Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Inside the Third Reich

I had planned to review two memoirs, Ulysses Grant and Albert Speer, but it's just been too long to say anything coherent about Grant's book other than it's well worth reading and escaped from copyright. Both books are well-written which is the key thing, much more so than honesty or historical value. It relates to my guess as to why I prefer Roy Spencer over RPJr. despite Roy being even more wrong:  Roy's a good writer.

To finish up with Grant, he's probably not worth reading though if you don't like military history. His account of the Mexican-American War, where he served with Robert E Lee, filled a substantial gap in my own knowledge. He never discusses his mostly-failed administration, which is unfortunate. He does put the war criminal/racist-for-his-time Nathan Forrest in his place. More than worth the price.

As is Speer's memoir about his life as one of Hitler's top officials and a potential heir, although the need to be cautious about viewpoint for any autobiography goes into overtime for the repentant Nazi. I have an amateur interest in World War II and in psychopaths, so a person who knew Hitler well could have an interesting story. My amateur guess after reading this and other accounts is that Hitler wasn't a psychopath, or at least not in all respects. Just a monster. His inability to form personal bonds seems psychopathic, but his deep emotional currents don't match the profile, nor his kindness to animals.

The missing element from Speer's account is what made Hitler so electrifying and dominant. Speer himself was clearly under Hitler's thumb for many years but doesn't make you really feel why that was so, and Hitler's many flaws weren't all that hidden, even early on. I didn't realize how boring the man was. The whole concept of charisma is mysterious to me, a poorly-defined, quasi-supernatural characteristic that makes me skeptical. Maybe it's a combination of hypnotic skills at a distance and pheromones up close. Anyway, Speer doesn't help clarify it.

It's pretty clear I'm not going to write the definitive review of WWII, Hitler, or even Speer, so I'll just recommend the book, and after the jump I'll just call out a few interesting points:

(click here for the full post)

P. 71:  Hitler wavers over whether to side with Britain or Italy in 1935 when Mussolini invades Ethiopia. I wasn't aware of this decision point and whether Hitler was just displaying his usual indecision or could actually have sided with Britain. If so, maybe the resulting history would've been different - maybe he would've stopped with Austria and Sudentenland. At least the alliance with Italy would've been far more strained.

P. 96:  Hitler is also a fan of alternative history. He wished the Muslims had conquered Europe, viewing Islam as appropriately martial and not "weak" like Christianity.

P. 221 and elsewhere:  a common theme is that Nazi Germany didn't fully mobilize for war the way that the Allied democracies did. Speer disputes the idea that totalitarian systems are better at fighting total war. At this point in the book (1942), women are fully mobilized to work by the Allies while Hitler still wants them at home producing babies. Speer argues that the Nazis throughout their hierarchy tried to maintain local living standards. I wonder if it has something to do with "voluntary" war - Nazis chose it while the Allies didn't, so the Nazis couldn't ask for the same sacrifice.

P. 284-285:  the fire-bombing of Hamburg struck an effective blow on Germany, at a moral cost of 40,000 civilian deaths. I had previously understood the strategic bombing of civilian populations was mostly ineffective as a war tool, but maybe that was just me being hopeful. OTOH, Speer goes on to say the Allies had opportunities to cripple the German war effort by picking crucial industries and bombing them continuously (in this case, he was frantic over the ball-bearing factories) but the Allies kept switching targets. Maybe there was a more effective as well as more ethical use of air power than killing civilians.

P. 399-400:  I had no idea that pacts of varying degrees of formality between enemy forces happened during WWII, mostly unapproved by headquarters. I'm going to tie this back to Grant's book:  it happened all the time during the Civil War. Grant once unwittingly wandered alone into an informal truce zone and found himself talking to a Confederate soldier. The Christmas soccer games of World War I may not have been unique as I thought.

P. 413:  I wrote previously about chemical warfare:  Nazis thought about it but ultimately decided not to do it. At a later point, Speer knew Germany must surrender and claims he tried to figure out how to kill Hitler with poison gas but couldn't work it out logistically. He acknowledges he didn't have the strength to walk up to Hitler and just shoot him.

A side note:  my copy of the book was old and owned at least twice before I bought it a rummage sale, and some of the pages still had not been fully cut apart when it was printed. Kind of sad that it's never been read.


CapitalistImperialistPig said...

I remember reading G. gordon Liddy's account of how his German nurse explain her worship of Hitler: "He taught us not to be afraid."

I suspect that is a key tool of evry demagogue. course that does explain the how.

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

does not, I mean


bill said...

May I recommend Richard J Evans' 'Third Reich' trilogy? It's the best examination of the nuts and bolts of the totalitarian state created by the Nazis I'm aware of.

It also has some very interesting discussion of such matters as Hitler being afraid to too much disturb the comforts of the Homeland, and how the regime defeated itself via its 'anti-Elitist' triumphantly middlebrow educational strategies, its vicious racism in the east which made even initially-welcoming populations turn on its armies, and, of course, the pompous little man's chauvinism that kept half of the productive workforce tied to Kinder, Küche, and Kirche.

No state, no matter how comprehensive or brutal, can afford to completely ignore the public mood indefinitely.

Oh, and Shirer is a classic for a reason!

Anonymous said...

Good post.

