THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ TO WARN THE WORLD by Jonathan Freedland

Rudolf Vrba
(Rudi Vrba)

Two words dominate Jonathan Freedland’s new book, THE ESCAPE ARTIST: THE MAN WHO BROKE OUT OF AUSCHWITZ TO WARN THE WORLD; trust and escape.  These terms would dominate the life of Walter Rosenberg, a Slovakian Jew who along with three others would escape from Auschwitz in 1944.  Only seventeen in February 1942, Rosenberg was rounded up by the Nazis which would begin a horrible journey that would culminate in being deported with his family to Poland.  Passing through Novaky, a Slovak transit camp, he would wind up in Majdanek and then on to Auschwitz by June 1942 where he would remain until April 1944 when he and his compatriot, Fred Wetzler would become the first Jews to escape “the crowning achievement of Nazi extermination.”

From that point on Walter Rosenberg, who would change his name to Rudi Vrba would dedicate his existence to gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities in order to warn Jews of what they could expect once they were deported to Auschwitz.  It was his hope that once warned, Jews would put up as much resistance as possible apart from marching docilly to their deaths.

Freedland’s gripping book sets out to bring Vrba to prominence as a name to be mentioned in the same category as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, Oskar Schindler, and Anne Frank.  In telling his story Freedland focuses on Vrba’s prodigious memory as he mentally catalogued what he witnessed each day in the camp.  At the outset he may not have realized it but thanks to a series of arbitrary events and lucky breaks Vrba had acquired an unusually comprehensive expertise in the workings of Auschwitz.  Freedland writes that “he had lived or worked in the main camp, at Birkenau and at Bu8na; Auschwitz I, II, III.  He had worked in the gravel pits, the DAW factory, and in Kanada.  He had been an intimate witness of the selection process that preceded the organized murder of thousands….He knew the precise layout of the camp and believed he had a good idea as to how many had entered Auschwitz by train, and how many left via chimney.  And he had committed it all to memory.”

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(Birkeneau)

Freeland describes Vrba’s experiences with a keen eye and his ability to process what he experienced as preparation for his escape to warn his fellow Jews.  Freeland relies on the work of two prominent Holocaust historians, David Cesarini and Nikolaus Wachsmann in his retelling of the Final Solution and integrating those events into Vrba’s story.  Freeland’s chapter entitled, “Kanada,” provides insights into Vrba’s methodology as he was assigned to an area where he would separate and quantify the possessions of prisoners upon their arrival at the camp.  Later, he would be assigned to greet and assist in separating arrivals as they exited the cattle cars.  Freeland’s detail is remarkable as even toothpaste tubes were used to hide diamonds.  These experiences helped him master the numbers  that Nazi extermination produced.

Freeland’s overriding theme rests on Vrba’s obsessive drive to escape.  No matter where he found himself or what condition he was in he was always thinking and plotting.  Once Freeland turns to April 1944 and Vrba’s tortuous journey out of the camp we see a young man wise beyond his years realize his dream of warning Jews that deportation to Auschwitz meant death.  He had watched the SS decide who was to live and die with a flick of the finger, now after witnessing so much he decided he could sound the warning that obviated the process.

Freeland describes how observant Vrba was and focuses on the idea that no one could be trusted, even the few he felt comfortable with.  He partnered with Fred Wetzler, another Slovakian Jew and two others in planning and carrying out their departure and what emerges is an amazing story that provides many insights into the resistance to the Holocaust and how difficult it became to educate Jews as to what their fate would become.

Interestingly, Vrba took a course in “escapology” from Dimitri Volkov, a Russian POW who had escaped from Sachsenhausen, another Nazi concentration camp.  The key was to carry no money or food and live off the land.  Further, a watch was needed, as was a knife which could be used for suicide because capture meant torture and death.  Salt and matches were also needed and most importantly, trust no one.

