Understanding Hitler & the Third Reich
Because of their enormous world-historical impact, Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich are supremely important to understanding the twentieth century and the development of Western civilization. These are also supremely controversial and difficult topics. Indeed, Hitler is almost universally considered to have been the most evil man to have ever lived. If, as Éric Zemmour and Élie Barnavi have noted, commemoration of the Shoah has replaced Christianity as the West’s civil religion, then Hitler very much plays the role of Satan. No surprise then that books and documentaries on Hitler and the Third Reich continue to be extremely popular: In a disenchanted age, looking upon Hitler, if only by his “evil,” is both fascinating and meaningful.
All this however also makes it extremely difficult to come to a factual and balanced view of Hitler and the Third Reich. The victors, famously, write the history books and Hitler decisively lost. The passage of time however has not allowed for a more dispassionate portrayal of the German Führer, as one might have for other great conquerors and (civil-)religious revolutionaries such as Julius Caesar, Mohammed, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Mao Zedong.
Assessing Hitler is supremely difficult in the inability to tell fact from fiction, propaganda from counter-propaganda. The student of history must always be careful: Which quotes are fabricated? What is atrocity propaganda and what is factual? This is an endless task which can indeed prove obsessive and rather fruitless. There are professional historians who dedicate their entire lives to these topics often without reaching definitive conclusions and even ending up ruined, imprisoned, and blacklisted for their trouble.
Nonetheless, following Andrew Hamilton, I would like to highlight some readings I have found useful and which may be of interest to fellow students of history and curious comrades. For we must ask the questions: Who was Hitler? Why did he pursue what he did and why did so many people follow him? What were his “dark arts” which enabled his great successes and why was he, ultimately, completely defeated?
This book is a good starting point to be “red-pilled.” Former paleoconservative presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan makes a powerful and really quite politically incorrect case – for someone allowed on mainstream TV anyway – that Britain and America’s war on the Third Reich was a geopolitical and moral mistake. Geopolitically, it destroyed the British Empire and gave a third of the world to communist totalitarianism. Morally, Buchanan shows Hitler in a rather more balanced light by ably citing Churchill’s various “supremacist” and/or “genocidal” statements and policies: starving the Germans during the First World War, starving the Bengalis, defending the Anglo-Saxons’ extermination of the Australian Aborigines, the terror bombing against the German civilians in the Second World War, etc.
Buchanan is a bit evasive on certain issues. If Britain and America had not fought Germany, he claims, there would have been no Shoah and no millions of dead. But how can he be so sure, given Hitler’s evident world-historical ambition of destroying Bolshevism, securing living space in the East, and getting the Jews out of Europe (one way or another)? But this seems secondary to him, for as Buchanan states in the first pages: The West lost the world and “peoples of European ancestry [. . .] are slowly disappearing from the Earth,” an outcome he clearly attributes to the results of the Second World War. That thought, though it might seem obvious, is extremely subversive.
2. Lothrop Stoddard’s Into the Darkness
Lothrop Stoddard’s memoirs of being a foreign correspondent in Germany in the early months of the war is a truly unique document. Stoddard, as a racialist and eugenicist, is obviously sympathetic to many of National Socialism’s goals, but is also very troubled by the “nationalistic hatreds” tearing Europe apart.
Stoddard’s account gives us the human side. He tries to give us the perspective of people – whether ordinary farmers, clean-cut SS men, mid-ranking Party officials, or leaders such as Walther Darré and Heinrich Himmler – on their day-to-day work and the rationale for it. This is a wonderful book for actually understanding various aspects of the Third Reich on their own terms: The project of a Volksgemeinshaft (national community) of “mystical communion” and solidarity, the Hitler Youth’s goal of instilling good habits (akin to scouting) and racial consciousness, the moral signalling of giving to the needy with the Winterhilfe (Winter Help), the eugenics courts (“if anything too conservative,” Stoddard says), and a vast propaganda machine that has “systematically forged a naturally disciplined people into an amazingly responsive psychic unison.”
