Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Book Review: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

History lovers, I highly recommend the comprehensive, 1,280-page, and irresistible The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It was written in the 1960s and I’m sure a lot of the history has been updated, but I'm guessing it all stands the test of time since the author drew almost entirely from primary sources (speeches, documents, diaries, his own first-hand account as a foreign journalist). The exhaustive treatment might be too much for some (he spends what feels like one hundred pages on just one Hitler assassination attempt), but the writing is so clear and forceful that this savage bit of history was terribly enjoyable. It was fascinating watching the Nazis rise and great fun watching them fall. 

Stray thoughts: 

- Hitler could not have pulled off what he did (the near complete takeover of continental Europe) if it wasn’t for all of his pathetic appeasers. England was in denial. Poland was stupid. France had its head up its rear. Belgium was cowardly and Denmark and Norway were in la-la land. (Denmark was in denial of the Nazi’s invasion as they watched the Nazi ships approach their shore.) 

- The same can be said about the good Germans. In 1932, the Nazis received only 37 percent of the vote. But the remaining 63 percent of the country, which could have joined together and opposed the Nazis, were “too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger.”

- Hitler had a super power for self deception. I suspect, like any great liar, Hitler was able to convince himself of his own lies (such as the lie that Poland started the war) even if the lies were entirely baseless. This skill can be used harmlessly by athletes who gain an edge by convincing themselves of their superiority. The same tactic can be used by world leaders, who are able to get their underlings on the same page, provide a clear narrative for a gullible public, and sway weak leaders, such as Mussolini. Hitler creates lies, absorbs them, feels them, disperses them.

- If there’s such a thing as moral intelligence, Hitler had none of it. But he was brilliant in many ways. He understood geopolitics. He saw clearly the road to power (get legitimately elected, give a reason for average people to support them [stable employment], and make friends with institutions—military, church, etc.). He could see the weaknesses in his enemies. He recognized that it’s safe to expect complacency as the default disposition of peaceful nations. He had the brashness, boldness, and balls to take huge (calculated) risks. And he was imaginative. He had a knack for dreaming up the unthinkable. (Burning the Reichstag; initiating a dramatic airborne rescue of Mussolini when Mussolini’s gov’t turned on him; training a handful of glider units to land on and make quick work of the impregnable Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. His naval attacks on Denmark and Norway were completely unexpected, and he occupied Oslo, rather weirdly and definitely brazenly, by having a brass band march into the city.) 

- Needless to be said: Of course I don’t write any of the above as flattery for Hitler. It’s important to understand what combined set of traits helped the man take over the most powerful and developed chunk of the world. 

-What would the world look like today if Hitler didn’t make his back-breaking mistakes? What if he destroyed the 300,000+ Allied forces at Dunkirk (which he could have easily managed)? What if he maintained neutrality with Russia? Would Britain have eventually fallen? Would the Nazi ownership of Europe been too much for the U.S.? How long would the Third Reich have lasted? Would a Nazified Europe, before the turn of the century 21st Century, have crumbled piecemeal by resistance groups, or would the Nazis have managed to exterminate all dissent? 

- Non-Nazi Europe had far more people, land, and industry than Nazi Germany, but Nazi Germany nevertheless had clear advantages: 1) The Nazis, at first, were fighting a fragmented and uncoordinated collection of armies. The Nazis had a clear goal whereas the other European powers had their own selfish (and consequently self-defeating) interests. For instance, self-interested and shortsighted Poland was eager to snap up land from Czechoslovakia as it was being taken over by Nazis. 2) The German public was almost entirely deceived by its Nazi-controlled mass media. When the Nazis invaded Poland, the German people had been led to believe that Poland had initiated the conflict. 3) The Nazis had “no moral scruples.” 4) “The initiative of the attacker.” 5) And battle-tested confidence in themselves while the rest of Europe was still sharpening their bayonets. 

