At the time of writing, this is the longest book I’ve ever read: ~1250 pages on the physical copy, and ~62 hours on audiobook (I used a combination of both to complete the title). Written by William Shirer an American war journalist who was in personally in attendance to many of the events in the book.
You don’t need to read this book to know the Nazi’s were terrible for humanity. However, history has a tendency to reduce the past into oversimplified narratives. This is a disservice to anyone who wants to really understand what really happened, there is a lot history to unpack and “Hitler was evil” is not a thorough understanding of the topic. Nuance and context are both things that I value highly, especially in today’s headline-driven world.
My interest in this topic piqued specifically after the 2016 elections. I don’t intend to write a political post, but this is the origin of why I read this book. I heard too many people on left making reference of Trump to Hitler. I also heard the crazy righties saying Trump is nothing like Hitler. My opinion is that hardly anything in life is black and white, it’s always shades of grey, and too few people were discussing shades of grey. I recognized that most people’s historical understanding of these events was extremely light, so read a few books on the topic. I have no motive or position here, I just wanted to learn more about the topic to prevent from getting caught up in the sensational political drama.
I knew that the future was not going to be exactly like the past, but could it be similar?
HISTORY DOESN’T REPEAT, BUT IT RHYMES
We live in the age of the 24 noise cycle, endless propaganda, and people’s fervent desire to share with you their uninformed opinions. For these reasons, I have become determined to learn deeply about the topics others only read headlines about. Also, you should never trust journalists so if you want clear info it’s pretty much has to come from books. I despise getting information from someone who either A. has an agenda, or B. doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about, and yet will tell you their opinion as fact with blind confidence. I’m not writing this to take a political stance on current events the following article is just some things I learned from a truly amazing book.
WW2 was about power first
While growing up, here is what I always thought: Hitler hated the Jews, he started the war to cleanse the world of Jews, and America came in as the purveyor of peace and virtue to put an end to that for good. That’s not why the war was started though, and sorry to say America was not as much of the savior we tell ourselves in each other in school. Hitler certainly hated the Jews and proud of his anti-semitism but that wasn’t the motivation for the war. The main motive that drove Hitler was egomania, and an (unhealthy) love for country. This is why he got away with so much, because it’s hard to condemn someone for what they can call patriotism.
He spoke with conviction like no one else I have ever heard speak, through his writings and oration it can be felt with potent force. His goal was to rule Germany and bring his country towards total European domination. He believed him and his people were entitled to this future.
Some backstory, after WW1 the Germans were forced to sign the Versailles peace treaty, since they started WW1 as well. They were not allowed to participate in the peace negotiations and the final outcome was a severe detriment to the morale and economy of the German people. They were made to take full responsibility for the war, they had to pay reparations to neighboring countries, and their military was crippled. Many Germans resented this as they thought it went way too far and was unfair to Germany. Adolf Hitler was particularly upset and vowed to rebuild the country, and then vengeance against the world.
Anti-semitism was at the forefront of the Nazi regime, and they did increasingly horrible things to the Jews along the way, but it wasn’t the pillar of the Nazi agenda. Hitler initially used anti-semitism to stir up the German population and worked better than you would hope. The uncomfortable fact is that anti-semitism at the time was not so unpopular at the time in. Here in America, there was antisemitism too, more than I had realized. One particular example is our famous Henry Ford. He helped propagandize the American people by publishing “The International Jew: The World’s Problem”, a terrible set of antisemitic news articles he disseminates through his personally owned newspaper. (Never trust a journalist!) As the Nazi regime progressed from a fledgling political party trying to consolidate power to having full state control their strategy that started with polarizing propaganda ended with the Holocaust. The camps didn’t start at the beginning though those came closer to 1941 after the invasion of Poland, especially the execution camps. Hitler became the leader of the Nazi’s and wrote Mein Kampf in 1925, even then he still didn’t come into complete power until 1933. This is a 16-year window of events that don’t include death camps but do include a lot of context on what to watch out for in evil leaders.
