Monday, September 30, 2013

Inside the Third Reich

I had planned to review two memoirs, Ulysses Grant and Albert Speer, but it's just been too long to say anything coherent about Grant's book other than it's well worth reading and escaped from copyright. Both books are well-written which is the key thing, much more so than honesty or historical value. It relates to my guess as to why I prefer Roy Spencer over RPJr. despite Roy being even more wrong:  Roy's a good writer.

To finish up with Grant, he's probably not worth reading though if you don't like military history. His account of the Mexican-American War, where he served with Robert E Lee, filled a substantial gap in my own knowledge. He never discusses his mostly-failed administration, which is unfortunate. He does put the war criminal/racist-for-his-time Nathan Forrest in his place. More than worth the price.

As is Speer's memoir about his life as one of Hitler's top officials and a potential heir, although the need to be cautious about viewpoint for any autobiography goes into overtime for the repentant Nazi. I have an amateur interest in World War II and in psychopaths, so a person who knew Hitler well could have an interesting story. My amateur guess after reading this and other accounts is that Hitler wasn't a psychopath, or at least not in all respects. Just a monster. His inability to form personal bonds seems psychopathic, but his deep emotional currents don't match the profile, nor his kindness to animals.

The missing element from Speer's account is what made Hitler so electrifying and dominant. Speer himself was clearly under Hitler's thumb for many years but doesn't make you really feel why that was so, and Hitler's many flaws weren't all that hidden, even early on. I didn't realize how boring the man was. The whole concept of charisma is mysterious to me, a poorly-defined, quasi-supernatural characteristic that makes me skeptical. Maybe it's a combination of hypnotic skills at a distance and pheromones up close. Anyway, Speer doesn't help clarify it.

It's pretty clear I'm not going to write the definitive review of WWII, Hitler, or even Speer, so I'll just recommend the book, and after the jump I'll just call out a few interesting points:

(click here for the full post)

P. 71:  Hitler wavers over whether to side with Britain or Italy in 1935 when Mussolini invades Ethiopia. I wasn't aware of this decision point and whether Hitler was just displaying his usual indecision or could actually have sided with Britain. If so, maybe the resulting history would've been different - maybe he would've stopped with Austria and Sudentenland. At least the alliance with Italy would've been far more strained.

P. 96:  Hitler is also a fan of alternative history. He wished the Muslims had conquered Europe, viewing Islam as appropriately martial and not "weak" like Christianity.

P. 221 and elsewhere:  a common theme is that Nazi Germany didn't fully mobilize for war the way that the Allied democracies did. Speer disputes the idea that totalitarian systems are better at fighting total war. At this point in the book (1942), women are fully mobilized to work by the Allies while Hitler still wants them at home producing babies. Speer argues that the Nazis throughout their hierarchy tried to maintain local living standards. I wonder if it has something to do with "voluntary" war - Nazis chose it while the Allies didn't, so the Nazis couldn't ask for the same sacrifice.

P. 284-285:  the fire-bombing of Hamburg struck an effective blow on Germany, at a moral cost of 40,000 civilian deaths. I had previously understood the strategic bombing of civilian populations was mostly ineffective as a war tool, but maybe that was just me being hopeful. OTOH, Speer goes on to say the Allies had opportunities to cripple the German war effort by picking crucial industries and bombing them continuously (in this case, he was frantic over the ball-bearing factories) but the Allies kept switching targets. Maybe there was a more effective as well as more ethical use of air power than killing civilians.

P. 399-400:  I had no idea that pacts of varying degrees of formality between enemy forces happened during WWII, mostly unapproved by headquarters. I'm going to tie this back to Grant's book:  it happened all the time during the Civil War. Grant once unwittingly wandered alone into an informal truce zone and found himself talking to a Confederate soldier. The Christmas soccer games of World War I may not have been unique as I thought.

P. 413:  I wrote previously about chemical warfare:  Nazis thought about it but ultimately decided not to do it. At a later point, Speer knew Germany must surrender and claims he tried to figure out how to kill Hitler with poison gas but couldn't work it out logistically. He acknowledges he didn't have the strength to walk up to Hitler and just shoot him.

A side note:  my copy of the book was old and owned at least twice before I bought it a rummage sale, and some of the pages still had not been fully cut apart when it was printed. Kind of sad that it's never been read.