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Book Review: The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

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In The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers, on sale in early October, a historian tracks the rise and fall of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany. Unfortunately, this massive volume lacks philosophical perspective. It’s as though war and history professor and author Childers, who recently retired from University of Pennsylvania and has researched his topic, is overwhelmed by the scope, impairing his ability to select the subject’s essentials for a cohesive theme. But, while this massive book, with maps, notes, photographs and an index, is overstuffed with information and certain assertions, it is also packed with history.

In The Third Reich, Childers starts with compelling prose, tracing young Adolf Hitler’s rise from activist community organizer to the raging racist-nationalist-socialist who would become Germany’s dictator. The Third Reich includes the familiar catalysts such as the Versailles Treaty. Childers accounts for how Hitler organized the Nazi party. From the failed Munich putsch in 1923 to Hitler becoming chancellor in 1933, the reader gets what amounts to a condensed biography and facts about World War 2 in Europe and the systematic mass murder of six million Jews in what became known as the Holocaust.

Using German documents rarely used by previous historians, The Third Reich strives to be as comprehensive and accessible as William Shirer’s epic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. With more dates, names and events than demonstrated links, contextualization and examined causes, however, The Third Reich is at best an additional volume in one’s library of books about Nazi Germany. Like The History of the Holocaust and other scholarly Nazi-themed non-fiction, it is useful especially as a reference.

Childers tells compelling stories throughout the book, such as Hitler’s response in 1908 when an arts school rejected his drawings for a second time: “The whole academy ought to be blown up,” Hitler said. As most readers probably know, he neither smoked nor drank. He rarely ate meat. Adolf Hitler, the author writes, appreciated Puccini and Verdi. But he was “utterly enthralled” by Wagner’s operas.

Spurned by intellectuals and sponsored by society matrons taken with his charisma, Adolf Hitler crafted his persona. Hearing him speak in Munich, one observer gave what Childers reports was a common response: “I do not know how to describe the emotions that swept over me as I listened to this man…the gospel he preached a sacred truth. He seemed another [Martin] Luther…his magnetism was holding these thousands as one…I experienced an exaltation that could be likened only to religious conversion.”

As he perfected his oratory appeal, Hitler also grasped the ease with which pictures can comfort the masses. Childers writes that

a black swastika emblazoned in the center of a stark white circle on a background of bright red was the design Hitler hit upon. The red, he reasoned, would appeal to workers, while the combination of black, white, and red, [Germany’s] old imperial colors, would reassure nationalists and others on the right. The [National Socialist] party also adopted a handful of short pithy slogans—”the common good before the individual good” (Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigenutz)…”

In stump speeches, pamphlets (and later in Mein Kampf), Hitler called for nationalization of trusts, enactment of cooperatives, profit-sharing, the “breaking of interest slavery” (“whatever that means,” Childers writes), German socialism, a classless, people’s community and the ennoblement of the German worker. All of this only makes Childers’ insistence that the Nazis were right-wing, even placed far to the extreme right on a chart at the book’s beginning, in case you miss his points, more bizarre. Childers writes that Nazis, sounding like socialist American Sen. Bernie Sanders, blamed “kings of finance”, “International bank and stock-market capital” and Jews for Germany’s ills.

With the New York Times proving to be as wrong and unreliable then as it is now, reporting after the Nazis’ 1924 electoral loss that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man” who “was no longer to be feared”, the Times forecast that Hitler would “retire to private life and return to Austria.”

But the Nazis pressed on, making their case to the German people. One Nazi explained in 1925 that “We want in place of an exploitative capitalist economic system a real socialism, maintained not by a soulless Jewish-materialist outlook but by the believing, sacrificial, and unselfish old German community sentiment, community purpose and community feeling. We want the social revolution in order to bring about the national revolution.” So, despite the author’s thesis, it is impossible not to notice that the Nazi philosophy resembles the collectivist anti-capitalism of America’s New Left.

It is equally impossible not to notice in this laborious account the Nazi parallels to the nation’s solid, currently 30 percent-ish, core of heel-clicking support for America’s new president, Donald Trump. For example, one of the men who would become one of Germany’s top Nazis appraises the rising Nazi leader, gushing that Hitler is

a mixture of collectivism and individualism. Land to the people. Corporations, trusts, finished goods, transportation, etc. socialized…Hitler has thought everything through [and]…always sees the big picture.”

The man making this observation became the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels.

