One is tempted to ask: just how sick of Hitler, at this point, are the Germans? (According to historian Eberhard Jäckel, as reported in Peter Ross Range’s new book 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, the German people “have been liberated from Hitler but they will never be able to get rid of him.”) This question might be, to an extent, off base. Since his notorious book has until now been effectively banished from Germany for generations, the spirit (and the letter) of its author have lived on largely in the world outside its original Heimat, where Hitler and Nazism still constitute a kind of black hole of political antimatter, kept at a safe distance by occasional public ridicule and caricature in the German press. Nonetheless, scratchy old Nazi newsreels attract countless views on YouTube, and this “underground” reception is surely not something to be ignored.
Never meant as a book for the ages, Mein Kampf was no Das Kapital, no Leviathan; rather, it was the longest and weightiest doorstop of a political pamphlet ever written, exhibiting all of the gutter traits, writ large, to which that species of polemic lends itself. Beyond its reputation as the best-selling hate book of all time, it remains a dated, post–World War I how-to of National Socialist strategy and a furious diatribe against the Versailles Diktat. (The book does contain the seeds of an expansionist Drang noch Osten, implied in Hitler’s more visionary geopolitical passages, which actually clashed with a certain pro-Russian strain within the German Right and the Nazi Party.) To quote from Hitler’s melodramatic, firsthand recollection of Germany’s defeat:
And so it had all been in vain. In vain all the sacrifices and privations […] in vain the hours in which, with mortal fear clutching at our hearts, we nevertheless did our duty; and in vain the death of two millions […] [I]n these nights hatred grew in me, hatred for those responsible for this deed.
Mein Kampf is also, of course, radioactive, filled as it is with raging bouts of anti-Semitism, which seem to have shocked very few Germans at the time the book was published in 1925. By the mid-1930s, many knew perfectly well what Hitler intended to do, and that is because Hitler said so in his book:
If at the beginning of the War […] twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas, as happened to hundreds of thousands of our very best German workers in the field, the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.
Peter Ross Range includes that notorious quote from Mein Kampf in his reader-friendly study of Hitler’s rise to prominence in postwar Munich, 1924: The Year That Made Hitler. He also quotes a casual aside Hitler made to a friend during a stroll in the early 1920s: “What does it matter if a couple dozen of our Rhineland cities go up in flames? A hundred thousand dead would mean nothing if it assures Germany’s future.”
Range’s ostensible subject, really the years 1923 to 1925, could be summed up as: Putsch-Trial-Prison-Mein Kampf (Hitler’s “overwritten manifesto,” as Range calls it). Range emphasizes the opportunity that writing Mein Kampf gave the young Hitler to codify — and apparently harden — his largely self-crafted and fanatical Weltanschauung, that of of a splenetic, Jew-hating pamphleteer: “Do not forget that the international Jew who completely dominates Russia today regards Germany […] as a state destined to the same fate […] He goes his way, the way of sneaking in among the nations and boring from within.”
As he sets about appraising Hitler’s text, Range dutifully cites some of the book’s unacknowledged sources, including the University of Munich professor Karl Haushofer, creator of the Lebensraum concept:
What mattered was that […] the term ‘Lebensraum’ had now gotten into Hitler’s slogan-minded brain, where it must have gone off like a flashbulb. […] The word was a propagandist’s dream: positive, clear, self-explanatory, goal-oriented, and tilted toward the future.
Here we see the early-Hitlerian hints of the Drang nach Osten: “The fight against Jewish world Bolshevization requires a clear attitude toward Soviet Russia.”
Range offers an effective synthesis, from various eyewitness accounts, of the months Hitler spent writing Mein Kampf in his furnished cell at Landsberg Fortress; these chapters are greatly enriched by quotes from letters written by Hitler’s secretary and cellmate, Rudolf Hess. “Contrary to legend,” Range reveals, “Hess did not take dictation; Hitler wrote the book himself ‘with two fingers’ on his little [Remington] typewriter.” In his letters home, Hess referred to Hitler as “the Tribune.”
