Hitler: Downfall 1939-45
By Volker Ullrich Bodley Head, 838pp, £30/$39.95
Putting the war dates in the title is significant. Volker Ullrich, in this second volume of his biography, makes it clear that Hitler’s downfall began not with the failure of “Barbarossa”, the invasion of the Soviet Union, but with the war against Poland in September 1939 which provoked the British and French Declarations of War. War in the east in pursuit of Lebensraum had always been Hitler’s intention, and it destroyed him. His early successes, the defeat of France, the mastery of western Europe and the first victories against the Red Army in the summer and autumn of 1941, were fool’s gold. Ullrich makes December 1941, a year before Stalingrad, the moment when German defeat was certain; though this, if clear, is only so in retrospect.
Hitler retained his authority to the last days in the miserable Berlin bunker, but he dropped out of sight. He could no longer make speeches, though Goebbels urged him to, and he refused to visit bombed cities. He aged quickly, his hand shaking and his eyesight failing. His doctors kept him going with daily pick-me-up injections. He had always been a moral wreck; by 1945 he was a physical one. Only his powerful will and maniacal obsession with the Jews remained to the end.
One can’t deny the fascination he continues to exert. The questions remain: how could he have come to power and retained it? How could he unleash such horror? What sort of man was he? Self-exiled from Germany, Thomas Mann, even before the war, wrote a remarkable essay, “Brother Hitler”. Of course, the man was a “catastrophe” but, the great novelist recognised, he was also a “failed artist” – the bohemian who thought himself too good for ordinary work, with his sense of being reserved for something special. “There is,” Mann wrote, “a lot of Wagner in Hitler: the rejection of reason and bourgeois ethics – and the incapacity for irony – irony which is the saving grace of the intellect.”
Incapable of irony, certainly, but the monster had his gemütlich side. The tea-parties at the Berghof, with chat over cream cakes and strawberry tarts, remind one that he was also a mother’s boy who detested and feared his father. He could be amusing. One of the Mitford girls said he had been so funny one afternoon giving an imitation of a woman trying on different hats. But he was also an appalling bore – those interminable monologues to put off the moment when he had to go to bed.
His secretaries liked him – he was polite to women in a courteous Austrian fashion – and Eva Braun, who wasn’t a nonentity, evidently loved him. The strange relationship with Albert Speer shows he was capable of affection. Orwell once confessed that he had never been able to dislike Hitler; there was something hurt and pathetic about his face; he looked like a man who had suffered. Oswald Mosley, in conversation with his son Nicholas, called him “a dreadful little man”, but I doubt if he had thought that of him in the Thirties.
There was anti-Semitism in Germany before Hitler, as there was in most of Europe, but Hitler’s was insane. Ullrich is in no doubt about Hitler’s personal responsibility for the Holocaust. Even in his final testament, dictated the day before he killed himself, he declared that he “would hold that people accountable which is truly to blame for this murderous battle: Jewry.” “He went on to gloat,” Ullrich writes, “in barely concealed form about the destruction of European Jews”.
Ullrich suggests there were moments in late 1943 when Hitler recognised the war was lost. But he could not admit it, for there was no alternative but humiliating unconditional surrender. Goebbels acknowledged this when he wrote in his diary that they would be remembered as the greatest men or the greatest criminals in history. They were, like Macbeth, “so steeped in blood that returning were as tedious as go o’er”. In fact, turning back was impossible. The knowledge of what they had done to the Jews bound them to the stake.
In his last months Hitler turned his hatred and contempt on the German people. They had proved unworthy of him. In his mad fantasy of Götterdämmerung he ordered the destruction of German industry and the laying waste of the land.
There is, and one is somewhat ashamed to say it, a macabre fascination about these last days in the bunker. Even in the last hours horrible crimes were committed, not the least repulsive being the decision by Josef and Magda Goebbels to murder their six young children. There was nothing Wagnerian about Hitler’s suicide; it was more like a weary self-slaughter in a squalid cheap hotel. The Nazis lied to the last, announcing that Hitler had met his death as a soldier defending Berlin.
“If,” Ullrich concludes, Hitler “teaches us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail … how thin the mantle separating civilisation and barbarism actually is”. I once said to a German student of mine: “Your generation has no cause to feel guilty.” “Perhaps not,” he replied, “but history has imposed a special responsibility on us.” That knowledge is the only good to have come out of Hitler’s monstrous rule.