New German Biography Hitler's Underestimated Charisma

There's no disputing Adolf Hitler was responsible for some of the most monstrous acts ever committed. In an interview about his new biography, however, historian Volker Ullrich discusses a dictator who was an anti-Semite but also a man of considerable charm.
Hitler's "formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked," says historian Volker Ullrich.

Hitler's "formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked," says historian Volker Ullrich.

Foto: STR/ AP

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ullrich, how normal was Adolf Hitler ?

Ullrich: He was not as crazy as some scholars of psychohistory would have us believe, at least, with their far too simplistic lines of argumentation. He may even have been more normal than we might wish.

SPIEGEL: Most people consider Hitler a psychopath. Many historians, too, believe that someone capable of committing such crimes cannot have been normal.

Ullrich: Hitler was without a doubt exceptional in his criminal deeds. Yet in many respects, he was not at all out of the ordinary. We will never be able to understand the terrible things that happened between 1933 and 1945 if we deny from the outset that Hitler also had human characteristics, and if we fail to take into account not only his criminal energies, but also the appealing qualities he had. So long as we view him only as a horrifying monster, the allure he undoubtedly exerted will remain a riddle.

SPIEGEL: Joachim Fest published a comprehensive biography of Hitler in 1973 and Ian Kershaw another one, in two volumes, beginning in 1998. What was your motivation for producing a third major biography?

Ullrich: Fest approached Hitler from a position of abhorrence and aversion. One central chapter of his book is titled "View of an Unperson." Kershaw was primarily interested in the societal structures that made Hitler possible, while the person himself remains somewhat pallid in his treatment. I bring the man back to the forefront. This creates not a completely new picture of Hitler, but still a more complex and contradictory one than we're familiar with.

SPIEGEL: "Hitler the Person" is the name of a chapter that you yourself describe as the key chapter in your book, which will be published this week. What was Hitler like as a person?

Ullrich: The remarkable thing about Hitler was his talent for dissimulation. His formidable abilities as an actor are often overlooked. There are only very rarely situations where we can say he was being genuine. This is what makes it so difficult to answer the question of what he was like as a person. He could be very pleasant, even to people he detested. Yet he was also incredibly cold even to people very close to him.

SPIEGEL: At one point in the book, you write of a "captivating charm." Charm is a quality not usually associated with this criminal of the century.

Ullrich: A good example of his ability to ingratiate himself is his relationship to German President Paul von Hindenburg, who initially had considerable reservations about the "Bohemian corporal," as he called Hitler. Yet within a few weeks of being appointed chancellor, Hitler managed to get Hindenburg so completely wrapped around his finger than he would sign off on whatever Hitler demanded of him. Joseph Goebbels noted frequently in his diaries that the dictator not only could chat very pleasantly among his close acquaintances, but absolutely knew how to listen as well.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, there would sometimes be these switches into uncontrolled behavior. The seemingly smallest incident could trigger a fit of rage.

Ullrich: My impression is that most of his rages were staged. He did this deliberately, to intimidate people, when just talking with his political opponents didn't achieve what he wanted. Within minutes, he could be once again behaving with complete control over himself and playing the attentive host.

SPIEGEL: There was little in Hitler's background initially that would seem to suggest a career as a mass murderer. Instead of fulfilling his father's wish that he become an upstanding bureaucrat, Hitler withdrew to draw and read. "Books were his world," one childhood friend said.

Ullrich: Hitler was an avid reader, a passion that stayed with him through all the phases of his career. The Federal Archives in Berlin has receipts, showing titles and prices, from the Munich bookstore where Hitler purchased his books. These show what an immense quantity of books he ordered, especially on architecture, although biographies and philosophical works interested him as well. Hitler consumed books incredibly quickly, but also very selectively. He only read works that fit his worldview and that would be of use in his political career.

SPIEGEL: Would you go so far as to call him an artistically minded person?

Ullrich: His interest in art was certainly exceptional. On home leave in September 1918, he spent his time not in brothels, as his comrades did, but at Berlin's Museum Island.

SPIEGEL: In other words, perhaps we could say: Beware of artists in politics.

