Saturday, May 7, 2016

European RC #9

I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.

Der Führer: Hitler’s Rise to Power - Konrad Heiden

At almost 800 pages in length, this Hitler book is obviously only for the most committed student of the time, the place, and the politics. Heiden was a journalist that was forced to leave Nazi Germany because of his anti-Nazi views, but he is as objective as he is well-informed, with profound cultural, psychological and sociological insight. So much so that it also reminded me of the other wide-ranging masterpiece from between the wars, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, by Rebecca West.

The main thesis is that Hitler was one of a modern type that is found at the margins of society, usually in cities. Whether rich or poor, such a type is lazy, sloppy, careless, and without inclination toward regular work or career. Such a type defies authority of any kind and is neither talented nor disciplined enough to be good at the creative arts. Heiden calls this type the “armed bohemians.” They found their calling in the violence of WWI and their and main chance in its aftermath, the chaotic period of the collapse of bourgeois standards of civilization such as honor, loyalty, chivalry, etc. Hitler found his moment, his intuitive connection to thousands of slovenly men like him, amidst Germany’s ruinous post-WWI misery.

Heiden also identifies another type: the armed intellectuals. These experts in warfare combined trust in the efficiency of their ruthless methods and their desire to rule over the state. Hitler used these two types of men, the thug and the technician. The thuggish S.A. terrorized ordinary Germans into submission while the technicians re-armed the country and ran the machinery of government. By promising military build-up, Hitler was able to get aristocratic officers to work with or at least tolerate the thugs and technocrats.

Heiden was a serious writer. Though he briefly covers rumors of undinism, he doesn’t spend much time speculating about Hitler’s stunted personality. Nor is he gabby about Hitler's relations with his niece-mistress Geli Raubal and her strange death or the nature of the partying that landed Goebbels and Goring into minor trouble in the court of public opinion. The examination of the sinister figure of Ernst Rohm terrifies, for the simple reason that he had no trouble recruiting comrade-loves to do dirty work.

Staring into the darkness, Heiden dryly observes,

Hitler was able to enslave his own people because he seemed to give them something that even the traditional religions could no longer provide; the belief in a meaning to existence beyond the narrowest self-interest. The real degradation began when people realized that they were in league with the Devil, but felt that even the Devil was preferable to the emptiness of an existence which lacked a larger significance.

Although the political history of Hitler vs. von Papen starts to feel long, the narrative becomes fascinating again once Hitler becomes chancellor. Shocking is the speed with which democratic procedures were exploited by the Nazis so that democracy could basically commit suicide. It’s also sobering to see how easily cold-blooded opportunists could exploit existing fears of economic instability, Jewish people, Marxists, the French and the “lying disgusting press” for electoral gain. Sobering also the indifference of ordinary people - they didn't care how they were governed, they didn't care what happened to other people, especially if "those people" belonged to a group they didn't like in the first place.

In conclusion, this book is often cited in modern histories. So I recommend it to serious readers also because it is highly regarded by writers such as Ian Kershaw. 

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