Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times’s chief book critic, has a very interesting review out this week of volume one of Volker Ullrich’s new two-part biography of Adolf Hitler.
After a few hundred words of throat-clearing introduction, she rather abruptly shifts format away from a traditional book review toward simply a bullet-pointed summary of a few key themes and plot points from Ullrich’s narrative. And while she does not explicitly say so, it is impossible to avoid reading it as a deliberate, thinly veiled commentary on Donald Trump. As a pure exercise in writing and analogy-mongering, it's fun and surprisingly effective, but the comparison does not really withstand much scrutiny.
Kakutani draws out descriptive tidbits about Hitler that are reminiscent of Trump, while leaving out everything about Hitler that is not reminiscent of Trump. We hear nothing, for example, of Hitler’s experience fighting in World War I or of his years of toiling in political obscurity. Instead, it’s stuff like this:
Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.” His manic speeches and penchant for taking all-or-nothing risks raised questions about his capacity for self-control, even his sanity. But Mr. Ullrich underscores Hitler’s shrewdness as a politician — with a “keen eye for the strengths and weaknesses of other people” and an ability to “instantaneously analyze and exploit situations.”
Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message. A former finance minister wrote that Hitler “was so thoroughly untruthful that he could no longer recognize the difference between lies and truth” and editors of one edition of “Mein Kampf” described it as a “swamp of lies, distortions, innuendoes, half-truths and real facts.”
A little while later, she draws an explicit parallel to Trump’s campaign themes:
Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans. He often harked back to a golden age for the country, Mr. Ullrich says, the better “to paint the present day in hues that were all the darker. Everywhere you looked now, there was only decline and decay.”
And she takes a shot at Republican congressional leaders:
Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression. Early on, revulsion at Hitler’s style and appearance, Mr. Ullrich writes, led some critics to underestimate the man and his popularity, while others dismissed him as a celebrity, a repellent but fascinating “evening’s entertainment.” Politicians, for their part, suffered from the delusion that the dominance of traditional conservatives in the cabinet would neutralize the threat of Nazi abuse of power and “fence Hitler in.” “As far as Hitler’s long-term wishes were concerned,” Mr. Ullrich observes, “his conservative coalition partners believed either that he was not serious or that they could exert a moderating influence on him. In any case, they were severely mistaken.”
And I’ll leave you with this thought:
Hitler’s rise was not inevitable, in Mr. Ullrich’s opinion. There were numerous points at which his ascent might have been derailed, he contends; even as late as January 1933, “it would have been eminently possible to prevent his nomination as Reich chancellor.” He benefited from a “constellation of crises that he was able to exploit cleverly and unscrupulously” — in addition to economic woes and unemployment, there was an “erosion of the political center” and a growing resentment of the elites. The unwillingness of Germany’s political parties to compromise had contributed to a perception of government dysfunction, Mr. Ullrich suggests, and the belief of Hitler supporters that the country needed “a man of iron” who could shake things up. “Why not give the National Socialists a chance?” a prominent banker said of the Nazis. “They seem pretty gutsy to me.”
What this comparison gets right
The important takeaway from Kakutani’s review (I would recommend Henry Ashby Turner’s excellent 1997 book Hitler’s 30 Days to Power as an explication of this view) is that our modern image of Hitler doesn’t reflect how Hitler was seen in the early 1930s.
We know that Hitler set himself up as a tyrant, launched a cataclysmic war, and waged a campaign of genocidal slaughter. But before he was in power, Hitler didn’t look like Hitler — he looked like Donald Trump.
In fact, Hitler was seen as a clownish figure who was disliked by the country’s conservative establishment and who was never able to crack 40 percent of the vote. But even though most Germans rejected him, he was a skilled orator and effective populist demagogue who turned out to have a larger mass following than his country’s conservative establishment.
So once Hitler stole their base out from under them, leading establishment conservative politicians decided that they would rather try to ride Hitler’s coattails into office than make common cause with left-of-center parties whose policy commitments they despised.
The way they saw it, Hitler’s lack of seriousness made him a better option. To work with the Social Democrats would require meaningful compromises on serious public policy issues. Hitler was more interested in self-aggrandizement than policy — he could be the showman leader and stage his rallies; they would write the legislation.
This strategy worked, and when Hitler took power as chancellor the vast majority of cabinet posts were in the hands of establishment conservatives.
This really is broadly similar to the attitude Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell and other leading Republican Party elected officials have taken toward Trump. They don’t particularly like him, they didn’t want him to be the nominee, and they certainly don’t respect his thinking on public policy. But they see his vacuousness as potentially advantageous: Unlike Hillary Clinton, he’ll sign their bills.
What the comparison gets wrong
The problem here is that just because Hitler was a clownish demagogue, it doesn’t follow that every clownish demagogue is the next Hitler.
When you think about it, the whole reason Hitler comparisons stand out is that Hitler is such an extreme historical outlier. Most clownish demagogues don’t become brutal tyrants. Most brutal tyrants don’t start massive world wars.
The most recent — as opposed to most famous — time a clownish demagogue used electoral politics to seize power in the face of a discredited political establishment and an ineffective and divided opposition was Silvio Berlusconi’s various stints as prime minister of Italy. And the Berlusconi-Trump comparison really seems much closer in a wide variety of ways, ranging from their media savvy and business backgrounds to the oddity of men with famously louche personal lives leading political coalitions grounded in church attendance and cultural traditionalism.
And I think it’s fair to say that Berlusconi was a really bad prime minister. He was corrupt, he damaged the integrity of Italian political institutions, his close relationship with Vladimir Putin undermined the Western alliance, he created a deeply hostile atmosphere for immigrants and people of color in Italy, and Italy’s economic performance was dismal.
It’s a bad enough outcome and a very sensible comparison. But if you say, “I’m worried Trump will be the next Silvio Berlusconi,” that doesn’t mean anything to most people. So the temptation to reach for Hitler comparisons is out there, even though there’s no particular reason to believe in them.