US Grant could not write further memoirs because he died just after completing this volume. He lost his fortune to an unscrupulous con-man, and spent the last few years of his life livng on the charity of friends, plus the advances for his memoirs. The last months were a race against the painful throat cancer that killed him. It was the old general's last battle, and possibly his most valiant.

Grant's presidency has undergne a well-deserved rehabilitation. It may have been the only Presidency between Washington and LBJ that tried to give blacks and Indians a fair shake. Liberals hate him for his failures,conservatives hate him for trying. His own contemporary liberals would not support military occupation of the South, and forced the abandonment of the ex-Confederate states to "redeemer" governments. Jim Crow arrived about 20 years later.

Grant's Memoirs have come under some attack recently for their veracity - especially his treatment of fellow-generals such as Rosecrans. No matter, the critic Edmund Wilson hailed the memoirs as a "minor American classic", but maybe he undervalued them.


Anonymous said...

Speer's Memoirs were written to support the crafted image of "the Good Nazi", but it was all a lie.

Sadly, it mostly worked while he lived, and he lived a comfortable life with wife, family and mistress.

If his fellow Nazis deserved to be hanged, then so did he. He was far more culpable than the hapless Hess, who got life.

Speer was cold, callous, ruthless and hypocritical. Remember that when you read his book, which is worth the read, if you can stop yourself from being seduced.

An essential commentary is Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth.


PS Truth won, but only after the the old gobshyte was dead.

bill said...

Well, yes, but he did do his 20 years in Spandau! (And it was the Soviets who wouldn't shorten his sentence...)

Certainly, anyone who reads 'Inside the Third Reich' and concludes there were 'Good Nazis' probably needs to stay away from people selling bridges!

But since that's not likely to be you, Dear Reader, you should read it!

Anonymous said...

No doubt Ken Ham would ask Shirer "Were you there?" The answer would be yes.

Rib Smokin' Bunny

Anonymous said...


Just pointing out that Hess was given life for being Hitler's deputy, a post with no power or authority. Hess spent the war after 1941 as a prisoner in Britain. If he got life, then Speer (a far more powerful and influential Nazi) should have been hanged.

Speer was guilty of the murder through starvation or the working to death of millions of slave labourers, mainly Russian POWs. Of course, the use of slaves was factored into his economic calculations. He also knew all about the Holocaust because of the use of resources like trains to transport Jews to death camps. Speer attended meetings with Himmler where this was discussed.

The hand-wringing penitent at Nuremburg was a carefully crafted lie. The judges were swayed by the apparent acceptance of guilt, but Speer to the end of his life, never admitted the full extent of his crimes or uttered a word of true repentance. The old bastard whould have swung, if anyone should have swung.

Incidentally, even Speer's claim to have brought about an "economic miracle" is crumbling. The Nazi economy started shambolic and stayed shambolic, luckily for us. See Adam Tooze Wages of Destruction.


William Connolley said...

@Anon: you'll never know for sure. Neither will we.

@Brian: I found some of the architecture bits interesting, in two ways: one, they had no real ideas, other than "it should be bigger than the thing we're copying". That fits in with the giganticism their tanks suffered from. Two, the way they kept planning for stuff to be done long after the war - it took a long time for the idea that they weren't going to win to sink in; and that resources needed to be spent on the war, not on post-war arch.

Not fully mobilising for war: agreed, and its an interesting factoid. I read the reason as being that Hitler knew he had little legitimacy, and so needed to keep the people onside.

City bombing: that doesn't fit with what I remember, though I can't find my copy right now. He was very critical of us for not repeating the Dam raids and (as you say) for failing to target ball bearings.

He also thought the jet fighters were wasted - again, as Hitlers insistence.

And lastly... the way the Nazi structure was setup - everything important going through Hitler, and all the main appointments his cronies - pushed towards a non-functional structure.

crf said...

Brad Delong recently re-reblogged an interesting bit from Grant's memoirs: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2013/09/brad-delong-quote-of-the-day-february-9-2012.html.

Anonymous said...

Interesting review, thank you. One point, and a question. You wrote

"I had previously understood the strategic bombing of civilian populations was mostly ineffective as a war tool, but maybe that was just me being hopeful."

The tactic of attacking civilian populations, even during a time of war, is called terrorism.

Question: Why was Speer not hanged, like the rest of the other captive Nazis?

Brian said...

Anon - yes, according the modern standard from 1960s to 9/11, attacks focusing on civilians were called terrorism. Since 9/11, many American leaders have redefined terrorism to include illegal, unjust war attacks on military targets. I think that's a mistake, but the English language has no umpires, so we'll have to find out what the word terrorism ultimately means.

I'm no expert on the laws of war, but my impression is that the mostly theoretical protection of non-combatants prior to World War II was tightened up afterwards. Where economic warfare with civilian collateral damage ends and a war crime begins is a fuzzy concept still. I think the same attacks we did in World War II were arguably legal at the time but a war crime if done today. This depends in part on whether you believe international law is actual law, btw.

As for Speer, he's not the only Nazi who wasn't hanged. A few were acquitted entirely, others got terms of years. Depends on the proof available for crimes committed. Speer got 20 years for using slave labor in factories, IIRC. Controversy still continues about what he actually knew re the Holocaust.