- Hilter’s gifts were rendered useless by his flaws. (His moral flaws, amazingly, did nothing to set him back, as he retained support from the German public and the great bulk of his army to the end.) But he was megalomaniacal: he bit off more than he could chew, he didn’t know how to strategically retreat; he underestimated his enemies (once they got their act together); and he eventually would come to dwell in a fantasy world, where facts no longer mattered (such as with the size of the mighty Russian Army advancing toward his shivering, ill-equipped troops). Attacking with full force, and placing his highest hopes and complete trust in the German troops, was a strategy that worked for the first couple of years, but he failed to recognize or adapt when it stopped working. He was a rageaholic—opinions contrary to his own were angrily dismissed; his ill-timed adventures in Yugoslavia were carried out because of a grudge; and he simply wasn’t a good listener. He yelled and ranted too much. 

- How could I read this book in 2020 and not think of Trump? I don’t think the comparison is entirely fair, but first the similarities: 1) Trump, too, is a heinous liar who will use propaganda to energize an aggrieved base. 2) Trump, in his wildest fantasies, might very well aspire to control the media, courts, and Congress (and his instincts seem entirely authoritarian), with which he could assume absolute power. 3) I believe a significant chunk of Trump’s base would be loyal to Trump up to and beyond the creation of death camps. 4) Trump is ultimately amoral and feels no shame for his misdeeds. 5) Trump demonizes the “other,” threatens to jail his opponents, incites domestic violence, discredits the media, and tries to create new realities from brazen falsehoods. 6) Trump campaigns on populism and rules like a plutocrat. 


1) Trump isn’t as smart as Hitler. Apart from his genius as a conman (and that isn’t an insignificant type of genius), he does not have Hitler’s knowledge of history and geopolitics. Trump can’t read the minds of other world leaders, and he is without talents for long-term-thinking. 

2) Trump has no grand vision beyond massaging his ego, burnishing his brand, and increasing his wealth and popularity. Hitler envisioned a Third Reich of a 1,000 years. Trump has a wall with a lot of holes in it. 

3) Trump isn't as evil or as ideological as Hitler. Trump is almost certainly racist, but he hasn't done anything to suggest that he wants to annihilate a whole ethnicity. 

4) The Nazi rise to power was swift, and it had a lot of momentum early on. The Nazis went from a few political victories to taking over the media, government, courts, police, and eventually military. Trump’s allies are comparatively paltry and he has not built up any momentum since he took office. Apart from Fox News, the mainstream media treats him fairly (and by fairly I mean they report on his nonsense competently). Even though Trump breezily dismisses “disloyal” government servants, it appears the intelligence services and military distrust him. And even though he's filling the courts with conservative justices, the right-leaning Supreme Court has just in the past few weeks ruled in ways unfriendly to the rightwing. Trump has nearly complete control of the Republican Party, but there are a few defectors within the party, which would have been unthinkable in Nazi Germany. 

-In closing, the U.S. is nowhere near where Germany was in the early 1930’s. Trump’s always-weak popularity continues to wane. People are marching in the streets, calling for equality and justice. The various strands of the Democratic Party have tied themselves to Biden (apart from a handful of history-disinclined Bernie Bros and Jill Stein supporters). And Trump in November will be kicked out of office (and perhaps even nudged into prison). The American experiment continues to reform itself, haltingly, and move forward, slowly.


Anonymous said...

What strands of the Democratic Party are "history-disinclined Bernie Bros"?

Ken said...

Anon--The 26% of Bernie supporters who didn't vote for Clinton in the presidential election in 2016. And the 12% of Bernie supporters who voted for Trump.


Anonymous said...

So he still gets the blame for the party running an abysmal, out-of-touch candidate in 2016 against one of the most popular people in the world?

I still don't understand what is meant by "historically-disinclined". As someone who has supported Sanders but voted for Hillary, I'm confused by the derision at Sanders supporters by people who are still with her.

Anonymous said...

You post about the benefits of socialism in the UK but you deride Bernie Sanders. I'm confused by the inconsistency. Hillary would've ridden the middle with more political aplomb than Trump, maintained a solid foreign policy, and not ruffled the feathers of everyone with a modicum of political sense in this country, but she wouldn't have done anything to bring this country out of the capitalist nightmare we're stuck in. Biden legitimately might win and right the ship a little, but again, very likely nothing to help with the wealth or income inequality.

