Anyone with even the slightest interest in how a man like Adolf Hitler could hold so many under such powerful sway will find Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 a fascinating read.
As with the most nefarious of historical figures, it can often be difficult to separate the myth from the (wo)man. More times than not, common knowledge about the worst of the worst are the surface details, leaving an entire life full of intricate complexities—thoughts, emotions relationships—not even an afterthought. It’s understandable in that we tend to be drawn to the more horrific details than the minutiae of a life leading up to the well-known atrocities (“if it bleeds it leads”). Few individuals are as much of an inhuman boogeyman and pure personification of evil as Adolf Hitler. He’s rarely approached as anything other than the monster he’s long been perceived (and very clearly was), prohibiting a well-rounded look at the man himself. Volker Ullrich’s massive first installment in a planned two-part biography, Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939, seeks to become the definitive portrait of the man in all his intricacies.
Using previously-published accounts, period documents and newly-uncovered bits of historical ephemera to flesh out the often two-dimensional view of Hitler, Ullrich leaves little out in the way of exploring the who, what, where, when and why. Taking things back to the beginning of Hitler’s life, his exhaustively researched biography brings the reader into the world of the young Hitler. Here is someone who, in Austria-Hungary, held sway over his group of friends, exhibiting early on characteristics that would eventually help him become such an authoritative leader of Germany. The son of Alois and Klara Hitler, the young Hitler here exists in the recounting of those who knew him at the time, his self-mythologizing stripped and presented with a clearer-headed view of the facts.
These early years are interesting in fleshing out Hitler’s early life: his education, formative years, the loss of his parents and move from his home village to the larger cities of Austria-Hungary. Here we’re presented with a more three-dimensional individual who is more than merely a failed artist with a wicked anti-Semitic streak (though this latter personality trait shows itself to be something that came later, as his affinity for the Jewish doctor tasked with treating his late mother comes through on multiple occasions). By using the un-doctored accounts of others, period documents and Hitler’s own recollections as presented in Mein Kampf, Ullrich picks through the propaganda to come up with something more resembling the truth.
This, coupled with Ullrich’s determination to present Hitler as a once living and breathing human being rather than the pure personification of evil, helps to make Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 one of the stronger biographical looks at Hitler. At well over 1,000 pages, it’s an overwhelmingly ambitious work that, while fascinating, is a daunting read by any measure. That Ullrich has taken the time to present such a well-rounded picture of one of the most reviled figures in human history is a testament to his strength as a biographer, presenting the facts unfiltered by the decades of public perception.
Anyone with even the slightest interest in pre-war Europe and how a man like Adolf Hitler could hold so many under such powerful sway will find Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 a fascinating read. Just be ready to devote a significant amount of time and headspace to the man rather than the myth. It’s no easy task, but those willing to make the investment will be well rewarded.