A Study in Tyranny, Alan Bullock, Biography, Book review, Bullock, History, Hitler, Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, Second World War

Hitler, A Study in Tyranny, by Alan Bullock

This is probably the definitive Hitler biography, against which all others are judged. It was originally published in 1952, seven short years after the end of the Second World War, and despite some subsequent updating; it inevitably shows its age. Since 1952 we have learnt a lot more about the history of the Third Reich, and indeed Hitler’s personal history – for example in this edition the fate of Martin Bormann is unknown, the number of deaths in the Holocaust is given at 4.2 million, and the whereabouts of Hitler’s remains was undetermined. So was this worth perserving with through 800 odd pages, when there are more up to date biographies available?

The point is of course moot, because I did (persevere, that is) but the question goes to the merits or otherwise of this text, despite its limitations. I learnt some (a few) things I did not know about the history of the Third Reich, but was left noticing some significant gaps – things I knew about the period which were not included, for no obvious good reason. Let’s start with the former. Of the 5 million Russians taken prisoner of war by the Germans, over 2 million died in captivity, from hunger and cold, often as a deliberate policy by the Germans. (More detail on this on page 696 of the book). That slaughter is never mentioned in programmes about the Second World War in my experience. The relationship with Mussolini was not something I knew much about, nor the very different relationship with Franco, alive and in power when this book came out of course.

But equally there are those omissions. The Holocaust is covered, of course, but in a very detached way. Tracing the origins of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and the way it took hold across Germany, deserved more focus than is given here. Equally, I know that Hitler began experimenting with euthanasia of the sick and disabled long before the outbreak of war – this was nothing to do with lebensraum, or indeed anti-Semitism, but about racial purity, which Bullock never really focusses on. The slaughter of trade unionists, gays, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, and so on, also doesn’t get mentioned, let alone explored. Hitler’s control of Germany once elected Chancellor is worthy of closer examination. His recognition that power rested in institutions and organisations through the country which needs to be smashed, closed down, or assimilated was surely the key to his success in turning a minority Cabinet – his first Cabinet in January 1933 had only 3 Nazi members, including himself – into one in which national plebiscites showed hysterical levels of support over 99%.

There are some eternal questions about Hitler which challenge any biographer or historian of the period. Why did Germany elect such a man? Why did no-one properly understand the risk he faced and do something about it? How did he turn a tiny party of workers (the German Workers Party, which became the National Socialist Party in the early 1920’s) into a continent-dominating machine, able to command devastating levels of support? It can’t just be about charisma and luck, surely? How could the extermination camp guards kiss their children goodnight? Why was his personal life such a blank canvas, and was he religious in any way? We get a little closer to the answers here, by following the story from rural Austria to the Chancellery and beyond, but many of the mysteries and myths remain. I suspect much of the “traditional” features of the Hitler story can be traced to this book. There are things everyone is taught about Hitler, and other things that are simply ignored. I suppose what I am saying is that there was a familiarity about this book. Each phase of Hitler’s life came on schedule, with few surprises or revelations. Is this book the source of the orthodox account of Hitler’s life? I suspect so.

Just one other point: there is a slight tendency in this book, subtle but noticeable, to praise Hitler just a little too much. Positive comments are almost always followed up with condemnation, but his “achievements” are given more than sufficient attention. For example, on page 724 (yes I did get that far) Bullock writes very positively about Hitler’s prescience about the Cold War: “No-one, looking back at German anti-Bolshevik propaganda from the era of the Cold War, can fail to be struck by the aptness of much of the argument”. I accept that a biography that simply portrayed Hitler as a monster would be over-simplifying things, but the tone here is, at times, just a little too positive for my liking. Here’s another example: Bullock writes at length and at several points about Hitler’s ability to “read the mind” of his audiences (for example, page 722, “Hitler’s gifts as an orator had always depended on his flair for sensing what was in the minds of his audience.” Now presumably this is metaphorical rather than literal, but what is the metaphor for? How was Hitler able to tune into what his audience wanted, and give it to them? You could probably work this out through some close textual analysis, whereby he tries out themes and then either drops them or develops them depending on the audience’s response, but that is not attempted here. Instead Hitler is just credited with a supernatural ability to read collective minds. I’m not saying Bullock was a supporter of Hitler in any shape or form, simply that attitudes towards him (Adolf, not Alan) have hardened in later generations.
I really ought to read a modern Hitler biography for contrast, and probably will in time, but for now I need something lighter!