For instance, Stoddard cites the fourth of the “ten commandments” which all young boys and girls must learn to recite by heart in the new Germany:
All thy qualities of body and spirit perish if though diest without heirs. They are a heritage, a donation from thine ancestors. They exist as a chain, of which though art a link. Durst thou break that chain, save under stern necessity? Thy life is straitly bound by time; family and folk endure.
The horror! Quick, show our girls some reruns of Sex and the City!
We get a sense of the Third Reich in 1939–1940 (before the victory in the Battle of France), not as the great juggernaut of both National Socialist and Allied propaganda, but as an insecure country in a hated war. The little inconveniences of daily life suggest a deeper fragility and vulnerability: ubiquitous ration cards, a dangerous lack of certain foods (edible fats), the systematic recycling of waste, and the blacking out of cities at night to avoid Allied bombing (hence the book’s title).
Stoddard’s analysis of the Third Reich, it seems to me, has aged very well. He sees National Socialism as an extraordinary but understandable response to the similarly extraordinary conditions of early twentieth-century Germany. There was a whole “lost generation” shaped by the constant insecurity and violence of the First World War, famine, subjugation by the Versailles settlement, Bolshevism, and the Great Depression. National Socialism represents that lost generation’s coming to power. The Third Reich’s successes are explained by Stoddard as the result of “[a]n absolute dictatorship over an industrious, resourceful people.” Stoddard senses something terrible is going to happen to the Jews, given the atmosphere, and specifically cites the Armenian precedent.
Personally, I find Hitler’s unpublished Second Book, dedicated to foreign policy, to be the most concise and cogent presentation of his Weltanschauung, of seeing history in essentially Darwinian evolutionary terms. For Hitler, history was made up of the rise and fall of races and nations, and statecraft meant establishing policies and culture to unify one’s people, maximize its chances of survival, and cultivate its highest elements, in line with the laws of Nature that had created humanity and indeed all life.
The translation edited by Gerhard L. Weinberg has some very useful footnotes, generally providing contemporary historical context to understand what Hitler alludes to. This is despite the fact that Weinberg, a Jewish émigré who fled the Third Reich, makes no pretense of being an unbiased historian. Indeed, he brandishes Hitler’s comments on America as a kind of “smoking gun” revealing plans to attack the United States (thus justifying the preemptive U.S. conquest of Germany). There is really nothing of the kind in the book: Hitler praises America’s predominantly Nordic racial composition, its restrictive Nordic immigration policies, and its eugenic policies. He fears however that “the American Union,” through its territory, size, and dynamism, would come to dominate Europe and the world, concerns which in retrospect appear rather astute.
Rather, in the Second Book Hitler again makes the case for his practically unerring project: Neutralize France, ally with the British Empire, destroy Bolshevism, and acquire land and resources in the East so as to turn Germany from an insecure mid-sized nation (without the resource autonomy provided by the vast territories of the British Empire, the French Empire, the United States, or the Soviet Union) into an autarkic superpower and secure regional hegemon.
Hitler repeated this project on numerous occasions both in private and in public (though, obviously, there were also various opportunistic reversals due to Realpolitik) from the 1920s and to 1945. This is a rather awkward fact for Anglo-American war propaganda. Churchill claimed that there would be “no survival for the British Empire” without destroying the Third Reich (if anything, the exact opposite is true). The Americans made lurid portrayals of Hitler’s alleged plans to conquer the United States using Brazil (or whatever) as a launching pad.
The Second Book’s ostensible topic is South Tyrol, an ethnic German territory possessed by Fascist Italy. This rather obscure issue is the occasion for Hitler to make a crucial and profound point regarding the Schmittian prioritization of enemies. Hitler argues that if Western media and liberal elements in Germany were then agitating, in pseudo-patriotic fashion, for South Tyrol, this was only because these were opposed to Fascist Italy as an independent nationalist state. Hitler urges us to focus on fundamental causes and not secondary consequences: Italy’s control of South Tyrol is unfortunate, but the ultimate cause of foreign occupation of German land is not Italy but German weakness, and that is caused by the failure of German elites, not by Italians. To focus on secondary issues is then a distraction or deceitful. For Hitler, the solution is to replace the government and the power structures, not agitate on the secondary consequences of these power structures. This is a profound insight, one that can be difficult to grasp, but that remains very relevant in this era when neoconservatives and the Israel lobby have sought to exploit Western Islamophobia (itself caused by Muslim immigration they do not effectively oppose) for their own ends.