Ullrich: That's a good bon mot. But Hitler was never more than average as an artist. His great talent was for the games of politics. It's easy to underestimate the exceptional qualities and abilities he brought to bear in order to succeed in this field. In the space of just three years, he rose from an unknown veteran to the king of Munich, filling the city's largest halls week after week.

SPIEGEL: Hitler was a lone wolf. He didn't smoke, didn't drink, and eventually became a vegetarian. How does such an eccentric become a magnet for the masses?

Ullrich: Munich around 1920 was an ideal environment for a right-wing agitator, especially one who could give speeches as fiery as Hitler's. But he was also a skilled tactician, outmaneuvering his competition step by step. He surrounded himself with followers who looked up to him devoutly. And he secured the support of influential patrons, especially the Bruckmanns, a well-respected couple in the publishing world; the Bechstein family, who made pianos; and of course the Wagners in Bayreuth, who soon came to treat him like one of the family.

SPIEGEL: Even the earliest reports of Hitler as a speaker note the exchange of energy between him and his listeners. "I had a peculiar sensation," one eyewitness wrote in June 1919, "as if their excitement was his doing and at the same time also gave him voice in return."

Ullrich: To understand Hitler's power as a speaker, we must consider that he was not just the bellowing tavern demagogue we always picture, but in fact constructed his speeches very deliberately. He began very calmly, tentatively, almost as if he were feeling his way forward and trying to sense to what degree he had a hold of the audience so far. Not until he was certain of their approval did he escalate his word choice and gestures, becoming more aggressive. He continued this for two or three hours until he reached the climax, an intoxicating peak that left many listeners with tears running down their faces. When we watch clips of his speeches now, we're generally seeing only the conclusion.

SPIEGEL: The writer Klaus Mann, who observed Hitler devouring a strawberry tart at Munich's Carlton Tea Room in 1932, afterward wrote, "You want to be dictator, with that nose? Don't make me laugh." Did it require a certain sort of disposition to be fascinated by Hitler?

Ullrich: Klaus Mann had an instinctive, aesthetically motivated repulsion from the outset. But there are also reports of people who held a very negative view of Hitler at first, yet still got swept up and carried away when they experienced him. Among the effects of Rudolf Hess , who served as Hitler's private secretary starting in 1925, I found letters in which he described to his fiancée their agitation tours around Germany. In one letter, he describes a gathering of business leaders in the city of Essen in April 1927. When Hitler entered the room, he was met with frosty silence, complete rejection. After two hours, it was thunderous applause. "An atmosphere such as at (Munich's) Circus Krone," Hess wrote.

SPIEGEL: The slavering fervor of Hitler's party convention speeches sounds in our ears to this day. How did his voice in private differ from the one he used in public?

Ullrich: Very few recordings exist in which Hitler can be heard speaking normally. But in those that do exist, it's evident he possessed quite a warm, calm voice. It's a completely different tone from what he used in his public appearances.

Was Hitler Truly an Anti-Semite?

SPIEGEL: Fest was once asked in an interview, "Was Hitler an anti-Semite?" Meaning, in other words, whether his hatred of Jews stemmed from a conviction he truly held, or was primarily a means toward stirring up the masses. Was Hitler an anti-Semite?

Ullrich: Without a doubt. Anti-Semitism -- at its most radical, in fact -- was the core of his personality. It is impossible to understand Hitler without it. Saul Friedländer described it as "redemptive anti-Semitism," which fits very well. Hitler saw Jews as the embodiment of all that was bad, the root of all evil in the world.

SPIEGEL: But that wasn't the case from the start.

Ullrich: In his manifesto "Mein Kampf," Hitler made it sound as if he had become a fanatical anti-Semite while still in Vienna. But there is no evidence that he made any derogatory comments about Jews before moving to Munich. On the contrary, in the men's dormitory where he lived for three years in Vienna, he maintained decidedly friendly contact with Jews. The dealers who bought his paintings at a decent price were also Jews.

SPIEGEL: Did he experience something like a conversion experience to anti-Semitism ?

Ullrich: We know that Hitler became a radical anti-Semite during the revolution in Munich in 1918-19, which he experienced firsthand and which first swung very far to the left, then swung back very far to the right. The Munich Soviet Republic that briefly came into existence included several Jews in leading positions -- Ernst Toller, Eugen Leviné and Erich Mühsam. This led to anti-Semitism that spread through the city like a fever.

