Friday, August 3, 2012

Those Wacky Nazis

Did you know Adolf Hitler never worked at a real job his entire life? Or that the dreaded Brownshirts were purged by the Nazi party itself to curry favor with the Conservative Party and Army? Or that the occupation of the Rhineland was made with barely a regiment's worth of German soldiers and they had orders to turn tail and run if the French so much as looked at them funny?

That's the first benefit of William L. Shirer's fantastic book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It's a thousand pages of all sorts of true but relatively unknown stories concerning the biggest armed conflict in human history. Shirer catalogues every single event in that conflagration through intense research of official documents, letters, diary entries - and he cites all of it! It's what they call in the biz "hermetically sealed."

Shirer covers absolutely everything leading up to Hitler taking the chancellorship - which he was appointed to, not voted into as dumb people are fond of saying. That's not how German politics worked and in fact it was a series of backroom alliances with business owners, old time aristocrats, and the Conservative Party that got the Nazis into power in the first place. Even with all their intimidation and terror tactics, the National Socialist Party could never score a definitive majority.

Not that anyone else could, of course. The first third of Shirer's book makes one thing perfectly clear - the Weimar Republic was doomed to fail and there would be another war. Germany through the '20s and '30s clung to a brainwave - promoted by aristocrats and the army - that it was the government who wouldn't let their glorious soldiers win. We heard the same thing from the Reagan crowd all through the '80s, "The dog ate my bazooka!" Factor a deeply recessed economy still slaved to the gold standard, and you've got the original recipe for fascism which propelled a little racist art school dropout to the national stage.

The war itself doesn't even start until halfway through this 1,000+ page opus. After much consolidation, including executing their own allies out of political expediency and sending boys off to summer-long recreation that builds them up fit and ready to conquer, Hitler begins his adventures with bloodless annexations. Money and propaganda fueled the first battles of World War II, from Austria to Czechoslovakia. It's not until Poland that the guns start firing, and there are just as many German citizens opposed to it - Shirer details a massive peace march in Berlin at the time - as there were generals eager to get their war on. Most of these same generals would turn on Hitler after Stalingrad and El Alamein, trying and failing to assassinate him dozens of times because he was one lucky bastard.

Really, don't go looking to Adolph Hitler for strategic genius 'cause he don't got none. While Shirer is harsher with other Nazi officials - he so routinely skewers Ribbentrop, "profoundly stupid... vain... stupid... arrogant... stupid," I found myself thinking of this Monty Python sketch as historically accurate - the whole gruesome history Shirer drags up leads only to the conclusion that Hitler was a lucky moron. All those audacious campaigns that succeeded in the early years of the war? Disparaged by his own generals - until they got the "Agree or Luger!" option from their Leader - and succeeding as much on the whole world being unprepared for another war as those summer camp healthy Wermacht troops. France and Britain couldn't even believe anyone would want to go through all that again, not after four years of No Man's Land!

And Hitler, being dumb, assumed these extraordinarily lucky victories were a sign from Providence to just go with whatever dopey idea farted its way through his brain. That's why he cancelled the proposed invasion of Britain - that and radar. He firmly believed the Brits would stand with him against the Soviets and believed his own propaganda about America, that the country was run by degenerate Jews and brown folks so would never pose a serious challenge. Shirer describes a number of his speeches where - according to his own documents! - he was lying his ass off but his behavior towards the close of the war demonstrated he whole-heartedly believed it. In short, Hitler was the world's biggest dumbass who had a stroke of uncommon luck before getting his cremated remains scattered all across Berlin by Red Army artillery. No, really!

"And did I mention Ribbentrop was stupid?"

But what really makes this a standout work is Shirer can fit all these raw facts into a broader analysis of both the Third Reich and the German consciousness that produced it. There was a theory for a time that Nazism was the logical conclusion of then-contemporary German culture. It's a theory that doesn't get much mention know 'cause it's kinda rude, but Shirer makes a good case.

Going all the way back to the Thirty Years War - a conflict I know more about than you'd expect - he traces German culture and politics all the way to World War I, depicting a people for whom militarism and authoritarianism become so deeply ingrained as to be reflexive. This is a country where army officers could legally draw down on any civilians who insulted them, where pluralities of voters were explicitly opposed to the very concept of democracy, where anti-semitism was completely and utterly normal.

Let me say that again - normal. The grotesque racism that made up the heart of Nazi ideology wasn't some aberration. It was the natural progression of centuries of European tribalism. What made their murder of millions of Others so unique is they were the first to do so on an industrial scale, really making the Third Reich the fulcrum between the Old World that dominated up through the 19th Century and the Modern World we all live in today.

And that is why I love this book so much - it torpedoes every instance of Godwin's Law. The cultural trends, political ideologies, and economic realities of the Weimar Republic were so specific to the place and time, the Nazi ideology so integrated with German identity, that any claims of "It's happening here!" are absurd at best.

But what most differentiates us now from the Germans of the '30s and '40s is none of our leaders would be willing to kill themselves. We've got plenty of nobodies who are willing - even eager - but no one with any real power. Because to a 21st century American, wealth and power is its own reward. The mid-20th continentals held to actual principles. Principles worth fighting, killing, and dying for. As the noose tightened around the Third Reich, one Nazi figure after another chose the "honorable" way out, even when exile was an option. Of those captured and sentenced to death, Goering was the figure of any significance and he promptly took his own life when it became clear the gallows were his only other future.

Read this book. It's the best ever written on the conflict that's defined your and my lifetime. It's funny, loaded with facts, and fearless enough to examine why people do terrible things without resorting to vague Humanist Protestant platitudes.

1 comment:

  1. [i] ...the fulcrum between the Old World that dominated up through the 19th Century and the Modern World we all live in today....

    ...But what most differentiates us now from the Germans of the '30s and '40s is none of our leaders would be willing to kill themselves... [/i]

    Excellent post and exactly right. Wilhelminian Germany was obsessed with honour and duelling, for instance, which is a way of saying that the bourgeois imitation of aristocratic attitudes was stronger and lasted longer in Germany than anywhere else in the west.

    Take a look at [url=]this comic strip[/url] from the satirical magazine "Simplicissimus". Considering it's from 1896, it's a chilling premonition of the horrors to come.

    Nowadays, instead of duelling societies at elite universities, we have drunken frat boys. Capitalism is triumphant everywhere, and the only thing in common with the ways of the past is the sense of entitlement.

    Which may well mean that the current global arrangement is more resilient than the XIX century trans-national elite consensus that the overeager Germans of yore smashed, of course.