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As Vrba’s journey evolved he develops a deep resentment towards the Jewish Councils that had cooperated with the Nazis and facilitated their methodology in deporting Jews to the death camps.  Freeland notes that Vrba would carry these feelings for the rest of his life particularly involving the actions of Rezso Kasztner, the controversial head of the Budapest Jewish Council who blocked the dissemination of Vrba and Wetzler’s report of what transpired in Auschwitz.

Once the escape proved successful Vrba’s mission was to prepare a report that would support newspaper and eyewitness accounts of what transpired in the death camps.  This discussion is one of the most important aspects of the book as the report is retyped, translated, and printed and eventually reaches the desks of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and a series of high Vatican officials.  Freeland analyzes this process as to why little or nothing was done, concluding that politics, anti-Semitism, and years of denigrating Jews by church officials was responsible.

Freeland’s rendering of Vrba’s life continues after the war as he lived in Israel, London, and eventually settled in Vancouver.  He became a successful research scientist, married twice, and had two daughters.  Despite professional success following the war he was haunted by bouts of paranoia, anger, lack of trust, and an inability to gain true acceptancefor what he tried to achieve during the war.  As the years passed on he never wavered in his belief that the Jews knew nothing of Auschwitz, despite evidence to the contrary.  Despite this in the end his report was pivotal in saving 200,000 Budapest Jews from extermination as President Roosevelt warned the Hungarian government in late 1944 as to the consequences if more jews were slaughtered.  But this only occurred after a frustrated Vrba and Wetzler decides to print and disseminate their report by themselves when others would not cooperate.

According to Blake Morrison in his The Guardian review of 8 June 2022, “Vrba had three core beliefs about Auschwitz: that the outside world didn’t know about the “final solution”; that once they did know, the allies would intervene; and that once Jews knew, they would refuse to board those fateful trains. Without in the least diminishing Vrba, Freedland disproves all three. Word of the Nazis’ “cold-blooded extermination” had got out at least 18 months before his escape. Allied policy was inhibited by inertia and antisemitism (“In my opinion a disproportionate amount of time of the Office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews”, wrote someone in the Foreign Office in London). And whereas younger Jews believed Vrba, the majority were with philosopher Raymond Aron, who said: “I knew but I didn’t believe it. And because I didn’t believe it, I didn’t know.”

Freedland has written a remarkable account combining the history of the Holocaust with the life experiences of a young man, who will emerge emotionally damaged from the war suffering from PTSD.  Despite Vrba’s flaws as a person his commitment to warn Hungary’s Jews stands as a tremendous accomplishment despite the negative opinions of a number of Holocaust historians toward his work.  The book is well written, an absorbing read, and an important contribution to the literature of the Holocaust.

No photo description available.
(Rudi Vrba)

THE POPE AT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XII, MUSSOLINI, AND HITLER by David I. Kertzer

Pope Pius XII
(Pope Pius XII)

For many, one of the most polarizing figures of the Second World War was Pope Pius XII.  Up until 2019 the Vatican archives did not allow access to most of the documents related to Pius XII’s actions before and during the war.  Under the current leadership of Pope Francis, the archive has been made available to historians and has brought about a reassessment of Pius XII’s relationship with Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in addition to his attitude toward the Holocaust. 

Until the opening of the archive, historians were of two minds; either Pius XII was too close to Mussolini and Hitler and did not confront them publicly concerning their murderous atrocities and said and did little in relation to the genocide of European Jewry or he did as much as he could in balancing the protection of the Catholic clergy in Germany and working behind the scenes to assist Europe’s Jews.  It is understood that Pius XII was in a very difficult position and Pulitzer Prize winning historian, David I. Kertzer, the author of THE POPE AND MUSSOLINI: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XI AND THE RISE OF FASCISM IN EUROPE has availed himself of the opportunity to consult newly released documentation and has written what should be considered the definitive source  in dealing with Pius XII in his latest work, THE POPE AT WAR: THE SECRET HISTORY OF PIUS XII, MUSSOLINI, AND HITLER.  Kertzer’s book documents the private decision-making that led Pope Pius XII to stay essentially silent about Hitler’s genocide and argues that the Pope’s impact on the war is underestimated – and not in a positive fashion.  As David M. Shribman writes in the Boston Globe, for Pius XII “silence was easier, safer, more prudent.  Silence was deadly.”*

