All the major decisions of the war were Hitler’s, and these were often made on extremely short notice: the decision to invade Poland and then Western Europe, the priority of the push against the Soviet Union, the declaration of war against the United States, the fateful choice to divert Army Group A from Stalingrad. “Everyone is waiting with bated breath for the Führer’s coming decisions” is how Joseph Goebbels, the powerful propaganda chief, pointedly described the general situation. Hitler’s generals followed him, usually eagerly, always obediently; opposition to orders was rarely voiced, and the plot to assassinate Hitler 76 years ago lacked all but a small handful of brave, doomed supporters.
Hitler was also the driving force behind the Holocaust. Ullrich quotes one of his henchmen at Nuremberg: “He causes … the motion that is transferred to figures whose dynamics release other dynamics, but the central figure Hitler with his surprising impetuses always remains the actual motor of the rotating stage.”
Hitler’s toxic anti-Semitism set the pace and set the stage. He repeatedly returned to his “prophecy” of January 1939 in which he predicted the annihilation of the Jews in the event of a new world war. By February 1942 the conditional future tense of the prophecy was expressed in the present tense, and in May 1944, Hitler spoke in the past tense. With every speech he tightened the circle of complicity. Ullrich makes the persuasive case that Hitler abandoned a “territorial solution,” in which Jews would somehow be pushed into the far reaches of Russia, for physical annihilation at the end of 1941. (Either “solution” was genocidal.) Goebbels set the scene of a meeting of party leaders in Hitler’s private apartment in the Reich Chancellery on Dec. 12, immediately after Germany’s declaration of war on the United States, and with the Soviet Union suddenly on the offensive: “The Führer has decided on a total cleanup” of “the Jewish question.” What had been postponed would happen now. Ullrich accepts the historian Saul Friedländer’s conclusion that the line had been crossed from “local murder operations” to “overall extermination” in newly purposed death camps.
“Without Hitler,” Ullrich asserts, “there would have been no Holocaust.” But, he adds, without thousands of accomplices there could have been no Holocaust. Ullrich extends the list from the party apparatus to the Wehrmacht, and to railway officials, career diplomats and foreign collaborators, as well as “untold numbers” of ordinary Germans, both men and women, who “bought up the household items” of deported Jews “at bargain prices” in public auctions.
Ullrich attentively scans the crowd because it was the crowd that legitimated the leader. Until the very end, astonishing numbers of Germans retained faith in Hitler. It was only when American and British soldiers arrived, Ullrich notes, that “portraits of Hitler disappeared from offices and private homes, copies of ‘Mein Kampf’ were removed from bookshelves and uniforms, party insignia and swastika banners were burned.” But Hitler himself ultimately lost faith in the Germans, inviting his nation’s apocalyptic self-destruction in what Ullrich calls a “staged exit.” The people had “proven themselves to be ‘weaker’ than their opponents.” Already when he launched Barbarossa in June 1941, Hitler gambled: “We must achieve victory” or “be wiped out.” Going for broke, it was all or nothing, Nazi roulette.