If 1924 doesn’t attempt to “normalize” Hitler through undue empathy, Range does let this all-too-human but unique story tell itself: that this far from normal man, possessing a fatal one-in-a-billion brand of charisma, met a combustible time and place, and these elements — chaotic and restless with resentment and anger — fused. The strength of 1924 is that it successfully recreates the atmosphere in postwar Bavaria that helped to “make” Hitler, and charts the unprecedented impact this emerging, enigmatic figure (an Austrian, after all) was making on the Bavarian public, his newly self-chosen Volksgenossen. The young Hitler, Range reminds us, was pursuing a mission in those early years that will probably surprise most of his readers: that of a Trommler (drummer) for the Nazi Party, when Hitler privately fancied himself a kind of “John the Baptist figure” paving the way for some future, unknown, “real” leader to come. But this was before an evident transformation took place in his feverish mind, wherein the mere drummer became the longed-for German messiah himself.
Mein Kampf shared space in German bookstores of the 1920s with Oswald Spengler’s best-selling essay in world-historical fatalism, The Decline of the West (1918), and Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s popular Das Dritte Reich (1923), an optimistic work that sketched some of the same imperialistic aims for Germany as Mein Kampf. Moeller, however, was, like Spengler, not an anti-Semite, and was never a National Socialist either; rather, he was a leading member of the influential group of “conservative revolutionary” thinkers based in Munich, and also pro-Russian. (A tireless theoretician of Deutschtum, Moeller’s life calls out for a proper biography.) Both Moeller and Spengler would eventually meet the Nazi agitator; neither approved. “The pathfinder must be a hero, not an heroic tenor,” Spengler wrote sourly in 1932, adding: “Politics is the very opposite of Romanticism, very prosaic, sober, and hard.” Moeller, a fellow Rightist and autodidact who had translated Dostoyevsky into German, was scathing, decrying Hitler’s “proletarian primitivism,” adding “[t]his fellow will never understand.” As is well known, Hitler and his Party had no compunction in later adopting Moeller’s term, “Third Reich.”
Range notes that, following Hitler’s conviction for high treason as the leader of a failed coup in Munich on November 9, 1923, he went on to write Mein Kampf in the midst of an “apocalyptic” atmosphere, one “shaped by the pessimistic thesis of […] The Decline of the West.” Students of the period know that this is not just a figure of speech. Defeated Germany, especially Bavaria, was apocalyptic: in the years following an earlier, abortive Rightist coup (barely remembered today as the Kapp Putsch) that had attempted to “take” Berlin, the streets of Munich were endlessly aflame with battles between Communists and Spartacists on the one hand, and a host of Right-Nationalist mini-armies of freebooters on the other, known collectively as the Freikorps (far-right völkisch militias under the command of charismatic leaders: Bund Oberland, Stahlhelm, Viking Bund, Sturmabteilung Rossbach … the list is very, very long). It was in this hothouse atmosphere that Hitler pushed himself and the leadership of his NSDAP into attempting a coup (Putsch) against the Bavarian state, to be followed by a march on Berlin directed against the widely vilified Weimer government.
Such a state of wild disorder is, of course, hard for us in the modern West to comprehend. As the great biographer Ian Kershaw points out, in Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris (1998):
Acceptance of a high level of political violence was a hallmark of the political culture of Germany between the wars. The brutalization of society engendered by war and near-civil war together with the upheaval and turmoil of the revolution prepared the ground for a readiness to tolerate violence paradoxically seen to be serving the interests of a return to order and normality. It was a mentality which not only contributed to the rise of National Socialism, but also to the moral indifference to violence that was so widespread during the Third Reich itself.
Range’s account of the failed Putsch attempt is a fine, exciting read:
With his stumpy build and bureaucratic style, [Bavarian Commissioner General] Gustav Ritter von Kahr was anything but charismatic […] At the dais […] Kahr was droning away about “state authority” and the “nationalist spirit,” and “the will to act” […] Suddenly, the doors to the capacious hall flew open. A platoon of uniformed men pushed their way inside […] At their head was Hitler, his eyes flashing and his face “wildly distorted” with excitement. […] Turning to his bodyguard, Ulrich Graf, Hitler said, “Make sure I don’t get shot in the back.”