Kertzer’s presentation is excellent as it is grounded in his previous research and his recent access to the newly opened Vatican archive.  The book is clearly written and tells a story that many have heard before, however it is cogently argued, and he has unearthed new material which may change or reinforce deeply held opinions by many when it comes to Pius XII.  Kertzer makes the case that Pius XII’s obsessive fear of Communism, his belief  that the Germans would win the war, and his goal of protecting church interests motivated him to avoid angering Mussolini and Hitler.  The Pope was also concerned as the book highlights, that opposing Hitler would alienate millions of German Catholics.

Kertzer does an excellent job tracing Pius XII’s relationship with Mussolini; the evolution of Italy’s military failures which negatively impacted Hitler’s plans, i.e.; Italy’s failed invasion of Greece; and Hitler’s growing dissatisfaction with Mussolini.  Kertzer relies heavily on the comments and diaries associated with foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, particularly those of England and France and their negative commentary related to the Papacy.  The descriptions of these ambassadors focused on Pius XII’s lack of action, periodic support for the war effort in Italy, and obsession with German power.  Further, Kertzer focuses on Pius XI’s opposition to Mussolini’s adoption of racial laws targeting Italian Jews.  Despite this opposition, Pius XII would not comment on the increase in Italy’s oppression of Jews and racial laws in general.

Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler watch a Nazi parade staged for the Italian dictators's visit to Germany.

(Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler)

Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI had been somewhat of a thorn in the side of fascist dictators.  He saw Mussolini as a “buffoon,” and believed that Hitler was a danger to all of Europe.  Both dictators feared he was preparing an encyclical denouncing Nazi racism and anti-Semitism and feared that the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli who would succeed him as Pontiff would try and talk him out of it, as well as any other anti-fascist comments.  When he died a few days before he could release his encyclical, Mussolini and Hitler experienced a great deal of relief.

Kertzer correctly points out that Mussolini never felt comfortable around priests and complained bitterly about Pius XI barbs.  He was worried as he was aware that Hitler viewed him as a role model and did not want the Pope’s commentary to ruin their relationship.  Once Pius XI died and was replaced by Cardinal Pacelli criticism was reduced and if any were made it was done in private.  Hitler’s main complaint concerned articles in the Vatican’s daily newspaper, Osservatore Romano that focused on Nazi anti-Catholic policies from arresting and beating Catholic priests to closing Catholic schools in Germany.  Pius XII immediately made overtures to Hitler to relax the pressure on German Catholicism and refused to comment publicly on Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, in addition to remaining quiet as Hitler’s pressure on Catholic Poland over Danzig escalated.

Mussolini resented Pius XII’s diplomacy as his ego would not allow anyone to detract from his role as the dominant figure in Italian politics.  Kertzer’s comments concerning Mussolini, his son-in-law Count Galeazzo Ciano, the Italian Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Foreign Minister, and countless other figures is insightful and at times entertaining, but it does not detract from the danger and derangement of these individuals.

In a very important chapter, Kertzer provides details of secret meetings between the Papacy and Germany before and after the war began.  The conduit for Germany was Prince Philip von Hessen whose goal was to bring about an accommodation with the Papacy and keep the Pope out of politics.  Hitler resented the clergy’s meddling in German domestic politics and wanted the Pope to refrain from comments on Nazi racial policy.  Pius XII’s, his main goal was to protect the German clergy and Catholicism in general, but he expressed the belief that an honorable religious peace was achievable, and in all instances talks should be held in secret.

