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World War Warm-Up

 

Adam Hochschild, Spain in Our Hearts:

Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39 

 

            In the 1930s, at a time when authoritarian right-wing dictatorships and military rulers appeared to be on the rise across Europe — not only in Germany and Italy, but also in Portugal, Poland, Greece, Romania and Hungary — Spain embarked upon a different course. In 1931, its monarchy yielded to a Republican form of government, with a democratic constitution and an elected parliament.  Five years later, in February 1936, a coalition of liberal democrats, socialists and communists, known as the Popular Front, narrowly won a parliamentary majority and promised far-reaching reforms. Spain was then arguably Western Europe’s most backward country, with industrialization lagging behind other Western European nations, large landowners dominating the rural economy, and the Catholic Church controlling the country’s social and cultural life.

            To major segments of Spanish society – especially the military, business elites, large landowners and the Catholic Church — democracy itself was profoundly threatening and the Popular Front appeared bent on leading Spain directly to its own version of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When a coup against the Republican government and its democratic institutions commenced on July 17, 1936, General Francisco Franco, who had been reassigned by the Popular Front to a distant military outpost on the Canary Islands, quickly assumed leadership. The Spanish Civil War, now considered a warm-up for World War II, ensued.

        In Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39, Adam Hochschild explores what he terms the “fiercest conflict in Europe since World War I, marked by a vindictive savagery not seen even then” (p.xiv). He recounts the conflict in large measure from the perspective of the approximately 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain, 750 of whom died, a “far higher death rate than the US military suffered in any of its twentieth-century wars” (p.xiv).  The Spanish Civil War was the “only time so many Americans joined someone else’s civil war – and they did so even though their own government made strenuous efforts to stop them” (p.xx).

          Two of Europe’s most ruthless dictators, Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, supported Franco and the three year assault on Spain’s democratic institutions.  But the Republican side received substantial support from the Soviet Union and its no less ruthless dictator Joseph Stalin.  With Great Britain, France and the United States officially neutral throughout most of the conflict, the Soviet Union was the only major power willing to sell arms and ammunition to the Republican side.

          To the Americans arriving in Spain, the Soviet Union appeared to represent modernization and international solidarity across national lines, a beacon of hope not only because it was the only major nation taking a stand against fascism, which they saw as the “most dangerous development on the planet” (p.22); but also because the Soviet Union seemed better equipped to resist the economic crisis that was extending its grip across the globe in the 1930s. But the Americans discovered that the Soviet Union was more interested in doctrinal purity and purging its ranks of communist heretics, especially those loyal to Stalin’s archrival Leon Trotsky, than in advancing the democratic principles that the Republic stood for.  In addition to communists and socialists of all stripes, the Republican side drew support from urban liberals and secularists, trade unionists, rural farm workers, anarchists and a motley collection of fringe groups.

            Hochschild tells this intricate story through individual lives and personal portraits.  Assiduous readers of this blog will recall To End All Wars, reviewed here in October 2014, in which Hochschild detailed Great Britain’s participation in World War I through personal stories of leading opponents of the war and political and military leaders prosecuting the war. Here, too, he weaves the stories of individual American and international volunteers into a broader narrative of the three-year civil war. The personal portraits in Hochschild’s account of Britain during World War I were nearly equally balanced between war supporters and opponents. Here, the personalities are mostly on the Republican side, although we also meet a few individuals who assisted the Nationalists.

                 The dominant American in Hochschild’s narrative is Bob Merriman, a lanky economist from Nevada who seemed to be heading toward a successful academic career in Berkeley, California, when he decided to leave Berkeley for a two-year tour in the Soviet Union and, from there, traveled to Spain to fight on the Republican side.  Once in Spain, Merriman rose quickly to become the charismatic chief of staff of what came to be known informally as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the unit to which most of the approximately 2,800 American volunteers belonged. We experience the main battles of the war primarily through Merriman, up until April 1938, when he disappeared in battle. Hochschild also introduces a host of other Americans who traveled to Spain to support the Republican cause. Numerous journalists and literary figures add vitality and specificity to Hochschild’s overall picture of the war. Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell are central characters in the story. Antoine St. Exuprey, André Malraux and John Dos Passos make short appearances.   Hochschild’s title “Spain in Our Hearts” is from the pen of Albert Camus.

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              Franco’s military rebels called themselves Nacionales, which in Spanish is stronger than “nationalist” in English, suggesting that the rebels represented “the only true Spaniards” (p.27). Hochschild characterizes the Nationalist cause as a “war of earlier centuries against modernity, of traditional Catholicism against the secular world, of an ancient rural order against urban, industrial culture” (p.69). Franco’s aim was to “restore the glories of age-old Spain and the key pillars of a highly authoritarian state: the army, the Church, the big estates, and the overseas Spanish empire that had once spanned continents . . . There would be no elections, no independent trade unions, no democratic trappings of any sort” (p.69).

            The Nationalist military forces counted among their ranks the notoriously brutal Spanish Foreign Legion, along with large numbers of North African Arab or Berber recruits, which together “formed the core of the Nationalist army” (p.98).  Termed “Moors,” the Arab and Berber recruits were led by Spanish officers who told them that they would be “fighting against infidels and Jews who wanted to abolish Allah.” The recruits thus fought alongside Spanish militiamen whose war cry was “Long Live Christ the King” (p.29). Spain’s Catholic hierarchy, the “most reactionary in Europe,” embraced Franco and the Nationalist cause “wholeheartedly, and were rewarded in turn” (p.69). In regions that came under Nationalist control, Republican reforms, including a law permitting divorce, were reversed. “Textbooks were purged of anything deemed contrary to Christian morality, and all teachers were ordered to lead their children daily in praying to the Virgin Mary for a Nationalist victory” (p.69).

            On the diverse but faction-riddled Republican side, Hochschild highlights the role which Spanish anarchists played.  Adherents of a creed that thrived in Spain, anarchists believed in “commnismo libertario, libertarian or stateless communism. The police, courts, money, taxes, political parties, the Catholic Church, and private property would all be done away with. Communities and workplaces would be run directly by the people in them, free at last to exercise a natural human instinct for mutual aid that, anarchists fervently believed, exists in us all . . . Anarchism was really a preindustrial ideology, and exactly how its vision was to be realized in a complex modern economy remained hazy at best” (p.42).

            Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War seemed to some the concrete realization of the anarchist vision. It is hard to find an example, before or since, Hochschild argues, “where so many ideas normally considered utopian were put into practice on a scale affecting millions of people” (p.214). Workers’ collectives ruled the city. Large mansions were seized and turned into homeless shelters, a liqueur distillery became a hospital, and a monastery became a children’s TB sanitarium.  Pawn shops were forced to give objects back to poorer citizens. Throughout the city, anarchist flags “hung from balconies or ropes strung across streets. They also fluttered from small poles fastened to automobiles and were painted on every imaginable surface. . . from subway cars to shoeshine boxes” (p.51). Barcelona thus “turned the normal social order on its head,” (p.61), drawing independent-minded leftists from all over the world.

            Some 35,000 to 40,000 volunteers from more than 50 different countries, divided into five international brigades, provided support to the Republican army, itself an “ill-trained hodgepodge of militia units loyal to different political parties and trade unions” (p.148). The 2,800 American volunteers who made up the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from 46 different states, and included “rich and poor, Ivy League graduates, and men who had ridden freight trains in search of work” (p.xx). About half were Jewish and about one-third came from the New York City area. There were 90 African-American volunteers. The Abraham Lincoln brigade also included a Native American member of the Sioux tribe; two FBI fingerprint experts; a vaudeville acrobat; a rabbi; and a Jewish poet from New Orleans.

            Their de facto leader, Bob Merriman was, according to one report, the “backbone and moving spirit” of the Lincoln brigade, “filled with initiative, overflowing with energy . . . unquestionably the domina[n]t figure in the brigade” (p.247). A member of the brigade described Merriam as “universally liked and respected . . . one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance” (p.111). Yet, Merriman maintained what to Hochschild was a puzzling, even obstinate, loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union throughout the Spanish conflict. Merriman disappeared in a battle near the town of Corbera, six miles west of the Ebro River, in April 1938. There is much speculation, but still no definitive answer, as to the details of Merriman’s disappearance.

          Ernest Hemmingway, already a celebrity author, was a war correspondent during the war, and his “notorious strut and bluster” (p.xv) are on full display throughout Hochschild’s narrative. Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, often considered his greatest work, was published in 1940 and is drawn directly from his experiences in the Spanish Civil War. Eric Blair, writing under the name George Orwell, actually fought and was injured in the war. His memoir Hommage to Catalonia constitutes one of the most significant contemporaneous records of the conflict. Both Hemmingway and Orwell passionately supported the Republican cause, but they portrayed the cause differently, Hochschild notes. Orwell’s Hommage described a “faction-ridden Republic . . . a picture far different from what its government wanted to present to the world” (p.362). Hemmingway, by contrast, said nothing in his wartime dispatches that might have tarnished the heroic Republican image, saving his most acidic and searing insights for novels and short stories published after the war.

           Many other journalists figure prominently in Hochschild’s account. Famed New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews became a passionate supporter of the Republican side. Matthews fought his own civil war at the Times with his colleague William Carney, who wrote from Spain as an open Franco enthusiast.  Louis Fischer, an ardent communist as a young man who contributed to the 1949 anti-communist tract The God that Failed, abandoned journalism altogether to become an advisor to the Republican side. Socialite journalist Virginia Cowles, more realist than Hemmingway or Matthews, revealed the “spirit of revenge” (p.203) and summary executions that permeated the Nationalist side, and was among the first to depict the Republican cause as doomed.  Journalist and writer Martha Gellhorn, who later became Hemmingway wife number three (of four), accompanied Hemmingway throughout much of the war.

          Among the small number of internationals who aided the Nationalists, the most colorful is Torkild Rieber of Texaco Oil, a “swashbuckling American oilman with a penchant for right-wing dictators” (p.xvi).  Texaco was close to being the official supplier of oil to the Nationalist cause — on credit, often with free shipping, and probably in violation of United States law. A “grateful Franco continued to buy Texaco oil long after the war, and later made Rieber a Knight of the Grand Cross of Isabella, the Catholic, one of Spain’s highest honors . . . A few years later the undersecretary of the Spanish foreign ministry went further. ‘Without American petroleum and American trucks and American credits . . . we could never have won the civil war’” (p.343).

         Hochschild unsparingly recounts the atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict, while giving the Nationalists a decisive edge for brutality. The Nationalist carpet bombing of the Basque town Guernica, which inspired the war’s best known work of art by Pablo Picasso, “represented the first near-total destruction of a European city from the air,” with a “powerful impact on a world that had not yet seen the London blitz or the obliteration of Dresden and Hiroshima” (p.177).   One of the reasons that the bombing of Guernica inspired such worldwide outrage was that Franco and the Catholic Church first vigorously denied that it had ever taken place, then claimed that Guernica had been burned to the ground by retreating Republican troops.