Hitler’s conviction and an extreme cult of personality convinced the German people that they were entitled to dominate the world. The pro-nazi party loved the taste of power and Hitler was ever the powerful leader. Once the Nazi’s were in majority rule both the party and the people felt empowered to do such evil because they could so easily get away with it. This lust for power was the main driver though, that’s what to be most fearful of.
The state took over everything, including religion
We love to complain in America about political gridlock. While definitely frustrating, it’s the natural byproduct of a democracy where large volumes of differing opinions each get some voice. This makes things move quite slowly. In contrast, Hitler’s ability to consolidate power seemed invincible and his talent to wield that power against his foes was downright terrifying. There was zero gridlock in Nazi Germany, I have to admit this makes me a bit more appreciative that we do have gridlock.
Not only did he have a conviction for his (horrible) ideas, he was also a bulldozer in negotiations. He wouldn’t acquiesce, he wouldn’t bargain, and he wouldn’t back down, ever. In fact, he rarely negotiated at all. Instead, he would go to other leaders and demand he has his way threaten violence if he didn’t get it. Most normal people including political leaders avoid violence for themselves and their people as regularly as possible, so the Nazi leader got his way quite often. He would continue to amass more and more government power until his last days. In 1933 he had taken full control of the government, the means of production, the entire media, all property and infrastructure, and stripped the citizens of their rights. It was absolute dictatorial control.
The Nazi’s took over all the news dissemination in Germany. At the time radio was still fairly new and Hitler was a master at using this new media. His oration skills were undeniable, so he and Joseph Goebbels utilized this combination to no end. The minister of propaganda was a master of using movies and the newspaper to influence the country with mass effect. For these reasons, it’s important never to allow state-run media.
Once in power also managed to take over the religious infrastructure of the country. This was particularly fascinating to me because I’ve been obsessed with learning about religion my entire life.
The church wanted to keep their independent influence in Germany but Hitler was not having that, he wanted full information control from top to bottom. The Nazi’s decided the only way for the church to keep any power was to conform to the new German way of life. They eventually gave in to this demand at which point Christianity along with other religions were effectively banned from the country. Even the bible itself was banned by law and all the churches were to be filled with Adolf Hitler’s’ autobiography “Mein Kampf” (Which I also read before writing this). It was reasoned by the government that this book contained all the moral and ethical guidelines any good German would need.
The state created new rules for religion in the Nazi regime. The full list of 30 rules is posted here, but I’ve copied a few I found particularly egregious here. These are verbatim, and terrifying.
The National Reich Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably and by every means the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.
The National Reich Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests but National Reich orators are to speak in them
The National Reich Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany as well as the publication of Sunday papers, pamphlets, publications and books of a religious nature.
The National Reich Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuhrer’s “Mein Kampf” is the greatest of all documents. It is conscious that this book contains and embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future life of our nation
On the day of its foundation, the Christian cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels within the Reich and its colonies and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol of Germany the “Hakenkreuz” (swastika).
No one in Germany was safe if they weren’t pro-Nazi.
Along their way up the ranks, the Nazi’s used their rhetoric to accuse their opposition parties of treason and claims to overthrow the government. Eventually, they made all other political parties in Germany illegal. They also made any news media illegal other than the one Hitler was in charge of: the Völkischer Beobachter. By 1938, a good bit before the war still, the state controlled all media, all religious institution, and they were the only political party allowed by law.
He could have been stopped so, many, times.
Give an inch, Take a mile
This is by far my biggest lesson from learning about the war and the Nazis. Hitler took over Austria, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, and the entire German state while using hardly any force. For the better part of the Third Reich, he used only intimidation, and the world bent over backwards for him.
Scarier still was his rise in popularity with the German people as these campaigns continued on. In the ’20s, the Nazi’s were considered fringe not taken very seriously but over time he did grow public support. Hitler would eventually take the broken German economy from poverty and hyper inflation to true economic success in a few short years. Even a person who didn’t agree with antisemitism prefers having food on the table and a job to support their family than to poverty. At his best he didn’t have overwhelming support of the Germans, but they have him plenty enough to deploy all his madness.
