Wednesday, August 25, 2010


I first read this book the best part of fifty years ago.

It stands up remarkably well, even when read with a subsequent background of many books about World War II, several biographies of Hitler and other major war figures, plus smaller specialized studies.

This is not a full biography, Hitler’s early years receiving fairly brief treatment. It is precisely what its subtitle says of it, a study in tyranny, and I don’t believe another book offers quite the same intense exploration of the subject.

Allan Bullock writes as a genuine scholar, albeit an unusually articulate one. When Bullock is uncertain about the factors contributing to a certain event, he says so, along with giving readers a clear explanation of the alternatives. Bullock had studied the vast literature available in his time and little of substance escaped his analytical mind.

Hitler surely represents three extraordinary historical phenomena.

First, the outline of his rise is remarkable, almost unparalleled in history, rising from a tramp, would-be artist, a man with limited formal education, to become absolute leader of Europe’s most important nation and then achieving a series of dazzling successes until megalomania struck, sending Europe into a ghastly spiral of horrors and destruction.

One of the few comparable rises I can think of is that of a man who shared none of Hitler’s dark obsessions and hatreds: I refer to Lincoln, a man who rose from life in a dirt-floor cabin and a year and half of formal education to become a successful corporate lawyer, president of the United States, and leader of what remains America’s bloodiest war.

Second, Hitler is, in a number of ways, the most important historical figure of the 20th century – not the greatest, not the most gifted, and certainly neither admirable nor heroic, but the most important as measured by his impact upon great events both in his own time and after.

Hitler’s career contributed to the rise or success of some of the century’s most able and heroic figures – Roosevelt, Churchill, and De Gaulle. And the gigantic destructive events Hitler unleashed profoundly affected the world to this day – the establishment of the Soviet empire, decades of Cold War, and the agonizing events following the creation of Israel.

Third, few people in all of history wielded such immense, unquestioned power over others as he did – Stalin, Napoleon, Henry VIII, Cromwell, Augustus, Genghis Khan, Attila, and a few others come to mind. Understanding the mind and methods of such a person is beyond question an important study of the human condition.

This is an essential book for students of history, statesmanship, World War II, politics, human character, and psychology. It is well enough written to hold the attention of those who are not scholars but interested in any of these subjects.

One of the most interesting qualities of Bullock’s book is his avoidance of what has now become an almost de rigueur, politically correct minimizing of Hitler’s skills and talents, very much a flaw in Ian Kershaw’s biography, and preaching about his evil, something which is apparent just in telling the true history.

Bullock makes clear that in every relationship and project Hitler ever had, the need to be regarded as final authority was an intense, overwhelming psychological drive. He also clearly had developed something of a Messiah complex, something not unknown in our own day among politicians and religious leaders. His vision of Germany’s expansion in the East was filled with ghastly concepts, yet the basic idea of a larger national landscape for Europe’s most technically and perhaps culturally advanced nation, similar to the space claimed by the United States on its rise or by the British Empire, was rational if not ethical.

We know from well-regarded psychiatric studies that Hitler was not mentally ill, yet he did more damage than any mentally ill person I can think of. That fact alone makes understanding him immensely important and should serve as a continued warning concerning those who seek power in our societies. The all-too-common “Hitler the madman” is not helpful and shows no genuine learning from history.

True madmen have little chance of gaining serious power anywhere: they are eschewed by democracies where the least evidence of experience with mental problems is an absolute disqualifier and they are not supported in tyrannies because, as Bullock shows, a tyranny requires many insiders to make it work.

Indeed, one of the most important aspects of the Third Reich that Bullock so ably brings out was the endless creation of special fiefdoms to replace older fiefdoms and new offices for ambitious lieutenants to balance off against other ambitious lieutenants. It is for this reason that I believe all true tyrannies, at least in otherwise advanced states, are doomed not to last: they are actually far more unstable and inefficient than people generally realize.

If you are reading about the Third Reich, this is, quite simply, an indispensable book.