The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
By Thomas Childers
Simon & Schuster, 672 pp., $35
As a young man, nobody thought much would come of Adolf Hitler. The dreamy youth and coddled mama’s boy was, according to author Thomas Childers, “a loner…a perpetual outsider with few friends, no interest in girls, and hated physical contact.” In school, he preferred art and painting to any other subject. And he failed German.
As a young soldier in World War I, while his fellow fighters were enjoying themselves in brothels, he considered having sex with French whores an act of treason (he was also deathly afraid of catching syphilis). Young Adolf was also not promoted in ranks because his superiors felt he lacked “the capacity for leadership” and even questioned “his mental stability.”
Of course, history tells a different story for Hitler and his life. And with this book, Childers has likely produced the new definitive volume on the subject, supplanting William Shirer’s gold standard The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Even among other political parties during the 1920s and ‘30s, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (try putting that on a Volkswagen bumper sticker!) were considered crude and thuggish, and their obsession with anti-Semitism and laying the problems of Germany squarely at the feet of Jews were curious.
Stung by his country’s defeat and its place in the world (even though he was a native of neighboring Austria), Hitler found that he had amazing and unique powers of speechifying that people could not look away from. Even if his detractors found him a bit too fanatical as he loudly and passionately argued his point until his opponents, beat down by his sheer force, often just gave up debating.
Childers details how important rituals, rallies, propaganda and symbols were to establishing and showcasing Nazi power to the public at large, even at a time when the realities were far less secure. In a true ascent based on a cult of personality, Childers writes, Hitler would also build his case that he and only he could “make Germany great again” as he built something of a dream team of followers around him with names like Himmler and Goebbels and Strasser. The swastika symbol was seen everywhere – even on children’s toys. And the party encouraged regular Germans to replace the friendly greeting “Gutentag” with “Heil Hitler” before jutting the arm out in salute.
Once the Nazis bullied their way into power – even after it seemed that their political futures were finished – Hitler made sure that Nazi theology and beliefs were part of the home lives of everyday German citizens. By 1936, every newly married German couple was given a copy of Hitler’s book Mein Kampf and a pamphlet on racial purity. Women were encouraged to become baby factories, and the Reich would give a medal and recognition to mothers who had four, six, eight or more children.
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Childers details Nazi atrocities perpetrated on large groups of people that still manage to shock and sadden despite decades of knowledge about them, and that are no less easy to read about here. The infamous “Night of Broken Glass” saw approximately 7,500 Jews killed, 20,000 men arrested and 267 synagogues burned; the sheer numbers are staggering.
By the summer of 1944, just one concentration camp – Auschwitz – was killing 9,000 more a day. Those digging trenches for the bodies could not keep up with the need to fill them. And if someone should stop digging because of fatigue, a bullet from an S.S. gun would add another body to the pile so a fresh worker could step in and use the shovel.
Childers’s tale, of course, takes the story of the Third Reich through World War II and its eventual demise, triggered by Hitler’s bunker suicide when it was clear the Reich was not going to last quite the 1,000 years he’d predicted. But the book’s main strength lies in its chapters on the rise and early years of the party. And with newly unearthed documents – many from Germany – that the author had access to.
In very recent times, neo-Nazis have again been in the news in the U.S. But make no mistake, the tiki torch-hoisting, wifebeater-wearing, MAGA hat-sporting bros you see on TV today