4. Mein Kampf
Mein Kampf is of course Hitler’s big, bad, monstrous book. The Ralph Manheim translation (which I possess) is considered authoritative, but it is so turgid – especially as compared to the Second Book – I have to wonder whether Hitler really changed his style so much or if this is a translation problem. This is a difficult read. (As an aside, it is inexcusable that there still be so many basic translation controversies, also concerning the Table Talk, for such important historical documents.) Hitler wants his audience converted or subjugated. There is a real intellectual intolerance (which one finds in some other revolutionary texts, e.g. Mao’s Red Book).
The book is also difficult to grasp without a deep knowledge of the historical context, that is not only of interwar Germany but indeed of fin-de-siècle Austria-Hungary. Mein Kampf is really not the best book to start with. (Apparently Brigitte Hamann’s Hitler’s Vienna provides useful context to understanding Hitler’s allusions, but I have not read that book.) I would say however that the sometimes surprising passages on Jews and Jewish history should be mandatory reading for everyone: Surely there is no better starting point for understanding the rise of the most fanatical anti-Semitism, an extremely important phenomenon.
5. John Toland’s Adolf Hitler
John Toland’s classic 1976 book is reputed to be the best of the mainstream biographies, praised by both revisionists and court historians. I certainly enjoyed his book, providing a fair and nuanced portrayal of Hitler’s life. We are shown a very human Hitler, as a gifted but difficult young man, an artist, a tramp, a soldier, an ascetic, and ultimately as an inspiring speaker, a revolutionary, a statesman, and a warlord. Toland is particularly good on Hitler’s youth and his bohemian streak. Probably this is the best book for getting to grips with the basic facts of Hitler’s life.
Toland, a revisionist historian concerning the attacks on Pearl Harbor, is rather conformist towards the end of Hitler, even to the point of losing all coherence. For instance, the legend to one photograph states: “On October 10, 1943, Hitler congratulates Himmler, who has just revealed that six million Jews have been exterminated.” Are we to believe basically no Jews died between then and May 1945? If you say so . . .
6. Richard Tedor’s Hitler’s Revolution
This is really a unique book. The American author brushes a portrait of the Third Reich drawing almost entirely from contemporary German publications and sympathetic postwar memoirs and studies. Thus, after the barrage of anti-Nazi education we are all raised with, we instead get something like the Third Reich’s own account of itself. On education, workers’ well-being, foreign policy and other topics, I believe Tedor’s book sums up very well what a thoughtful German diplomat or SS officer would have said on behalf of his country had the Reich survived.
The downside of this is that the book often reads like a long official Third Reich communiqué. This is not an unrewarding experience, good to get those statistics and talking points, but this rather uncritical presentation is not always persuasive. (I am not inclined to believe, for instance, that Hitler’s early disarmament proposals were meant as the final word on the matter, given his Weltanschauung . . .) Although certainly, we do get points which are otherwise practically completely ignored, such as the plight of ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland, or Hitler’s limited demands and war aims in 1939.
Most interesting, because critical, is Tedor’s chapter on Hitler’s European policy: Plans for postwar European economic cooperation, the Reich’s “European mission” to destroy Bolshevism, the forming of a Germanic and then pan-European Waffen-SS, and the catastrophic Eastern policies. Here we get Third Reich officials’ own criticisms and counter-proposals to Hitler’s decidedly German chauvinist and Slavophobic vision. For instance NSDAP economist Werner Daitz in 1940 advocated a generous European economic community to “strengthen the continent that is the mainstay of the white race.”
Tedor more generally presents an idealized (but not necessarily inaccurate?) picture of the Waffen-SS: More meritocratic and brotherly than the class-ridden Wehrmacht, unabashedly elitist and increasingly pan-European (against Hitler’s preferences), it is clearly suggested that this was the force which could have reformed and uplifted both postwar Germany and indeed Europe as a whole.
