire to write,” he observes. “Furthermore, it made it easier for me to reach a broader public with my books and articles. I never regretted switching to journalism.”

Ullrich plans to finish the second and final volume of this project by the end of 2016. It is, he acknowledges, “very demanding to spend so much time with such an unpleasant topic and I will be delighted once this burden is taken from my shoulders”. 

What do people say to him when they learn what he is writing about? “The most common reaction is: Can one even say anything new about Hitler? Isn’t everything already said? I normally reply: Yes, one can unearth quite a lot, but one has to visit the archives. Besides, people will never stop writing about Hitler. His crimes against humanity were so monstrous that every generation has to engage with them anew – especially in Germany.” 

Critics, particularly in Germany, were divided on the appropriateness of using Hitler as a comic character in Timur Vermes’ recently published novel Er Ist Weider Da (Look Who’s Back). What is Ullrich’s view?

“Timur Vermes’s book is an amusing satire on private television. In general, there is nothing to say against using Hitler as a comic character. In this respect, Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator of 1940 is still unmatched to this day. However, Vermes’ book does not explain a thing about the historical figure Adolf Hitler.”

Asked what he is proudest of in his work for Die Zeit, and whether he feels that print journalism still has a key role to play in the internet age, Ullrich says, “As a journalist working for Die Zeit, I have always tried to mediate between academic history and the historically interested general public. Looking back, I am proud that I was able to trigger some important historical debates, such as debate over Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners.” 

He adds, “Even in the age of the internet, print journalism can play an important role if it doesn’t forfeit its standards and keeps a high level of quality. This is especially true for critical background analyses that transcend the business of breaking news, where print cannot compete with online.”

Die Zeit was constantly able to increase its print run in the last couple of years to over 500,000 copies nowadays. This is a remarkable figure for a high quality paper and that gives me hope for the future.”  

What do people say to Ullrich when they learn that he is researching and writing about Hitler? “The most common reaction is: Can one even say anything new about Hitler? Isn’t everything already said? I reply: Yes, one can unearth quite a lot, but one has to visit the archives. Besides, people will never stop writing about Hitler. His crimes against humanity were so monstrous that every generation has to engage with them anew – especially in Germany.”

Karen Shook

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