This book does have flaws. It regurgitates too much of the context of the war, especially the details of the origins of the genocide, which are important but are not needed at such length. Also, the translation is into American rather than into English – we keep being told about “train stations” rather than “railway stations”, for example, and this is irritating; irritating in the extreme when Churchill’s “finest hour” appears to have been translated back into English from the German, rendering it a little oddly. The English publishers should have done a better editing job. But this is one of the most impressive Hitler biographies, and it does trawl new archives; even if you have dipped a toe into the other 128,000, you will find it compelling.
It takes 800 pages (including maps and copious notes) to reach this solemn conclusion, but don’t be put off, because the reader who plunges in is rewarded with insight, understanding, fine judgements and read-me narrative drive.
This is the second part of Ullrich’s mammoth biography of Hitler. The first, analysing who he was and the ruthless politics that led to his astonishing ascent to power, was published four years ago to much acclaim.
Some of this, of course, is very familiar: the rages, the Stauffenberg bomb plot, the final scenes in the bunker. So if you know the story, do you need to bother? The answer is yes. Smoothly written and splendidly translated, Ullrich’s book gives us a Hitler we have not seen before, at once cold-blooded and idealistic, chillingly narcissistic and cloyingly sentimental. And precisely because he seems so much like the rest of us, it is probably the most disturbing portrait of Hitler I have ever read.
Military historians used to place the turning point of the war — the moment at which Germany could no longer win a total victory — as being either the battle of Stalingrad or, if they were British, the second battle of El Alamein, both coming at the end of 1942. Ullrich is in no doubt that the moment that the war turned was the autumn of 1941, when the Wehrmacht, despite incredible successes, failed to destroy the Soviet fighting machine. After that it was all a matter of time and attrition as the Soviet Union regrouped and the Allies (shortly to include the US) planned their re-entry into Europe.