            The Nationalist ferocity “knew no bounds” toward female supporters of the Republic. Rapes were standard and, “playing on centuries of racial feeling that was shared across the political spectrum, Nationalist officers deliberately compounded the terror by choosing Moorish troops to do the raping” (p.39). The treatment of prisoners of war on both sides was ruthless. But the Republicans generally spared Nationalist enlisted men, “considered either deluded by propaganda or forced to fight against their will” (p.241), whereas the Nationalists routinely shot captured soldiers at all levels, targeting internationals in particular: 173 of the 287 Americans taken prisoner were killed.

            More than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war, most during the first four months. By contrast, some 150,000 civilians were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war. By the end of 1936, the Republican government had largely succeeded in bringing civilian deaths to a halt. But such deaths included many clergy members and attracted the attention of the conservative American press, doing great damage to the Republican chances of gaining assistance from abroad. When a British special envoy encouraged both sides in Spain to suspend summary executions, the Republic readily agreed. Nationalist Spain, “where the number of political prisoners facing the death sentence ran into the thousands, refused to do likewise” (p.339).

            The story of the Spanish Civil War must be told against the backdrop of a Europe in 1936-39 lurching toward continent-wide war. After the September 1938 Munich conference, where Britain and France ceded the German-speaking portion of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany, Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco “knew that the path to victory was clear. Previously, Hitler had been in no great hurry for the Spanish war to end, since it distracted Western attention from his ambitions in the east. But with Munich behind him, he sent the Nationalists a massive new wave of arms and supplies” (p.338). For his part, Stalin after Munich “began to lose interest in the war. . . [and] gradually withdrew most of the Russian and Eastern European officers he had lent to the Republic’s military and, for good measure, he continued to order many of them executed” (p.331).

            A few weeks after Munich, the Republican government announced that its was removing all international support, in the forlorn hope that Great Britain and France might insist that Franco do the same with the German and Italian soldiers fighting on the Nationalist side. The departure of the International Brigades, Hochschild writes, “marked the end of an almost unparalleled moment. Never before had so many men, from so many countries, against the will of their own governments, come to a place foreign to all of them to fight for what they believed in” (p.337).

            Britain and France formally recognized Nationalist Spain on February 27, 1939, while combat continued.  By March 31, 1939, the Nationalists occupied all of Spain, and the fighting was over. The outcome, Orwell wrote, was “settled in London, Paris, Rome, Berlin” (p.362) – and he could have added Washington to the list, Hochschild notes. In Orwell’s succinct phrasing, the Nationalists won “because they were stronger; they had modern arms and the others hadn’t” (p.362). Hochschild speculates, as many have before him, that greater assistance from the Western powers might have tipped the balance in the Republicans’ favor.

            Franco’s victory brought not reconciliation but vengeance. If, during the war, Nationalist supporters in a particular town or village had been killed or had their property confiscated, “people from that town were executed in retaliation, whether or not they had had anything to do with the original events. If the regime couldn’t lay its hands on someone, his family paid the price. . . At every level of society, Franco aimed to rid Spain of what he considered alien influences” (p.344).  Franco remained in power 36 years after the cessation of hostilities, up until his death in 1975.

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          Hochschild acknowledges that the Second World War has largely eclipsed the Spanish Civil War in our collective memory today.  But by presenting the three-year assault on democratic institutions in Spain through the lens of participating American and international volunteers, Hochschild captures the flavor of a conflict that, as he aptly puts it, was seen at the time as a “world war in embryo” (p.xv).

Thomas H. Peebles

Prospect, Kentucky

August 18, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under European History, Spanish History

The 22-Month Criminal Partnership That Turned the World On Its Head

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Roger Moorhouse, The Devils’ Alliance:
Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41 

     On August 23, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union stunned the world by executing a non-aggression pact, sometimes referred to as the “Ribbentrop-Molotov” accord after the foreign ministers of the two countries.  The pact, executed in Moscow, seemed to come out of nowhere and was inexplicable to large portions of the world’s population, not least to German and Soviet citizens. Throughout most of the 1930s, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia had vilified the other as its archenemy.  Hitler came to power in Nazi Germany in no small measure because he offered the country and especially its privileged elites protection from the Bolshevik menace emanating from the Soviet Union. Stalin’s Russia viewed the forces of Fascism and Nazism as dark and virulent manifestations of Western imperialism and global capitalism that threatened the Soviet Union.

     In his fascinating and highly readable account of the pact, The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact With Stalin, 1939-41, Roger Moorhouse, an independent British historian, writes that the “bitter enmity between the Nazis and the Soviets had been considered as a given, one of the fixed points of political life.  Now, overnight, it had apparently been consigned to history. The signature of the pact, then, was one of those rare moments in history where the world – with all its norms and assumptions – appeared to have been turned on its head” (p.142). Or, as one commentator quipped at the time, the pact turned “all our –isms into –wasisms” (p.2).

     According to Hitler’s architect Albert Speer, when the Fûhrer learned at his mountain retreat that Stalin had accepted the broad outlines of the proposal Ribbentrop carried to Moscow, Hitler “stared into space for a moment, flushed deeply, then banged on the table so hard that the glasses rattled, and exclaimed in a voice breaking with excitement, ‘I have them! I have them!’” (p.35). But Moorhouse quotes Stalin a few pages later telling his adjutants, “Of course, it’s all a game to see who can fool whom. I know what Hitler’s up to. He thinks he’s outsmarted me but actually it’s I who has tricked him” (p.44).

    Which devil got the better of the other is an open and perhaps unanswerable question. For Germany, the pact allowed Hitler to attack Poland a little over a week later without having to worry about Soviet retaliation and, once Poland was eliminated, to pursue his aims elsewhere in Europe without a two-front war reminiscent of Germany’s situation in World War I up to Russia’s surrender after the Bolshevik revolution.  The conventional view is that for the Soviet Union, which had always looked upon war with Nazi Germany as inevitable, the pact at a minimum bought time to continue to modernize and mobilize its military forces.

     But, Moorhouse argues, Stalin was interested in far more than simply buying time. He also sought to “exploit Nazi aggression to his own ends, to speed up the fall of the West and the long awaited collapse of the West” (p.2). The non-aggression agreement with Nazi Germany provided the Soviet Union with an opportunity to expand its influence westward and recapture territory lost to Russia after World War I.  The pact ended almost exactly 22 months after its execution, on June 22, 1941, when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the code name given to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But during the pact’s 22-month existence, both Hitler and Stalin extended their authority over wide swaths of Europe.  By June 1941, the two dictators — the two devils — between them controlled nearly half of the continent.

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     As late as mid-August 1939, Soviet diplomats were pursuing an anti-Nazi collective defense agreement with Britain and France. But Stalin and his diplomats suspected that the British and the French “would be happy to cut a deal with Hitler at their expense” (p.24).  Sometime that month, Stalin concluded that no meaningful collective defense agreement with the Western powers was feasible. Through the non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, therefore, Stalin preempted the British and French at what he considered their own duplicitous game. Three days prior to the signing of the non-aggression pact, on August 20, 1939, Berlin and Moscow executed a commercial agreement that provided for formalized exchanges of raw materials from the Soviet Union and industrial goods from Germany. This agreement had been in the works for months and, unlike the non-non-agression pact, had been followed closely in capitals across the globe.

     The non-aggression pact that followed on August 23rd was a short and in general non-descript document, in which each party guaranteed non-belligerence to the other and pledged in somewhat oblique terms that it would neither ally itself nor aid an enemy of the other party.  But a highly secret protocol accompanied the pact  — so secret that, on the Soviet side, historians suspect, “only Stalin and Molotov knew of its existence” (p.39); so secret that the Soviet Union did not officially acknowledge its existence until the Gorbachev era, three years after Molotov had gone to his grave denying the existence of any such instrument.  The protocol divided Poland into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of interest” to apply in the event of a “territorial and political rearrangement of the area belonging to the Polish state” (p.306).

     The accompanying protocol contained similar terms for Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, anticipating future “territorial and political rearrangements” of these countries. The protocol also acknowledged Moscow’s “interest in” Bessarabia, the eastern portion of today’s Moldova, then part of Romania, for which Germany declared its “complete disinterest” (p.306). For Stalin, the pact and its secret protocol marked what Moorhouse terms an “astounding success,” in which he reacquired a claim to “almost all of the lands lost by the Russian Empire in the maelstrom of the First World War” (p.37). Moorhouse’s chapters on how the Soviets capitalized on the pact and accompanying secret protocol support the view that the Soviet and Nazi regimes, although based on opposing ideologies, were similar at least in one particular sense: both were ruthless dictatorships with no scruples inhibiting territorial expansion at the expense of less powerful neighbors.

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       After Nazi Germany invaded Poland from the west on September 1, 1939 (eight days almost to the hour after execution of the pact), the Soviet Union followed suit by invading Poland from the east on September 17th. The Nazi and Soviet occupiers embarked upon a “simultaneous cleansing of Polish society,” with the Nazis motivated “primarily by concerns of race and the Soviets mainly by class-political criteria” (p.57).  Moorhouse recounts in detail the most chilling example of Soviet class cleansing, the infamous Katyn Forest massacre, where the Soviets methodically executed approximately 21,000 Polish prisoners of war – high-ranking Army officers, aristocrats, Catholic priests, lawyers, and others, all deemed “class enemies.” Stalin attributed the massacre to the Nazis, and official acknowledgement of Soviet responsibility did not come until 1990, one year prior to the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

     The Soviet Union browbeat Estonia into a “mutual assistance” treaty that, nominally, obligated both parties to respect the other’s independence. Yet, by allowing for the establishment of Soviet military bases on Estonian soil, the treaty “fatally undermined Estonian sovereignty. Estonia was effectively at Stalin’s mercy” (p.77). Similar tactics were employed in Lithuania and Latvia. By mid-October 1939, barely six weeks after signing the pact, Stalin had “moved to exercise control of most of the territory that he had been promised by Hitler” in the secret protocol, “securing the stationing of around 70,000 Red Army troops in the three Baltic states, a larger force than the combined standing armies of the three countries” (p.78). By August 1940, each Baltic state had become a Soviet constituent republic.

     The Soviet Union also invaded Finland in November 1939 and fought what proved to be a costly winter war against the brave Finns, who resisted heroically. The war demonstrated to the world – and, significantly, to Nazi Germany itself – the weaknesses of the Red Army.  It ended in a standstill in March 1940, with Moscow annexing small pieces of Finnish territory, but with no Soviet occupation or puppet government. The Soviet Union also wiped out Bessarabia. Although the secret protocol had explicitly recognized Soviet interest in Bessarabia, Hitler saw the Soviet move as a “symbol of Stalin’s undiminished territorial ambition.” Though he said nothing in public, Moorhouse writes, “Hitler complained to his adjutants that the Soviet annexation of Bessarabia signified the ‘first Russian attack on Western Europe’” (p.107).

