Book Review: HITLER: DOWNFALL 1939-45

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

Tonight, I finished the second part of Volker Ullrich’s incredible biography of Hitler. I finished Volume I: ASCENT 1889-1939 last April, and had to wait until this past fall to get my hands on Volume II: DOWNFALL 1939-45. Both volumes are very different; the first focuses on the political rise of Hitler and the NSDAP (Nazi party) and the second covers Hitler’s day-to-day management of the “war of annihilation” that was WWII. As such, this book is a parade of delusional expectations that almost came true, and a never-ending carousel of military leadership changes, dumb decisions, lies, self-deceptions, and, most troubling, an arms-length distance to the absolute insanity of incalculable human loss.

The book wisely refuses to spend time psychoanalyzing Hitler (let me summarize: psychopath), and instead presents his actions within the social and historical framework in which they took place, with a strong understanding of the man’s duplicity and performative nature as being less symptomatic of some personality disorder and more a toolset deployed, consciously, to manipulate his allies and enemies. The book’s approach makes sense, because as a leader focused on the tactics and strategy of waging war, the tangible, physical reality of the regime’s previously unimaginable crimes were kept at a psychological remove in his life- and so they are in this book. He believed every action was justified, and while Ullrich details those justifications and gives them much needed context, it would be useless to read chapter after chapter with the author arguing with Hitler’s self-justifications. At the same time, it would also be immoral to present them without challenge, so the book does a great job of balancing these impulses and questions.

We stay with Hitler and his routines, travel, and the palace intrigues that he enabled. Huge catastrophes like the Battle of Stalingrad, D Day, and The Battle of The Bulge are covered, but this book is not a book about the individuals on the battlefields, executing the tactics on the ground, although we learn a LOT on a macro, tactical level about how the German Army (aka The Wehrmacht) won or lost battles. No, this is a book about a psychopathic, racist, fanatical anti-semite whose prejudices informed the disaster he made, always blaming others for failure and taking personal credit for success. In that way, it’s a bit of a hard read, because the man was an absolutely giant, self-satisfied asshole, and you get a heavy dose of that, alongside the groveling fealty of men like Joseph Goebbels, whose diaries frame much of the book(s).

There is a powerful section on the Holocaust, which is the scaffolding of the entire book for me, and which frames the massive crimes of not just the SS and the concentration camps, but the extrajudicial murder that, once normalized, was committed by all of the German forces in the Soviet Union, Poland, Ukraine, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and beyond. The unfathomable civilian and extrajudicial murder is discussed as being Hitler’s responsibility but also mentions there is no documented “direct order” from Hitler to enact the mechanics of the Holocaust because, as the book makes plain, his stance was de facto in favor of it, and his underlings knew it was what he wanted. In this way, despite innumerable mentions of “a solution to Jewish question,” the unconscionable act of genocide seems to have had little impact on Hitler’s psyche; his entire plan relied upon the death and removal of millions of people from Eastern Europe.

And so, faced with confronting the reality of the Holocaust, if there is one man about whom I wish the book had more to say, it is Heinrich Himmler, who, despite remaining somewhat elusive in the books, was an absolute piece of shit. I could have used more about the mechanics of his actions, but since he was involved in so many massive crimes, many of them undocumented by the official accounts of the regime, I’ll need to figure out how I can find out more and digest the idea of learning more about him.

I was interested in reading these books to give context to the past and to the present and I have to say, I cannot recommend them enough. Combined, not even counting the footnotes, it is a massive read, but I learned a ton I did not know and feel like I have a much better understanding of the era, of the scale of horrors in Europe leading up to and during WWII. What really resonated for me was learning more about The Red Army of the Soviet Union, who essentially saved the world through an absolutely unbelievable amount of sacrifice and loss.

Anyway, I wanted to document why reading these brilliantly written books about so much horror felt necessary, and why, during the pandemic and the second half of the Trumpist years, they gave me so much to consider. So, I’ll end this long post that likely no one is reading, with the final sentences of Volume II:
Hitler will remain a cautionary example for all time. If his life and career teach us anything, it is how quickly democracy can be prised from its hinges when political institutions fail and civilizing forces in society are too weak to combat the lure of authoritarianism; how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is; and what human beings are capable of when the rule of law and ethical norms are suspended and some people are granted unlimited power over the lives of others.

Bravo to Volker Ullrich for an unforgettable reading experience.

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