Like all biographers, Ullrich takes his readers through the Austrian childhood, the harsh father and loving mother, the teenage fantasies at Linz and the rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. But he and his recent predecessors have slashed away some of the nonsense nettles that have grown over the period: Hitler didn’t have a Jewish grandfather, he didn’t spend his childhood in poverty, his father didn’t beat him more than most European fathers of the day belted their sons, he wasn’t bipolar, he didn’t have only one ball or syphilis, he wasn’t exceptionally anti-Semitic before he settled in Munich. In the trenches a few years later, he was dutiful rather than valiant and he didn’t father a baby on a French girl called Charlotte. True, however, by the accounts of all historians is the shattering blow to his self-esteem delivered when the Vienna Academy turned down his application to study art.
‘Too few heads. Sample drawing unsatisfactory.’ He had been fanatically certain that he would get in, and the wound of that rejection, perhaps his only solid grievance, never ceased to hurt. A whole human generation was punished for it, so that it is natural – if unscholarly – to ask what would have happened if the Academy had said yes. The best answer I know is Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s novel La Part de l’autre (2001), in which he chronicles the diverging lives of the Hitler who was rejected and the Adolf who was accepted. (Adolf is taken to see Dr Freud, who sorts out his complexes. Then he becomes a wonderful lover, a famous painter, the husband of a Jewish wife and the father of a family.)
Reading this familiar ‘early years’ tale again, Hitler as a personality no longer seems so outlandish. What does mark him out is his conscious abandonment of conventional morality: the monstrous, shameless ease with which he lied, betrayed and murdered. The traits of his character, on the other hand, are not remarkable in themselves. Thousands of people around us daydream about world conquest, fondle hate fantasies about what they might do to immigrants or jihadists, lap up conspiracy theories or impress their mates – after a pint or six – with bellowing rants about politicians or bankers. Most of them, fortunately, stay below the political radar. They lack a soil in which their urges can swell until they overshadow the earth. They lack the licence of Alasdair Gray’s Law of Inverse Exclusion (outlined in his novel Lanark), which ‘enables a flea in a matchbox to declare itself jailer of the universe’. And they lack a weapon.
But Hitler, hopping mad in his own matchbox, had all three. Fermenting Munich after a lost war and a failed revolution provided the soil, while his weapon was oratory: Hitler’s one tremendous gift and his only natural talent. One day in Munich, as a lecture to demobilised soldiers ended, the speaker noticed a knot of men in the emptying hall. They were listening ‘transfixed by a man who was speaking to them with growing passion and an unusual guttural voice’. The lecturer saw ‘a pale, drawn face underneath a decidedly unmilitary shock of hair, with a trimmed moustache and remarkably large, light-blue, fanatically cold, gleaming eyes’.
Hitler had an excellent voice, and his harsh ‘Austrian’ (actually Lower Bavarian) accent seems to have given North Germans an impression of sincerity rather than provincial uncouthness. But to read or listen to his speeches today is disconcerting: how could anyone have taken seriously such stagy bellowing and preposterous ideas? What we are missing now is not only the desperation and paranoia which his early audiences brought with them into the beer cellar or the stadium, but the tricks of Hitler’s trade. He required a strong warm-up before, deliberately late, he strode into the hall. He insisted where possible on seating that was spread horizontally before him rather than a narrow corridor reaching far back: this gave him as much close impact as possible. Cleverly, he channelled his own tendency to throw tantrums into a speech-style: beginning with long, droning and ostensibly sober recitals of fact and analysis, he would suddenly shift his voice upwards almost an octave, double its pace and explode into yelling demagogy. (I once saw Oswald Mosley do exactly this in the 1950s, and in spite of my contempt for all that he was saying, that sudden gearshift raised all the hairs on my neck.) His old trench comrade Max Amann saw him in 1919: ‘He yelled and indulged in histrionics. I’d never seen the like of it. But everyone said: “This fellow means what he says.” He was drenched in sweat, completely wet. It was unbelievable.’