      In the same timeframe, Hitler extended Nazi domination over Norway, Denmark, Holland, Luxembourg and Northern France, as well as much of Poland, some 800,000 square kilometers.  Hitler and Stalin thus divided up Europe in 1940, with Nazi Germany becoming the preeminent power on the continent. Stalin “did less well territorially, with only around half of Hitler’s haul at 422, 000 square kilometers, but was arguably better placed to actually absorb his gains, given that all of them were long standing Russian irredentia, with some tradition of rule from Moscow and all were neatly contiguous to the western frontier of the USSR” (p.106).

    Hitler’s concerns about the extent of Soviet territorial ambitions in Europe after its annexation of Bessarabia were magnified when the Soviets also demanded nearby northern Burkovina, a small parcel of land under Romanian control, nestled between Bessarabia and Ukraine. Northern Burkovina was Stalin’s first demand for territory beyond what the secret protocol had slated for Moscow. By late summer of 1940, therefore, the German-Soviet relationship was in trouble. The “mood of collaboration of late 1939 shifted increasingly to one of confrontation, with growing suspicions on both sides that the other was acting in bad faith” (p.197).

    In November 1940, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov was summoned to Berlin to try to breathe new life into the pact. Hitler and Ribbentrop made a concerted effort to head off westward Soviet expansion with the suggestion that the Soviet Union join the Tripartite Pact between Germany, Italy and Japan and focus its territorial ambitions to the south, especially on India, where it could participate in the “great liquidation of the British Empire” (p.215).  Ribbentrop’s contention that Britain was on the verge of collapse was called into question when certain meetings with Molotov had to be moved to a bunker because of British bombings of the German capital.

    Molotov left Berlin thinking that he had attended the initial round in what were likely to be lengthy additional territorial negotiations between the two parties.  In fact, the November conference marked the end of any meaningful give-and-take between them. In its formal response back to Germany, which Molotov delivered to the German Ambassador in Moscow, the Soviet Union made clear that it had no intention of abandoning its ambitions for westward expansion into Europe in exchange for membership in the Tripartite Pact. No formal German response was forthcoming to  Soviet demands for additional European territory. Rather, the often-vacillating Hitler had by this time made what turned out to be an irrevocable decision to invade the Soviet Union, with the objective of turning Russia into “our India” (p.295).

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    In the period leading up to the invasion in June 1941, Stalin refused to react to a steady stream of intelligence from as many as 47 different sources concerning a German build up near the Western edges of the new Soviet empire.  Stalin was obsessed with not provoking Germany into military action, “convinced that the military build up and the rumor-mongering were little more than a Nazi negotiating tool: an attempt to exert psychological pressure as a prelude to the resumption of talks” (p.229). Stalin seemed to believe that “while Hitler was engaged in the west against the British, he would have to be mad to attack the USSR” (p.230).

    But ominous intelligence reports continued to pour into Moscow. One in April 1941 concluded that Germany had “as many as one hundred divisions massed on the USSR’s western frontier” (p.238). In addition, over the previous three weeks, there had been eighty recorded German violations of Soviet airspace. “Such raw data was added to the various human intelligence reports to come in from Soviet agents . . . all of which pointed to a growing German threat” (p.238).  Still, Stalin “did not believe that war was coming, and he was growing increasingly impatient with those who tried to persuade him of anything different” (p.239).

    In the early phases of Operation Barbarossa, German troops met with little serious resistance and were able to penetrate far into Soviet territory.  In many of the areas that the Soviets had grabbed for themselves after execution of the pact, including portions of the Baltic States, the Germans were welcomed as liberators. The Soviet Union incurred staggering loses in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, losing much of the territory it had acquired as a result of the pact.

     Minsk, Bessarabia’s largest city, fell into German hands on June 28, 1941.  Its fall, Moorhouse writes, “symbolized the wider disaster not only for the USSR, but for Stalin personally.” It was the “moment at which his misjudgment was thrown into sharp relief. Only a dictator of his brutal determination – and one with the absolute power that he had arrogated for himself – could have survived it” (p. 273).  Moorhouse’s narrative ends with the Germans, anticipating an easy victory, not far from Moscow as 1941 entered its final months and the unforgiving Russian winter approached.

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      Moorhouse contends that the 1939 Nazi-Soviet non-non-aggresson pact has largely been glossed over in Western accounts of World War II, which focus on the fall of France and Britain’s lonely battle against the seemingly invincible Nazi military juggernaut during the  22-month period when the Soviet Union appeared to be aligned with Germany against the West.   To the degree that there is a knowledge gap in the West concerning the pact and its ramifications, Moorhouse’s work aptly and ably fills that gap.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
May 13, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, German History, History, Soviet Union

Empowering and Sustaining Fascism

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David Kertzer, The Pope and Mussolini:
The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe

      Italy’s fascist government, led by Benito Mussolini between 1922 and 1943, was the 20th century’s first to be characterized as “totalitarian.” By some accounts, Mussolini himself coined the term and boastfully applied it to his insurgent regime.  That regime came to power in 1922, after Mussolini and a small band of activists from the unruly Fascist party engineered the famous March on Rome in October 1922, which resulted in Mussolini’s appointment as Prime Minister in Italy’s constitutional monarchy.  Once in power, the charismatic Mussolini, a master of crowd manipulation known as the Duce, eliminated his political opposition and dropped all pretensions of democratic governance in favor of one-man rule. He recklessly took Italy into World War II on Hitler’s side, was deposed by fellow Fascists in 1943 prior to Italy’s surrender to the Allies, and was executed by anti-fascist partisans in 1945.

     In The Pope and Mussolini: The Secret History of Pius XI and the Rise of Fascism in Europe, David Kertzer reveals the surprising extent to which the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church empowered and sustained fascism in Italy.  Mussolini had his counterpart in Pope Pius XI, appointed head of the Catholic Church in 1922, the same year Mussolini came to power. Pius XI remained pope until his death in February 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II in September of that year.  Kertzer, a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University, shines the historian’s spotlight on the improbable but mutually beneficial alliance between Mussolini and Pius XI.

     The Vatican under Pius XI considered Mussolini and his Fascist party to be the only force that could preserve order in Italy and serve as a bulwark against Russian inspired socialism, which the Vatican considered an existential threat to itself and the church. The Vatican benefitted from the explicitly anti-democratic Fascist regime’s measures to reinstate the church’s privileged position within Italian society.  Its support in turn played a major role in legitimizing Mussolini’s fascist regime, allowing the Duce to cast himself as Italy’s “champion of law and order and national pride” (p.26).  Mussolini and Pius XI “came to be disillusioned by the other,” Kertzer concludes, “yet dreaded what would happen if their alliance were to end” (p.407).

      Kertzer’s story has two general parts. In the first, he explains how Mussolini and Pius XI pieced together in 1929 what are known as the “Lateran Accords,” agreements that reversed the strict separation between church and state that had existed since Italian unification in 1861 and had been arguably the most salient characteristic of Italy’s constitutional monarchy. The second involves Hitler’s intrusion into the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship after he was appointed Germany’s chancellor in 1933, with devastating effects for Italy’s small Jewish population.

   Mussolini and Pius XI met only once. Their relationship was conducted primarily through intermediaries, who form an indispensable component of Kertzer’s story.  Most noteworthy among them was Eugenio Pacelli, who became Pius XI’s Secretary of State and the pope’s principal deputy in 1930 before being named Pope himself, Pius XII, when Pius XI died in 1939.  Kertzer begins and ends with an account of how Pacelli and like-minded subordinates conspired with Mussolini’s spies within the Vatican to prevent dissemination of the dying Pius XI’s most important final work, an undelivered papal speech condemning racism, persecution of the Jews, and Mussolini’s alliance with Nazi Germany. The undelivered speech was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Accords and would have marked an irreversible rupture to the improbable alliance between the Vatican and Mussolini’s fascist government.

* * *

     Mussolini, born in 1883 as the son of a small-town blacksmith, started his political career as a socialist and adhered to the strong anti-clerical positions that characterized early 20th century Italian socialism.  As a young rabble-rouser, Mussolini was “part left-wing wild man and part Don Juan” who “always seemed to know how to become the center of attention . . . [H]e was someone you would rather have on your side than against you” (p.21).  More opportunist than ideologue, Mussolini broke with socialism sometime after World War I erupted in 1914. In a transformation that his former socialist colleagues viewed as “inexplicable and traitorous,” Mussolini “kept the revolutionary’s disdain for parliamentary democracy and fascination with the possibilities of violent action” but “jettisoned much of the rest of Marxist ideology” (p.22).

     The period after World War I was a time of great unrest in Italy, when a violent revolution similar to the one that had recently toppled the Tsarist regime in Russia seemed imminent. The chaos surrounding the end of the war created an opportunity for Mussolini. He had “always committed, above all, to himself and to a belief in his own ability to rise to the top. Now he began to see a new path that could allow him to realize those dreams” (p.22). That path involved presenting himself as the protector of the Catholic faith. In his first speech to parliament in late 1922, without any previous consultation with Vatican authorities, the irreligious Mussolini pledged that Fascism would restore Christianity in Italy by building a “Catholic state befitting a Catholic nation” (p.27).

     Mussolini’s protagonist throughout Kertzer’s story, Pius XI, was born Achille Ratti in 1857, twenty-six years before Mussolini.  Ratti seemingly came out of nowhere to become the head of the Catholic Church in 1922.  For most of his career, he had worked as a librarian, in the Vatican and elsewhere. But Pope Benedict XV unexpectedly sent Ratti to Poland in 1918 as his emissary to the heavily Catholic country, where he witnessed the invasion of the Red Army in the wake of the Russian revolution and developed a “lifelong loathing of Communism” (p.xxii).  Ratti then became a cardinal and was a surprising choice for the prestigious position of Archbishop of Milan.  He had barely begun that position when Benedict XV died. After 14 ballots, Ratti was elected pope in February 1922.

     Once in office, Pius XI assumed a manner that was imperious even by the standards of popes.  Compared to his predecessors, Pius XI was “cold and curt” (p.85) and “lacked any hint of diplomatic skills” (p.85).  He insisted that his own brother address him as “Holy Father.”  He had a proclivity for longwinded speeches and frequent outbursts of a volatile temper.  He was a detail oriented, hands on manager who sought to be informed and involved in even the most minor of Vatican administrative matters.  His love of order and deep sense of obedience to authority “set the tone for his reign” (p.39). His commands were to be followed “sooner than immediately,” he liked to say (p.39).

      Pius XI denounced the French Revolution as the “origin of much evil, spreading harmful notions of the ‘rights of man’” (p.84).  He contested the secular, modernist notion that in turning away from the Church, society was advancing; rather society was lapsing back into a “state of barbarism” (p.49). The pope’s vision of the role for the Vatican in society was at heart “medieval” (p.49), Kertzer contends.

     Although Pius XI and Mussolini seemed to have little in common, Kertzer notes that the two men were nonetheless alike in many ways. “Both could have no real friends, for friendship implied equality. Both insisted on being obeyed, and those around them quaked at the thought of saying anything that would displease them” (p.68). The two men also shared important values. “Neither had any sympathy for parliamentary democracy. Neither believed in freedom of speech or freedom of association. Both saw Communism as a grave threat. Both thought Italy was mired in a crisis and that the current political system was beyond salvation.” (p.48). Like Mussolini, Pius XI believed that Italy needed a “strong man to lead it, free from the cacophony of multiparty bickering” (p.29).