Mussolini Speaking in Public
(Benito Mussolini)

Once the war began Pius XII refused to break his silence concerning Nazi aggression arguing he would not endanger the church’s situation in Germany.  This argument was repeated throughout the war, but he promised he would pray for the Polish people or whatever nationality was endangered by a Nazi onslaught.  Morality, rights, honor, justice were always met with methods, practicality, tradition, and statistics on the part of the Vatican.  When priests were sent to concentration camps Pius XII did nothing, no statements, no audiences with the Pope in Rome etc.  The only diplomacy Pius II seemed to engage in was to try and talk Mussolini out of following in Hitler’s footsteps as it was clear, even to Il Duce, that Italy was totally unprepared for war.

One could argue that Pope Pius XII evolved in his approach toward fascism and the war.  At first, at least up to 1943 he waffled between neutrality and making general statements structured “as not to be offensive by either side.”  At first the Papacy believed the Germans would win the war and once it was concluded Pius XII was convinced that in a few years the anti-Catholic policies would dissipate and fade away. As the war progressed and when it was clear that the Russians had broken out of Stalingrad and made their way westward, and that the United States and England would invade Italy, Pius XII’s attitude shifted.  Pius XII priority was to prevent allied bombing of Rome and Vatican City (particularly as England was bombing Turin, Milan, and Genoa) which led to messages to President Franklin D. Roosevelt who responded with a demand that Mussolini be replaced, and Italy should drop out of the war.  Pius XII’s other priority was to warn allied leaders (apart from Stalin) that Communism was as large a threat to Europe as Nazism, and he worked to manufacture a peace agreement with the US and England and organize in response to the Soviet threat to all European Catholics.

Count Gian Galeazzo Ciano, (1903 – 11 January 1944), Foreign Minister of Fascist Italy
(Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano)

As to the Holocaust, Pius XII received increasing numbers of reports of Nazi atrocities and extermination camps.  This information came from reliable sources and churchmen like Father Scavini, an Italian military chaplain that the Pope had great faith in.  However, Pius XII refused to publish details contained in these reports to stay on the good side of Hitler and Mussolini.  The only area that the Pope did complain about to the German and Italian governments was the application of racial laws to those he considered Catholics – baptized Jews and the children of mixed marriages.  Pius XII accepted advice that there was no confirmation of Nazi atrocities and was told not to even use the word, “Jew.”  In relation to the Vatican’s attitude toward the roundup of Italian Jews right under their noses provoked little response as Kertzer quotes Lutz Klinkhammer, the foremost historian of Germany’s military occupation of Italy, “it is more than clear that all their efforts were aimed above all at saving the baptized or the ‘half-born’ from mixed marriages,” the Jews who did not fit this category would wind up dying at Auschwitz.

Pius XII’s actions are clear even when he was approached to try and mitigate the actions of Roman Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, the head of the Slovakian government who was about to send 20,000 Jews to Polish concentration camps.  When a move was made to try and send 1000 Jewish children to Palestine, Pius XII did little to facilitate this plan as he was anti-Zionist and he argued that he held little sway with the Nazis and their minions and any Papal criticism risked provoking a backlash against the church in German occupied Europe.  No matter the circumstances Kertzer’s conclusions that Pius XII’s messaging was always weak and vague to protect the church’s interests.

Pius XII’s silence and overall inaction emerges as the dominant theme of Kertzer’s work.  It is clear that any other conclusion is a result of Church propaganda, obfuscation, and analysis that conveniently avoids the facts.  Kertzer’s work is to be commended as it should put to bed once and for all the truth concerning Pius XII’s role during World War II.

*David M. Shribman, “A Deadly Silence: Assessing the Moral Failings of Pope Pius XII during World War II,” Boston Globe,” May 26, 2022.

