Hopping in His Matchbox

Neal Ascherson

Werner Willikens was quite a senior Nazi civil servant. In the crushed and castrated government of Prussia, he had become the state secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture. It was in February 1934, just over a year after Adolf Hitler had become chancellor, that Willikens made a speech to agriculture officials from all over the Reich, using words that have come in our own time to fascinate historians. ‘The Führer,’ he said, ‘finds it very difficult to bring about by order from above things which he intends to realise sooner or later.’ It was, therefore, ‘the duty of each one of us to try to work towards him in the spirit of the Führer’. The German, not easy to translate precisely, is ‘im Sinne des Führers ihm entgegenzuarbeiten’.

Willikens was not revealing some unknown fact. But he was offering posterity (as well as the party comrades in front of him) a really useful way of understanding how decisions were made in the Third Reich. ‘Working towards the Führer’ explains how many initiatives, including some of the worst, originated in the wider Nazi bureaucracy rather than with Hitler himself. And it can be argued that this commandment to second-guess and anticipate Hitler helped him to surf into ever more radical and terrible policies which are usually attributed to his invention alone.

As Volker Ullrich points out, there is an apparent contradiction here. On the one hand, the Leader’s will was supposed to be absolute and monocratic, and anyone who could claim convincingly that he was carrying out ‘the Führer’s will’ would get his way. On the other, a chaotic, ‘Darwinian’ struggle of overlapping Nazi institutions raged as each competed to make up Hitler’s mind for him. Behind all this was the weird, slovenly manner in which Hitler formed policies. Sometimes he made rapid and fateful choices and stuck to them (the Night of the Long Knives in 1934). But often he watched a policy emerge from some underling who thought he was ‘working towards the Führer’, and then adopted it as his own ‘irrevocable decision’. Occasionally, especially when someone close to him misbehaved, he would retire into a dither that could last for days, unable to make his mind up until prompted by his worried inner circle.

The first historian to seize on the ‘working towards the Führer’ interpretation seems to have been Ian Kershaw. Each in the procession of immense tomes of Adolf biography claims to be ‘definitive’, but Kershaw’s two volumes, ‘Hubris’ and ‘Nemesis’, still dominate more than 15 years after their publication. Commenting on Willikens, Kershaw said that ‘Hitler’s personalised form of rule invited radical alternatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.’ Everyone who ‘worked towards’ him in this way, not only in the bureaucracy but throughout society, was ‘helping drive on an unstoppable radicalisation’.

Ullrich handsomely compliments Kershaw for seeing the significance of the phrase. He expounds it even more clearly when he writes that

those who wanted to get ahead in this system … had to anticipate the Führer’s will and take action to prepare and promote what they thought to be Hitler’s intentions. This not only explains why the regime was so dynamic but also why it became more and more radical. In competing for the dictator’s favour, his paladins tried to trump one another with ever more extreme demands and measures.

It could be said that the ‘Willikens Insight’ cuts Hitler’s personality down to a more manageable size. It shifts responsibility, if not away from him, then onto a much wider circle of German officialdom working in this curious machine of government-by-anticipation. And we know a lot now about Hitler as an individual. Published studies of the dictator are already said to number something like 120,000. The major biographies start with Konrad Heiden’s, written in Hitler’s lifetime, and go on through the works of Alan Bullock, Eberhard Jäckel and Joachim Fest to reach Ian Kershaw and now Ullrich’s large, steady book – again, the first of two projected volumes. So is it really Hitler’s personality and private life that we still need to know about? Who he was, and why he did what he did, must surely give precedence to how he managed to do it.

Kershaw clearly was troubled by these questions. ‘What has continued … to interest me more than the strange character of the man who held Germany’s fate in his hands between 1933 and 1945 is the question of how Hitler was possible,’ he wrote in his preface. He considered that Hitler had no ‘private life’, but instead ‘privatised’ the public sphere: his entire career was devoted to acting the Führer. Kershaw considered him ‘an empty vessel outside his political life’, unapproachable and incapable of friendship.

Ullrich doesn’t agree. He worries that depicting Hitler as lacking any private life perpetuates the view that his crimes were committed by a monster – not by a German or Austrian human being – and that this caricature unintentionally preserves the old Führermythos in a negative form. He tries to show that Hitler did in fact have a private life, although a pretty boring one, and did have friends, most of them married couples where the wife would mother Adolf, feed him cream cakes and be rewarded with displays of ‘Austrian charm’.

