Hitler, Downfall: 1939–1945 by Volker Ullrich

Hitler, Downfall: 1939–1945
By Volker Ullrich
Penguin/Random House

Second volume of Hitler biography from Volker Ullrich leaves no stone unturned

By Jay Wiener
Special to the Mississippi Clarion Ledger

Elderly people painfully remember World War II–the disruption and the aftermath. Its catalyst was a malevolent man, enabled by supporters never doubting absurdities, never saying “No!”

The fact that one of the vilest individuals in human history governed within living memory is sobering. It is unnecessary to travel far to find adjectives describing Herr Hitler—hateful and horrendous. Nothing about him was heroic or honorable.

Notwithstanding Hitler’s historic importance, people avoid biographies of him. I never purchased one until “Downfall: 1939-1945”—the second volume of Volker Ullrich’s “Hitler”—was released recently in paperback. It necessitated reading “Ascent: 1889-1939”, the preceding volume, beforehand.

Enduring 1500 pages delineating a despicable dictator is not for the faint of heart. The subject matter is hardly uplifting. It cannot be commended to those depressive or desiring diversion. Neither is it for neo-Nazis or people seeking a safe harbor in extremism: Ullrich leaves no stone unturned explaining why an absence of impulse control cannot maximize successes.

Repeatedly, Ullrich underscores that Hitler would have benefited if he had known when to stop reaching for more. Hitler’s megalomania made him conspicuously unable to cease striving to dominate the world—attempting to achieve increasingly improbable outcomes.

Odious, interconnected themes unite the norms abrogated, facilitating self-righteous fantasies of superiority, subversive of humankind’s common humanity. “Anti-Bolshevism, anti-Slavism, anti-Semitism, social Darwinism—these were the basic prerequisites with which many Wehrmacht generals embarked on war with the Soviet Union.”

The Nazis abused those deemed untermenschen—subhumans—anyone other than us. “Not only the commissars but ordinary Soviet POWs would experience for themselves that norms of international law had been suspended in this ‘war of world views.’…

“Most of the Soviet prisoners died in the temporary or regular camps, be it of starvation, cold, disease, arbitrary acts of cruelty or targeted murder by guards. Three million of the 5.7 million Red Army soldiers captured by the Germans in the war perished. The historian Ulrich Herbert has described the mass deaths of Soviet POWs, which reached their peak in the autumn of 1941, as the ‘greatest and most terrible crime of the Germans in the Second World War’ after the genocide of European Jews. Racial prejudice played a major role in the murders of both Red Army members and civilians. In the eyes of Hitler and his generals, the Slavs were an inferior race, … primitive, uncultured and dirty. Instances of cannibalism in the holding camps were seen not as a desperate response to the German policy of starvation, but as evidence of the ‘bestial’ character of the Russians.”

Elaborating, after failures to turn the Soviet Union into a German vassal state segued into the Holocaust, Ullrich says that, “… without Hitler and his eliminatory anti-Semitism, the genocide of European Jews would not have happened.”

Ullrich recognizes that sycophants wanting to ingratiate themselves were enthusiastic enablers: “The sheer fact of an all-mighty dictator with well-known anti-Semitic obsessions provided a powerful impetus for the careerists around him to try to advance themselves by making suggestions and showing initiative of their own on ‘Jewish policy.’ Indeed, very often they tried to outdo one another.”

Perpetrators of “the unprecedented horror, … a crime unique in human history… [were shielded by the fact that, more] than any official policy of secrecy, it was the sheer monstrosity of the truth itself that kept it from becoming more widely acknowledged.”

CBS correspondent William Shirer, upon hearing of Hitler’s demise, recorded that, “It never seemed to me possible that a man who incarnated all that was evil and bestial and degrading in our human life… would get away with it in the end[.] I do not think man has ever witnessed such a debacle on this planet—at least on such a scale.”

Ullrich observes that, “The man once worshipped as saviour was made into the sole bearer of blame for the entire German catastrophe.” Such oversimplification defies reality. Subversions of social norms only occur when enablers eagerly ignore excesses.

Jay Wiener is a Jackson attorney.


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