Pope Pius XII (Courtesy of PerlePress Productions)

THE BETRAYAL OF ANNE FRANK: A COLD CASE INVESTIGATION by Rosemary Sullivan

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(Ann Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

For decades, the most famous work of Holocaust literature, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK was required reading for many children. It is an important contribution to Holocaust literature in that it is one of the few primary sources that exists for a family’s day to day existence hiding from the Nazis.  Anne Frank’s papers were discovered after World War II and were edited by her father Otto, the only family member to survive extermination and published the diary in Dutch in 1947, and later in English in 1952.  There are many aspects of Anne Frank’s story that are shrouded in mystery, among them is the exact date of her death in Bergen-Belsen, probably some time with only weeks remaining in the war in Europe.

Another of the unknowns is how Nazi authorities came to learn the Frank family was in hiding.  The question of who led Karl Josef Silberbauer, an SS Sergeant and two Dutch detectives on August 4, 1944, to Prinsengracht 263, a narrow building along one of Amsterdam’s canals to the Franks where the family was in hiding.  Rosemary Sullivan’s latest book, THE BETRAYAL OF ANNE FRANK: A COLD CASE INVESTIGATION attempts to answer the questions surrounding the seizure and deportation of the Frank family resulting in the death of all except Otto Frank.

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In 2016 Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens, and journalist Pieter van Twisk opened a further investigation with a team of Dutch investigators, historians, and researchers that included  27 year FBI veteran, Vince Pankoke.  The team would be headed by Pankoke who treated the Anne Frank house as a crime scene, not a museum.  “With the help of newly designed software that used artificial intelligence to seek out data, patterns humans might miss, Pankoke and his ‘Cold Case Team’ spent several years combing through historical records, and police files interviewing witnesses and their descendants and analyzing theories.”*

The results of the investigation coincided with the release of Sullivan’s monograph and created quite a stir resulting in the Dutch publisher suspending further dissemination of the book.  One might ask what is gained by questioning how Anne Frank and her family were seized accomplishes.  In a world where many argue that “it cannot happen here”  all one has to look at is the increasing ideological divisiveness and the growing popularity of authoritarianism in the world today to see that it can occur and may be well on the way to doing so at present.

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One of the main reasons for the creation of the Cold Case Team is that the Netherlands had a reputation of tolerance whereby Jews could seek shelter after the rise of Adolf Hitler.  Despite this reputation the Netherlands transported more Jews to the death camps in the east than any other western European country.  Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands 107,000 were deported, and only 5,500 returned.  One of the questions Pieter van Twisk asks was why was the number so high?

Sullivan has authored a book that can  be divided into two parts.  The first, encompassing about one-third of the narrative focuses on rehashing the history of the Frank family and those involved in keeping the family safe in the annex behind the business at Prinsengracht 263, and the plight of Dutch Jewry upon the arrival of the Nazis.  The role of a Dutch Judenrat (Jewish Councils), deportations to Buchenwald, the role of the SD Jewish Affairs squad known as unit IV B4 which centered on collaboration, and Kopgeld, bounty hunters, and executions are all explored. Any attempt by the Franks to emigrate to the United States ran into the wall constructed by the State Department led by Breckenridge Long, an anti-Semite who did all he could to thwart the entrance of European Jewish refugees into the United States.  By 1943, Amsterdam was declared Jew free.  There is little that is new or surprising, but it forms a useful lead into the second section which focuses on the organization, make-up, and implementation of strategies to try and figure out who turned in the Franks to the Nazis or was there another explanation as to how the Nazis came upon the annex.

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Sullivan describes how the Cold Case team implemented modern law enforcement techniques that were not available after the war.  Strategies such as behavioral science or profiling, forensic testing, artificial intelligence defined as computer systems able to perform such tasks as visual perception, speech recognition, translation between languages, and decision making were all employed.  Scientists from Xomnia, an Amsterdam based data company that offered to provide the foundation for artificial intelligence that Microsoft agreed to develop further, stated that at some point the program algorithms should be able to predict what or who was likely a suspect.

