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The best thing that happens in this very long book is that Hitler kills himself. It comes at the end, in late April 1945. By this time the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, had retaken France and were advancing into Germany from the West. The Russian army was closing in on Berlin from the East, and the leader of the Third Reich was holed up in an underground bunker with military personnel, some aides, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife and their six young children, and a few other hangers-on, including a female companion, Eva Braun, whose secret relationship with the Fuehrer had been kept from the public all this time.
With his regular army disintegrating by the day, the deranged murderous lunatic at the center of it all was ordering old men, and even boys as young as 10 years old, to fight. Some of this insanity is depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “Jojo Rabbit,” which is in current release and is presented as a comedy even though the story is anything but funny. Hitler was cruel and evil, and he was also crazy. In the end he was telling his people that he was about to unleash secret weapons (not a nuclear bomb but rather jet fighters and rockets) that would alter the course of the war — which, by this time, he was losing decisively. Hitler had also been consulting his horoscope, which told of a big sign coming that would signal a change in the course of the war. Even when the “sign” materialized (FDR’s death), it did not change things. The war in Europe was about to end with the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, this did not come before 50 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Among the dead were 6 million Jews, who had been murdered by racist thugs as part of an intricately planned, systematic effort at genocide.
Hitler died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and his wife died of cyanide poisoning when she bit down on a glass capsule. Their bodies were then placed outside in a bomb crater and, as per Hitler’s instructions, doused with gasoline and burned. They had been married just a day before, in a late-night ceremony in which both bride and groom had to vow in accordance with German law that they were each of pure Aryan blood. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and then themselves. Others in the bunker either committed suicide or fled. This is depicted in the 2004 movie “Downfall,” in German with English subtitles. The German military officially surrendered a week later.
“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, is a book I had been long meaning to read, but it’s length — more than 1,200 pages including notes and bibliography — and dark subject matter had held me back. The picture of the book shown here is a hi-res scan of my hard copy. I chose to cover the Nazi emblem on the jacket and spine with black masking tape. It was originally published in 1960. This is a 30th anniversary edition published in 1990. The author was a broadcast journalist who was in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power and who witnessed many of the events firsthand. He also drew upon the vast amount of Nazi government documents that were recovered after the war, testimony of witnesses and defendants at the Nuremburg trials that followed, as well as personal interviews.
I picked up this book now because it fits in well with the World War II-era presidents I am currently reading biographies of. I wanted to learn more about the war and about Hitler, especially where he came from and how he came to power. It was not pleasant to read this book, which describes what is arguably the darkest chapter in all of human history.
For today’s book report I’ll summarize some of the key points of what I learned, but first, some terminology. Reich means realm or empire. The Third Reich was Nazi Germany, which lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from the Middle Ages until the rise of Napoleon in the early 19th century. The Second Reich was better known as the German Empire, which existed from the 1870s until the end of World War I. During both eras there were various emperors (Kaisers) including the last one, Wilhelm II, who had to abdicate at the end of World War I. The Weimar Republic followed World War I and was the constitutional system of representational government established in Germany, with free elections, which sadly only lasted for about 15 years, until Hitler and his Nazi party came to power.
The Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or National Socialist party, which is a misnomer because the Nazis were not socialists. Rather, the party was based on militant nationalism, expansionism, totalitarianism and overt racism. Fuehrer, which is what they called Hitler, is German for leader. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. The Wehrmacht was the German armed forces, including the army, navy and air force. U-boats were German submarines, as depicted in the 1981 film “Das Boot,” in German with English subtitles. Blitzkrieg meant lightning war, which involved using tanks to overwhelm armies in quick, overwhelming attacks. Lebensraum meant living space, which is what Hitler wanted more of for the German people, but only those belonging to the Aryan race, which he considered superior to all others.
Hitler laid out his plans in “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle.” According to Hitler and his stupid book, the master race was entitled to expand eastward, take over the land and kill or enslave the inferior races. That was his evil plan from the beginning.
Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was very young his family moved to Germany, when it was still the German Empire or Second Reich as mentioned above, and then back to Austria. His father was a civil servant and he wanted his son to follow in that career path, but Hitler wanted to become a painter. After dropping out of high school Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to art school, but he was turned away for lack of talent. Vienna at the time was one of the most beautiful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but for the next several years Hitler lived in squalor and might have been homeless for a time. He started reading racist literature that helped solidify his hatred for Jews.
