Thomas Childers, a great writer that you’ve probably never heard of, has composed a disturbing book, though how could it be otherwise?
The book is about Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler.
I highly recommend it. Give it as a Christmas present. It’s not cheering, of course; it’s dismal reading. The book’s virtues are: it’s highly instructive and extremely well-written.
The author of “The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” knows his way around a page.
A longtime scholar of all things Nazi Germany at the University of Pennsylvania, Childers may be familiar as the author of “Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation’s Troubled Homecoming from World War II” and two other World War II titles, “In the Shadow of War” and “Wings of Morning”; all three books are superb.
In this Third Reich book, Childers’ clear prose and riveting story-telling skills trace the origins of the Nazi’s brutal worldview along with the rise of Hitler from anonymity as an Austrian tramp artist to the German chancellorship, from which position he vaulted to become the undisputed ruler of one of the great cultures and nations in world history.
Hitler was a megalomaniac. Against all odds, Childers writes, Hitler was convinced “he was the chosen one, the savior ordained by History to liberate the German people ... to lead the German nation....”
He was also deeply anti-Semitic. Indeed, Hitler had two core political beliefs: Jews were evil and the Bolsheviks – the communists – were evil, too, and, in fact, the two evils were one big evil that had to be expunged.
You might be surprised to learn that Hitler and the Nazis rose to a position of authority, at least partially, through the power of the ballot. They competed in elections, and did well, up to a point.
This electoral odyssey, begun in the mid-1920s, culminated in 1932 with German democracy on the ropes and Hitler and crew more than eager to kick the Weimar Republic to the gutter. As Childers writes, “Parliamentary democracy in Germany had been reduced to a farce.”
The German parliament – the Reichstag – was hardly ever in session. The country, in the grip of the Great Depression, hobbled by the legacy of World War I and social ferment, and hamstrung by fractious political divisions (political parties multiplied like rabbits) got along on presidential decrees issued by an increasingly isolated and unpopular central government.
Political violence escalated, led by Nazi storm troopers marching “defiantly into working-class neighborhoods ... (pouncing) into the courtyards of massive apartment complexes, the tread of their jackboots echoing from the cobblestones.”
A key target for the Nazis was the middle class. A Nazi political functionary declared in the fall of 1932, on the cusp of the fourth national election of the year, “A feeling of utter panic ... must be awakened in the broad masses, a feeling so strong that (Chancellor) Papan and his cabinet will be completely discredited and can no longer be seen as a bulwark by the wavering middle class.”
The campaign resulted in a loss of two million votes for the Nazis, despite Hitler’s incessant stumping. The party’s drive to power appeared stalled at 33% of the vote, then “the impossible” happened. In January 1933, Hitler was suddenly chancellor.
The long knives came out almost immediately. In one incredible 48-hour period, the new government annihilated at least 100 people, including a number of prominent Nazis whose continued existence Hitler could not tolerate.
Generals, political figures, government officials, religious leaders were eliminated, some at home with their families, some alone in prison cells. Hitler declared, “These gentlemen are criminals against the Reich. I am the Reich Chancellor.”
It was all downhill from there. The death toll from the war and the Holocaust ran well into the millions. Forty million? Fifty million? With numbers so large, does it matter?
Helping to underpin Nazi rule on the way up (as well as on the way down) were falsehoods – for instance, about the inferiority of Jews and the superiority of the Aryan bloodline – that were so absurd that they literally boggled the mind. Then, again, this was Hitler’s intention. Repeated over and over to the exclusion of everything else, the lies eventually acquired the glow of truth itself.
The “great mass of people,” Hitler said, “more easily fall victim to a big lie than a small one, since they themselves lie in small things, but would be ashamed of lies that were too big.
“Such falsehoods would never enter their heads, and they would not believe in the possibility of such monstrous effrontery and infamous misrepresentations in others.”
Lying was maybe the least of Nazi sins, but it was one of the essentials in getting Hitler to where he wanted to go.
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.