The discovery of this gift of rhetoric, and the techniques to intensify its impact, set Hitler on his way. Although Ullrich doesn’t go into this, Hitler was the supreme practicant and product of the ‘self-magnifying’ craze, the genre of little-man literature which culminated in Mr Atlas’s bodybuilding and in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Germans had been reading Briefsteller guides on how to write persuasive letters and studying manuals on charm, table manners and impressive conversation for at least a century before a more ambitious, chest-expander literature on how to ‘bend others to your will’ became popular in Europe and America around the end of the 19th century. Even the mild Carnegie trained speakers to be angry about something, and his bestseller (five million copies in his lifetime) includes a whole section on how to be a leader. A brimming box of tricks was available to overcome the ‘little man’s’ sense of powerlessness in times of slump, hyperinflation and political chaos.
Hitler exploited all those tricks. He used his large, beautiful eyes (inherited from his mother) to burn loyalty into followers. ‘Finally, he came to my column,’ Albert Speer remembered. ‘His eyes were locked on the men standing at attention, as though he were trying to bind them with his gaze. When he got to me, I had the feeling that a pair of staring eyes had taken possession of me for the foreseeable future.’ Otto Wagener, another adviser, said that ‘his gaze did not come from his eyeballs. On the contrary, I felt it came from somewhere far deeper, from infinity.’
He left these eyeballed victims with a sense that he had seen deep into their souls, understood them as individuals. In fact he didn’t give a stuff about them; his contempt for ordinary party members was shocking. All was manipulation, aspects of his enormous repertoire as an actor of parts. He could be charming, shy and funny. He could talk quietly and civilly; he could be a skilled, quick-witted diplomat with a remarkable memory (as he presented himself to Anthony Eden). He could lapse into screaming tantrums of threat and abuse, most of them, it seems, calculated rather than spontaneous. To cite a few instances out of many in this book, he squalled at full volume into the faces of General von Brauchitsch and of Pfeffer von Salomon (‘A thick blue vein swelled on his forehead, and his eyes bugged out’). But he could also break opponents with calmly stated threats of lethal violence if they went on resisting him. That was what he did to the Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg: ‘Surely you don’t think you could put up even half an hour’s resistance? … Maybe I’ll be in Vienna tomorrow morning like a spring storm.’ And to poor old Emil Hácha, the Czechoslovak president in 1939, who had a heart attack when he was told that Prague would be bombed if he didn’t give in.
Ullrich’s chapters on ‘Hitler as Human Being’, ‘Hitler and Women’ and ‘The Berghof Society and the Führer’s Mistress’ are sometimes intriguing but don’t reveal very much of significance. It’s certainly an aspect of his acting talent that he was famous among intimates for comic imitations, especially of party colleagues who had some physical defect. His guests at the Berghof laughed heartily – what else could they do? Interesting, too, is Ullrich’s point that Hitler’s pose of asceticism and indifference to luxury was deceptive. He never carried a wallet and may not even have used a bank account, but he enjoyed a fat private income, mostly from Mein Kampf royalties and later as a percentage from sales of postage stamps with the Führer’s head on them. Although he couldn’t drive – or swim or dance – he adored buying expensive cars.
As time passed and Hitler grew accustomed to the swooning adoration of millions, he grew more confident in ‘society’. And yet he never quite knew what to do about women. The displays of ‘Austrian charm’ and hand-kissing he put on for female guests at the Berghof seem to have covered panicky prudishness about sex, and lurking suspicion that women were out to make him look silly. (He never forgave the Italians for letting their queen, at a state ball, lead him out in a polonaise. Hitler went scarlet with fury and embarrassment: ‘The way he looked,’ one of his staff said, ‘we thought he was going to have a stroke.’) Eva Braun, cheerful and not too glamorous, reassured him. But, Ullrich adds:
Braun was by no means the dumb blonde observers long mistook her for. She was a modern young woman who knew quite well what she was getting into with Hitler and who herself helped to bolster the mythic aura of the Führer … Like the others who were part of the Berghof circle, she shared Hitler’s racist political beliefs and knew all too well about the exclusion and persecution of the Jews.