Book review: Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

I usually don't review history books here, nor do I review books before I've finished them, but I made some comments on my Facebook page regarding Ullrich's biography of Hitler and the parallels of Trump's rise to power. People asked for more detail, but Facebook is somewhat limited in the scope of formatting quotes so here we are.

A caveat before we begin: this not a review in the usual context of a review, where I tell you about the book and whether I think the book is good or bad. I'll be overlapping my discussion of Hitler with Trump's rise to power. I have shut off comments, because this isn't really something I want to discuss; however if I don't get all of these thoughts out of my head, my brain might explode.

With that said ...

Historians watched the 2016 presidential election with horror, just as we are currently watching the political climate ... also in horror. We tried to warn family, friends, and associates, only to be ignored and castigated when anti-intellectuals derided us. Of course, this isn't the first time the 'intelligentsia' has come under attack because we didn't tell people what they wanted to hear.

Hitler's inferiority complex ... led him to excoriate "the so-called 'intelligentsia' who ... in their never-ending arrogance look down on everyone who hasn't been run through the obligatory schools and been pumped full of the necessary knowledge." [Ullrich, 82]

Trump doesn't like us either.

Frankly, 2016 was so wretched for me, I couldn't read any history from July through December. It was like watching a high-speed train wreck while clinging to the cowcatcher. From that perspective, I guess ignorance is bliss.

For those who don't know me, or missed the other eight hundred times I've talked about this, my father was fascinated by the events surrounding World War II. He was a child in the thirties and forties and lost a brother due to the war. His interest in history was infectious. I caught the bug and have been reading histories of World War II since my teens. Needless to say, I cut my teeth on biographies of Hitler and his entourage.

Like every other student of the era, I asked that enduring question: how did a man who was described by one eminent magazine editor in 1930 as a "half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” a “nowhere fool,” a “big mouth” rise to power?


Now we know.

And if you read Volker Ullrich's biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, you will begin to note conspicuous similarities between Hitler's and Trump's rise to power, both in socioeconomic terms and in their political rhetoric. Given that so many members of Trump's entourage, now known as his Cabinet, are affiliated with the Neo-Nazi movement in America, their understanding and blatant reproduction of Hitler's techniques comes as no surprise to anyone who has studied the Nazi movement in the thirties. The parallels are so striking that you can take sentences from Ullrich's biography, change "Hitler" to "Trump", "the Treaty of Versailles" to "NAFTA," and "Jews" to "Mexicans and Muslims" and be talking about precisely the same populist attitudes that led to the rise of each politician.

Ullrich promises in his introduction that his biography will 'normalize' Hitler; although, according to Ullrich, "this will not make him seem more ‘normal.' If anything, he will emerge as even more horrific." Thus far, I've found Ullrich to be a man of his word.

By juxtaposing passages from Mein Kampf with actual events, Ullrich destroys the myth of Hitler's meteoric political rise and brings it into context with the times. The mix of economic insecurity, the public's resistance to social change, and post-war trauma came together in the perfect storm to give Hitler the necessary ladder to work his way out of obscurity and into politics.

The circumstances at the time played into Hitler's hands, and he was more skillful and unscrupulous about using them than any of his rivals on the nationalist far right. [Ullrich, 92]

Hitler was an obscure figure on the political front until he joined the DAP (German Workers' Party), which he eventually molded into the NSDAP (National Socialist German Workers' Party). The DAP was a far right (alt. right in twenty-first century parlance) group of men with chauvinist-ethnic theories, who met periodically to discuss politics. When Hitler attended DAP meetings in the early twenties, the group consisted of a handful of members with no strong leadership, and Hitler saw a moment ripe for exploitation. It was also during his days with the DAP that Hitler discovered his talent for rhetoric and speaking.

Hitler was "someone seduced by himself," someone who was so inseparable from his words "that a measure of authenticity flowed over the audience even when he was telling obvious lies." [Ullrich, 97]

During his days as speaker for the DAP, Hitler cultivated his performances in the beer halls with live bands playing music prior to his events in order to rouse the people's spirits. He also had a deliberate habit of showing up a half hour late to raise the crowd's anticipation. The same format was used by Trump at his rallies with loud music and late appearances as Trump capitalized on the fragmentation of the Republican party during the 2016 election cycle. Trump could have learned the art of mastering a crowd from Hitler, whose events were said to combine "the spectacular elements of the circus and the grand opera with the uplifting elements of the circus and the grand opera with the uplifting ceremony of the church's liturgical ritual."

A master of the moment, Hitler played on Germans' widespread bitterness over the Treaty of Versailles in plain-spoken speeches ("plain-spoken speeches" can be translated to:"tells it like it is" for the twenty-first century crowd). He claimed the Treaty brought Germany to its knees and subjugated the nation to the whims of other countries just as Trump rails against NAFTA and NATO, claiming that both are out to constrict the will of the United States and its people through unfair trade agreements and treaties.

The receptivity of large masses is very limited. Their capacity to understand things is slight whereas their forgetfulness is great. --Hitler, Mein Kampf

From attacks on treaties, it was but a short step for Hitler to sow distrust among the people against their own government. He ranted against the democratic Weimar Republic by calling the representatives "a republic of scoundrels," a "Berlin Jew government," and a "criminal republic." He portrayed everyone, including Reich President Friedrich Ebert as "incompetent and corrupt." Likewise, Trump questioned the legitimacy of President Barack Obama's birth certificate, and thereby the legitimacy of his presidency, painted his political rivals as corrupt, and seized "lock her up" rants to fuel people's anger.

Effective propaganda must restrict itself to a handful of points, which it repeats as slogans as long as it takes for the dumbest member of the audience to get an idea of what they mean. --Hitler, Mein Kampf

Hitler [and Trump] repeated the message of politicians selling out the people ad nauseam, and the people in Germany in the early thirties bought it all hook, line, and sinker just as the people in America bought the same lines in 2016. Nuance was as non-existent then as it is now. Political rhetoric was driven by series of propaganda points. Hitler's speeches from 1920-22 attracted larger and larger audiences, because he kept hammering home mantra-like vows of revenge, accusations against politicians, and promises to fix everything.

Like Trump did in 2016.

I am about a quarter of the way into the biography, and I can assure you that Ullrich keeps his promise to horrify. Although at times, I'm not sure if I'm repelled by Hitler or by my internal comparisons to Trump. Either way, I'll continue to read ... even though we all know how Hitler's Reich ended. If nothing else, I'm looking for the sign of things to come in the hopes that we can somehow mitigate the damages.

In terms of the biography, I highly recommend Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939. It is an excellent starting point if you have never tried to read a Hitler biography. Ullrich is a journalist as well as a historian, and his journalist approach to the facts brings together large amounts of information in a very methodical and easy to read format. Don't be intimidated by the size. The actual biography is only 758 pages, the rest is Ullrich's extensive notes. It even has photographs for the anti-intellectual in your family who just wants picture books.

If you're into rating systems of stars: 5 out of 5 stars.