7. S. L. Mayer’s The Best of Signal: Hitler’s Wartime Picture Magazine
Signal was the Third Reich’s official foreign-language picture magazine, akin to Time, published in all the major European languages and selling at its peak in 1943 an astonishing 3 million copies. The magazine was published in occupied Europe and neutral countries, including in the United States until the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
S. L. Mayer’s collection The Best of Signal gives us the image that the Third Reich wanted to present to the world. As ever, the Germans were on the cutting-edge technically, providing copious and unmatched battle photography (see also the numerous Deutsche Wochenschau videos on YouTube with battle footage), and even infographics. The German soldiers and officials are naturally magnificent, in the field or in the office, with their sharp uniforms (given the aesthetics involved, it is perhaps so surprise that Hugo Boss and Coco Chanel were ardent Nazis). There are gorgeous pictures of Hitler’s new Reich Chancellery, with lush brown mahogany and marble, and a rough neoclassical exterior (clearly of Spartan inspiration).
The racial aspects of the Third Reich are present but downplayed. For instance, a German couple getting married has the bureaucratic formality of the Ahnenpass, while an article attacking Richard von Coudenhove-Kalergi’s “pan-Europe” refers to him darkly as “a European with a Japanese strain.” Turbaned Africans and fez-wearing Moroccans in the French Army, captured by the Germans, are shown with the large caption: “Defenders of French Culture.” And who says the Germans are a humorless people!
Naturally the magazine was vetted by the Propaganda Ministry, so everything reflects the government line. The articles are mainly puff pieces, either describing soldiers in military operations, political analysis, or trying to show a kind of normalcy. Hence we have articles on going to the horse races (“just like in peace time”), cycling in Paris (with a photo of a “professor” looking uncannily like Jean-Paul Sartre), or on the wonders of the new war bread (“Why is our ‘war-bread’ so incomparably better today? The expert replies: ‘The secret is in the bakery.’”)
The portrayal of normalcy is often rather comical as with a cartoon portraying the organization of the Gau: Oh look, smiling people everywhere, going to the beach, swastika flags all around, and concluding with a nice big Party rally. There is an often incongruent sad note however: a profile of a German cabaret dancer includes photos of her “proxy marriage” – that is marriage by the couple separately signing documents – as her handsome beau is serving in Wehrmacht.
Politically, there are recurring themes: European peace, Socialism and opposition to big business, and a delicate balancing act between stressing the Reich’s strength (e.g. access to Soviet resources or Japan’s value as an ally) and the illegitimacy of the Allies given their huge territories and influence across the globe. The translation (which is the from the original, not Mayer’s) is sometimes awkward, as in an article entitled: “What we are fighting for: For the final solution [sic] to the question regarding the worker’s standing.” Well then!
Mayer’s collection is not ideal insofar as there are no publication dates for the various articles. Nonetheless, the selection appears representative and this is a fine coffee table book (whether or not you dare place it there).
8. Jeremy Noakes’ Nazism Series
One set of mainstream books I most highly recommend for all students of the Third Reich is British historian Jeremy Noakes’ four-volume series of primary documents from that era, entitled Nazism. These volumes cover: The National Socialist movement’s rise, peacetime domestic policy, foreign policy and war, and wartime domestic policy. In each case, Noakes provides both a useful overview at the beginning of each chapter drawing from the copious academic literature and then the documents themselves: Speeches, memoirs (often previously untranslated), letters, Party and state memos and directives, newspaper articles, and so on.
The series really is a kind of “theory and practice of the Third Reich”: Keeping a movement together, gaining power (including convincing elites), the actual practice of Hitlerian government, breaking the bonds of foreign debt (is a state monopoly on credit really so mysterious!?), balancing rearmament and economic recovery, propaganda and education, reconciling Party and state (i.e. the delicate matter of executing a political and cultural revolution), welfare, population policy, morale, films, etc.
We again get a very human view of the Third Reich and the NSDAP. There are the internal Party conflicts between personalities. There is the unglamorous reality of government in that era too. For instance, the plea of the so-called “Reich Governors” created by Hitler, who feel rather useless as another redundant layer of government: “He [the Reich Governor] can hurry from rallies to receptions, from public addresses to serious accidents, from dedication ceremonies to meetings – but he can give no orders.” There is Hitler’s idiosyncratic governing style: Too bohemian, or lazy, for regular office hours, banning cabinet ministerial meetings (!), and generally managing everything on an ad hoc basis, which led to a certain amount of administrative chaos (and yet no one has accused the Third Reich of not producing astonishing results . . .).
