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. 

But: 

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.

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