Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939

In This Review

Hitler: Ascent, 1889–1939
By Volker Ullrich
Knopf, 2016
1,008 pp.

Is today’s right-wing populism comparable to the fascism of the 1930s? Many observers take comfort in the belief that times have changed so much that such an analogy is anachronistic. They point out that Adolf Hitler rose to power owing to the shock of the Great Depression, the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles, the menace of communist revolution, the legacy of anti-Semitism, and the fragility of Germany’s democratic norms—a perfect storm unlike anything before or since. In this biography, which covers the Nazi leader’s life up to the outbreak of war in 1939, Ullrich calls such complacency into question. Hitler is no anachronism; he is an eerily familiar figure: inexperienced, impulsive, ignorant, egomaniacal, petty, and resentful of established experts—yet gifted with an extraordinary theatrical talent for emotionally compelling, demagogic appeals to nativism. His opponents underestimated his political skill, viewing him as an incompetent bumbler and a temporary celebrity who could be easily tamed by the conservative establishment. As Hitler rose, his rivals waged internecine political squabbles—until it was too late to stop him. The material that Ullrich presents is hardly original, but his book nonetheless serves as an eloquent reminder of the adage that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it.

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