I would recommend fleshing out one’s picture of these events by reading the accounts written by other authors — for example, Richard Hanser’s Putsch! (1971) — and by Hitler’s co-conspirators, such as Ernst Hanfstaengl, an early Party member and a Putsch collaborator. In his Hitler: The Memoir of a Nazi Insider Who Turned Against the Führer (1994), Hanfstaengl wrote:
Kahr was sending us off to sleep. He had just said the words “and now I come to the consideration …” which, for all I know, was to be the high point of his speech, when the door behind us which we had come through flew open and in burst Goering, looking like Wallenstein on the march, with all his orders clinking, plus about twenty-five brownshirts with pistols and machine-guns. What an uproar. […] Hitler began to plough his way towards the platform and the rest of us surged forward behind him. Tables overturned with their jugs of beer. I saw Wutzhofer, one of the members of the Bavarian cabinet, crawl under another for cover.
“The trial of former private first class Adolf Hitler for high treason was clearly not going to be boring,” Range drolly observes, quoting German author Otto Gritschneder, who asked: “Why isn’t Hitler’s trial listed among the most important trials in history?” The answer could be that all of the monumental biographies — by Kershaw, Konrad Heiden, Werner Maser, John Toland, et al — have given surprisingly short shrift to the Hitlerprozess, most assuredly the pivotal “hinge moment” (as Range puts it) in Hitler’s life and career.
Reading 1924: The Year That Made Hitler, the reader must try very hard not to feel some uncomfortable admiration for the young upstart’s breathtaking audacity. A low-born autodidact from the frontier, Hitler took on the mantle of pretty much everything in the Germanic world in his rousing address to the court — which, strangely, Range does not quote at any length, so I will:
The man who is born to be a dictator is not compelled. He wills it. He is not driven forward, but drives himself. There is nothing immodest about this. Is it immodest for a worker to drive himself toward heavy labor? Is it presumptuous of a man with the high forehead of a thinker to ponder through the nights till he gives the world an invention? The man who feels called upon to govern a people has no right to say, “If you want me or summon me, I will cooperate.” No! It is his duty to step forward. […] Pronounce us guilty a thousand times over: the goddess of the eternal court of history will smile and tear to pieces the State Prosecutor’s submission and the court’s verdict; for she acquits us.
Range does effectively convey the odd spectacle of Hitler, the future powerful dictator, standing in the dock and being judged by others (the “tables turned,” as it were).
It’s very hard to slip one’s mind into the world of 1924. In the United States, the swastika was an old, decorative American Indian symbol, adorning many a rug in many a hotel lobby. When someone said “the man with the funny little moustache,” they meant Charlie Chaplin’s “Tramp.” In 1924, here was still no Charles Lindbergh, no Mickey Mouse, no Big Bad Wolf. In November of that year, American newspaper readers — rustics, Babbitts, and sophisticates all enjoying the afterglow of winning the Great War, and living in a hyped-up era of jazz, radio, and “speedy” automobiles — opened up their morning papers to see what was going on in that bitter and resentful country they had so soundly defeated:
HITLER FEARED FOR MAGNETISM – Nationalist Leader Held in Close Seclusion in Order That He Cannot Influence Others
MUNICH, Bavaria, Nov. 14. Adolph [sic] Hitler, one of the leaders of the unsuccessful Nationalist revolt, is sequestered from outside communication in the fortress of Landsberg, Upper Bavaria, it was learned today. Count Arco Valley, who in 1919 assassinated the temporary Bavarian dictator, Kurt Eisner, is also imprisoned at Landsberg.
Hitler’s particular guards are two veteran sergeants, selected for their powers of resistance to Hitler’s magnetic personality.
“We have to be careful about who are his jailers,” General von Lossow, the Bavarian Reichswehr commander is quoted as remarking, “or he will make them a speech and have them cheering for the revolution.”
Every one who has had the Bavarian Fascisti leader under close observation agreed that he radiates a personal influence that is almost hypnotic.
