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HIS RISE TO POWER AS A MASTER MANIPULATOR
Published in the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Currents
Discussed in this essay: Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939, by Volker Ullrich. Alfred A. Knopf, 998 pages, 2016; On Hitler’s Mein Kampf, by Albrecht Koschorke. MIT Press, 78 pages, 2017.
IT IS DIFFICULT when reading Volker Ullrich’s brilliant and absorbing Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, to cast away thoughts of how it relates to our world today. The rise of the right everywhere forces us to view Hitler’s rise in a different light than when progress seemed to reign. Hitler’s demagogy, his dishonesty, his single-minded viciousness, his simpleminded and brutal solutions, all have their counterparts — on a much smaller scale — today.
How did he happen, then? How did a civilized nation like Germany so willingly surrender its decency and humanity to this man and his racist, nationalistic mythology? Ullrich provides an answer in a step-by-step account of the tandem march of Germany and its Führer: As Hitler rises, Germany’s morality descends ever downward.
Starting from nothing, Adolf Hitler was able first to take control of his own political party, and then the entire German right, and then much of Europe. Bloodshed was his chosen path after late 1939, but in the years examined in Ullrich’s book, it was Hitler the master negotiator, not Hitler the warrior, who accomplished all he did, from his maneuverings when the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) was a struggling party until his final peaceful coup in seizing Memel from Lithuania in early 1939.
Ullrich notes that the dating of Hitler’s Jew-hatred to his pre-World War I days in Vienna does not stand up to examination. Still, the centrality of antisemitism in Hitler’s career from the end of that war until his rise to power is undeniable. “With me the main thing is never to take a step that I may have to withdraw or that will damage us,” Hitler declared in April 1937 in a secret speech about his intended campaign against Jews. “You know, I always go to the extreme of what I feel I can risk and no further. You have to have a nose for what you can and cannot do. In a struggle against an enemy as well,” he continued, “I’ll . . . maneuver you into such a corner that you cannot lash out at me because you would suffer a fatal blow to the heart . . . That’s how it is done.”
This is an essential quote, for it speaks to Hitler’s mastery of what our current American President — or his ghostwriter — has called “the Art of the Deal.” One great strength of Ullrich’s book is his detailing of Hitler’s ways of accumulating power — his unerring sense of the weakness of the other party’s hand and faith in the strength of his own, as well as his ability to brazen it out.
HITLER’S GENIUS as a negotiator is evident in a relatively small incident that was nevertheless heavy with foreboding.
With the economic crash of 1929, the NSDAP began the climb that would take it to power, but it was still polling in mid- to low double digits in most states of the Reich. In Thuringia, the state in which Weimar is located, the party garnered 11.3 per cent of the vote and had six seats in the state parliament. As would often be the case during Hitler’s rise to power, a coalition of parties opposed to the Nazis would have kept them safely to the side, but the conservative parties in Thuringia, wanting to govern without the Socialist Party (SPD), turned to Hitler’s party. Hitler insisted that if he were to join the ruling coalition, his party had to be given two ministries, interior and education. Ullrich reports Hitler exulting, in a confidential letter, “He who possesses these two ministries and uses his power within them unscrupulously and with determination can achieve the extraordinary.” Anxious to avoid a new election, which the conservatives were sure would immensely benefit Hitler’s party, they ultimately folded, and Hitler got his two vital ministries.
Once in power in Thuringia, the Nazis set to implementing their program, if only locally. Civil servants suspected of socialist sympathies were fired and replaced by Nazi supporters; prayers were introduced in schools to “prevent the people being swindled by Marxism and the Jews,” stated the minister holding both posts; the University of Jena (where Hegel once taught) now had a professor of racial sciences; modernist works of art were removed from the city’s museum. All of this would be repeated and enlarged on a national scale just three years later.
Hitler’s year-long march to power between 1932-1933 also reveals his genius for power, his unshakeable will, and his ability to outlast opponents, be they in the larger German polity, on the right, or within his own party. As the NSDAP grew to become the largest party on the right, indeed, the largest party in the Reichstag for a few months, Hitler, despite criticism even within his party, insisted that he be granted the post of chancellor, with the power to execute his program.
When it appeared that the Nazi star was waning and even his comrades urged power-sharing, he held firm, saying, “Never has a great movement been victorious if it went down the path of compromise.” Hitler was certain, despite being temporarily rebuffed by Hindenburg for the coveted post, and despite the entire political class being fully aware of the bloodbath that would follow his installation in power, that they would one day be forced to return to him: Fear of the Communist Party (KPD), which was beginning to experience real growth, although their vote share was barely half that of the Nazis, would bring everyone to their senses, and Hitler would be the providential figure to save Germany from Bolshevism.
