This book and its spine – with it’s equally lurid swastika – was in my house as well as almost every house of my childhood friends. Growing up Jewish in the mid 60s we knew what it represented, even if we didn’t know the details. That would come later. The very image of the hakenkreuz and the glaring Third Reich in the title were simultaneously repugnant and seductive, maybe like the apple in Eden.
I’d hope that most of you reading this know or have an inkling of what the Nazis did as World War II progressed, culminating in the near total eradication of European Jewry as a German war aim, and mass murder on an industrial scale of millions more including homosexuals, gypsies, Polish clergy and intelligentsia, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other ‘undesirables’.
What most of us are weaker on, is the background of how Hitler and the Nazi Party – The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei) came to power, expanded their influence, and transformed Germany in less than 10 years. What is as frightening as the results of the Nazi’s ascent to power, is the normalcy within the German body politic with which they achieved it. Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933 by President and venerated hero Paul Von Hindenburg. According to many assessments, appointing Hitler Chancellor was a calculated effort to diminish the thuggish inclinations of Hitler’s supporters by making him and the party more respectable. The (as it turned out) naive hope was that having to do the work of government would temper the anti-semitism and other radical ideas elucidated earlier in Mein Kampf – Hitler’s part autobiography, part statement of political intent written while in prison. The Nazification of Germany didn’t happen overnight, and while gradual, it wasn’t a surprise. It’s easy to believe that many thought that the steps taken to disenfranchise German Jews and promote Aryan values and Nationalism were temporary and would pass, that conditions would return to normal, but the placeholder or bookmark for what was normal was irreversibly moved. On August 19th, 1934 Hitler became President of Germany (after the death of Hindenburg) as well as remaining Chancellor.
So what did this transition in Germany look like before the outbreak of WWII? For the truly interested I have to recommend the following titles. All three provide clear first-person accounts of day-to-day life in Germany (albeit of privileged foreigners) as it grasps with the effects of the Great Depression, debt negotiations with the World War I allies, and the emergence of the Nazis as Germany’s most dynamic and ultimately only political party.
- In the Garden of Beasts / Eric Larson. The story of William E. Dodd and his family in Berlin during Dodd’s tenure as US Ambassador to Germany. Dodd, a University of Chicago History Professor was tapped (3rd or 4th choice) to be FDR’s appointee in 1933, arriving in Germany with his family in July. What makes this work particularly interesting is that much of the book talks about the Dodd’s young daughter Martha, and the associations she makes. One of her best friends is the then head of the Gestapo Rudolph Diels. At a certain point in the book, Martha Dodd is a willing accomplice in shielding Diels (a Hermann Goering acolyte) from a likely fatal arrest by Himmler’s SS. The Dodd’s everyday encounters include many of the people who will eventually be tried and executed at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. What’s also fascinating in this work is the frustration Ambassador Dodd faces, and the transitions his family undergoes as the Germans enact more and more Aryan laws to shut Jews out of everyday life, and ultimately out of German citizenship.
- Berlin Diary: an Inside Account of Nazi Germany / William L. Shirer. Shirer reported from Berlin from 1934 to 1940; first as wire reporter for the Universal and then International News Services (both owned by William R. Hearst) before being hired by CBS in 1937 as their radio correspondent. Berlin Diary is his day-to-day account of both covering the news and living in Berlin, and maintaining relationships with regular people, Nazi officials including Propaganda Minister Goebbels, and the authorities at the Deutschen Rundfunk (German State Radio) who facilitated his overseas broadcasts. Like the Dodds, Shirer’s experiences include regular meetings and interviews with prominent German officials; military leaders, ministers and diplomats.
- The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich / William L. Shirer. Shirer’s opus work and still considered the history of Nazi Germany by which other works are measured. Shirer uses both research and his own material gathered while living and reporting/broadcasting from Europe and Germany beginning in 1925. Shirer begins with the imposition of the Versailles Treaty on Germany and what its conditions: reparations, loss of great power status, loss of its colonies and other restrictions meant for a country that didn’t see itself as militarily defeated. Shirer then uses the eye of the reporter, not the historian to cover the rise of the Nazi party, the internal coups and bloodletting that allow Hitler to consolidate his control over it, their legitimate assumption of power and imposition of Nazi ideology throughout the state, and finally the war itself. The beauty if this book is that (unlike my effort here,) Shirer’s recitations are anecdotal and many are astute eye-witness accounts recorded for reporting and broadcast. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is chilling and compelling.