To read this Associated Press item today feels a bit uncanny, almost fictional, even if we know that the 1920s was an era of both hyperbole and “high-relief” personalities (note the nod to Mussolini). Yet Range is far from the first to confirm this personality’s strange “magnetism.”
The arrival of any major new biography of Hitler would usually need to justify itself through the inclusion of hard-won, fresh information. But in our day of cheap Hitler comparisons in current politics, perhaps it is enough simply to inform a younger generation about who Hitler was and what he did. German journalist Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 offers an in-depth look at Hitler’s life up to the outbreak of World War II, including some fresh nuggets of information, but leaving out much as well.
Widespread curiosity about Hitler’s personality among the non-German public goes back all the way to the 1930s, when Britons and Americans eagerly snapped up tell-all books and magazine articles, some written by ex-Nazi associates. These were then followed by wartime memoirs by those “old comrades” from the early days of the Party (e.g., the “left-Nazi” Otto Strasser, the German-American Hanfstaengl) who had crossed Hitler and somehow managed to escape. These books detailed personal conversations with their subject that, more or less consistently, conveyed a personality by turns haughty, high-minded, base, charming, duplicitous, cunning, strategic, contemptuous, secretive, impatient, quick to denounce the “lies” of opponents but himself a frequent liar, and possessed of an arrogance that could lapse into sputtering anger. Hitler’s power-hungry personality arguably was hardened four times over — first, by the years of poverty sleeping on benches in Vienna; second, by the front-line experience of the Great War; third, by an inflamed and vengeful hatred toward “the Jews” after Germany’s loss in that War; and fourth, by the ruthless, decade-long struggle for power, which he waged against friend and foe. The worldwide desire for the “inside story” about a man of such overwhelming criminality, the desire to get the “raw” facts versus the “cooked” public image, does indeed threaten to last a thousand years.
Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 opens with a brief quote from Thomas Mann’s famous 1937 essay on Hitler, “A Brother” (published in his 1942 book, Order of the Day): “The fellow is a catastrophe, but that’s no reason not to find him interesting as a personality and destiny.” Mann went on, in a splenetic but insightful passage not cited by Ullrich:
Consider the circumstances. Here is a man possessed of a bottomless resentment and a festering desire for revenge; a man ten times a failure, extremely lazy, incapable of steady work […] a disappointed bohemian artist; a total good-for-nothing. […] And then he — who had learned nothing, and in his dreamy, obstinate arrogance would learn nothing; who had neither technical nor physical discipline, could not sit a horse, or drive a car […] or do aught that men do, even to begetting a child — he develops the one thing needful to establish a connection between him and the people: a gift of oratory. […] All that is unique. It is on a new scale: one simply cannot help granting the phenomenon […] a certain shuddering admiration.
Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 is rich in these contemporary reactions to “Hitler as Human Being” (a chapter title), such as Heidegger’s now-notorious sizing-up: “Education is irrelevant […] just look at those lovely hands.” An almost erotic fascination with Hitler’s physical presence colors many of the statements Ullrich quotes. For example, the American writer Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler in 1932, claimed that he was “not without a certain charm […] the soft, almost feminine charm of the Austrian! [T]he eyes alone are notable. Dark grey and hyperthyroid — they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics and hysterics.” Another commentator noted Hitler’s “large, light-blue, fanatically and coldly gleaming eyes,” while yet another described those eyes as “lovely violet-blue.” Even unsympathetic commentators could not help but focus on his distinctive physiognomy. Thomas Mann’s son, Klaus, for instance, recalled in his memoirs:
The vulgarity of his features was soothing and made me feel better. I looked at him and thought: “You will never win, Schicklhuber [sic], even if you scream your head off. You want to rule Germany? You want to become its dictator — with a nose like that? You must be joking […] You will never win power!
Ascent draws heavily from Dr. Goebbels’s diaries as a kind of running commentary on life with his “boss.” Ullrich canvases the Nazis’ sickening and criminal anti-Jewish measures in a chapter entitled “Prelude to Genocide,” showing how Jewish Berliners, so used to feeling almost “more German than the Germans” in thought, language, feeling, and bearing, and with roots going back for centuries, now discovered that their countrymen did not reciprocate their love for the Fatherland. Ullrich quotes Goebbels the diarist:
We’re going to end the Jewish paradise in Berlin […] In any case, we’re now going to proceed more radically.
