While traveling this year I ended up visiting a Gestapo museum in Cologne as well as the Holocaust museum in DC. Wanting to learn more, I recalled my college years when my history-major friend Kris was lugging around this immense book with a swastika on the cover. I procured the (much lighter) Kindle version of it and went to work. Well, months later, I have finished it. It was an incredible experience to read: artfully written and absolutely dense with fascinating information. Terrifying but exciting. Gruesome but essential.
Hitler and the Nazis are quasi-taboo today in that while they’re brought up in every internet argument, such comparisons are dismissed as unattainable. They were so evil, people say, that it’s offensive to even begin comparing anything modern to them. But 1933 wasn’t all that long ago from civilization’s perspective, not to mention evolution’s. Human brains today are nearly identical to the brains of that time.
I totally reject the idea that Germans are some how pre-dispositioned as a people to have been the spawning ground of Nazism (aka Sonderweg). This book goes there a little and has been criticized for doing so. It’s clear that what happened there could have happened anywhere given the circumstances, and so we must be wary of it happening again in the future given any similar circumstances. Desperate, beaten, embarrassed people were conned by their own cognitive dissonance and one truly charismatic (yet crazed) leader into thinking it was some outsider’s fault, and that eliminating the outsiders would solve all the painful problems. The results were catastrophic.
But anyway let’s get to the book. Here are some notable things that I really had no idea about. I’m obviously no student of history so excuse me if this is all common knowledge.
Hitler was remarkably intelligent
I’ve only ever heard about how evil Hitler was (which he absolutely and horrifyingly was). I had no idea that he was also a damned genius politician, orator, and war strategist. In a sense this is comforting because when people say “politician x is literally Hitler!” I’m less worried about it because they’re significantly less educated and less eloquent than Hitler. Hitler enraptured a people to the point that they were screaming and passing out when he spoke. He was seen as a savior.
Hitler was surprisingly accurate in many of his predictions and plans. He set dates for various invasions and executed them right on the money. He even correctly predicted the location of the D-day landings. That didn’t always save him. Alongside his impressive set of getting things right he also made some pretty serious blunders.
Hitler continuously deluded himself that he was doing things legally
Hitler was obsessed with skirting blame for his aggressive war-mongering. He always had some (totally fabricated) reason that he was forced to do the things he chose to do. This helped keep him popular at home and helped keep other world powers out of his way for far longer than they should have.
He made sure to come to power legally in 1933 through a series of political maneuvers and instated the murderous Third Reich. Then he annexed Austria. He terrorized the Chancellor of Austria in his Alpine retreat and eventually had a fake telegram sent requesting German troops come help with the rioting. And so they came to help.
Then when Czechoslovakia fortified its mountainous border to quell Nazi aggression, Hitler invented that people of Germanic descent were subject to “intolerable” conditions in the Sudetenland (pro-Nazis in there were first asked to incite “incidents”. So he rolled troops in to “help” them too. British and French leadership bargained with Hitler to allow this without helping but the Czech’s were not invited. See also: the surprising and fateful appeasement of Hitler by European leaders. Soon after, Hitler bullied the President to cede the rest of the country.
As for Poland, the Free City of Danzig was largely German in population and wanted to be back in Germany. Hitler built up a case of intolerability here for the Germans and made demands for annexing it as well as an extraterritorial corridor to it. He formed a non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union (to secure a one-sided front if Britain went to war).
He even blamed the Holocaust itself (which he planned for years) on Jews:
In his speech to the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, he had said: “If the international Jewish financiers… should again succeed in plunging the nations into a world war the result will be… the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.”
This was a prophecy, he said, and he repeated it five times, verbatim, in subsequent public utterances. It made no difference that not the “international Jewish financiers” but he himself plunged the world into armed conflict.Excerpt from book
All along, Hitler was executing what he had laid out a decade previous in his book, Mein Kampf. He wanted to exterminate people in other lands so Germanic peoples could have “living space”.