Propaganda is crucial to the rise of the Nazis in Germany, Childers asserts. “[H]ere Hitler had quite specific ideas. Propaganda, he argued, ‘must be aimed at the emotions and only to a very limited degree at the so-called intellect.” Hitler regarded Germans as “feminine by nature”. By feminine, he meant prone to persuasion by emotion more than reason. This doesn’t mean he didn’t have diversity in Nazi ranks. Inspired by Communist cells, according to Childers, who again refuses to reconcile this with his conclusion that Nazis are spawned strictly from the right, not the left, the Nazis sought to broaden propaganda by enlisting women to serve in one third of the cells.

The primary Nazi propaganda model was the public mass meeting, which started with a major speech and resulting discussion, continuing with recruitment and climaxing in “catcalls, insults, threats, and finally bottle-throwing melees” as part of the fun, which was part of the Nazis’ goal to present a “rough form of entertainment.”

Does any of this sound eerily familiar?

If it does, the Nazi means achieved familiar ends, culminating — like Trump’s 2016 election as president of the United States — in “stunning” electoral totals in leftist strongholds, such as Saxony, echoing the Obama voter’s switch to Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that stunned pundits last November. A Nazi newspaper established in 1927 printed attacks on “the bosses of capitalism” which were, in the author’s words, indistinguishable from anti-capitalist attacks by Communists. Reminding readers of Communist Korea’s threat to launch a 9/11 type attack on U.S. movie theaters when the Obama administration refused to defend Sony Pictures and its targeted film The Interview, Nazi stormtroopers attacked a movie theater in 1930 for showing All Quiet on the Western Front, rampaging through the Berlin theater, releasing stink bombs and mice and assaulting anyone they suspected of being Jewish. The film, like The Interview, was withdrawn from distribution. The 1930 Nazis, like the 21st century Communists, were emboldened.

Titling a chapter “Making Germany Great Again”, Childers makes a partially warranted reference to Trump’s (and, before Trump, Reagan’s 1980) campaign slogan. After all, aside from policy parallels, the name Hitler, like the name Trump, conveyed a one-word strongman sensibility during the campaign. Hitler, Germany’s first politician to campaign by airplane, uniquely used modern means, like Trump using Twitter, to spread his message. And, as did Trump, at “each stop on Hitler’s speaking tour, they peddled photographs of Hitler, Goebbels, Strasser and other top party leaders; they hawked swastika-crested pens, scarves, pendants, bookmarks, and copies of Mein Kampf.”

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The Third Reich is too focused on Nazi politics and not enough on Nazi philosophy, leaving Childers’ assertion that the Nazis “were charting a radically new course” largely unsubstantiated as the reader wonders: toward what? Why? New as against what previously accepted ideas? He tracks details without supplying reasons (for those, and for an essential and proper philosophical grasp of Nazi Germany, the definitive source is Leonard Peikoff’s penetrating 1982 analysis, The Ominous Parallels).

Childers does get at the core of the Nazi philosophy, if circuitously, in the book’s second half, beginning with his chapter, “The People’s Community” (again, glaringly ignoring any parallels to Hillary Clinton‘s and Barack Obama‘s community organizer-Saul Alinsky influenced mentality). He begins the section with an exposition on the Nazis’ requisite faith in the state, the collective and the race. Goebbels, who’d previously been quoted as admiringly cast under Hitler’s spell for what he (wrongly) ascribed to individualism was by 1933 actively putting such ideals in their place. The Nazi propaganda minister rails to an audience of artists:

Individualism will be conquered and in place of the individual and its deification, the Volk [people] will emerge. The Volk stands in the center of all things. The [Nazi] revolution is conquering the Volk and public life, imprinting its stamp on culture, economy, politics and private life. It would be naive to believe that art could remain exempt from this.”

By the end of this chapter, Thomas Childers finally starts offering a fuller account of what the rise of National Socialism means in theory and in practice:

By mid-1934 it was obvious to all that this was no ordinary authoritarian dictatorship but a regime with totalitarian aspirations, a regime that sought to dominate not only the individual’s public behavior, but his private life, his thoughts…[wiping out] the distinction between public and private life. ‘The revolution that we have made is a total revolution,’ Goebbels stated in November 1933. ‘It encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up….It has completely altered relations between individuals and utterly transformed the relationship between the individual and the state.’ The Nazi goal was to ‘replace individuality with collective racial consciousness and the individual with the community.’ In the Third Reich, Goebbels bluntly proclaimed, there would ‘no longer [be] any free realms in which the individual belongs to himself…the time for personal happiness is over.”