There is very interesting coverage of the Third Reich’s policies and debates towards Europe, including internal criticism of its Eastern policies. I would have welcomed more on this – indeed there is almost nothing on European Waffen-SS volunteers. What was the state of public opinion in occupied and neutral countries, particularly between the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and the severe toughening of the German occupation around 1943 as the situation grew fatally desperate? I suspect this was a good deal more nuanced and subtle than the mainstream narrative suggests. (e.g.: How many Europeans opposed Britain’s continuing the war? How many were sensitive to anti-Semitism and disenchanted with democracy? How many resented Britain for blockading Europe in difficult economic times (meaning unemployment, hunger) and for bombing their homes and workplaces?)
Noakes is willing to give credit where credit is due. The NSDAP of the Kampfzeit really was a “people’s party” drawing from all segments of society. The regime’s social housing policies were progressive and sincere, and were indeed largely taken up in the postwar era. The Gauleiters are not just the evil tyrants of Hollywood, but especially community organizers whose work is to keep morale up. Noakes also seems non-committal on a central aspect of the holocaust narrative, noting with sweeping understatement: “The question as to whether and when Hitler took a decision to initiative the extermination of all European Jews, in an extension of the annihilation of Russian Jewry, has proved exceptionally controversial.”
Had the Third Reich survived, I suspect across Europe and America young students would be studying mandatory “German Politics 101” courses in which volumes like Noakes’ would be required reading.
9. R. H. S. Stolfi’s Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny
This is a very informative but rather strange book by the American military historian R. H. S. Stolfi. The author ably ridicules the mainstream historians for their unprofessional and gratuitous cheap shots at Hitler (a commonplace in the genre). Stolfi interprets Hitler as a kind of civil-religious revolutionary and a world-historical personality, on a par with Caesar, Mohammed, or Napoleon. He gives credit to Hitler as a genuine artistic figure – both as painter/architect and statesmen – noting that Thomas Mann, though an opponent of Hitler, nonetheless deemed him to be “the Artist.”
This is all well and good, and indeed even necessary. And yet Stolfi seems to go beyond this, apparently approving of Hitler’s pretensions as a “dark messiah” or his being “a thoughtful anti-Semite.” One has the distinct impression that Stolfi, at the eve of his life, had a deathbed conversion to Hitlerism and/or anti-Semitism. (One can certainly imagine various ways this might have occurred . . .). Curiously there is very little on race, which is foundational to understanding Hitler. I am rather astonished this book was published.
This big book, as far as I am concerned, is the ultimate Hitler book. Of course, we have the usual caveats: We have no guarantee that these recordings of Hitler’s private conversations, primarily taken between the invasion of Russia and the end of 1942, are completely accurate. The translation edited by Hugh-Trevor Roper is uncertain: David Irving claims it is good, mainstream historians have said it is actually artlessly translated from a previous French translation (!), which is actually an impression I distinctly had reading the book. Nonetheless, themes of these private conversations recur enough that the gist is clear and accepted by both mainstream and revisionist historians.
I cannot summarize such a book here, but suffice to say that Hitler had an awesome scientific and elitist vision, a truly epic conception of history and politics in which he was a leading character, and a grandiose and terrible project against decadence and for excellence (as he saw it). All this merits real engagement rather than crude caricature. Hitler’s ruthless utilitarianism (his relations with other peoples can be summed up as following: Either fighting-comrades or expendable subjects) and his absurd exclusion of Slavdom from “Europe” in effect make him politically untouchable, above and beyond Allied or Hollywoodian propaganda.
With this book, everyone can reach in to find the Hitler behind the myth. For added effect, imagine Hitler speaking as he does in our only known recording of his private conversations, with Marshal of Finland Carl Gustav Mannerheim. And now you’ve Hitler in your living room . . .
1. Jeremy Noakes, Nazism, volume 2 (University of Exeter, 2000), 60.
2. Jeremy Noakes, Nazism, volume 3 (University of Exeter, 2001), 501.
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