SPIEGEL: You refer to a previously unknown letter from August 1920, in which a Munich law student recorded Hitler's views after an encounter with him. When it came to Jews, Hitler said, he believed the virus must be eradicated, and that the existence of the German people was at stake. How seriously did Hitler mean such statements at that point?

Ullrich: The political project that arose from his worldview did not yet consist of mass murder. Despite all the rhetoric of annihilation, "getting rid of the Jews" at that point meant expelling them from Germany. The so-called "Final Solution," meaning the systematic murder of Europe's Jews, did not enter into the plan until the beginning of World War II .

SPIEGEL: By the time of the Kristallnacht pogroms on Nov. 9, 1938, at the latest, it was clear that all those the regime considered its enemies were now without rights or protection. You write, rightly, that Germany took its leave of civilized nations at that point. But even this failed to detract from Hitler's popularity.

Ullrich: It's not easy to say what the general population's view of those pogroms was. Based on sources such as Gestapo reports on the general atmosphere in the country, I tend toward the view that the majority of people did not approve of this violence. Interestingly, "Kristallnacht" was not associated with Hitler. He managed to remain behind the scenes, even though he was the one pulling the strings, with other Nazi leaders being held responsible. This exoneration, along the lines of people saying, "If the Führer had known about it…" comes up again and again.

SPIEGEL: That Hitler gave considerable thought to his image can also be seen in the way he approached the issue of money. While he presented himself outwardly as a humble leader, in secret he exempted himself from taxes, as you write in your book.

Ullrich: A diligent official at the Munich East tax office noticed in October 1934 that Hitler owed 405,000 reichsmarks in taxes. Any obligation to pay these back taxes was immediately waived, declaring Hitler henceforth exempt from taxes, and the official who had noticed the problem was given a serious reprimand.

SPIEGEL: Starting in 1937, there were even stamps bearing his image, from which Hitler received a percentage of the revenue.

Ullrich: Hitler always appreciated luxury. It's no coincidence that even in the early years he drove the latest and most expense Mercedes models. Nor does his nine-room apartment on Munich's Prinzregentenstrasse exactly fit with the image of a simple man of the people, working himself to the bone for Germany's sake. I also found bills from hotels where Hitler stayed with his entourage before 1933. They spent 800 reichsmarks for four days at the Kaiserhof, in Berlin, for example. That's equivalent to around €3,500 ($4,700).

SPIEGEL: You also devote an entire chapter to Hitler's relationships with women. You don't see that as too trivial, asking questions about the dictator's private life?

Ullrich: I believe this is an aspect that should not be omitted from a biography. In Hitler's case, there's also the fact that he didn't maintain a strict division between his private and public spheres, but rather mixed these areas in a strange way. This was especially evident at the Berghof, where private spaces and working spaces were mingled.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of the theory that Hitler was sexually drawn to men?

Ullrich: He was also supposedly missing one testicle, which made him reluctant to undress in front of women. But you can forget all that. Here, too, Hitler hid a great deal, and there is little we know exactly. But I am convinced he had a much closer relationship with his last lover, Munich photographer's assistant Eva Braun, than we previously thought.

SPIEGEL: Kershaw expresses the theory that Hitler found his satisfaction in the ecstasy of the masses.

Ullrich: I don't believe that. Hitler always styled himself as a man who renounced all personal happiness in the service of his people. There is no conclusive evidence of this, but I believe that behind the smokescreen of discretion, Hitler had a very normal love life with Eva Braun.

SPIEGEL: Without Hitler there would have been no National Socialism, but without the energies that propelled him upward there would have been no Hitler. Where would these destructive forces have discharged if this pivotal figure had not existed?

Ullrich: They would have found a different outlet. One possibility would have been an authoritarian government largely directed by the military. People such as Chancellors Schleicher and Papen had shown what they were capable of following the 1932 coup in Prussia, dismissing republic-minded civil servants and purging the government. Anti-Jewish laws presumably would have been implemented without Hitler as well. But the Holocaust -- this last, radical extreme of the political utopian vision of a racially homogeneous society -- never would have happened. It is unimaginable without Hitler. There were very many Germans who supported that extreme, but Hitler was the one directing it.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Ullrich, thank you for this interview.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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