How Hitler Was Made: Germany and the Rise of the Perfect Nazi
By Cory Taylor
The number of books on Nazi Germany continues to rise 73 years after the demise of the Third Reich, as historians, philosophers and journalists continue to probe the reasons how Germany, one of the most advanced cultural and scientific nations in world, descended into Stygian darkness in 1933 with the coming to power of Adolf Hitler.
Now it has taken a producer of television documentaries, Cory Taylor, to produce an uncomplicated scenario that sheds new light in unravelling the tattered history of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s diabolical role in its development.
This reviewer has been trying to understand how Taylor has been able to reduce the Hitler story to digestible factors despite the complexities of the saga. Let no one say that he has minimized the requisite research. His bibliography contains almost 60 pages of source materials, acknowledgements and notes culled from the written record, interviews and references to reputable scholars, researchers and diverse historians. But what he has done with this material is extract what the 16th century French writer Rabelais called “the substantific marrow” of the story and unfold it into a narrative which is original, lively and thought provoking – the kind of thing that mesmerizes television viewers – and this, via a book.
Here are some of the insights Taylor offers his readers. One cannot understand the rise of Nazism without appreciating the savagery of the First World War, which cost the lives of millions of combatants and civilians. On the German side, the author contrasts the elite generals of the German war machine, who sought to blame the 1918 armistice on “a stab in the back” treachery of a band of inauthentic Germans – with members of the German army who were horrified and humbled by what they saw and endured in the assault on Verdun especially. After the war, many of the disenchanted German soldiers moved to the left politically and were active in extreme expressions of that coalition.
Taylor says that Hitler, an Austrian national, served as a runner behind the lines in the German army, was proud of Germany’s warfare and although not involved in contact with the enemy directly, suffered psychological damage (a temporary loss of vision) and ended the war in a military hospital. Taylor notes, surprisingly, that Hitler did not manifest any overtly anti-Semitic sentiments either during the war or immediately after it. In fact, Taylor has uncovered a photograph of Hitler walking in the funeral procession for Kurt Eisner, a Jew who had been elected minister-president of the Bavarian State just after the war and who was assassinated by Count Arco-Valley, a right wing fanatic (whom Taylor says was partially tainted by Jewish blood and thus excluded from the Nazi Party).
The author notes that all ambiguities in the Hitler background, including photographs such as the one referred to above, were removed from the official Nazi record. Within two years of the end of the war, Hitler began to construct his anti-Semitism into an explosive mixture, which, says the author, differentiated him from the run-of-the-mill right-wing zealots. In Bavaria, Hitler had to confront Catholicism, which while unsympathetic towards Jews, was uncomfortable with the intensity of Jew hatred incarnated in Hitler. He therefore took up the prevailing view that there were good and bad Jews just as there were good and bad Germans. Hitler tried successfully to counter this argument by saying that Jews had never created anything and that they were instruments of their bloodlines and genetically programmed to do evil.
One of the most important parts of this book describes the coalition of right-wing fanatics who flourished in the 1920s; how Hitler became their disciple, and whom he nonetheless used to extract political support as well as financial assistance – even to the point of accepting their money to buy more acceptable clothing. His supporters were also responsible for the purchase of what became the Nazis’ major newspaper, the Volkischer Beobachter. As for the rhetorical power which Hitler possessed in the German language, Taylor observes that he did much more than culture his voice. He would always study the architecture of the beer hall or stadium where he was to speak and he always arrived late to increase the tension of his listeners. He studied the way in which entertainers dealt with the noises of the beer halls and learned how to project vocally despite ambient noises.
In the rogues gallery of Nazis and sympathizers with which Taylor decorates this book, two are of special interest because although they are mentioned in most of the other histories of the Third Reich. Their portraits here serve to enlarge and explain more fully their roles in the Hitler-Dante circle of hell.
One is Ernst Hanfstaegel, a Harvard graduate, whose family became very close to Hitler in the 1930s and whose wife, Helene, was very friendly with the dictator. Hanfstaegel apparently tried to straighten Hitler out on the subject of American military might and also tried to moderate some of his braggadocio. In the end, Hanfstaegel barely escaped with his life when the Nazis tried to arrange his death in an airplane crash. He survived, but Goering sent Hanfstaegel a note indicating that the whole thing was a joke and that no plot was carried out.
The other is Ernst Rohm, the head of the SA storm troopers, the private personal army of Hitler. He is well known as one of the victims in the late-1930s of the Night of the Long Knives, when Rohm and many of his followers were killed for reasons that need not be elaborated. What is quite surprising in the Taylor book is that Rohm was not only an early faithful follower of Hitler, but on at least one occasion actually saved his life. When push came to shove in the 1930s, Hitler showed his true colours and conveniently forgot the service Rohm had done for him.
Taylor deserves a resounding congratulation for this highly original account of Nazi Germany. I cannot wait for the television documentary on this subject.
Arnold Ages is a distinguished emeritus professor at the University of Waterloo, and scholar-in-residence at Beth Tzedec Congregation in Toronto.