     Never under any illusion that Mussolini personally embraced Catholic values or cared for anything other than his own aggrandizement, Pius XI nonetheless was willing to test Mussolini’s apparent commitment to restore church influence in Italy.  Mussolini moved quickly to make good on his promises to the Vatican. By the end of 1922, he had ordered crucifixes to be placed in every classroom, courtroom, and hospital in the country. He made it a crime to insult a priest or to speak disparagingly of the Catholic religion. He required that the Catholic religion be taught in elementary schools and showered the Church with money to restore churches damaged during World War I and to subsidize Church-run schools abroad.

      Through a tendentious back and forth process that lasted four years and forms the heart of this book, Mussolini and Pius XI negotiated the Lateran Accords, signed in 1929. The accords, which included a declaration that Catholicism was “the only religion of the State,” ended the official hostility between the Vatican and the Italian state that had existed since Italy’s the unification in 1861.  The Italian state for the first time officially recognized the Vatican as a sovereign entity, with the government having no right to interfere in internal Vatican affairs.  In exchange for the Vatican’s withdrawal of all claims to territory lost at the time of unification, Italy further agreed to pay the Vatican the equivalent of roughly one billion present day US dollars.

      The historic accords offered Mussolini the opportunity to “solidify support for his regime in a way that was otherwise unimaginable” (p.99).  Pius XI saw the accords as a means of reinstating what had been lost in the 1860s with Italian unification, a “hierarchical, authoritarian society run according to Church principles” (p.110). Newspapers throughout the country hailed the accords, emphasizing that they “could never have happened if Italy had still been under democratic rule. Only Mussolini, and Fascism, had made it possible” (p.111).  Yet, neither Mussolini nor Pius XI was fully satisfied with the accords. The pope “would not be happy unless he could get Mussolini to respect what he regarded as the Church’s divinely ordained prerogatives.  Mussolini was willing to give the pope what he wanted as long as it did not conflict with his dictatorship and his own dreams of glory” (p.122).

     In the aftermath of the accords, Mussolini became a hero to Catholics in Italy and throughout the world and his popularity reached unimagined heights.  With no significant opposition, his craving for adulation grew and his feeling of self-importance “knew no bounds. His trust in his instincts had grown to the point where he seemed to believe the pope was not the only one in the Eternal City who was infallible” (p.240), Kertzer wryly observes. But as Mussolini’s popularity in Italy soared, Hitler came to power in nearby Germany early in 1933. The latter portion of Kertzer’s book, focused on a three-way Hitler-Mussolini-Pius XI relationship, reveals the extent of anti-Semitism throughout Italy and within the Vatican itself.

* * *

     Hitler had been attracted to Mussolini and the way he ruled Italy from as early as the 1922 March on Rome, and Mussolini sensed that when Hitler came to power in 1933, he had a potentially valuable ally with whom he had much in common. Pius XI, by contrast, abhorred from the beginning Hitler’s hostility to Christianity and his treatment of German Catholics. He viewed Nazism as a pagan movement based on tribal nationalism that was contrary to the Church’s belief in the universality of humankind. But Pius XI initially found little that was objectionable in the new German government’s approach to what was then euphemistically termed the “Jewish question.” Pius XI’s views of world Jewry were in line with thinking that was widely prevalent across Europe in the early decades of the 20th century: Jews were “Christ killers” bent upon destroying Christianity; and Jewish influence was behind both the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the amoral, godless capitalism centered in the United States.

     Prior to the Hitler’s advent to power in Germany, Mussolini’s views on Jews had been more liberal than those of the Pope. He did not regard Italy’s small Jewish population as a threat to the Italian state.  After Hitler made a triumphal trip to Italy in 1938, however, Mussolini pushed through a series of “racial laws” which in many senses mirrored measures Hitler was taking in Germany to resolve the “Jewish question.” The racial laws defined the “Jewish race” to include those Jews who had converted to Catholicism. They excluded Jews from the civil service and revoked the citizenship of foreign-born Jews who had become citizens after 1919.  All Jews who were not citizens were ordered to leave the country within six months.  All Jewish teachers, from elementary school through university, were fired.

     In a second wave of racial laws, Italian Jews were expelled from the Fascist Party; banned from the military; and barred from owning or directing businesses having more than a hundred employees, or from owning more than fifty hectares of land.  In pursuing the racial laws, Mussolini had obviously fallen under the sway of Hitler. Yet, Kertzer refrains from probing  the motivations behind Mussolini’s thorough and sudden embrace of Nazi approaches to the “Jewish question,” noting simply that Mussolini was “eager to impress the Nazi leadership and undoubtedly thought nothing would please it more than taking aim at Italy’s Jews” (p.293).

     The racial laws were presented to the Italian public as a reinstatement of traditional Catholic teachings on the Jews.  Pius XI and the Vatican initially criticized only their application to Jews who had converted to Catholicism.  Neither the Pope nor anyone else in the Vatican “ever voiced any opposition to the great bulk of the racial laws, aimed at stripping Jews of their rights as Italian citizens” (p.345).  Yet, as his health deteriorated and war appeared ever more imminent in Europe in late 1938 and early 1939, Pius XI began to see the racial laws and the treatment of Jews in Italy and Germany as anathema to Christian teaching.

     Kertzer’s story ends where it begins, with Pius XI near death and seeking to deliver a speech condemning unequivocally Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler, racism and the persecution of the Jews on the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Lateran Accords.  The speech would have marked the definitive break between the Vatican and Mussolini’s Fascist regime.  During Pius XI’s final days, Eugenio Pacelli, the future pope, worked feverishly with other Vatican subordinates to preclude Pius XI from delivering the speech. After the pope’s death, at Mussolini’s urging, they sought to destroy all remaining copies of the undelivered speech.

     Their efforts were almost fully successful. The words the pope had “so painstakingly prepared in the last days of his life would never be seen as long as Pacelli lived” (p.373).  The speech did not become public until 1958, when Pius XII’s successor, John Paul XXIII, in one of his first acts as pope, ordered release of excerpts.  But passages most critical of Mussolini and the Fascist regime were deleted from the released text, “presumably to protect Pacelli, suspected of having buried the speech in order not to offend Mussolini or Hitler” (p.373).  The full text did not become available until 2006, when the Vatican opened its archives on Pius XI.

* * *

     Kertzer’s suspenseful account of Pius XI’s undelivered speech demonstrates his flair for capturing the palace and bureaucratic intrigue that underlay both sides of the Mussolini-Pius XI relationship.  This flair for intrigue, in evidence throughout the book, coupled with his colorful portraits of Mussolini and Pius XI, render Kerzter’s work highly entertaining as well as crucially informative. Although his work is not intended to be a comprehensive analysis of Mussolini’s regime, his emphasis upon how the Vatican abetted the regime during Pius XI’s papacy constitutes an invaluable addition to our understanding of the nature of the Fascist state and twentieth century totalitarianism under Mussolini.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
April 11, 2016

4 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Italian History

Discovering Humanistic Culture in the Land of Hitler and Himmler

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Joachim Fest, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood,
translated by Martin Chalmers

      It is nearly impossible to reflect upon the Nazi period in Germany without asking how this exceptionally cultured country could sink to such unprecedented levels of barbarity.  This reflection upon what might be termed Germany’s “duality” – the land of Beethoven and Bach, Goethe and Schiller becoming the land of Hitler, Himmler and Goebbels — is so commonplace as to be a platitude.  But it is also the main thread tying together Joachim Fest’s engaging memoir, Not I: Memoirs of a German Childhood, recently translated into English.  Fest, born in Germany in 1926, went on after World War II to become a respected historian, one of a handful of Germans who wrote openly about his country’s descent into barbarity during the Nazi period.  His works include a biography of Adolf Hitler and books about Albert Speer and the German resistance to Nazism.  Fest was 7 years old when the Nazis came to power in 1933 and was old enough in 1944, at age 18, to serve in the Nazi military.  Fest died in 2006.

      The duality of the Germany which Fest describes proved fatal to many of his family’s Jewish friends, whose faith in the humanism of German culture blinded them to the true nature of the Nazi regime until it was too late. They had “believed all too unreservedly in reason, in Goethe, Kant, Mozart and the whole tradition which came from that” (p.261), Fest writes. But this duality is also at work throughout Fest’s memoir in his more mundane descriptions of everyday childhood life in Nazi Germany where, within the rigidly controlled and aggresively anti-intellectual Nazi environment, young Joachim discovered humanistic German culture.

* * *

       Fest describes his German childhood world, with the Nazis in firm control by his 7th birthday in 1933, as “utterly political,” where “[m]any conversations and almost all personal decisions were made with an eye to the prevailing situation.” Yet, the “traditional rules of upbringing still applied, in our home perhaps even a little more than elsewhere” (p.76), in large measure because of the structured home environment which Fest’s parents provided.  Fest’s father Johannes dominates the first half of the memoir, the author’s childhood years, then recedes to the background but remains a forceful influence as the author reaches adolescence and early adulthood, which he spent in boarding school and the German military.

     The senior Fest possessed an “authority which was never challenged, still less doubted” within the Fest family, where “fragments of this elevated image increasingly asserted themselves, in the face of all childish and later all adolescent resistance” (p.29). The “Not I” portion of the memoir’s title were words which Johannes dictated to his children, in Latin – etiam si omnes, ego non – “even if everyone else, not I,” from St. Matthew’s gospel, to remind them of the family’s resolute opposition to the Nazi regime.  As young Joachim moved through his childhood years, his father served as the lens with which the son came to view the regime.

      Johannes was from a staunch Prussian Catholic family yet, unusually, also strongly supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s beleaguered post World War I experiment in parliamentary democracy. “If Prussia and republicanism were not easily reconciled,” Fest writes of his father, “then the contradiction was further sharpened by my father’s strict Catholicism. He was a pious man, who accounted to the ‘Lord God’ (as he usually put it in this context) for each of his private or political decisions” (p.16).  Joannes never wavered in his conviction that a “human being without faith was ‘incomplete.’ Neither reason nor walking upright separated him from the apes; the difference between the two lay in the need for a Beyond” (p.112).

      Professionally, the senior Fest was an erudite primary school headmaster who lost his job during Hitler’s first year in power. Unwilling to join the party and pledge allegiance to the new regime, which he repeatedly termed a “band of criminals,” the author’s father was informed that his “public speeches disparaging the Führer” were the reason for his dismissal (p.35). When handed his dismissal papers, Fest’s father reminded the Nazi bureaucrat in charge that he was a civil servant entitled to certain protections. “You can tell our Führer that. He’ll be very impressed” (p.34), the bureaucrat responded.