I’m rebelling. Against every form of sentimentality. The watchword is not the law, but harassment. The Jews leave Berlin. And the police are going to help me.
Many arrests […] We will make Berlin Jew-free. I’m not going to let up […] The main thing is that the Jews will be forced out. In ten years they must be completely removed from Germany. But in the short term we want to keep the rich ones as collateral.
Some reviewers have criticized Ullrich for relying too much on Goebbels, but I believe it was a smart choice, as these diary entries document day-to-day discussions wherein Hitler directed the beginning of measures that Holocaust deniers deny: “Talked for a long time over breakfast. Discussed the Jewish question. The Fuehrer wants to drive the Jews entirely out of Germany. To Madagascar or somewhere like it. Correct! He’s convinced that they originated in a former penal colony. It’s possible.” That this brainwashed “intellectual” and failed novelist would record such filthy speculations in his diary, for posterity to read, beggars belief. But it is a smoking gun.
Ullrich makes a good case for the actual moment when Hitler’s anti-Semitic hatred, already nascent, intensified and fused like soldered metal: in the midst of the chaos of 1919, and the welter of blame-the-Jews rhetoric that followed the loss of the War.
The soviet republics were frequently described as a ‘Jewish tyranny’ and conflated with the bête noire of Bolshevism. […] Like a sponge, Hitler sucked up popular anti-Jewish sentiments. […] [H]is turn towards fanatical anti-Semitism, which he would later claim had originated in Vienna, actually took place amidst the revolution and counter-revolution in Munich.
For sharp observations such as these, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939 is a worthwhile addition to the canon of Hitler biographies.
As far as the roots of this anti-Semitic hatred are concerned, Will Brownell and Denise Drace-Brownell’s The First Nazi focuses on “the Hero of Tannenberg,” General Erich Ludendorff, and his role in instilling a laser-like hatred into the mind of the young fanatic with the “coldly gleaming” eyes. Promising inside information on the “secret roots” of Nazism, the book shines an important light on the role played by Ludendorff; but it is at times a clumsily written work. The Brownells usefully analyze Ludendorff’s mental descent into a bürgerlich stew of anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, occultism, and Nordic racial mysticism (thanks largely to his wife, whom even Hitler mocked as a table-tapping windbag). But, alas, their coverage of the topic often degenerates into bizarre banalities like this:
Adolf Hitler is a rich source of controversy among biographers. The Israeli Mossad got its hands on the Russian autopsy of his body and discovered that the man had only one testicle. The photos of him as a child show deranged-looking eyes, perhaps revealing what was in his mind. Canaris, the German admiral, felt that Hitler was made mad by World War I and the poison gases, which Ludendorff introduced onto the battlefield. But this cannot be confirmed.
Some first-rate theologians are convinced that Hitler was possessed by the devil. Note that their evidence suggests that this might also be the case for just two other men in recent centuries: Marx and Napoleon. Of these three, the case for Marx is the strongest.
Crass and amateurish passages such as these conspire to destroy whatever value the book possesses.
“A career unparalleled in history,” the German historian Werner Maser called Hitler’s rise to power. Let us hope so. If, as some maintain, it is only a drama’s climax that matters, then the mountain of books and biographies about Adolf Hitler and his times amount to one big anticlimax, since the result of all his vaulting ambition was a vast pile of ashes. Hitler, the self-described “Greatest German of all time,” will not be remembered by the “goddess” of history, as he had hoped, as “the destroyer of Marxism,” but as a destroyer of men and women, young and old, beautiful and ugly, healthy and sick, little boys and little girls, bulldozed by the millions into the earth, families and faces reduced to ash-heaps, in a slow-moving but crazed frenzy of all-too-human hate.
Anthony Mostrom, a former Los Angeles Times columnist, is currently a book reviewer and travel writer for the L.A. Weekly.