Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Somewhere, a long time ago, I picked up a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. For $3. It looked interesting. But it's also intimidating, at 1143 pages. This book was a bit of a surprise, both for William Shirer and his publisher when it was released. The initial run was only 12,500 copies. Ultimately, it sold over 1 Million copies in hardcover, and another million in paperback! As for me, it sat unread on my bookshelf for years. For some reason this fall I found myself in the mood to read it, and so I did.

This book is nearly fifty years old and has been succeeded by many books analyzing the third reich, as well as movies, tv shows etc. Rather than review the book in the classic sense, I'm going to extract a few things that really stood out to me as I read it. Think of it as leadership lessons of Adolph Hitler.

The book opens with the birth of the third reich in 1933, and then resets to 1918 and the death of the second reich and the birth of the weimar republic. Amidst this general chaos Adolph Hitler was assigned to investigate the German Worker's Party (soon it would change its name) by the military. This event ultimately lead to him becoming the 7th member of the party, and very quickly he became its leader.

On November 8, 1923 Hitler attempted to seize control of Germany through an event now known as the "Beer Hall Putsch." At this point Hitler was still generally unknown throughout Germany, as was the National Socialist German Worker's Party (the full name of the Nazi party). This bold plan was far too early, and it failed miserably and quickly. Shirer puts it this way "The nazi putsch had ended in a fiasco. The party was dissolved. National Socialism, to all appearances, was dead. Its dictatorial leader, who had run away at the first hail of bullets, seemed utterly discredited, his meteoric political career at an end."

This is where we really begin to see the genius of Hitler. His genius was not in military strategy, like he claimed, but in his understanding of people and how to get them to do what he wanted, as well as his sheer tenacity. On February 26, 1924 he went on trial for treason. Rather than being the end of his career, he made it a launching pad. For twenty four days Hitler spoke, cross examined, and pronounced his love for Germany to the world.

Rather than try to get out of any charges Hitler stated "I alone bear the responsibility. But I am not a criminal because of that. If today I stand here as a revolutionary, it is as a revolutionary against the revolution. There is no such thing as high treason against the traitors of 1918." As Shirer puts it "By the time it had ended twenty four days later Hitler had transformed defeat into triumph…and emblazoned his name on the front pages of the world."

There were two things that really struck me out of this. First, people are desperate for leadership with strong ideals. Even though many people didn't necessarily support what the National Socialists stood for, Hitler stood for SOMETHING and that gained him respect. Second, he brilliantly turned a crushing defeat into a personal victory. His trial for treason became his own platform to tell the world of his ideas and to make them familiar with his name.

Hitler took this same attitude to his time in prison, which for many people would have been demoralizing and radically changed their course. For Hitler, it solidified what he wanted to do. He used the time in prison to write Mein Kampf. In this tome he lays out his ideas, including many that unfortunately he followed through on… By the end of his time in prison this is what he faced: "The Nazi Party and its press were banned; the former leaders were feuding and falling away. He himself was forbidden to speak in public. " The deck was clearly stacked against him.

This is the next thing that Hitler did really well. Rather than try to speak in public anyway, which would have gotten him arrested again and likely deported to Austria, he used this time to work behind the scenes. Hitler was also a great organizer and so he set about making the party strong again, but now organizationally rather than from his incredible speaking talents.

In 1932 Hitler ran for president of the republic. He came in second with 36.8% of the vote. In the summer there was another election, for the German Parliament called the Reichstag. In this, the Nazis ended up with 37% of the vote. They didn't have the majority they needed to seize power. How did Hitler respond? By demanding the chancellorship (the Nazi party, at 37%, was the largest party in the reichstag) and a large number of key positions elsewhere in the republic for the Nazi party. He was refused.

In November there was another election, and the Nazi party lost votes, and by consequence, seats in the reichstag. They were down from 37% to 32% of the vote now. The Nazi party was on the wane for the first time since Hitler's return in 1925. Hitler responded by continuing to demand the chancellorship and working the political side of things along with Goebbels, Hitler's brilliant minister of propaganda. Ultimately, on January 30th, 1933, with only 32% of the vote, Hitler took power. The Nazis only held control of three of the eleven cabinet seats, but it was all Hitler needed.

How is this possible? Quite simply, the opposition was divided, and Hitler exploited those divides at every opportunity. Each of the groups were far too focused on their own issues, and on maintaining their own power bases, to unite against the Nazis. 32% of the vote is what it took to bring Hitler to power. 32% of the vote brought the world to the brink of destruction, and unleashed unspeakable horror on millions of people.

From that point on, it was simply a matter of time as Hitler consolidated power and took more and more control away from everyone else. I found this aspect of the book, the rise of the third reich up until September 1, 1939 simply fascinating. There is no shortage of material either, as Shirer devotes 596 pages to the rise of the third reich prior to world war II.

In some ways it reminds me of Han Solo when he says to princess C3PO "Never tell me the odds!" Hitler didn't get overwhelmed by the obstacles in his path, he simply plowed through them. As someone who works numbers and percentages, it's eye opening to realize how at times these things don't matter at all. As a church leader, I realize that we need to be bold when we feel that God wants us to do something, treating obstacles not as setbacks, but as opportunities.

This book documents very well the good things the Nazis did, as well as the atrocities. Unfortunately for the world, Hitler followed through on the things he said he would do in Mein Kampf. There is a chapter in this book entitled "The New Order" in which I became physically ill as I read through the evil acts committed by the third reich against the jews and others. While I admire Hitler's tenacity and leadership skills during the period leading up to World War II, I shudder with the rest of the world at the unbridled evil that came along with those talents.

The other thing that reading this book did was make me less patient with those that believe we should appease and negotiate with unreasonable people. Had the French simply attacked Germany when Germany attacked Poland, World War II would have ended in 1939. They had 100 divisions to something like 6 on the German side. It was painful to read how Neville Chamberlain, a man who undoubtedly had the best motives, continually bowed to Hitler's demands.

Indeed Chamberlain's "Peace for our time" quote is the punchline of a joke for it's sheer ridiculousness. Chamberlain really believed that he had negotiated peace. In reality, what he did was gave Hitler a year to better arm Germany to go to war.

There are also leadership lessons to be learned from HItler's conduct during world war II, most of them negative lessons about how not to assume you are smarter than everyone else and to ignore wise council. But those are also very well documented virtually everywhere…

Except for chapter on The New Order (something that really is essential, IMHO), I really enjoyed this book. It was a fascinating read despite (or perhaps because of) the incredible level of detail. It's not a great history book, in that Shirer is _far_ too editorial, calling people names and using very uncomplimentary adjectives for people he does not like, but he also lived through world war II and spend much of the 1930's in Germany, so there is a lot of raw emotion here.

This is not the only book you should ever read on World War Two Germany by any stretch, but it is a very good place to start to get a detailed picture of how the Nazis came to power and ultimately unraveled. I don't think this is in print anymore, but it shouldn't be hard to find a copy in any used bookstore.


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