In 1913, according to the book, Hitler moved to Munich, to avoid military service in Austria because he did not want to serve alongside Jews and others whom he considered undesirable. He was still an unemployed loser when war broke out a year later, and despite not being a German citizen he managed to get permission to join the Bavarian army. He fought bravely and received the Iron Cross. He attained the rank of Corporal. He was wounded twice, first by being shot in the leg and the second time by a gas attack that left him temporarily blind. It was during his convalescence in the hospital that Germany surrendered, thus ending World War I. According to the book, Hitler cried over this like a baby and later started to blame the “November criminals” for their “stab in the back.” According to this ugly conspiracy theory, which took hold, it was Jewish bankers and others pulling strings behind the scenes which led to Germany’s premature and unnecessary surrender in the war. In truth the German military had been soundly defeated.
The Treaty of Versailles came about after World War I and required Germany to pay reparations and severely limited its ability to build up a military force. It also required Germany to cede territory. To most Germans, these measures were humiliating. Even worse, two rounds of economic hardship ensued. First, there was a period of runaway inflation in the early 1920s that left many people financially destitute. Then, when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929 it set off not only an American depression but a global one, causing massive unemployment throughout Europe and especially in Germany. These were ripe conditions for fringe political parties to take root.
After the war Hitler returned to Munich and got involved with one of these radical organizations, which was a precursor to the Nazi Party, which Hitler took control of. With his hateful, angry rhetoric, Hitler made many speeches and attracted a following. In 1923 he and his followers attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in a coup, which became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolt was unsuccessful, resulting in violence in which police killed several of the co-conspirators. Hitler survived the confrontation and ran away, only to be arrested later. During his subsequent trail, Hitler caused a spectacle in the courtroom with his angry outbursts, which only increased his fame and notoriety. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but he was released after about a year.
While he was incarcerated Hitler began working on “Mein Kampf.” He also reflected on his unsuccessful coup, realizing that if he was to overthrow the government he needed something to replace it with. He also concluded that to come to power he would have to do so through constitutional means, and by infiltrating existing institutions. He and his fellow Nazis divided up the country into districts and appointed regional and local leaders to act as a de-facto shadow government. They also started running candidates for office. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they established a quasi-military police force, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as the Brownshirts) which were basically a bunch of street thugs who used violence and intimidation to bully their political opponents. In federal elections in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932, Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, the German legislature, but they never attained a majority. But by 1932 they had more seats than any other party. Also in 1932 Hitler ran for president but lost to Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, who was a war hero. The way it worked is that the President appointed the Chancellor, who would form a government. But it was difficult to form a government with so many political parties vying for power. In the midst of all this political chaos, in 1933, Hindenburg, who by this time was a very old man and close to death, named Hitler Chancellor.
Shortly thereafter there was a fire in the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. In the ensuing confusion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree giving him emergency powers. The legislature subsequently passed an Enabling Act, officially ceding their power to Hitler. Then a year later Hindenburg died, and rather than calling for new elections Hitler proclaimed himself Supreme Leader and Chancellor, in essence dictator for life. With his new power Hitler outlawed all the rival political parties and had their leaders jailed, shot or sent away to concentration camps. At first the concentration camps were not death camps. That came later. Hitler also outlawed unions and silenced academics and clergy who dared to speak out against him. He also took control of the press. He basically created a police state. Hitler enacted a number of laws targeting Jews, who were forbidden to work at universities or at various other jobs. Many fled or were deported. In November 1938 it got even worse when Jewish schools, synagogues, private homes and businesses were destroyed in a single night of terror, what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.
Hitler was also preparing for war. When he set forth his crazy ideas to the generals, many knew immediately that this would ultimately lead to complete ruin for Germany. But those who dared raise objections were fired, killed or otherwise eliminated by Hitler, one by one. And in disobedience of the Versailles Treaty, first secretly and then openly, Hitler began a campaign to build up the German military, with more ships, tanks and warplanes. This caused unemployment to fall, but wages were low and it was difficult if not impossible for workers to change jobs or seek better working conditions.
Also in violation of Versailles, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been occupied by France, but nobody stopped him. This was in 1936. According to the book, this was the riskiest move Hitler had yet made and had the French stopped him, his whole house of cards would have fallen right then and there. But Hitler had sensed that the World War I allies were wary of armed conflict and would let him get away with quite a lot. He was correct. Hitler next turned his sights on Austria, where many citizens were of German heritage. In March 1938, in what became known as the Anschluss, Hitler annexed Austria. He marched his armies right in and took over, without firing a shot. This is the backdrop of the events depicted in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music.” In the film’s best scene, Captain Von Trapp tears down a Nazi flag and rips it in half. And of course at the end of the movie, rather than accepting a commission in the German Navy, he and Maria lead their family to safety over the Alps into Switzerland.
Next Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, specifically the Sudetenland, or border regions, again where many citizens of German heritage lived. In a policy that became known as appeasement, the allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland with a promise that he would stop there. Of course he was lying. Hitler was constantly lying. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made three separate trips to Germany and after the third visit, which took place in Munich in September 1938, he met personally with Hitler and when he returned home he waved the paper and was hailed as a hero for securing the peace.