Not that Nazi Germany, foreshadowing Obama, Trump and Black Lives Matter, didn’t have what most intellectuals today would call an upside. Hitler was a health and nature enthusiast and, while Childers plays down the Nazi belief that nature has intrinsic value, he notes that Nazi scientists declared a war on cancer, studying the link between diet and cancer and “endorsing the consumption of fresh, organically grown vegetables and whole wheat bread”. Nazi medical scientists were the world’s first to establish the link between tobacco and cancer. The Nazi gains are depicted too, for those who favor state-sponsored roads and infrastructure, with Adolf Hitler breaking ground on the German autobahn.

That these supposed gains came under compulsion comes through if not in explicit terms, with doctors being forced by the state to no longer tend to the individual … but to the Volk. “There was no higher moral obligation,” Childers writes, echoing the morality of Obama, McCain, Bush, Clinton, Trump and almost every leading government authority in the West. This duty of the individual to serve the state, the race or collective provides the perfect transition to the Reich Flag Law or the Reich Citizenship Law stripping Jews of German citizenship, rendering Jews as alien “subjects” in their own country.

Accordingly, Jews were choked from their productiveness, banned from practicing medicine, law and dentistry and numerous other work and professions, prohibited by law from distributing stamps. Childers follows with descriptions of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when Nazis smashed Jews’ glass windows, crystal and mirrors and then forced them to pay for the damages. Then comes the “Aryanization”, the “Jew tax” and the death and concentration camps, a horror which is fully detailed, except for any mention of the historic revolt by Jews imprisoned at Sobibor. As always for this reader and student of history, these stories are both gripping and horrifying.

Thomas Childers offers good insights on key, isolated parts of Nazi Germany’s history, such as the 1936 Berlin Olympics and American athlete Jesse Owens. In a brief section, Childers describes the Nazi conspiracy to cover up from visitors Nazi plans, laws and atrocities during the Olympics. But he also concludes in one of the few value judgments that the Olympics provided a triumph for Hitler and the Nazis, putting Jesse Owens’ celebrated victory as an American Negro in Berlin in its proper context. Other interesting tales, though they are short bits, include the stories of the Christian White Rose movement, with its heroine Sophie Scholl, who with her brother and comrades opposed the Nazis, and the Valkyrie conspiracy to assassinate Hitler (both depicted in decent movies) in which the assassination conspirators were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks in slow executions that Hitler ordered to be filmed. The related story of Erwin Rommel’s suicide is included, too.

Hitler’s own cowardly suicide is recounted in detail, with Childers concluding by quoting Nazi architect Albert Speer, who remarked that the dictator had “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth.”

Hitler as basically anti-reality and anti-reason comes through in an evaluation by one of his field marshals, who observed that “Will, his Will, Hitler believed, ‘had only to be translated into faith down to the youngest private soldier for the correctness of his decisions to be confirmed and the success of his order ensured…[leaving Hitler, the field marshal concludes] impervious to reason [and leading Hitler] to think that his own will can operate even beyond the limits of hard reality.”

That Hitler’s delusional power-lust, combined with his insatiable desire to serve in duty to the race, tribe and state, could result in diabolically coordinated mass death is likely to be puzzling or inexplicable to the typical American reader. The mass murder of Jews known as the Holocaust is wrongly, tragically known as a causeless horror rather than as the ultimate application of an evil philosophy. “The dead stand like basalt pillars…” one conscripted Jew who survived wrote about the routine of cleaning up after a mass murder, “and even in death one can tell which are the families. They are holding hands in death and it is difficult to tear them apart in order to empty the [gas] chambers for the next batch.”

So, the author’s gravest error is in ending his lengthy and extensive book on Nazi Germany with the term (“moral imperative”) created by the philosophical father of the Nazi German state, Immanuel Kant, whose name is inexcusably absent in The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Can one write Nazi Germany’s history without naming and addressing the ideas that made it possible?

Not in terms of fundamentals (and, again, for a history of the Nazis in terms of essentials, read Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels). But it’s not as though a compilation of facts about one of the world’s most monstrous regimes is often published in today’s culture of memes, blurbs, Tweets, jabs and pics. Thomas Childers has devoted his career to studying war and Germany and there is value in his The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. He notes that SS chief Heinrich Himmler told a gathering of SS men in 1943 — on the mass murder of millions of Jews: “This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written.” Though it lacks context and what I think are clear and evident causal connections, Thomas Childers proves Himmler and the Nazis wrong as he adds to the written histories of an evil that civilized man should learn, know and never forget.