Book review: “Hitler: Ascent” by Volker Ullrich

I added Volker Ulrich’s recent biography of Hitler awhile ago, but recent trends in politics brought it to the top of my list. I read another book awhile back How Democracies Die whose main thesis was most democracies don’t go out with directly military takeovers and the sounds of machine gun fire. Most happen by seemingly legitimate means, at least on paper, in legislatures and courts and bureaucracies. The authors, Levitsky and Ziblatt, are very careful not to use a wide variety of examples, but the most obvious is the rise of Adolf Hitler in Weimar Germany. In brief, their assessment of the fall of the post war democracy is as follows:

A cast of political outsiders, including Adolf Hitler, came to power on the same path: from the inside, via elections and alliances with powerful political figures. In each instance, elites believed the invitation to power would contain the outsider, leading to a restoration of control by mainstream politics. But their plans backfired. A lethal mix of ambition, fear, and miscalculation conspired to lead them to the same fateful mistake: willingly handing over the keys of power to an autocrat-in-the-making…

Convinced that something must give [amid the stalemate in the legislature during the Depression], a cabal of rivalrous conservatives convened in late January 1933 and settled on a solution: A popular outsider should be placed at the head of the government. They despised him but knew at least he had a mass following. And, most of all, they thought they could control him.

On January 30, 1933, von Papen, one of the chief architects of the plan, dismissed worries over the gamble that would make Adolf Hitler chancellor of a crisis-ridden Germany with the assuring words: “We’ve engaged him for ourselves… Within two months, we will have pushed [him] so far into a corner that he’ll squeal.” A more profound miscalculation is harder to imagination.

It is hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading those words. But I want to be careful here. Throwing around “Hitler” and “Nazi” as pejoratives to dismiss political opponents is done with way to much frequency to bear any weight. And Levitsky and Ziblatt are careful not to make the mistake of accusing Trump of being a would-be Hitler, Holocaust and all. The pattern goes beyond Hitler though: a political outsider with no respect for democratic norms is invited to power by political elites for selfish gains and short-term interests. They believe they can control him, but woefully miscalculate. The trend happens over and over again.

Franz von Papen, Hitler’s predecessor as the chancellor of Germany, showed up again in Stuart Stevens’ diagnosis of the contemporary Republican party in It Was All A Lie. He writes:

Republicans want what they perceive as the benefits of Donald Trump without the responsibility of supporting Trump. In this way, as in many, the ghost of Franz von Papen haunts today’s GOP. If I could make every Republican elected official read one book, it would be the memoirs of Papen, the aristocratic chancellor of Germany who dissolved the German parliament and enabled Hitler to rise to power… [It] is a study in self-deception by an intelligent man who knows he made terrible mistakes with horrific consequences but is still trying to explain that his choices were the best of bad ones available…

This is not an analogy of Trump to Adolf Hitler or the chanting of “Lock her up!” by the Trump faithful to the Brownshirts, but it is a cautionary warning on the collapse of norms in a society. Legitimizing hate is like war: it is easier to begin than to stop.

I want to read von Papen’s memoirs soon, and in the original German, but I have yet to get a copy. In the meantime, I read Ullrich’s excellent account of Hitler’s rise to power in Hitler Ascent. This is actually the first of three volumes covering Hitler’s life. In Ascent, Ullrich covers Hitler’s early life up to the brink of war in 1939. I was astounded at many of the similarities I found to our current political climate. I don’t want to repeat them all here in full, but I did include all the snippets as I read them in a Facebook post here. Some of the patterns I found included:

  • Accusing the moderate party in power of embracing Marxism.
  • Calls for “peace and order” when followers are doing anything but
  • Conservative allies convinced they could control Hitler were reduced to writing strongly worded letters
  • Those who had early dismissed Hitler as a clown quickly came to embrace him in order to further their own political ambitions.
  • A reliance on conspiracy theories
  • A cultish worship of Adolf Hitler, a political messiah of sorts

What I most appreciated about this book was finally learning, well, how? How did this happen? You read of the horrors of the Holocaust, and you wonder how a 20th century society with our shared moral values and norms could descend to such depths. Did politicians, media, business leaders all cover for Hitler from the start? Why was there not more widespread opposition? And if that could happen then, are we still prone to making those same mistakes now? Our form of government isn’t a guarantee that violations of human rights on such a wide scale could still occur.

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