Shortly thereafter Hitler took not only the Sudetenland but the interior of Czechoslovakia as well, and then he made a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and agreed that Germany and the USSR would divide Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this time King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) addressed his nation, the back story of which is depicted in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.
But neither England nor France was on a war footing. France was especially ill equipped. The German army conquered Poland in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile Britain sent troops to the continent, but the leaders of Britain and France had trouble communicating with each other and failed to put up much of a fight at all. Germany was able to run roughshod over not only Poland but many more countries as well, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The German army also invaded France, which fell in about a week. Hitler then went on a victory procession down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Soon the entire British army became trapped and surrounded on the northern coast of France. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Great Britain, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated home across the English Channel. For more on this miraculous escape, watch the 2017 movies “Dunkirk,” which is violent, and “Darkest Hour,” which is inspirational and ends on a hopeful note.
Hitler’s next plan was to persuade Britain to surrender. He had plans to invade, but first he decided to attack from the air. In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe bombed London, which was defended by the Royal Air Force. It was a ferocious conflict that went on for months, but ultimately the British fighter pilots prevailed. During this time Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the British people that held up morale. King George VI decided to stay in London with his family rather than flee to Canada, which also helped reassure the British people.
After being frustrated by England, Hitler next decided to invade the Soviet Union! (Had he read my book report on Napoleon, he would have known what a bad idea that would turn out to be!) In “Operation Barbarossa,” the German army advanced all the way to Moscow and then got trapped in the cold, brutal winter. They were also held back in Stalingrad. Rather than allow his army to strategically retreat, Hitler ordered his generals to stay and fight to the death. Then, frustrated with his generals, Hitler fired his military chief of staff and rather than replace him, he decided to take over personally. Think about how ridiculous this is. Here is someone whose highest rank to date had been Corporal, and now he thinks he knows better than all his generals.
But it was about to get even worse for the murderous lunatic. About the same time Hitler was losing battles in the Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, the United States was bombed in Hawaii. Our country then declared war on Japan. And days later Hitler declared war on the Americans, in accordance with a deal he had just made with the Japanese. The United States first got involved in the Middle East and Africa, then Italy, and finally, in June 1944, under the command of General Eisenhower, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada invaded France in what became known as D-Day. This is the part of the war depicted in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”
It would take almost another year for the Allies to finally defeat Germany, and sadly the end of the Third Reich did not come fast enough. Beginning with the invasion of Poland and later with the invasion of Russia, the Nazis escalated their genocidal plans against the Jewish people. At first many Jews were rounded up and shot, others were confined to urban ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. Much of this is depicted in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” This was all a calculated Nazi plan to literally kill all the Jews in Europe. Starting in 1942, in what they called the “Final Solution,” the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps to be murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were burned. In addition to Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals were also killed, but most of the victims were Jews. At Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered. There’s an exhibit to this horror currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York City.
Here are a few more notes about Hitler:
- He was a vegetarian!
- He was a fan of classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
- His family name was Shicklgruber, which would have been Hitler’s own last name except his father, who was of illegitimate birth, had the name changed.
- He did not become a German citizen until 1932.
- Before Hitler rose to power he had a relationship with a cousin, who died of a gunshot wound. She might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide.
- He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and several others.
- Hitler designed the Nazi flag himself, with the black swastika in the center of a white disk on a red background. This became the flag of Germany from 1935 to 1945 and was used during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and was on the famous Hindenburg blimp, which went down in flames over New Jersey in 1937.
- Before the swastika was stolen by Hitler as a symbol of hate, the icon was used in many different cultures throughout history, including in Asia and even among some American Indian tribes.
- The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power at the same time as Hitler, and their fates are intertwined in many ways. Italy and Germany were Axis allies during World War II, along with Japan. Mussolini was deposed in 1943, only to be rescued later by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Mussolini was executed by firing squad by his fellow Italians, and his body was hung upside down and defiled. This might have been a reason Hitler wanted his own body to be burned.
- As part of his plan to seize power, Hitler had the leaders of the SA killed in what become known as the “Blood Purge,” also called the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler did this to prevent trouble with the regular German military.
- The SS (Schutzstaffel) was originally part of the SA but it continued under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the most evil of all Nazis. The SS under Himmler ran the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust.
There is much more in the book, including many passages about the many plots to arrest or kill Hitler over the years. The most famous of the plots was depicted in the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The book also has lots on diplomacy, especially leading up to the war, and it is quite detailed in that regard, often describing the frantic meetings on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Yet as long as the book is, and as much information it contains, it barely scratches the surface of the horrors unleashed on this world by Hitler.