       Fest’s mother Elisabeth shared her husband’s opposition to the Nazi regime but was far from supportive of his outspoken hostility to the regime and his refusal to join the Nazi party.  Joannes’ stand in her view endangered the entire family and threatened its stability. On numerous occasions, Fest’s mother entreated her husband to yield to Nazi demands and provide the requisite assurances to the authorities to enable him to continue to hold a  job and maintain the family’s comfortable living standard.  If joining the party would be a lie to those in charge, the author overheard his mother telling his father, “then let it be a lie! A thousand lies even, if necessary!” (p.50).

      The Fest family grew up in Karlshorst, a middle class Berlin suburb.  Joachim was the second son in a family of five children, where the older three siblings were boys and the younger two were girls. Fest’s older brother Wolfgang died serving in Hitler’s military, but the other family members survived the war.  Fest was 13 when World War II began in 1939. By this time, he had developed a precocious interest in poetry, literature, and music, and much of the memoir details the evolution of these interests against a backdrop of ubiquitous pressure to support the Nazi regime.

       Fest’s Aunt Dolley introduced him to opera at age six, when they heard Mozart’s The Magic Flute, an “overwhelming experience” which served as Fest’s “entry to the magical world of music” (p.48-49). Another important influence on young Fest was Father Wittenbrink, the family’s anti-Nazi parish priest.  Father Wittenbrink tried to convince the author that Mozart was the “most convincing proof of the existence of God. . . Every single page of his biography teaches us that he comes from another world” (p.174), Father Wittenbrink argued.  Fest learned poetry through regular visits to the home of the Fest family’s friend, Dr. Meyer, who was incessantly talking about the “books he was reading for the second, third or fourth time” (p.89).

      One of the family’s many Jewish friends, Dr. Meyer disappeared during the war and, although his fate is not difficult to imagine, we never learn exactly what happened to him.  In their last meeting in the spring of 1939, Dr. Meyer ruminated to the young Fest that the great German poets  — and thus Germany’s duality — “bore some of the blame” for the uncertainty he was then facing in his life. He had often considered emigrating and had been “close to making the decision to leave.” But then “trust in the culture of the Germans had always won out” (p.129-30).  Dr. Meyer lamented that he had accepted the idea that a nation that had “produced Goethe and Schiller and Lessing, Bach, Mozart and whoever else, would simply be incapable of barbarism. Griping at the Jews, prejudice, there had always been that,” Dr. Meyer mused.  “But not violent persecution. They wouldn’t do anything to us.” Dr. Meyer’s final words to young Fest were, “You know how mistaken we were” (p.130).

      Joachim and his older brother Wolfgang were sent off to a provincial boarding school near Frankfurt after the war began in 1939. As he left Berlin on the train, Joachim reflected on his German childhood. Although these years had been difficult ones for his parents, his childhood had nonetheless been “happy years” because his parents had “let us feel their fears as little as possible” (p.133).  A volume of Schiller’s work provided Fest with what he described as his “refuge from the irksome features of boarding school” (p.141). But Fest developed a reputation with the school’s administration for impertinence – for being a “wise guy” – as captured in a report from the school sent to Fest’s parents:

Joachim F. shows no intellectual interest and only turns his attention to subjects he finds easy . . . His religious attachment leaves something to be desired. He is hard to deal with. He shows a precocious liking for naked women, which he hides behind a taste for Italian painting . . . He is taciturn. All attempts by the rectorate to draw him into discussion were in vain (p.187).

       In 1944, Joachim reached age 18 and, facing conscription into the German SS, volunteered instead for the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe.  When he told his father by telephone from boarding school that he had volunteered to avoid being drafted into the SS, his father reacted indignantly. “Volunteered!. . . For this war! Have you thought of me? Of us?” Finally, “after long argument and even longer silence we hung up” (p.182). In the letter that arrived few days later, his father wrote, with an “unbelievable lack of caution,” that one “does not volunteer for ‘Hitler’s criminal war’, not even to avoid the SS” (p.182).

       Despite his father’s entreaties, Fest went ahead with his plan to volunteer for the Luftwaffe, where he again found refuge  in literature, music and poetry, abetted by a colleague who shared Fest’s cultured passions. In March 1945, advancing American forces captured Fest and he wound up in an American prison camp as the war ended two months later.  Although Fest initially found his capture a welcome happenstance, a rumor circulated within the camp that its administration was to be turned over to the French.  Fest and his fellow prisoners surmised that the French were likely to be more bent upon revenge than the Americans.  This prompted Fest to organize an ingenious but unsuccessful escape attempt from the camp, one of the memoir’s most memorable sections. Upon his return to prison camp, a book-loving American guard introduced Fest to English language novels, especially Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage.

       The memoir ends with the family reunited in devastated Berlin in late 1945, absent Fest’s older brother Wolfgang, who died of a lung infection on Germany’s Eastern Front. Upon returning home, Fest learned that his father at age 50 had been conscripted into the military, where he had been captured by the Russians and imprisoned in a Russian camp. Fest found his father “hardly recognizable: a man abruptly grown smaller, slighter, grey-haired. Most of the time he simply sat there, his eyes sunken, where previously he had always set the tone” (p.260).

      In her husband’s absence during the war, Fest’s mother had “proved to be a robust person and had completely shed her [family] gentleness” (p.259). But upon seeing his mother, Fest was “dismayed by the emaciated, scraggy picture that she presented, and how empty her eyes were” (p.248). When, unavoidably, the name of brother Wolfgang was mentioned, his mother’s “mouth began to twitch” (p.260). Wolfgang’s death was an “unnameable misfortune for our family. My mother had always said as long as we were all alive she would not complain. Now that security was gone. In the almost twenty-five years that remained to her, whenever Wolfgang’s name was mentioned or an episode which had something to do with him, she rose from her seat and left the room” (p.196).

     Fest’s father was given to reflection after the war on why even he and his highly literate friends, all ardent opponents of the Nazi regime, had nonetheless underestimated Hitler.  Until Hitler came to power, his father had always trusted that a “primitive gangster like Hitler could never achieve power in Germany” (p.261). But, in his father’s view, Germans in the Hitler era failed to uphold their cultured heritage. They “lost their passion for introspection and discovered their taste for the primitive.” Their model was no longer the “reflective scholar type of the nineteenth century” but rather, the “tribal warrior, dancing around a stake and showing his chief a painted grimace. The nation of Goethe!” (p.280).

      Remembering his Jewish friends who perished during the war, Fest’s father said that “in their self-discipline, their quiet civility and unsentimental brilliance they had really been the last Prussians; in any case, he had more often encountered his idea of Prussiansim among the long-established, often highly educated Berlin Jews than anywhere else” (p.63). Germany’s dualism, however, undermined them. Their “one failing” was that they were “overwhelmingly governed by their heads . . . [and] lost the instinct for danger, which had preserved them through the ages” (p.63).

* * *

      The prose in this poignant coming-of-age memoir is sometimes dense, making for slow reading, which might be a function of its translation into English from the German original.  But the memoir shines as a statement of how Fest and his family, led by his Nazi-resisting father Johannes, maintained their grasp on Germany’s cultivated heritage during the Hitler years. As this grim chapter in German and European history recedes, it remains useful to be reminded that there were Germans like Johannes Fest who said “Not I” to Hitler’s call.

Thomas H. Peebles

Paris, France

January 16, 2016

5 Comments

Filed under European History, German History, History

More Alike Than Different

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Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

       In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).

     Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime.  Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.

     In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).

       This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics.  Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).

* * *

        The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.

      Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52).  When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).

       Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44).  It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120).  The first victims were children.  During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).

       The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).

        One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war.  Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward.  When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).

       The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102).  By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).

        Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant.  Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).

        Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).

        Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127).  Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.

        Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war.  Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982.  But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended.  Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196).  Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining  from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in.  Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).

         How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.”  The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter.  There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155).  Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist.  Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).

* * *

        Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158).  In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.

Thomas H. Peebles
Paris, France
December 29, 2015

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Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, German History, History

Lenin’s Century

Pictures.tismaneanu

Vladmir Tismaneanu, The Devil in History:
Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century 

             The sub-title of this book should be a tip off that Valdimir Tismaneanu is wrestling with arguably the most critical question in 20th century European history: how did so much of the continent, where the Enlightenment two centuries previously had provided the blueprint for democratic governance based on religious tolerance and respect for individual rights, stray so far from the Enlightenment’s ideals? In The Devil in History: Communism, Fascism and Some Lessons of the Twentieth Century, Tismaneanu locates the answer in 20th century communism, from its inception quite simply a “criminal system” (p.69), he writes. Tismaneanu’s searing critique hones in on the impact of Bolshevik and Leninist thinking throughout the 20th century, and describes the rethinking that went on in Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, when most of the countries of the former Communist bloc committed themselves to democratic governance.

            A professor of political theory at the University of Maryland and Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Post-Communist Societies, Tismaneanu is a native of Romania brought up under the odious regime of Nicolae Ceaușecu, and thus knows more than a thing or two about how totalitarian governments operate. Tismaneanu indicates in his Forward that he was born after World War II to “revolutionary parents who had embraced anti-Fascist Communist values” (p.ix). His father fought with the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, losing an arm, while his mother served as a nurse in that conflict. At age 14, Tismaneanu started to think about the implications of communism after a chance reading of a clandestine copy of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon.

            The book’s cover contains an ingenious photo of Stalin and Hitler staring at one another. If you’re talking about the devil in history, you’ve got to start with these two guys, right? Actually, an argument could be made that neither should be on the cover. Despite its sub-title, the book is only secondarily about Fascism and Nazism, emphasizing primarily how, despite ideological differences, they were influenced by the communist model. Moreover, it would have made way more sense to put Vladimir Lenin on the cover rather than Stalin. Stalin in Tismaneanu’s analysis was a ruthless implementer who “carried to an extreme Lenin’s intolerant logic” (p.230). But Lenin was the devil in 20th century European history – “the twentieth century was Lenin’s century” (p.90).

* * *

            Tismaneanu describes Leninism (or Bolshevism; Tismaneanu uses these terms inter-changeably) as a “self-styled synthesis between Marxian revolutionary doctrine and Russian tradition of nihilistic repudiation of the status quo” (p.90). If there had been no Lenin, he goes on to contend, “there would have been no totalitarianism – at least not in its Stalinist version. The October 1917 Bolshevik putsch . . . was “the event that irreversibly changed the course of Western civilization and world history” (p.92). Thanks to Lenin, a “new type of politics emerged in the twentieth century, one based on elitism, fanaticism, [and] unflinching commitment to the sacred cause” (p.90). Leninism was “inherently inimical to political liberties. It is not an accidental deviation from the democratic project but its logical, direct and unequivocal antithesis” (p.120).

