Monday, July 31, 2017

William L. Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Volker Ullrich's Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, tend to follow a similar chronological paths (the later book has a volume still to go). The biggest difference between the two works is William Shirer does have some first person accounts of events leading up to World War II (being an American correspondent in Germany during Hitler's ascent). Shirer's book is also broader in scope and does not focus primarily on Hitler, although Hitler (of course) is a central figure. It is called Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for a reason, being a history of Nazi Germany.

Volker Ullrich's biography (not surprisingly) is focused on Hitler.  Ullrich's novel opens with saying only four biographies have stood the test of time:  Konrad Heiden's Der Fuehrer, Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, Joachim Fest's Hitler, and Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1889-1936 Hubris and Hitler 1936-1935 Nemesis. I have not read these biographies, but they would be worth putting on your reading list (although I have other books I need to read). Ullrich liked them all, but points out they do have various pluses and minuses (mostly historical corrections found over time and further research).

Ullrich focused on Hitler the man. Ullrich states he is trying not to demonize or mythologize Hitler. Shirer's book for the most part does not do it either. You actually do not need to do so, the facts and horrors he helped inspire speak for themselves in damning Hitler.

When did Hitler become a raving anti Semite? This is a central question that no one has really answered definitively. Some of it undoubtedly arises from his time in Vienna. Hitler never forgot (or forgave) being denied admission to the Academy of Fine Arts. Did he blame Jews for that slight?

From the timeline, it seems to have really developed following WWI, when Jews were being widely scapegoated for Germany's defeat. If you are trying to explain to Germans why they fell, blaming some an unpopular minority group helps. As he developed into a public speaker, Hitler started raising again and again anti Semitic tropes about Jews being greedy and parasitic on the German economy. It was a very popular position to take in Bavaria at the time (especially among those who gravitated to Hitler), but it drew in more support for him.

By the 1920s antisemitism was a standard part of his rhetoric, with Hitler mixing pseudo scientific rational, standard Jewish tropes, and conspiracy theories about international banking, stock market manipulation and interest rates (you could say Hitler was the original old school Occupy Wall Street). The stock market crash in the late 1920s and world wide economic depression that followed acted as an accelerant. Hitler also used Jewish connections to justify his stance against the Bolsheviks. National Socialism and the Bolsheviks were competing ideologies.

It may be Hitler adopted anti Semitism opportunistically then became a true believer, but a true believer he became. It is around early 1920 that Hitler latched on to two big ideas that drove him for the rest of his life: That Jews needed to be driven out of German society and that Germany needed room to grow to the East. Of course the area that Hitler wanted German lebensraum just happened to be mostly in the Pale of Settlement which was occupied by millions of Jews.

But the theories that Hitler's animus was driven by medical treatment of his beloved mother (who died of cancer) do not bear out. Hitler's mother's doctor was Jewish and Hitler always spoke highly of him (even giving him preference in leaving Nazi Germany later on). People who knew Hitler also insisted he was not anti Semitic prior to WWI (or at least did not profess to be). By the 1920s until his death, Hitler continued to rail agains the Jews.

Ullrich points out physical attributes and mannerisms that helped Hitler's rise (such as his eyes and hands and how he used them as he spoke). Hitler's skill as a public speaker was based on practice and being able to read a room. He often used the same rhetorical tropes, but focused on building intensity and emotional appeals.

Hitler has an talent for mimicking voices and mannerisms. Hitler also had a gift for reading a room and refining his message to the audience. He would be overtly Jew hating when dealing with his Nazi and SA comrades. Hitler would be more refined and restrained when dealing with the salon and business set.

Like Shirer, Ullrich does not see Hitler's rise as inevitable. While we continue to thank those who ultimately defeated Nazism, millions died in the process. There were plenty of times history could have changed.

Hitler could have been stopped without another world war, but Hitler was not a Forest Gump feather just floating along. Hitler's talent in oratory, self promotion, acting, and political rabble-rousing are what lead to his rise to power. Albert Speer (although take what Speer says with some skepticism) noted that Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator comes closest in contemporary depictions in capturing Hitler's style.

Hitler declaring war on the United States of America on December 11, 1941

There is a lot of focus on Hitler (by the left) over what many of the left perceived about the rise of Donald Trump. While Trump uses nationalism as a motivator, beyond that the comparison really falls apart pretty quickly. There are certainly plenty of things to criticize President Trump about, but fears of him being a fascist or Nazi are nonsense and hyperbole.

While their are some neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups still out there, they are mostly fringe and widely denounced (both on the right and the left). The ideology that come closes to Hitler and the Nazis today (at least in Jew hatred) is radical Islam. It is not even all that radical any more: Imans in California are publicly calling for Allah to annihilate the Jews (and there wasn't a lot of back lash from the Muslim community against it). In fact, his mosque defends him (he meant destroy, not annihilate). Of course, back when the Nazis were in power they had a lot of Muslim support. Hitler admired the Muslim faith and the link of state and religion.

Ullrich does not demonize Hitler, but rather uses Hitler's own words, statements (combined with us knowing how things turned out and the horrors inflicted) to allow the reader to make the case. Sometimes, you have to take what people say as what they truly believe.

Looking back on a historical figure like Hitler can offer insights in general. That Hitler and the Nazi movement were able to seduce almost an entire nation (and imperil the entire world) is frightening and still worthy of study.  If you have not read them (or in the case of Shirer's book not read it in a long time) both are well worth reading.

If I had to choose just one, I would go with Shirer's book. If you are interested in Hitler in particular (and the second volume is still to come), then the Ullrich book would be the choice.


  1. Read "Rise and Fall" when I was 14 when it came out in paperback. Long, but always interesting.

    1. It is a really amazing book. Back when journalism actually meant something.

      Ullrich's book illuminates to me just how similar Hitler was to many left wing lunatics today. Only difference, Hitler managed to get unlimited power in his county. The rest, as they say, is history...


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