The failed beer hall putsch
In 1923 Hitler, as the leader of the very small National Socialist party tried and failed to overthrow the German government. They arrested him, took him to trial, and threw him in Jail for 5 years. Seems appropriate right? The problem is that at the time the constitution of the German government said that crimes of high treason, of which he was found guilty at trial, should result in life imprisonment. Instead, because of his popularity with the people, the government didn’t want to take the negative political pressure of giving him this punishment. Hitler was assigned 5 years in prison, and he was given a pardon inside of the first year. He could have been stopped right here if the government had more courage, though certainly they would have in hindsight. While in the ~9 months he spent in prison he wrote “Mein Kampf” and outlined his future plans, ideas, and ambition for total European domination. Then they let him free.
With friends like these…
Hitler took over Austria first in 1938 not through force, but through intimidation. Basically, he mobilized his armies against the border then went to the Chancellor of Austria and said, give me your land or we will go to war and you know your small country can’t defend against us. So Austria went to its allies, France and Britain for help because that’s what friends are for. Chamberlain, the prime minister of Britain at the time didn’t want another war so soon after the last so instead of coming to the aid of Austria he persuaded them to give in to Hitler’s demands. Can you imagine calling your buddy to help you defend against this bully, and when your friend shows up he says “Jeez, I don’t need all this hassle. Just give him what he wants”.
Now, I’m personally always against going to war so I can try and see the value in this approach, but it’s important to note that Britain ended up going to war anyway and it was far more deadly when they did it later. Standing up to bully’s is hard, and we should always do it.
A similar event happened when the Nazi’s took over Checklosovakia, everyone folded their defense and gave in. The German army was not nearly as well equipped at this time as they had postured. If Britain and France mobilized then the Nazi’s would have fallen almost for sure. Instead, their passivism allowed 2 friendly countries to be overtaken and it emboldened Hitler for the rest of his time as leader to take what he wanted, knowing that the Allies avoid war at any cost
Hitler and the Nazi’s are dead and never coming back, but other dictators will rise up and try to consolidate power as long as humans live. As I said from the beginning, History doesn’t repeat but it rhymes. Hitler gained power through the population, not through force, is humanity is any different today than it was 80 years ago?
Hitler was a massive cult of personality, he capitalized on an economy in disarray, he used fear and anger to polarize and divide the people, he used the Jews as a scapegoat for all the country’s problems. None of these things are particularly unique to him, and plenty of dictators have come to power since the fall of the Nazis (Mao, Kim, Jinping, Mugabe). So while the planet condemns the actions of the Nazi’s, which is appropriate, there is a problem if we all look for Nazism and say “that’s not the same” but not realize that it doesn’t have to be exactly the same.
When the German leaders were building the logistics for the concentration camps, there is no record in the Nuremberg documents that show any dissent among hundreds of German leaders. That is what scares me most. Not the next Hitler, but the angry, selfish masses of regular people.
The rise of Nazism came because not enough people stood up to this egomaniac while he bullied his way into power over and over again. The Holocaust happened because people allowed their fellow man to be dehumanized. It wasn’t just Hitler who created these crimes against humanity, it was people that allowed it to happen and they will most likely do it again. In German, the term they used is “Anschluss” or appeasement. I think we should be more focused on holding our leaders to incredibly high standards, and never allow appeasement in exchange for power, or to avoid conflict
If you made it to the end, I’m very thankful. This was an amazing learning experience for me and I just had to get my thoughts on paper, it helps me reflect. This particular review was difficult because the subject matter is delicate and I wanted to bring a non-politicized but also honest and introspective account of what I learned.
If you want to write a comment on this or reach out to me to discuss the topic further, I welcome it. If you didn’t read (or think about) the article and just want to spew insane vitriolic nonsense at me, I double welcome it.