            Leninism was rooted in Enlightenment, with its focus on reason and progress. Leninists “knew how to pose as the heir to the Enlightenment, and many were duped by this rationalistic and humanistic pretense” (p.46). But Leninism was equally rooted in Marx’s theories of transformation and the Russian anarchistic revolutionary tradition, with its “utilitarian nihilism and a quasi-religious socialist vision of the transformation of mankind” (p.112), a tradition which Steven Marks described in How Russia Shaped the Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism, reviewed here in December. Lenin took Marx’s broad theories and emphasized the “organizational element as fundamental to the success of revolutionary action” (p.97). Leninism was precisely the type of utopianism which Isaiah Berlin abhorred, sanctifying “ultimate ends, and thus the creation of an amoral universe in which the most terrible crimes could be justified in the name of a radiant future” (p.70). More than a revolutionary response to the inequities of the Tsarist state and the injustices of capitalism, Leninism was an “experiment in ideologically driven, unbounded social engineering” (p.30). Never was a political doctrine “so ambitious, never a revolutionary project so much imbued with a sense of prophetic mission and charismatically heroic predestination” than Leninism (p.90), Tismaneanu concludes.

            Lenin’s diabolical influence extended to both Hitler and Mussolini. In times of moral and cultural disarray, Tismaneanu argues, Communism and Fascism can “merge into a baroque synthesis. Communism is not Fascism, and Fascism is not Communism. Each totalitarian experiment had had its own irreducible attributes, but they shared a number of phobias, obsessions, and resentments that could generate toxic alliances, like the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939” (p.x). The party played a different role under the two regimes. Under Communism the party leader incarnated the wisdom of the party, whereas under Fascism and Nazism the party was entirely secondary to the leader as the charismatic center of power. Fascism and Nazism also lacked the recurring party purges and show trials of the ruling elite as a “mechanism of mobilization, integration, and scapegoating” that characterized Communist regimes (p.53). Nonetheless, the ideologies of Communism and Fascism held in common a “belief in the plasticity of human nature and the possibility of transforming it in accordance with a utopian blueprint” (p.162). Both “identified with the revolution as an irreversible moment breaking with the past and creating a totally new world” (p.118). The two movements were alike in being “essentially and unflinchingly opposed to democratic values, institutions and practices” (p.21) – the “antithesis of the Western humanist legacy” (p.62).

            By the end of Khrushchev’s rule in the fall of 1964, both in the USSR and Eastern Europe, it was clear that reform within party-defined boundaries had “ceased to be a viable option”( p.136). Tismaneanu sees 1968 as a pivotal year, during which Eastern Europe saw an “explosion of post-revolutionary skepticism,” setting in motion forces that led to the “gradual decomposition of the Communist regimes” (p.142). Futile attempts to find ways of reforming Communism from within were replaced by an emphasis upon human dignity and the inviolability of human rights. The soul of Communism died in Prague in August 1968, Tismaneanu concludes. From that year onward, Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was a spent force, with stagnation and immobility becoming its main characteristics.

          If the Communist soul died in 1968, its emaciated body survived until 1989. The changes which Europe underwent that year start with Mikhail Gorbachev. Tismaneanu regards Gorbachev as a “genuine Marxist revisionist, who, while paying lip service to Lenin’s iconic figure, moved away from Bolshevism as a political culture based on fanaticism, sectarianism, and volunteerism toward a self-styled version of Marxist revisionism” (p.145-46). Gorbachev tried to offer “antidotes to the rampant pathologies of cynicism, corruption and cronyism,” but was “utterly confused as to how to bring about political pluralism while sustaining state socialism” (p.153). Gorbachev’s version of Marxist revisionism was directly inspired by Eduard Bernstein’s evolutionary socialism, but he was “unable to fully abandon the outworked Leninist model, desperately searching for ‘socialism with a human face,’ torn between nostalgia for old ideals and the tragic awareness of their hollowness” (p.153). Neither a neo-Menshevik nor a Western-style Social Democrat, Gorbachev remains the “last and most influential of those East European Leninist leaders who tried to humanize an inherently inhuman system” (p.153).

            Twenty-five years after the changes of 1989-91, pluralism seems to have settled solidly throughout the former Eastern European Communist bloc, Tismaneanu argues, with democratic practices widely recognized, accepted and practiced. The revolutions of 1989-91 dealt a mortal blow to the “ideological pretense according to which human life can be structured in accordance with scientific designs proposed by a general staff of revolutionary doctrinaires” (p.171). Tismaneanu emphasizes the centrality of civil society to the success of the 1989 transformation, replacing the existing political, social, and economic system with one “founded on the ideals of democratic citizenship and human rights” (p.223). The core value restored, cherished and promoted by the revolutions of 1989 was “common sense. The revolutionaries believed in civility, decency, and humanity, and they succeeded in rehabilitating these values” (p.223). In so doing, they also managed to bring about the “rebirth of citizenship, a category abolished by both Communism and Fascism,” which also involved “re-empowering the truth” (p.221). What we have learned from 1989, Tismaneanu concludes, represents an “unquestionable argument in favor of the values that we consider essential and exemplary for democracy today” (p.221).

             Still, Tismaneanu cautions, a “residual Bolshevism” (p.114) lingers in the formerly Communist world, certainly in Russia and many of the states of the former Soviet Union. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has instituted a regime euphemistically termed “managed democracy,” an “increasingly aggressive version of neo-Stalinist and neo-imperialist restoration” (p.218). But even in Eastern Europe, the “utopian reservoir of humanity has not been completely exhausted: refurbished ideologies have resurfaced, among them populism, chauvinism, and fundamentalism of different shades” (p.164-65). Communism’s demise has given rise to “disenchantment, dispirited political cultures, the rise of new collectivisms, marginalization of former heroes, and the return of former Communists” (p.194). In brief, the “battle for the soul of man after Communism has not ended” (p.205).

* * *

            As perceptive as Tismaneanu’s insights are, as critical as his subject matter is, a few caveats are in order before you rush out and plunk down something like $20 for the paperback edition of his book. Tismaneanu’s prose is often dense, bordering on turgid. It is riddled with sentences such as: “The disintegration of the Stalinist gnosis as a key self-sufficient system of authoritarian norms and quasi-mystical precepts impelled revisionist intellectuals toward the construction of what Kolakowski called an agnostic Marxism, actually a quixotic attempt to salvage the humanistic kernel of the doctrine lest the whole Marxist utopia fall apart” (p.177); and “The theoretical manifestations of these undercurrents provided a new semantic horizon, the coalescence of a new emotional and intellectual infrastructure that was translated into a resurgence of repressed philosophical topics, above all humanism as a privileged metaphysical concern” (p.134).

           To be sure, the nuances of Marxist thinking and applications of Communist theories do not always lend themselves to crackling prose. Further, English is not Tismaneanu’s native language, and he has my full admiration for establishing a distinguished career and earning numerous academic distinctions in an acquired rather than native language. This is by itself a remarkable achievement. But some writers achieve genuine fluency and elegance writing in an acquired language. Valdimir Zubok, whose book Zhivago’s Children I reviewed here in November 2012, is one example. Tismaneanu is not there yet (incidentally, Tismaneanu frequently cites Zubok’s work).

            Further, Tismaneanu over-relies on quotations from other works. For example, the following string of quotations is contained entirely on a single page, page 103:

. . .as A.E. Rees showed. . .To paraphrase Eugen Weber. . .as the Catholic intellectual Adolf Keller wrote. . . as sociologist Michael Mann underlines. . . As Lesek Kolakowski puts it. . .. Paul Berman explains . . .

           There is of course nothing wrong with one author occasionally quoting another’s work – it is way better than using another’s words without quoting the other writer. The over-reliance on quotations is a common characteristic of too many college term papers and university dissertations. An author writing for general readers should be providing primarily his or her own thoughts, not those of other writers.

* * *

            Born and raised in a particularly virulent form of Communism in Romania, Vladimir Tismaneanu has a wealth of insight to offer readers on the implications of that and other repressive systems of government. But this book, while treating an enticing and still-critical subject, is unlikely to gain the affection of most general readers.

Thomas H. Peebles
Cotonou, Benin (West Africa)
February 21, 2015

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Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Intellectual History, Political Theory, Politics, Soviet Union, Uncategorized

Far Away Country

Albright

Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward, Prague Winter:
A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48

           Although it is easy to forget, Madeline Albright was the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State, nominated for the position by President Clinton shortly after Clinton’s re-election in late 1996. Prior to becoming Secretary of State, Albright served as US Ambassador to the United Nations. But in addition to being a distinguished diplomat, Albright is also a first-rate storyteller, as she demonstrates in “Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-48.” Combining a mellifluous style with what strikes me as a distinctly Central European sensitivity to history’s capriciousness, Albright offers a riveting account of the daunting challenges which her native Czechoslovakia confronted between 1937 and 1948, along with personal remembrances of her earliest years.
1937, the year Albright was born in Prague as Marie Jana Korbelová, marked the onset of a tumultuous and dispiriting period for Czechoslovakia. The Czechoslovak Republic that had come into being after World War I had a rich, humanist cultural tradition and seemed ideally suited to transition to democratic governance. Yet, liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia during what Albright terms the “Prague Winter,” 1937 to 1948, faced steep obstacles it was unable to overcome by itself. A “beacon of humane government until snuffed out by Adolph Hitler,” Albright writes in her introductory chapter, Czech democracy enjoyed a brief post-war revival, only to be “extinguished again by the disciples of Josef Stalin,” (p.1-2)

           Albright also indicates in her introductory chapter that much of her motivation to write this book, which is about one third personal memoir and two thirds Czech political history, came from the revelation in the 1990s that her family had been Jewish. With little to no fanfare, her parents converted to Catholicism in 1941, when Albright was a young girl. As she grew up, Albright’s family said nothing about its Jewish roots or the conversion. Albright thinks that her parents considered Catholicism “more Czech” than Judaism. She surmises that her parents could see the suffering and prejudice to which Jews in Europe were subjected, and wanted their children to avoid such stigma. But Albright says she would really like to know more, speculating that her parents’ 1941 decision, when the “grim unfolding of the Holocaust was still in its earliest stages” might have been different in 1945. By war’s end:

acting to substitute a Christian identity for a Jewish one would have been – in the absence of a genuine religious calling – hard to conceive. When viewed through the lens of the Holocaust, the moral connotations of such a choice had been altered irrevocably. Perhaps that is why my parents never found a good time to discuss the decision with me and seemed to avoid doing so with others. Before the slaughter of six million Jews, they might have found the words; after it, they could not (p.193).

           Albright moves back and forth between her life with her family as a young girl, and the plight of Czechoslovakia between 1937 and 1948. But her book also contains a good background primer on the country prior to 1937. Czechoslovakia was created in the aftermath of World War I, carved out of the former Hapsburg Empire. A small country, surrounded by larger and more powerful neighbors, notably Germany, it was made up of three major ethnic blocks, the Czechs, the Slovaks, and the South Germans. Each dominated in a portion of the country, and each portion included a substantial Jewish population.