When the book was published in Germany three years ago, some people objected that in ‘demythologising’ Hitler, Ullrich was presenting him as a mere ‘man without qualities’. This seems spiteful. Ullrich shows that this ‘strange character of a man’ possessed all kinds of qualities, not all of them bad in themselves and none of them unfamiliar to science or fiction. Admittedly, the most striking parts of his book are studies of Hitler among women or with his flaky nouveau-riche guests up at the Berghof, over Berchtesgaden. But these sections are embedded in a highly detailed and always interesting critical narrative of his political life, from youth in Linz, Vienna and Munich to his installation as chancellor in 1933 and on to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Ullrich has strong feelings about the way Hitler came to power in January 1933, enthroned by a ‘sinister plot’ of stupid elite politicians just at the moment when the Nazis were at last losing strength. It didn’t have to happen. He constantly reminds his readers that Hitler didn’t reach the chancellorship by his own efforts, but was put there by supercilious idiots who assumed they could manage this vulgarian. ‘We engaged him for our ends,’ said the despicable Franz von Papen. A year later, in the Night of the Long Knives, von Papen was grovelling to save his own neck.

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.

Ullrich’s narrative of Hitler’s rise to power, though it doesn’t quite have the bite of Kershaw’s version, is full, intelligent and lucidly written. (The translation is mostly smooth, but occasionally lame: when will translators stop giving ‘faction’ for the German word Fraktion, which means ‘a parliamentary party’?) Like his predecessors, Ullrich notes that Jew-hatred and territorial expansion (Lebensraum) were Hitler’s only two consistent principles, and his account of how the alternation between semi-spontaneous anti-Jewish outbreaks and ‘legal’ discrimination (the Nuremberg Laws) led up to the great pogrom of Kristallnacht, on 9 November 1938, is horribly detailed and significant. Here, as elsewhere, he returns to the questions which matter so much more than Hitler’s dingy character: what did the Germans think, and ‘how could Hitler have got away with it?’


Part of the answer lies in the ‘working towards the Führer’ idea. The cult of Hitler’s personality set up a fake opposition between leader and party. After Kristallnacht, as after other outrages, many Germans (probably shocked more by the street vandalism than by the suffering of Jews) commented that ‘the Führer surely did not intend this.’ At elections and plebiscites, sulky subjects of the Reich might scribble on posters or voting slips: ‘Yes to Adolf Hitler – but a thousandfold No to the Brown Bigwigs!’ The effect of this false distinction was to maintain loyalty to the regime even through years when the public was coming to regard the Nazi Party apparatus as institutionally corrupt and self-serving.

Paradoxically, it emerges from Ullrich’s book that fear of war also helped to bind the German masses to Hitler – and all the more so as his foreign policy grew more aggressive and risky. As in France and to a lesser extent in Britain, the colossal loss of life in the First World War still haunted the German public. But Hitler knew how to manipulate that fear. Each time Germany seemed to be steering towards the brink of war – the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss with Austria, the seizure of Memel, the Sudeten and then the 1939 Czech crisis – Hitler got his way at the last moment without a shot being fired and an enormous surge of relief and gratitude would sweep across the nation. Adolf had saved the peace yet again! Most Germans assumed – against all the evidence – that the bloodthirsty propaganda campaign against Poland would end in the same way, with the Poles caving in and abandoning Danzig. They couldn’t believe that this time Hitler didn’t want his adversary to give way: he wanted a full-scale war which would end as Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union between them wiped Poland off the map. All observers registered the intense gloom that fell on the German public when European war involving France and Britain as well as Poland finally broke out in September 1939.

Between achieving the chancellorship on 30 January 1933 and the late summer of that year, the Nazis rapidly smashed what was left of parliamentary democracy, drove their opponents into exile, concentration camps or terrified silence, brought national and regional institutions of all kinds under central control – Gleichschaltung – and imposed a quite new governmental system with quite different aims and methods. They called it a ‘national revolution’. Does it deserve the name?

Ullrich thinks not. For him, it was a change brought about by the alliance of traditional elites with the Nazi mass movement; it led to no replacement of elites or fundamental remaking of society. He proposes the rather unconvincing term ‘totalitarian revolution’. Eric Hobsbawm, in The Age of Extremes, put it more sharply. He dismissed the idea of ‘fascist revolution’ and wrote: ‘Fascist movements had the elements of revolutionary movements, inasmuch as they contained people who wanted a fundamental transformation of society … However, the horse of revolutionary fascism failed either to start or to run. Hitler rapidly eliminated those who took the “socialist” component in the name of the National Socialist Workers’ Party seriously.’

With the challenge from the left destroyed, Hitler went on to crush two of the conservative social groups that had brought him to power: the titled landowners and the officer class. By eventually destroying these old governing elites with all their institutions, Hobsbawm writes, the Nazis unwittingly helped to lay foundations for the future ‘bourgeois democracy’ of West Germany.

It’s not a point Ullrich makes. But Hitler was a moderniser as well as a genocidal tyrant. His perceived legacy is a burden of unbearable horror and humiliation. It’s a difficult thought that the Third Reich also contributed to postwar Germany’s success in unacknowledged ways: a robust sense of social equality, a stronger sense of common German identity co-existing with the restored federal structure, an imaginative provision for working-class welfare and leisure. Ullrich’s second volume, on the war years from 1939 to 1945, will inevitably be centred on human and national catastrophe. It will be good if he can also discuss how the Hitlerian past influenced the new Europe that rose out of the ruins.