sábado, 4 de junio de 2016

Definitive biography: Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians

Hopping in His Matchbox

by Neal Ascherson

“I am the greatest actor in Europe,” Hitler once bragged.

Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 by Volker Ullrich

Werner Willikens was quite a senior Nazi civil servant. In the crushed and castrated government of Prussia, he had become the state secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture. It was in February 1934, just over a year after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor, that Willikens made a speech to agriculture officials from all over the Reich, using words that have come in our own time to fascinate historians. ‘The Führer,’ he said, ‘finds it very difficult to bring about by order from above things which he intends to realise sooner or later.’ It was, therefore, ‘the duty of each one of us to try to work towards him in the spirit of the Führer’. The German, not easy to translate precisely, is ‘im Sinne des Führers ihm entgegenzuarbeiten’.

Willikens was not revealing some unknown fact. But he was offering posterity (as well as the party comrades in front of him) a really useful way of understanding how decisions were made in the Third Reich. ‘Working towards the Führer’ explains how many initiatives, including some of the worst, originated in the wider Nazi bureaucracy rather than with Hitler himself. And it can be argued that this commandment to second-guess and anticipate Hitler helped him to surf into ever more radical and terrible policies which are usually attributed to his invention alone.

As Volker Ullrich points out, there is an apparent contradiction here. On the one hand, the Leader’s will was supposed to be absolute and monocratic, and anyone who could claim convincingly that he was carrying out ‘the Führer’s will’ would get his way. On the other, a chaotic, ‘Darwinian’ struggle of overlapping Nazi institutions raged as each competed to make up Hitler’s mind for him. Behind all this was the weird, slovenly manner in which Hitler formed policies. Sometimes he made rapid and fateful choices and stuck to them (the Night of the Long Knives in 1934). But often he watched a policy emerge from some underling who thought he was ‘working towards the Führer’, and then adopted it as his own ‘irrevocable decision’. Occasionally, especially when someone close to him misbehaved, he would retire into a dither that could last for days, unable to make his mind up until prompted by his worried inner circle.

The first historian to seize on the ‘working towards the Führer’ interpretation seems to have been Ian Kershaw. Each in the procession of immense tomes of Adolf biography claims to be ‘definitive’, but Kershaw’s two volumes, ‘Hubris’ and ‘Nemesis’, still dominate more than 15 years after their publication. Commenting on Willikens, Kershaw said that ‘Hitler’s personalised form of rule invited radical alternatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.’ Everyone who ‘worked towards’ him in this way, not only in the bureaucracy but throughout society, was ‘helping drive on an unstoppable radicalisation’.

Ullrich handsomely compliments Kershaw for seeing the significance of the phrase. He expounds it even more clearly when he writes that

those who wanted to get ahead in this system … had to anticipate the Führer’s will and take action to prepare and promote what they thought to be Hitler’s intentions. This not only explains why the regime was so dynamic but also why it became more and more radical. In competing for the dictator’s favour, his paladins tried to trump one another with ever more extreme demands and measures.
It could be said that the ‘Willikens Insight’ cuts Hitler’s personality down to a more manageable size. It shifts responsibility, if not away from him, then onto a much wider circle of German officialdom working in this curious machine of government-by-anticipation. And we know a lot now about Hitler as an individual. Published studies of the dictator are already said to number something like 120,000. The major biographies start with Konrad Heiden’s, written in Hitler’s lifetime, and go on through the works of Alan Bullock, Eberhard Jäckel and Joachim Fest to reach Ian Kershaw and now Ullrich’s large, steady book – again, the first of two projected volumes. So is it really Hitler’s personality and private life that we still need to know about? Who he was, and why he did what he did, must surely give precedence to how he managed to do it.

Kershaw clearly was troubled by these questions. ‘What has continued … to interest me more than the strange character of the man who held Germany’s fate in his hands between 1933 and 1945 is the question of how Hitler was possible,’ he wrote in his preface. He considered that Hitler had no ‘private life’, but instead ‘privatised’ the public sphere: his entire career was devoted to acting the Führer. Kershaw considered him ‘an empty vessel outside his political life’, unapproachable and incapable of friendship.

Ullrich doesn’t agree. He worries that depicting Hitler as lacking any private life perpetuates the view that his crimes were committed by a monster – not by a German or Austrian human being – and that this caricature unintentionally preserves the oldFührermythos in a negative form. He tries to show that Hitler did in fact have a private life, although a pretty boring one, and did have friends, most of them married couples where the wife would mother Adolf, feed him cream cakes and be rewarded with displays of ‘Austrian charm’.

When the book was published in Germany three years ago, some people objected that in ‘demythologising’ Hitler, Ullrich was presenting him as a mere ‘man without qualities’. This seems spiteful. Ullrich shows that this ‘strange character of a man’ possessed all kinds of qualities, not all of them bad in themselves and none of them unfamiliar to science or fiction. Admittedly, the most striking parts of his book are studies of Hitler among women or with his flaky nouveau-riche guests up at the Berghof, over Berchtesgaden. But these sections are embedded in a highly detailed and always interesting critical narrative of his political life, from youth in Linz, Vienna and Munich to his installation as chancellor in 1933 and on to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ullrich has strong feelings about the way Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians just at the moment when the Nazis were at last losing strength. It didn’t have to happen. He constantly reminds his readers that Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. ‘We engaged him for our ends,’ said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck.


Read more:


Hitler: The Ascent (1889-1939) by Volker Ullrich, review: 'chilling and superb'

by Miranda Seymour 

A superb biography of the Führer’s pre-war years reveals his split personality, says Miranda Seymour

"Education is irrelevant,” gushed Martin Heidegger in 1933, when the philosopher Karl Jaspers asked him whether a man as uneducated as Hitler could rule Germany. “Just look at those lovely hands!”

It is Volker Ullrich’s eye for quotation that makes his biography of Hitler – only the third, astonishingly, to have been published since the Führer’s death – so readable and compelling. Heidegger sounds as foolishly bewitched as Unity Mitford. In this first of two planned volumes, ending in March 1939 with the taking of Prague, we learn that Hitler’s hands were actually not “lovely”, but eerily languid. Contrast the pale fingers that privileged folk were allowed to clasp with Hitler’s rigid, uniformed arm (a daily chest-expanding regime enabled the dictator to maintain his toy-soldier salute for four hours at a stint) and we get a hint of the dual personality that Ullrich will uncloak.

“I am the greatest actor in Europe,” Hitler once bragged. We’ve become familiar with the actor’s masks. What – if anything – lay behind them? What did Hitler care about, beyond power? Was he capable of love? What were the origins of his irrational and unappeasable hatreds? For how much of the atrocity was he personally responsible? Such questions are crucial. Ullrich titles one chapter, entirely in earnest, “Hitler as a Human Being”.


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