           In the 1920s, the young country looked like it was set to prove that liberal democracy could succeed in the heart of Central Europe. It had a forceful and widely revered President, Tomáš Masaryk, the “rare leader who taught as he led” (p.402), whose vision was to “embrace religion without the straightjacket of the Church, social revolution without the excesses of Bolshevikism, and national pride without bigotry” (p.39). Masaryk, “could easily have been elevated president of Europe,” Albright speculates, if such a post had existed in the inter-war period (p.47). Czechoslovakia had a literary rate twice as high as neighboring Hungary, even higher than Germany. Guided by a national motto, “in work and knowledge is our salvation,” the Czechs were industrial leaders in Europe. By 1930, their country ranked 10th world wide in industrial production. An obscure insurance agent from Prague and part-time writer named Franz Kafka introduced the safety helmet into workplaces, while a young German physicist, Albert Einstein, propounded on new theories of matter at Charles University in Prague.
But in Albright’s view the country’s most basic problem was its “system of ethnically distinct schools and social organization” among its three major ethnic groups, an “obstacle to building a united Czechoslovakia” (p.65). By 1937, the year Albright was born, it had become clear that Hitler had his sights on the Sudentland, Czechoslovakia’s German speaking region. In broadcast after broadcast, Nazi propaganda announced that the Czechs were conducting a “passionate fight for extermination” against the Sudetens (p.78). German-owned businesses were being “forced into bankruptcy, children were starving, the level of oppression was incredible,” Albright writes, going on to note that this propaganda was “carefully disguised as independent reporting to deceive international audiences” (p.78).
One year later at Munich, without consulting Czech leaders, Great Britain and France (along with Italy) gave into Hitler’s demands in October 1938 to cede the Sudentland to Germany in a futile quest for peace with the obstreperous dictator. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained in still-chilling words the rationale for what would come to be the classic instance of pre-World War II appeasement: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Albright describes Chamberlain as a “practical, business-oriented man, supremely confident in his judgments and disdainful of critics” who “did not believe that war was a solution to any problem and felt sure that all intelligent men would conclude the same. . . In Chamberlain’s universe, people might be flawed, but they worried about their souls and did not set out to do monstrous things” (p.71).
Less than six months later, the German Wehrmacht moved into and occupied the remaining Czech territory. Czechoslovakia’s President Edvard Beneš, who had succeeded Masaryk in 1935 when the latter resigned because of poor health, fled to London, where he headed a Czech government-in-exile. “Small countries can survive hostile neighbors,” Albright writes, “but the odds lengthen when a significant minority identifies with the enemy” (p.62). What happened in Czechoslovakia in 1938 was “not an inevitable consequence of ethnic diversity” but rather the tragic convergence of events, most notably the “failure of governments in and outside Central Europe to comprehend the scope of the danger they faced” (p.62).
Albright ‘s father, Josef Korbel, was a diplomat who served before the war as press attaché in the Czech Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. When war came, he took his family to London. During her years in London, from 1939 to 1945, Albright had many contacts with Beneš, by then Czech President in Exile. Even at her early age, Albright developed a fondness and admiration for the man who is the lead figure in this historical narrative of Czech history between 1937 and 1948. A less commanding figure than Tomáš Masaryk, with less intellectual range, Beneš nonetheless “worked consistently within the confines of the democratic and humane values that Masaryk championed. . . [and] performed miracles in holding the government in exile together and realizing its goals” (p.401-02).
Several members of Albright’s extended family were less fortunate during the war years than Albright and her immediate family, winding up in Terezín, a Czech city converted into a concentration camp after Czechs in 1942 assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the German protector of Czechoslovakia and Hitler’s personal envoy. There were no gas chambers at Terezín. It was not an extermination camp but was a killing ground nonetheless, because the “deaths from supposedly natural causes were due to unnatural conditions” (p.245). In all, 25 members of Albright’s family were sent to Terezín, including three of her four grandparents; none survived.
Albright recounts the heroism of the Czech resistance during the war. But after the war, Czechs turned savagely upon the ethnic German minorities still within the country. During the late spring and early summer of 1945, “due process was widely neglected” (p.333), Albright writes with considerable understatement. In some cases:

alleged collaborators were simply killed; in others, they were hauled off to makeshift prisons to be interrogated and tortured. In many towns, the maiming of local Germans became a spectator sport, as crowds gathered to jeer. To the local guardians of security, the rough treatment was not lawlessness but justice. Germans were given the same rations that Jews had been allotted during the war and were prohibited from entering hotels, restaurants, and shops. They could no longer speak their language in public. In some towns, they were required to wear specially colored armbands; in others, swastikas were painted on their backs. . . Czech women who had a reputation for fraternizing with Germans were humiliated (p.333).

           At the 1945 Potsdam conference, Great Britain and the United States approved the “orderly and humane” expulsion of ethnic Germans from Czech territory (p.337). Roughly 3.5 million ethnic German Czechs were formerly expelled to the American and Soviet zones of Germany, along with the uncounted thousands who were pushed out before the program officially began. In the end, only about 250,000 ethnic Germans remained in Czechoslovakia, about 10% of the pre-war population. Albright recognizes the post-war treatment of ethnic Germans as a dark chapter in Czech history, an indiscriminate imposition of collective war guilt which fell most heavily upon the innocent, the defenseless and the weak. Still, she says, her father supported the expulsion, although he qualified his support by admitting that it was “sometimes accompanied by excesses of brutality which no decent man can condone” (p.339).

            After the war, Albright’s father returned to Belgrade, this time as Czech Ambassador to Yugoslavia, and watched at a distance as his country succumbed to another totalitarian power, the Soviet Union. The post-World War II Soviet-led takeover of Czechoslovakia was more gradual, more nuanced than that of the Nazis, but the end result could not have seemed appreciably different to most Czechs.

            As the war ended, Beneš concluded that he could not depend upon Great Britain or France to guarantee the country’s future security. Nor did the distant United States seem likely to be an effective guarantor. Accordingly, Beneš let Stalin and his Kremlin associates know that he sought good relations with the Soviet Union and Czech Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald. As Albright explains, “Establishing a firm bond with Moscow was an essential element in Beneš’s postwar strategy. . . Beneš believed that his country needed a powerful friend” (p.256-57). As the war ended, Beneš faced the tall order of “trying to champion democracy, implement leftist economic policy, mollify the West and butter up Stalin all at the same time” (p.295).

           Together, Beneš’and Gottwald planned for a post-war Czechoslovakia that would give each a leading role. When Beneš’returned from exile in London, he added seven communists to his government. The Communists dominated the security forces, with the power to investigate and arrest, giving them enormous leverage over the government. In response to an attempt in February 1948 by the Interior Minister to purge non-Communist elements within the Ministry, the government’s non-Communist ministers resigned. After about two weeks of Communist-inspired labor unrest and violence, Beneš accepted the resignations of his non-Communist ministers and appointed a new government under Gottwald’s leadership. These resignations proved to be a huge tactical error, giving Gottwald the “chance to seize power through what many would see as constitutional means” (p.385-86).

             The only important non-Communist to remain in the government was Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Masaryk, Tomáš Masaryk’s son and Albright’s father’s boss, the nation’s “emissary to the world” (p.231). Two weeks later, Masaryk was dead under mysterious circumstances. The Communists maintained that Masaryk’s death was a suicide. Albright thinks he was murdered, but even today the question has not been definitively resolved. After Masaryk’s death, Czechoslovakia became the last of Stalin’s Eastern European satellites. The country’s 1948 fall to the Communists was a turning point in the Cold War, with Masaryk’s death and the Soviet takeover erasing “any lingering hope that collaboration between the Soviet Union and the West – so essential during the war – could survive even in diluted form” (p.411).

           Albright’s family immigrated to the United States one year after Masaryk’s death, in 1949, settling in Denver, Colorado. Josef Korbel found a job teaching international politics at the University of Denver and went on to found the school’s Graduate School of International Studies. Before Korbel died in 1977, he almost certainly never imagined that in addition to his daughter becoming the first female Secretary of State, one of his students, Condolezza Rice, would become the second woman to hold the position and the first African-American. Czechoslovakia remained within the Soviet orbit until 1989, when it threw off the communist yoke in the “Velvet Revolution,” only to split into separate Czech and Slovak republics in the “Velvet Divorce” of 1993.

           Czechoslovakia was surely not a far away country to most in the West in 1938, Chamberlain’s cringe-inducing description notwithstanding. That year and the full period of the Prague winter may nonetheless seem like a far away time for many readers, including Czechs and Slovaks who came of age after 1989. The Nazis have now been gone from Czechoslovakia and Central Europe for nearly 70 years and the Communists for almost 25. But, as Albright reminds us in the conclusion to this powerful story, twice in her lifetime, “Central Europe lost and then regained its freedom; that is cause for celebration – and also for vigilance” (p.411).

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
May 8, 2013

6 Comments

Filed under European History, History, Uncategorized

What Did She Know?

Heike Görtemaker, Eva Braun: Life with Hitler
and
Angela Lambert, The Lost Life of Eva Braun

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

            Goretmaker.1 Lambert

          For reasons which your psychoanalyst might best explain, public interest in the murderous Nazi regime continues to increase, with more and more books on various facets of the regime being published each year. Until recently, the life and role of Eva Braun remained one of the least known facets of Nazism. Braun was Adolph Hitler’s mistress and, for about 36 hours, his wife, having married the Nazi dictator in a Berlin bunker on April 29, 1945 as the Red Army moved in and the Third Reich crumbled. The following day, Braun, like Hitler, took her life. Within the last decade, two books seeking to fill the void on Braun have appeared: Heike Görtemaker, “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler,” translated from German by Damion Searls; and Angela Lambert, “The Lost Life of Eva Braun.”

          The central question for both authors is the degree to which Braun was complicit in Nazi crimes. The historical record is clear that she was a true believer in Adolph Hitler, the man. But was she still another true believer in the heinous causes he championed? Was she aware that the man in her life planned, then aggressively provoked, a war that plunged most of Europe into conflict? Or that the same man was pursuing a comprehensive program to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population? One view is that Braun was entirely apolitical, deliberately kept in the dark about the policies her significant other was pursuing. She obviously knew Hitler was a powerful man, but had little or no idea why; and little or no curiosity to learn about Nazi policies. Roughly stated, this is the position that Lambert adopts. Braun had “as little clue of what [Hitler] did when closeted for hours with the Nazi bigwigs or military men as does a small child who waves bye-bye to its father every morning when he leaves for work,” Lambert writes (Lambert, p.264).

          Görtemaker vigorously rejects this view. She presents a passionately-argued case that Braun was “in no way a victim” (Görtemaker, p.216), but rather understood and fully supported the Nazi vision and German war objectives. The problem for both authors is that there are no contemporary statements of Braun’s political views or how she regarded the Nazi project. Much of the historical record on this aspect of Braun comes from post-war statements of Albert Speer and other former members of Hitler’s entourage who had self-serving motives to dissemble concerning the nature of the Nazi regime and their roles in it. Both authors’ conclusions on the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities must therefore rest on inference and assumption.