Ken said...

Anon--Who's blaming Sanders? I like Sanders and I'm on board with basically all of his proposals. I think he wasn't treated fairly during the primary. My beef is not with him. I'm blaming the 26% of Sanders voters who failed to vote, and the 12% who voted for what any functioning and vaguely informed human could see was an incompetent charlatan. It's not just that they didn't vote for Clinton. They also maligned her and spread falsehoods on social media. Most everyone has anecdotal evidence of this, including me. I have a few Bernie bro FB friends, and I never quite understand why they hated Clinton as vociferously as they did. I'm no Clinton fanboy, but to me the choice was obvious: I'd take a competent if unexciting career politician over a falsehood-spreading fascist any election.

Historically-disinclined is my clunky term for people who don't have a good understanding of history. If the Bernie Bros did (and I'm just talking about the 26% here), they'd know to put their purist ideals to the side (as you and I did) and unite behind the non-fascist candidate. Trump was and is an existential threat to democracy, and I have nothing but scorn for the people who aided or abetted his rise to power, or absented themselves from it.

One more thing: I think it's too easy to call Clinton an "abysmal, out-of-touch candidate." Again, I'm no Clinton fanboy, but I think she's laregly perceived as abysmal and out of touch and corrupt because of decades of Republican propaganda. She would have been a good president, and this abysmal candidate won the popular vote by 3 million, anyhow.

Ken said...

Anon (referring to 1:51PM comment)--This is the second time you've mentioned I've put down Sanders, which I've never done. I like basically all of Sanders's proposals.

Candidates like Obama/Hilary/Biden are center-left incrementalists, who will work with the system to make positive and progressive incremental change. They deliver policies based on the mood of the country and the ideological composition of Congress. Obama could well have delivered a public option in the ACA, but the political will in Congress was not there. And after Republicans dominated Congress halfway through his first term, any progressive agenda he may have had was stifled. Sanders, if he'd won in 2016, would have been similarly ineffective. FDR's New Deal wasn't the work of one man--he had huge majorities in Congress, a desperate public, and all the political capital a president could ask for. I desire radical Sanders and FDR-like change, but given basic political realities it seems more than sensible to support candidates who will nominate progressive judges, push the ACA forward, as well as other progressive goals.

Anonymous said...

You bring up some good points, Ken. I apologize for coming off as dismissive, accusatory, or vague. I guess I was inferring you're derision of Sanders because of the "Bernie Bros" comment. I knew a few Bernie supporters in 2016 who were adamant Warren supporters this year and almost anti-Bernie just because they blamed "Bernie Bros" for 2016 and called Bernie's programs unrealistic. The Democratic Party is such a hodgepodge of inconsistency when it comes to policy. I'm hopeful Biden wins and lives, as I think Harris would definitely be a one term president if she has to step up.

Anyway, you're absolutely right about judges. This new SC justice could seriously keep any progressive changes off the table for decades if the court has more changes that coincide with Republican administrations.

Anonymous said...

I got to thinking more about incrementalism. It gives more time for the better organized Republican Party and their competent ability to apply the strategy of their political project to the three branches and the states. Obviously, the courts should be of utmost importance to both parties, but Republicans seem to really take it seriously, while Democrats and their liberal supporters are more concerned with the style in which they lose. The liberal aesthetic of slowly making changes through the Democratic Party which is in itself a party dedicated to protecting capitalism isn't really working. Climate change is an enormous elephant in the room and while regulators have made tremendous efforts to curb the use of fossil fuels, utilities are working through the states to write favorable legislation. The Democrats don't understand or care about the urgency of real issues, and liberals in general are more concerned with the aesthetic of polite politics than truly challenging paradigms. I think it's more likely that Republicans have their way with doing away with Social Security than we get universal healthcare simply because Democrats aren't brazen enough to make changes or stand up the Republicans.