Reading this excellent biography reminded me a little of seeing a Columbo film; we know who committed the crime but the tension comes from wondering how he managed it and how he will eventually be brought to justice. In the case of Hitler, a criminal on a huge scale, we also know what happened yet Bullock manages to infuse the story with a sense of anticipation and drama.
The book covers the whole of Hitler's life, from his obscure beginnings through his advance to supreme absolute power and then his final decline and suicide in the bunker as Russian shells fell around him. Bullock divides the narrative into three main sections. The first deals with Hitler's early life, his rise to party leader in the years following the First World War, and his gaining of the Chancellorship in 1933. The second part describes how he consolidated his position and extended his power once he was in office. The third and final part is about his actions in the Second World War.
Although there is an astonishing contrast between the obscurity of Hitler's origins and the undisputed power he eventually acquired, it is remarkable how exactly his later ideas and behaviour were prefigured in his early years. Indeed, as he himself remarked, his views hardly altered at all from those he set forth in Mein Kampf. More than once he described quite openly what he intended to do once he gained power; the mistake his contemporaries made was not to take him seriously. The German politicians believed that they could use Hitler to further their own ends, but it was Hitler who used them. It is difficult to avoid a feeling of grudging respect for the skill with which he fooled and manipulated them.
Although Hitler was utterly unscrupulous, trusting no one and willing to deceive, betray, assassinate, and do anything else that was needed to gain his ends, it is remarkable how careful he was to avoid open illegality. When it looked at one point likely that the Nazi party would be balked of its aims, a number of his associates wanted to stage a coup, but Hitler refused to do so. And in fact he did eventually become Chancellor legitimately, although, once in power, he soon manoeuvred himself into a position where he could do whatever he wanted without any sort of constitutional restriction.
The total lack of scruple that characterized Hitler's rise to power continued to be evident once he became Chancellor. His behaviour on the world stage was simply a larger version of his earlier bluff, deception, and willingness to use violence when it seemed likely to pay. He had a shrewd idea of the weakness of others, playing on Joseph Chamberlain's wish to avoid confrontation with the same skill he had used to mislead his rivals on his way to power. And, at least initially, he continued to observe the forms of legality in international affairs; his annexation of Austria was, in appearance, by invitation rather than by invasion.
One of the most remarkable facts about Hitler is the ability he evidently possessed to dominate people. His appearance was undistinguished and his mind commonplace and vulgar, yet he was able to impose his will on almost everyone around him (the main exception seems to have been the Russian foreign minister Molotov). Bullock comments on this power but cannot explain it except by saying that Hitler's gaze had a strange hypnotic character. This, however, would only have been effective at close quarters; his dominance of large public meetings must have been due to something else. Hitler himself explained what this depended on: not reasoned argument but emotion. "It is not objectivity, which is a feckless attitude, but a determined will, backed up by power where necessary."
Bullock is good on the supporting cast. Hermann Goering I had tended to think of as a fat figure of fun, and indeed this is what he became in his later years, but in earlier times he was forceful and played an important part in the rise of the Nazis. Mussolini, in contrast, emerges as relatively ineffectual. The Italians, it appears, were always uncertain and often reluctant allies, treated very much as second-class by the Germans, though Hitler seems to have had a genuine liking for Mussolini himself. There are good accounts of Himmler, Goebbels, and the pompous and intolerable Ribbentrop. Understandably there is not much humour in this book, but it does include a hilarious account of a vituperative quarrel between Goering and Ribbentrop. Another touch of humour comes from Hitler's rhetorical demand: "When in my entire life did I ever tell a lie?"
The conflict with Britain was unintended and Hitler never fully understood why the British declared war on him. He had not expected a general war in 1939. Once it started, however, the early successes quickly brought him to the view that he was infallible, and henceforward he constantly over-ruled the advice of his generals, taking the management of the war into his own hands and issuing the most detailed orders. When things began to go wrong he refused to allow retreat in any circumstances and thus squandered his resources, not to say the lives of his troops, in useless last-ditch stands.
One of the many merits of this absorbing account is its explanation of Hitler's seemingly puzzling decision to attack Russia, a decision that was ultimately the main cause of his defeat. As an avid reader of history, should he not have drawn the obvious inference from Napoleon's equally unfortunate mistake a century and a half earlier? In fact, however, as Bullock makes clear, it was always Hitler's intention to fight the Russians; his aim from the beginning was to expand towards the East, not the West. And the Russian campaign might have ended differently had Hitler been willing to heed the advice of his generals to concentrate on taking Moscow rather than pursuing subsidiary aims.
Bullock is uncompromising about Hitler's guilt in the Final Solution. Although it was Himmler who carried out the policy of extermination, "the man in whose mind so grotesque a plan had been conceived was Hitler. Without Hitler's authority, Himmler, a man solely of subordinate virtues, would never have dared to act on his own." Hitler and Himmler had secret meetings at which no one else was allowed to be present, except occasionally Bormann, and no record of these survives.
At the end of his life Hitler's grasp of reality had become shaky, his physical and mental deterioration being probably accelerated by the quack remedies administered to him by his personal doctor. Even so, his political acumen had not deserted him. He foresaw that, after the war, there would be only two Great Powers, Russia and the USA, who would engage in a trial of strength, either military or in the fields of economics and ideology. These two would rule the world between them until the Asian, African, and perhaps South American nationalisms should arise. We all live in the world that Hitler bequeathed to us.
20 October 2005