Lessons from Hitler’s Rise

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Supporters greeting Adolf Hitler as he arrived at the Berghof, his retreat at Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps, circa 1935

When the original German edition of Volker Ullrich’s new biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939, was published in 2013, the current political situation in the United States was not remotely conceivable. The reception of a book often transcends the author’s intentions and the circumstances in which it was written, of course, but rarely so dramatically as in this case. In early 2017 it is impossible for an American to read the newly published English translation of this book outside the shadow cast by our new president.

To begin I would stipulate emphatically that Trump is not Hitler and the American Republic in the early twenty-first century is not Weimar. There are many stark differences between both the men and the historical conditions in which they ascended to power. Nonetheless there are sufficient areas of similarity in some regards to make the book chilling and insightful reading about not just the past but also the present.

Ullrich establishes that Hitler’s early life was not quite as impoverished or oppressive as he later portrayed it in Mein Kampf. Even after first his father and then his mother died, he lived on various orphan pensions and small inheritances. During periods when these resources were insufficient, Hitler did indeed lead an impoverished existence in men’s hostels, scraping out a bare subsistence by selling his paintings, and even briefly experiencing homelessness. More important was the fact that by the age of twenty-five—lacking education, career training, or job experience—he was still a man completely adrift, without any support network of family or friends, and without any future prospects. Nothing could be more different from Trump’s life of privilege, prestigious and expensive private schools, and hefty financial support from his father to enter the business world.

For Hitler, World War I was a decisive formative experience. He volunteered for the Bavarian army, endured fierce frontline combat in the fall of 1914, and then miraculously survived four years as a courier between regimental headquarters and the trenches. For Hitler the war meant structure, comradeship, and a sense of higher purpose in place of drift, loneliness, and hopelessness; and he embraced it totally. For many veterans who survived the war, it was a tragic and senseless experience never to be repeated. For Hitler the only tragedy was that Germany lost, and the war was to be refought as soon as it was strong enough to win. For Trump the Vietnam War was a minor inconvenience for which he received four deferments for education followed by a medical exemption because of bone spurs, and his self-proclaimed heroic equivalent was avoiding venereal disease despite a vigorous campaign of limitless promiscuity. In war as in childhood, Hitler and Trump could not have had more different experiences.


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