BOOK OF THE WEEK
HITLER: DOWN FALL 1939-45
by Volker Ullrich (Bodley Head £30, 848 pp)
Do we really need another bioGerman historian Volker Ullrichgraphy of Hitler? Surely there is nothing more to be seen here. Time to move on?
Sadly the answer is that, the world being what it is, we still need reminders of how fanaticism can descend into madness, racism into policies of extermination and whole nations into barbarism.
The 75th anniversary of the Fuhrer’s suicide in the ruins of Berlin is next month. This new account of his life by German historian Volker Ullrich could not be more timely, if for no other reason than its thought-provoking final paragraph, which is a wake-up call for us all.
German historian Volker Ullrich, explores the life of Hitler (pictured) in a gripping new account focused from the outbreak of war in 1939 to his death
‘Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time,’ he writes. ‘If his life and career teach us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilising forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism.
‘How thin the mantle separating civilisation and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.’
It takes 800 pages (including maps and copious notes) to reach this solemn conclusion, but don’t be put off, because the reader who plunges in is rewarded with insight, understanding, fine judgements and read-me narrative drive.
This is the second part of Ullrich’s mammoth biography of Hitler. The first, analysing who he was and the ruthless politics that led to his astonishing ascent to power, was published four years ago to much acclaim.
Ullrich’s concluding volume, tracking Hitler from the outbreak of war in 1939 to his Gotterdammerung crescendo in the Berlin bunker, is equally impressive, showing clearly how he over-reached himself and was brought down in the end by an ego that brooked no dissent in pursuit of his maniacal ambition to rule the world.
In all matters, he was driven by hate for humanity as a whole and increasing paranoia at being let down. He once told his henchman Albert Speer that the only living things he had any affection for were Eva Braun, his dyed-blonde, coquettish but loyal-to-death mistress, and his German shepherd dog, Blondi.
And even the dog got shouted at if it dared pad away from the jealous Fuhrer’s side to sniff around other people. Eva, on the other hand, seems never to have been in his bad books, getting away with liberties that were unthinkable for others.
Hitler (pictured) who insisted that the war should be fought to the bitter end, only shot himself during the battle
When he started out on one of his interminable monologues at the Berghof, his mountain-top home in the Bavarian Alps, while the rest of the inner circle had to endure and feign interest, she would pointedly ask the time to make him stop. And for her he did.
But to no one else would he ever yield ground. Not the generals, with whom he was constantly at loggerheads as — in his eyes — their lack of will and vision led to defeats on the battlefield.
Hitler wished he’d purged the lot of them and replaced them with political commissars — as Stalin did in the Soviet Union — who were unflinching in their dedication to the Nazi cause.
Yet it was his picky, petulant interference in tactics — driven by his belief in his own military genius — that was responsible for mounting losses of territory and armies. The idea of a tactical withdrawal was anathema to him, even when the generals (and common sense) told him it was the only sensible action to take.
Never give ground, he insisted. Fight to the bitter end and die gloriously in a ditch — that was his injunction to the forces who gave their lives for him, though he himself eventually took the coward’s way out. The only shot he himself fired during the war was into his own brain.
And it was Hitler alone who made the fatal error that would bring about his defeat — the decision in 1941 to launch Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. It was the moment the upward trajectory of the Third Reich turned downwards. Defiant Britain, Ullrich argues, played a crucial part in that event — that and Hitler’s own contempt for others.
Author Volker Ullrich, believes that Hitler (pictured) knew as early as 1942 that the war he’d started was unwinnable
His armies had swept all before them, until brought to a halt at the English Channel in mid-1940. Invasion of this island — Operation Sea Lion — was thwarted by the RAF in the Battle of Britain. When the Luftwaffe failed to gain mastery of the skies, Hitler switched strategy.
But not, as is often assumed, because he considered Britain was now an irrelevant tiddler and he had bigger fish to fry on the eastern front. Quite the opposite. His strategic reasoning was that he could easily and quickly dispose of the Russians and then come back at a later date to deal with the isolated and friendless Brits, whom he loathed for hindering his march to world domination.
The miscalculation he made was the result of his obsessive racism — his conviction born of pure prejudice that the Soviet Union was a Bolshevik basket case populated by inferior Slavic races. They didn’t have the backbone to put up a fight.
His superior Germanic armies would wipe them out and take Moscow within a matter of weeks. Always the gambler, Hitler believed this time he was betting on a certainty, and to begin with it did look that way.
As German tanks raced through the wide-open spaces of Russia, Stalin was slow to respond, refusing to believe that his one-time ally had turned on him. But then the Red Army dug in and turned the tide, encouraged by another of Hitler’s mistakes, the invaders’ brutal treatment of the hundreds of thousands of Soviet prisoners they took.
Faced with death as the only alternative if they lost, Stalin’s soldiers fought for their existence on the blood-stained banks of the Volga — whipped on by those fanatical political commissars Hitler so envied.
HITLER: DOWN FALL 1939-45 by Volker Ullrich (Bodley Head £30, 848 pp)
And they won. The five-month defence of Stalingrad resulted in more than a million Soviet casualties, but it crushed Hitler’s momentum, then threw him back somewhere he had never been before — on his heels.
Volker Ullrich believes that, with this monumental setback, Hitler knew as early as 1942 that the war he’d started was unwinnable and his dream of conquering the world finished. But he would never negotiate a truce. It was total victory or total demise.
‘When everyone else loses their nerve, it is I alone who stands his ground,’ he bragged.
Over the next three years, millions more on both sides would die in battle, sacrificed to his vanity.
Nor would there be any let-up in his genocidal crusade to exterminate every Jew, the cause, his warped ideology told him, of all the world’s ills. The Holocaust could not have happened without his hate-laced approval.
But nor could it have happened without the vast cohort of men and women who executed his will in concentration camps.
Once Hitler was dead, the German nation pretended it had not known about the wholesale slaughter.
Ullrich, himself a German, is rightly having none of that. Yes, much of the blame could be laid at the door of the Eichmanns and the Heydrichs who followed the wishes of their leader and masterminded the mechanics of the operation. But never could the buck stop there.
The army and the police were complicit; so too were bureaucrats who drew up lists, railway employees who dispatched the trains and the firms that supplied the Zyklon-B poison gas and built the crematoria.
Ullrich’s accusatory finger points at every single individual who mouthed their allegiance to Hitler, dismissed the widespread rumours of massacres and simply shrugged as they moved into a deported Jewish neighbour’s house and dressed themselves in the re-sold clothes stripped from the victims on their way to the gas chamber.
That’s why a new biography of Hitler makes essential reading, especially one as deeply researched, beautifully written and finely judged as this one.