          The two books also offer contrasting approaches to their depiction of Braun’s life. Whereas Görtemaker focuses tightly on Braun, discussing Hitler and the Nazi environment primarily to cast light on her subject, Lambert ranges far more widely. She addresses the rise of Hitler, the conditions in Germany which brought him to power, and how the Nazi regime functioned. There is considerably more detail in Lambert’s book about everyday life in Nazi Germany, both before and during the war; and far more about the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. In conspicuous contrast to Görtemaker, Lambert also delves into the most intimate side of Braun’s relationship with Hitler, and in this sense her book is definitely the juicier of the two. Further, early in her book, Lambert reveals uncanny similarities between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder, born one month after Braun.  Lambert also sprinkles her narrative with generous doses of psycho-babble about the attraction between younger women and older, powerful men, along with a tiresome amount of fawning praise for Braun’s good character.

* * *

           Both writers cover the basic biographical record of Braun’s life. Braun first met Hitler in 1929, when the future Führer was 40 and Braun was 17. Braun was working in the Munich photography store of Heinrich Hoffman, then the official photographer for the upcoming National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party. Görtemaker describes Braun as a “young woman of average abilities from a highly-conventional, lower middle-class Munich family who was noticeably lacking in any political sympathies or interest in current events at all” (G., p. 6). At 17, Lambert writes, Braun was “still very much an innocent but Hitler liked his women young, naïve and compliant, and would have regarded the twenty-three year difference as ideal” (L., p.55). Best of all, she adds, Braun was “utterly uninterested in politics” (L., p146).

          The romantic relationship between Braun and Hitler appears linked to the suicide in 1931 of Hitler’s half-niece, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler shared an apartment in Munich. Hitler felt strong affection toward Raubal and her death seems to have had a devastating effect upon him. Lambert perceives a sexual relationship between Hitler and his half-niece – “it seems more likely than not” (L., p. 106) — whereas Görtemaker is more circumspect. But the authors agree that the Hitler-Braun relationship took a more serious turn after Raubal’s death, even though they spent much time apart, as Hitler pursued his political objectives.

          Braun herself attempted suicide in 1932, using her father’s pistol. “Although the precise details remain unknown,” Görtemaker writes, “witnesses and historians agree that Eva Braun felt abandoned and calculatedly acted to make the perpetually absent Hitler notice her, and to tie him more closely to her” (G., p.51). Lambert describes the attempted suicide as a wake up call for Hitler. Braun’s desperate act “evoked a rare sense of guilt” in the Führer: he realized he “had neglected her” (L., p.134, Lambert’s emphasis). The suicide attempt clearly indicated that by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, “despite their unavoidable geographic separation, Eva Braun had become a lasting and crucial figure in Hitler’s life,” (G., p.55) Görtemaker concludes. Braun made a second attempt on her life in May 1935, in Munich, using an overdose of sleeping pills. This incident seems to have also been related to Hitler’s lack of attention to her.

          Through much of the Braun-Hitler relationship, Braun lived with her sister Ilse when she was not with Hitler. In 1935, Hitler provided Braun and her sister with an apartment in Munich, then a house in a posh residential section of the city. During the war, Braun shuttled between Munich, where she work in an art publishing house which Hoffman owned, and the Berghof.

          The authors agree that Hitler erected a ”wall of silence” around his relationship with Braun. Hitler wished to present himself as a celibate who transcended the sexual urges that drive ordinary men and women. Having a girl friend would have been as incongruous for the public image of the Führer as the Pope with a worldly significant other (and I’m sure that has never happened). Although Hitler encouraged marriage and high fertility rates for (non-Jewish) German women, marriage and children with Braun were out of the question. Lambert surmises that Hitler’s personal aversion to childbearing was his fear that given his family background — his “flawed and incestuous genes,” as Lambert states (L., p.85)—he and Braun might produce a child with the “stigma of mental and physical deformity,” unthinkable at a time when Hitler advocated the “use of genetic murder to create a race of perfect human beings” (L., p.125).

          To preserve the wall of silence, Hitler discouraged Braun from mixing with the other Nazi wives, most of whom were jealous of Braun and thought of her as a “silly goose” (L., p.155). He also forbade Braun from reading newspapers. When important or official guests arrived, Braun “had to leave or spend the day closeted in her room” (L., p.197). The Berghof was a “golden cage” for Braun, Lambert writes:

Hitler indulged her every whim, on condition she observed strict anonymity. She could have whatever she wanted, as long as she agreed to keep her existence secret and wore a cloak of invisibility over her fabulous clothes and perfect body. She was anonymous, a non-person (L., p.259).

          Hitler and Braun never made a joint public appearances. “[O]nly once in the twelve years after 1933 were Hitler and Eva Braun seen together in a published news photo, which in fact shows Eva Braun sitting in the second row, behind Hitler, at the Winter Olympics in February 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Nothing in the picture indicates any personal relationship between her and the dictator” (G., p.51). When Braun traveled with other members of Hitler’s inner circle and their wives, she was never “part of Hitler’s official retinue” and her name “never appeared on any list in the record, unlike the names of the wives of other high-ranking Nazi officials” (G., p.176).

          In 1934, the famous German boxer Max Schmeling noticed Braun present at a small reception Hitler held for him. Schmeling asked Hoffman, also present at the reception, about the young woman who “spoke entirely naturally and obviously very familiarly with Hitler” (G., p.90). Hoffman was at first evasive, but then told Schmeling her name and said that she was an employee of his, nothing more. Görtemaker also recounts an incident a few years later in which a young man, dazzled to be visiting the Berghof, heard Braun scolding Hitler mildly about being late for a meal. Shocked that anyone would dare to speak to the Führer in such a manner, the young man asked about Braun. He was told that he should not ask such questions, the best thing to do would be to forget that he ever saw Braun. Even the Führer has a “right to a private life,” he was told (G., p.125).

* * *

          Unlike Görtemaker, Lambert probes the intimate side of the Braun-Hitler relationship, and diverges into the sexual mores of the Nazi elite. Lambert pinpoints the moment when Braun lost her virginity and when Braun “officially” became the Fuhrer’s mistress. She speculates that Braun “must have been fun in bed, innocent and willing.” She describes Hitler’s genitalia and the erotic habits and preferences of other high-level Nazi party members. Lambert also recounts unsuccessful attempts of Hitler’s entourage to arrange a liaison between the party leader and the stunningly beautiful Magda Quant, then the girlfriend and later the wife of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. Lambert explains how Hitler’s libido dwindled considerably in 1942, to the point where the Führer authorized Braun to seek a more virile man. And she also discusses how Braun’s menstrual cycles influenced her relationship with Hitler (page references available upon request; price negotiable).

          Lambert’s book has another idiosyncratic feature. Early in the book, she reveals numerous parallels between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder. Lambert’s mother was a northerner and a Protestant from Hamburg, whereas Braun was a good Bavarian Catholic girl from Munich. But the two women, born one month apart, came from lower middle class homes with three daughters and no sons. Each was the middle daughter, and in each family the oldest daughter’s name was Ilse. Throughout the book, Lambert shifts the focus away from Braun to Schröder, showing what her mother was doing at the same time (for those wondering, Edith fell for a better man, Lambert’s English father, than did Braun; nonetheless, Lambert is severely critical of her father in her partially autobiographical book).

          In another departure from Görtemaker, Lambert is almost fulsome in her praise for Braun, describing throughout her good character and refuting the notion that she was a “silly goose.” Braun was a “most beguiling woman” (L., p.243), “rock solid” (L., p.402), and “generous” (L.,p.155). She “had beautiful manners, looked nice, did her best to be friendly and was socially adroit” (L.,p.192). In normal times, she would have been simply a “kind, generous, considerate woman” (L., p.283). In the final, chaotic days prior to her suicide, she stood out for her “courage, buoyancy and thoughtfulness” (L.,p.410) and revealed her “character, stamina and fortitude” (L.,p.411). To the end, Lambert contends, Braun continued to “behave with grace and consideration towards everyone. . .She wasn’t heroic but she was steady” (L.,p.444).

* * *

          In addressing the two books’ central question of the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi crimes, Görtemaker contends that Braun shared Hitler’s world vision and should not be absolved of complicity in his crimes. But her case is based on inference rather than concrete evidence. For instance, Görtemaker asserts that we must “assume that Hitler’s adjutants, secretaries, servants, and, not least, Eva Braun, shared without reservation the Jew-hatred of their ‘boss,’ as they called him” (G., p.180, my italics). At another point, she contends that Braun “presumably knew Hitler’s stereotypical racial views and in fact may have, like many Germans, shared them” (G. p.200, my italics).

          At another point, Görtemaker emphasizes that Braun’s life was “like most of the wives of high-ranking Nazi politicians. She led a privileged existence, with trips, expensive clothes, and occasional professional activities” in the service of the Nazi party (G., p.244). “For that reason alone,” Görtemaker contends, Braun “cannot be seen as someone with no involvement in the regime, an entirely apolitical young woman, as Albert Speer among others later claimed” (G., p.244). This seems like an entirely plausible inference, but falls short of an evidence-based conclusion. And even if Braun did identify with the general Nazi world view, Görtemaker concedes that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered” (p.245).

          Lambert frames the question as whether Braun was “guilty of complicity for remaining passive in the face of supreme evil, and especially guilty because of her relationship with Hitler” (L., p.324-25, Lambert’s emphasis). Answering this question requires the historian to determine not only what Braun knew but also, “had she made an effort,” what she “could have known” (L., p.325, Lambert’s emphasis). Did Braun, Lambert asks, “ever grasp that her lover initiated and master-minded twelve years of murderous violence, beginning with the euthanasia program in the 1930s; that he wanted the Jews of Europe wiped out and will every death and casualty in a war that killed tens of millions?” (p.326). Lambert acknowledges that there is “frustratingly little first-hand evidence and the truth can only be surmised” (p.325). That Braun shared Hitler’s bed “does not imply that she was well-informed about the hell and damnation enacted in the name of Führer and the Third Reich,” Lambert argues (L., p.283). “Women who love evil men need not be evil themselves” (L., p.352).

          Given the scant historical record of Braun’s actual knowledge, Lambert’s undertakes a protracted discussion of the more general question of collective war guilt, the degree to which average German citizens – especially German women, who were expected to be passive and apolitical – should be deemed responsible for the crimes committed in their nation’s name (collective German war guilt was addressed in two books reviewed here in December 2012). In the end, she concludes, any “verdict on Eva is, in microcosm, a verdict on the German people” (p.357).

          Even in the absence of concrete evidence, this does not strike me as a satisfying conclusion. Eva Braun was not just another German woman. She was not Edith Schröeder. Surely Braun must face history’s judgment in a different posture from that of fellow German citizens whose relationship to the Führer was, shall we say, less intimate. To portray Adolph Hitler’s mistress as a victim is an uphill challenge for any biographer and Lambert may be given credit for a valiant effort. But her case fell far short for me. It seems inconceivable that a woman could be in the thralls of Hitler without knowing and endorsing much if not all of what he stood for.

          Görtemaker’s imputation of knowledge to Braun, however, is not fully convincing either. Absent the discovery of an unanticipated treasure trove of new material by or about Braun, the question of her knowledge of Nazi crimes seems unlikely to be resolved. If study of the Nazi environment and mindset reveals the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, Eva Braun’s life as seen in these two books was more about banality than evil.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
March 10, 2013

4 Comments

Filed under Biography, German History