Ullrich reports that at a meeting with Hindenburg, Hitler told the wartime leader that “Given the significance of the National Socialist movement, he had no choice but to demand full leadership of the government and the party.” At the end of a dizzyingly confusing month of January 1933, Hitler was finally named chancellor by Hindenburg. Conservatives and democrats thought this office would be a poisoned chalice for Hitler, thinking, as Ullrich reports, that his “hands and feet are tied in government, and he has no room to maneuver either forward or back.” Hitler had, in reality, outfoxed those on the right whom he, the revolutionary, characterized as “reactionaries.” His rank-and-file supporters saw things more clearly. Ullrich reports the words of a housewife from northern Germany: “Hitler is Reich chancellor! It’s true! Farewell Marxism! Farewell Communism! Farewell parliament! Farewell Jews!”
MUCH OF WHAT Ullrich has to say about Hitler the man, not just Hitler the Nazi — about the Führer and women, for example, or his love of movies, or his inability to keep to normal hours — is well-known. Less so are his descriptions of Hitler as a money-grubber: We are told that in 1934, a conscientious (and brave) auditor discovered that Hitler owed 405,494 Reichsmarks (more than $1 million) in back taxes for the previous year. The solution was simple: The Führer was declared tax-exempt. Receiving millions in royalties for Mein Kampf, a copy of which was given to all German couples upon marrying, he also received an “Adolf Hitler Donation of the German economy” from all employers amounting to 0.5 percent of their payrolls. Perhaps most shockingly, from 1937 on Hitler was paid royalties on all postage stamps bearing his image — a sum in the tens of millions he received every year on his birthday. Given his image as a single-minded, ascetic leader, the disclosure of such financial shenanigans actually shocks the reader.
At the half-way point in Hitler: Ascent, Hitler has been appointed chancellor, and Ullrich outlines all the reasons this was not inevitable. “It was the chairman of the NSDAP who best understood how to articulate and exploit people’s desires for a savior who would inject order into chaos, create an ethnic-popular community in place of party squabbling, and lead the Reich to new greatness,” Ullrich admits, but he puts more blame on the weaknesses of the German political system, the flaws in the German mindset, and the myriad errors of the German right, which constantly underestimated Hitler. “[W]hat his admirers overlooked,” Ullrich writes, “was the fact that despite his alleged infallible instincts Hitler made numerous blunders on the road to power and ultimately only achieved his goal because others opened the door to the Chancellery for him.”
Perhaps. But if conditions were ripe for radical change in Germany, if the system was flawed, it was nevertheless not the Communist leader Ernst Thälmann who took advantage of the objective conditions, it was Adolf Hitler. That he made errors is certain, but they were fleeting and quickly corrected. Ullrich considerably undersells Hitler. He fails to credit Hitler’s genius at political brinksmanship, at snookering his opponents, at weighing possibilities and striking at the opportune moment. Missteps along the way are of little consequence compared to the feat of taking a party with less than two hundred members and a lunatic ideology to power in just over a decade.
Hitler’s subsequent career, at least until June 1940, was an expansion of his early exploits. In short order he was able to put an end to democracy, to launch the elimination of Germany’s Jews from public life, to smash opposition parties, to physically eliminate his enemies within the NSDAP, and to destroy rival fascists on the Night of the Long Knives of June 1934. All of which was greeted with praise and enthusiasm within Germany, even from those conservatives allied to men killed on that June night.
Nothing he did was a surprise. Everything was laid out in his speeches, in Mein Kampf, in all the NSDAP’s actions. Never was the world so warned of what a party would do once in power.
HITLER’S BOOK, probably the most widely unread, essential political text ever written, is of course summarized and analyzed in Hitler: Ascent, but it also has received a fascinating exegesis in Albrecht Koschorke’s brilliant little book, On Hitler’s Mein Kampf: The Poetics of National Socialism. Koschorke, a specialist in German literature, examines Mein Kampf from a combined political and literary angle, not to analyze it stylistically — no one can say anything but that it’s a botch of a book — but how not only its contents but its ways of organizing those contents serve its political ends. Koschorke wants to know, “What divergent expectations does the book anticipate,” and whom does Hitler “take along,” and who is “not admitted.”
Koschorke makes the striking observation that Mein Kampf is constructed in such a way that confrontation with the Social Democrats and discussion of the “Jewish question” relate to each other as problem and solution. Ideologically, the book’s central idea is that the Jews, who are behind both capitalism and anti-capitalism, are to be eradicated, which “will end class struggle as such,” writes Koschorke. The book then shows how to combat tactically the direct political enemy, the socialists, “who, in advancing partially similar socio-political measures” as the Nazis were, “also claim to represent the masses.”
That said, “Hitler’s overwrought broadsheet,” Koschorke writes, for all its extremity and intellectual emptiness, was an historical success, not despite this structure, but because of it:
If National Socialist ideology operated with polemical catchphrases that were largely devoid of meaning, it appealed, by this very fact, to groups that sought to fill the empty words with intellectual content of their own devising.
In other words, the book’s very emptiness allowed it to be filled at will: Mein Kampf emanates a “menacing vacuum,” its foolishness encouraging enemies to mock it, which leads supporters, in response, to defend it all the more fiercely “with a ‘Just you wait’ that bristles with lustful sadism.” Mein Kampf thus fortified the “us vs. them” mentality within Germany that grew out of the Versailles Treaty, a mentality that — as we in the U.S. have learned — can fortify belief in a political leader who is not taken seriously by the perceived “elite.” Koschorke thus convincingly depicts the way Mein Kampf served to unify followers who didn’t necessarily have to read the book.