The object of the war is … physically to destroy the enemy. That is why I have prepared, for the moment only in the East, my ‘Death’s Head’ formations with orders to kill without pity or mercy all men, women, and children of Polish descent or language. Only in this way can we obtain the living space we need.— Hitler to his commanders
Mussolini was extracted from a mountain-top ski resort prison by troops on gliders
In 1943, Benito Mussolini had been kicked out as leader by the Italian King and imprisoned in a hotel on a mountaintop. Hitler had a strong fondness for the Italian Fascist and ordered an extraction. So a group of commandos on 10 gliders swooped in silently, cut the telephone cables, attacked the radio operator, and got Il Duce out of there on a tiny plane that landed after the silent attack was done.
This kind of commando thing apparently happened all the time in WW2. It reminds me of that story about the Norwegian team parachuted in, skied around, ice-climbed out of a ravine, crawled through a cable tray to place explosives on a heavy water factory.
Countless “little” events happened that could have change history dramatically
First of all, Hitler’s last name was almost Schicklgruber, which probably would have prevented him from coming to power outright. More seriously, there were just so many little things that were described in this book that made me wonder.
For instance, there were a lot of assassination attempts on Hitler. In one of them, a British-made time-bomb was placed by a German officer in a small plane Hitler was in. The well-tested/reliable trigger was a chemical reaction that eats through a metal wire, releasing a spring, slapping a igniter to set off the plastic explosives. The wire broke and the igniter struck, but the explosives didn’t go off because it was in the hold and it was cold up in the air. That’s just astounding to me.. there probably was a spark but it just didn’t propagate.
Another was when an officer placed a similar bomb in a briefcase under Hitler’s table. A different officer casually moved it to the other side of the table’s leg to get a better view of a map, and when it blew, Hitler survived.
Another one was Hitler’s rage with Belgrade. Before invading the USSR, Hitler sent his forces to put down an insulting revolt.
It was obvious in Berlin that it would not accept the puppet status for Yugoslavia which the Fuehrer had assigned. During the delirious celebrations in Belgrade, in which a crowd spat on the German minister’s car, the Serbs had shown where their sympathies lay. The coup in Belgrade threw Adolf Hitler into one of the wildest rages of his entire life […] He took it as a personal affront and in his fury made sudden decisions which would prove utterly disastrous to the fortunes of the Third Reich.Shirer
This foray delayed the invasion of the USSR by four weeks. Four weeks that likely would have made all the difference in the world when the Russian winter came in and played a pivotal role in halting the German march to Moscow.
The inhumanity was sickening
This may not be surprising considering how well the evil nature of Nazism is known today, but it still is surprising to read about horrifying things I’ve never heard of. I don’t even want to go into detail here. The realities of what humans can, have, and will do to each other are the entire motivation for trying to keep the peace in the modern order. If you think this kind of thing can’t happen again and that such behavior is extinguished from humanity I envy your likely ability to sleep at night. I for one stay up worrying about it. The thin veneer of civilization, hiding us from our own barbaric undertones, doesn’t protect us in desperate times. Or as Professor Kagan of Yale says regarding a more ancient war:
It was a war of unprecedented brutality in Greek life, violating even the already rugged code that had previously governed Greek fighting and breaking through that thin veneer that separates civilization from savagery. It is actually to Thucydides that that way of thinking about things is old. Certainly for me; that’s when I first understood what he’s teaching us to such a degree in his history, that there is just a very thin veneer that covers over the brutal, the bestial, the worst and bestial that exists in human beings even in society, but that society is what covers that over and permits something resembling what we would call civilization. But warfare tends to put a strain on that limiting element which is what society gives you.— Donald Kagan, Lecture 17, Open Yale Courses
The breaking of the Enigma machine was made public in the 1970s
This book was written in 1960 but the fact that the Enigma machine was broken wasn’t announced until the 1970s. It’s funny in this book because he’s describing the unexpected ineffectiveness of German U-boat warfare and saying that they realized it was all due to better British radar technology. In the preface the author debates with himself the value of discussing historical events too soon, balancing first-hand accounts with complete information. I’m glad he wrote the book when he did, this was just kind of interesting to note.
This book is 1200 pages long and is just dense with this kind of thing. If you want to learn a bit more about this dark period of humanity, I can’t recommend it enough.