By Volker Ullrich
Reviewed By Peter Fritzsche for the New York Times Book Review, August 30, 2020
“Never Again.” Adolf Hitler repeated that slogan over and over. He did so from his first election campaigns in the 1920s until his final appeal to the German people urging them to resist Allied invaders in 1945. Familiar to us when we think about the Holocaust, Hitler’s words referred to German victims, however, not murdered Jews. They incorporated the promise that the revolution establishing the Weimar Republic in November 1918 would “never be repeated in German history.” What are the implications of Hitler’s vow “Never Again”?
“Never Again” identified specifically domestic enemies, so-called “November criminals,” Marxists, Jews and others, who would never be allowed to sabotage Germany as they allegedly had at the end of World War I or to reroute German history into what Hitler regarded as parliamentary chaos and moral degeneration. The recovery of German fortunes depended on crushing left-wing forces. As soon as he had seized power, Hitler promised heads “rolling in the sand.”
“Never Again” also embellished the fantasy that the Allies, acting in concert with the “November criminals,” had very nearly succeeded in eradicating the German nation in 1918-19. Figures of Germans rounded up, deported or exterminated and reduced to ashes littered Nazi propaganda. With this embattled worldview, Hitler led the revitalized Third Reich with the clear aim to pre-emptively and repeatedly strike at declared enemies in what he considered to be a remorseless struggle for existence. As he explained to the Nazi elite in April 1944, “Exterminate, so that you yourself will not be exterminated!” “Never Again” preparedthe horrific scale of German violence in the years 1939-45.
Volker Ullrich, a distinguished German journalist, reintroduces Adolf Hitler, his fantasies and designs, and his wartime relationship to Germans, in “Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945,” the second volume of his skillfully conceived and utterly engrossing biography. In his account, Hitler emerges as the central figure guiding the course of the war. Hitler’s commitment to expand Germany’s living space and his resolve to destroy rather than defeat Germany’s enemies so that they “will never again rise up” show how his ideas about 1918 directly influenced the conduct of World War II. For Hitler to achieve these aims, Ullrich stresses his “tendency to go for broke,” in part because the German leader was afraid that he would arrive too late. This audacity propelled German soldiers across the globe with early and astonishing success. It also “proved to be his undoing” because it “led him to overstretch himself.” The author argues that the turning point was not Stalingrad in January 1943 but the failure of Operation Barbarossa, stalled on the outskirts of Moscow, in December 1941. By that point the Germans had suffered more than 750,000 casualties. From then on, the “downfall,” both Hitler’s and Germany’s, became painfully clear.
All the major decisions of the war were Hitler’s, and these were often made on extremely short notice: the decision to invade Poland and then Western Europe, the priority of the push against the Soviet Union, the declaration of war against the United States, the fateful choice to divert Army Group A from Stalingrad. “Everyone is waiting with bated breath for the Führer’s coming decisions” is how Joseph Goebbels, the powerful propaganda chief, pointedly described the general situation. Hitler’s generals followed him, usually eagerly, always obediently; opposition to orders was rarely voiced, and the plot to assassinate Hitler 76 years ago lacked all but a small handful of brave, doomed supporters.
Hitler was also the driving force behind the Holocaust. Ullrich quotes one of his henchmen at Nuremberg: “He causes … the motion that is transferred to figures whose dynamics release other dynamics, but the central figure Hitler with his surprising impetuses always remains the actual motor of the rotating stage.”
Hitler’s toxic anti-Semitism set the pace and set the stage. He repeatedly returned to his “prophecy” of January 1939 in which he predicted the annihilation of the Jews in the event of a new world war. By February 1942 the conditional future tense of the prophecy was expressed in the present tense, and in May 1944, Hitler spoke in the past tense. With every speech he tightened the circle of complicity. Ullrich makes the persuasive case that Hitler abandoned a “territorial solution,” in which Jews would somehow be pushed into the far reaches of Russia, for physical annihilation at the end of 1941. (Either “solution” was genocidal.) Goebbels set the scene of a meeting of party leaders in Hitler’s private apartment in the Reich Chancellery on Dec. 12, immediately after Germany’s declaration of war on the United States, and with the Soviet Union suddenly on the offensive: “The Führer has decided on a total cleanup” of “the Jewish question.” What had been postponed would happen now. Ullrich accepts the historian Saul Friedländer’s conclusion that the line had been crossed from “local murder operations” to “overall extermination” in newly purposed death camps.
“Without Hitler,” Ullrich asserts, “there would have been no Holocaust.” But, he adds, without thousands of accomplices there could have been no Holocaust. Ullrich extends the list from the party apparatus to the Wehrmacht, and to railway officials, career diplomats and foreign collaborators, as well as “untold numbers” of ordinary Germans, both men and women, who “bought up the household items” of deported Jews “at bargain prices” in public auctions.
Ullrich attentively scans the crowd because it was the crowd that legitimated the leader. Until the very end, astonishing numbers of Germans retained faith in Hitler. It was only when American and British soldiers arrived, Ullrich notes, that “portraits of Hitler disappeared from offices and private homes, copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ were removed from bookshelves and uniforms, party insignia and swastika banners were burned.” But Hitler himself ultimately lost faith in the Germans, inviting his nation’s apocalyptic self-destruction in what Ullrich calls a “staged exit.” The people had “proven themselves to be ‘weaker’ than their opponents.” Already when he launched Barbarossa in June 1941, Hitler gambled: “We must achieve victory” or “be wiped out.” Going for broke, it was all or nothing, Nazi roulette.
Ullrich concludes this accomplished biography with lessons about “how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail” and “how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is.” The history of the Third Reich teaches us about “what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended.” The inhumane enlarged the idea of the human. To these lessons we can add that it is precisely the allure of national and racial uplift and the temptation to constitute “us” by excluding “them” that diminish law and morality. Readers and writers persistently return to the rise and fall of Hitler — Ullrich’s biography is the latest on a long shelf. There is the force of Hitler’s personality and the consequence of the will of a single individual, of course. But we also return because the Third Reich reveals the power of public fantasies. The liberal mind-set is not the default position.