THE GIFTS Hitler used so skillfully on the road to power were put to immeasurably greater use as chancellor, as he succeeded in flummoxing every European leader he dealt with. All were anxious to find a reasonable core in Hitler, and so when he made a mendacious peace-loving speech on October14, 1933, seemingly offering a hand of friendship to France, foreign capitals were all too willing to believe what he said, though it was belied by everything he’d been saying and writing for the previous decade. They wanted to find him, let us say, chancellor-like. A non-aggression pact with Poland, which was living under the threat of Hitler’s undisguised plans for grabbing Lebensraum to Germany’s east, was also ingenuously accepted, though the real aim of this and other “friendly” moves was to ensure a few years of peace so that Hitler could build up Germany’s military strength and burnish his own image.
Cravenness on the part of the rest of the world was the key to it all — along with Hitler’s ability to recognize that that there would be no reaction to his offensive moves.
Unilaterally he took the gamble in 1935 of smashing the Versailles Treaty and turning to rearmament, increasing the size of the German army to five times the size approved at Versailles. Here seemed a real risk of setting off war, but Hitler and the Nazis knew better. As Goebbels said, “The others won’t declare war. If they complain, we should stuff cotton in our ears.” In fact, the cotton balls could be spared. Although a conference of the representatives of Britain, France, and Italy (temporarily vexed with Germany because of its involvement in a failed coup to establish a Nazi regime in Austria) made all the right noises, Ullrich tells us that “the three countries did not agree on any concrete steps to be taken if Hitler continued to violate agreements, and they were far from willing to intervene militarily.” Hitler had outplayed them yet again.
And again in the occupation of the Ruhr, the remilitarization of the Rhine. And again with the Anschluss. And again in the Sudetenland, when he managed to annex a portion of Czechoslovakia with the consent of the major Western powers, all thinking that this would be the extent of Hitler’s grasping and that peace was preferable to war.
Ullrich says of the march on Prague that “Hitler [then] believed he was at the zenith of his unprecedented career, but in reality his descent had already begun. He had gone down the path that was to lead to his own demise.” Perhaps, but only six months had elapsed between the peaceful annexation of the Sudetenland and the Wehrmacht rolling into Prague, no mean feat, and only days later the Memel territory, ceded to Lithuania after World War I, was grabbed back. The stage was set for the destruction of Europe, and Hitler the master negotiator was ready to take up arms.
In one of his best chapters, Ullrich analyzes the Hitler cult, and he makes no effort to disguise the obvious: Hitler was adored. His support might have been mainly middle-class at the start, but he increasingly won over the the most militant working class in Europe, one that marched behind the SPD and the KPD — both of which had fighting groups similar to the Nazi’s SA — in numbers unequaled in Europe. By 1936 many, if not most, backed Hitler. A report from an observer from the SPD in exile reported former leftist workers saying, “I don’t care about the whys and wherefores. I’ve got work. That’s something the others were never able to take care of.” Another said, in a chilling phrase that echoes down to us today, “You people always made socialist speeches, but the Nazis have given us jobs . . . Why did you not take job creation seriously?” That full employment was the result of rearmament was irrelevant to the six million who had been unemployed.
This is the Hobson’s choice that progressives face to this day: How can the working class be won over if the left opposes their being given work in distasteful industries by a distasteful government?
VOICES OF REASON in Hitler’s time were crying in the dark, but they continue to echo down history to us today. Thomas Mann gave a speech in Berlin shortly after the first big Nazi advance in 1930, when the party won 107 seats in the Reichstag. His speech — during which he was heckled by Nazis — was known as his “Appeal to Reason,” and warned of a time when people no longer cared about “liberty, equality, education and belief in progress.” Rejecting intellect, they would be carried along by a “gigantic wave of eccentric barbarism and primitive, populist fairground barking.” Mann described Nazi politics as
a politics of the grotesque… replete with Salvation Army allures, reflexive mass paroxysms, amusement park chiming, cries of hallelujah and mantra-like repetition of monotonous slogans until everyone foamed at the mouth.
He wrote this in 1930, thus disproving the notion that we ever really learn from the past.
As Albrecht Koschorke insightfully writes in On Hitler’s Mein Kampf, “There are good reasons to believe that human beings never learn from history for long. Each generation comes up with its own way of seeing the world, and this perspective has limited room for the experiences of the generations preceding it.”
And Volker Ullrich, while repeating a description of Hitler by an important journalist of the time as a “half-insane rascal,” a “pathetic dunderhead,” and a “big mouth,” reminds us that “attempts to depict the NSDAP leader as ridiculous could not combat the phenomenon of Adolf Hitler. Nor did they undermine the tendency of his supporters to see him as the national savior.”
We laugh at demagogues at our own risk.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.