Perhaps Sullivan’s most useful chapters center around the details of the investigation.  The team was amazingly thorough in its approach.  It investigated numerous theories and concluded that of the 27,000 Jews in hiding in the Netherlands, one-third had been betrayed. By the end of the investigation more than 66 gigabytes of data in the form of more than 7500 files was created.  In so doing Sullivan concludes that suspects such as Job Jansen, who in the early on had denounced Otto Frank to the Nazis and is convinced his Jewish wife is having an affair with Otto Frank was innocent.  Then there is Nelly Voskuijl, a Nazi whose sister was helping to hide the Franks.  Another is Willem van Maaren, the warehouse manager who might have been after bounty money.  Anton “Tanny” Ahlers, a currier for the NSB was a committed Nazi and bounty hunter but he like the others was not responsible for the seizure of the Frank family.  Lastly, there is the case of Anna van Dijk, who from 1943 on laid traps to uncover where Jews were hiding, but there is little evidence that she turned the Franks in – but she was executed at the end of the war for turning in at a minimum 68 Jews and possibly over 200.  

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In the end the Cold Case Team singles out a Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh and member of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council  may have passed information about the Franks to the SS in order to save his own family.  Sullivan’s exploration into the Cold Case spends the most time analyzing the role of van den Bergh and his relationship with Otto Frank and argues that the most logical culprit was the former notary for the Dutch Judenrat, but Vince Pankoke is not so certain, so we must conclude that the investigation was less of an unsolved mystery and more of a well kept secret on the part of Otto Frank.

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(Vince Pankoke)

As Ruth Franklin points out, “those who went into hiding were perhaps even more at the mercy of others. Anne was unusual in having a stable hiding place together with her family; most Dutch Jewish children were sent into hiding alone, since they were easier to hide than adults. There are many stories of abuse and exploitation of these children by their hosts, in addition to the larger risks that hiding entailed. Picture all those dots on the map: any one of those people could potentially have betrayed the Franks.”  Or as journalist Kathryn Hughes concludes, Regardless, what Sullivan does manage to do is assemble a compelling picture of what it was like to live in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation: here is a collection of increasingly isolated individuals, hungry, terrified and daily faced with impossible choices about whether to save themselves, their loved ones, or the nice family that lives next door. And it is this moral vacuum that follows in the wake of antisemitism, rather than any particular “perp,” that betrayed Anne Frank.**

*Ruth Franklin, “Beyond Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, May 5, 2022, 20.

** Kathryn Hughes, “The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan review – who tipped off the Nazis? The Guardian, 2 February 2022.

For an excellent discussion for the subject at hand consult Jane Eisner, “Searching for Anne Frank’s betrayer, finding a moral dilemma,” Washington Post, January 21, 2022.

Otto Frank’s business premises, Prinsengracht 263 (in the middle), around 1947.
(Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history.  It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.  It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.

Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles.  The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete.  In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps.  The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions.  The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making.  In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.

Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America.  Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.

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The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941.  It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour.  The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war.  The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia.  Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th.  They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians. 

Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler.  For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany.  From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States.  For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic.  In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet.  Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific.  Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.

As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia.  Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal.  In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. 

From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war.  The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.

Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress.  Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests.  FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition.  Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.

The Repulse and Prince of Wales Battleships: How They Sunk

(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)

The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy.  The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany.  It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed.  However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington.  He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.

Churchill & Roosevelt. /Nprime Minister Winston Churchill And President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photographed During A Press Conference In
(Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war.  John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war.  For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability.  Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time.  This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.

Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war.  The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future?  How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?

(Japanese envoys in Washington, DC December 1941)

The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific.  People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front.  For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.

Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.

ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER by Rebecca Donner

(Mildred Harnack

How does one evaluate courage and commitment?  In the case of Mildred and Arvid Harnack the answer lies in their role as part of the resistance to the Nazis before and during World War II.  Mildred, an American lecturer at the University of Berlin who was working on her PhD in American Literature and her husband Arvid employed at the Ministry of Economics is German and they form a resistance group after Hitler assumed power called “the Circle.”  It is through the work of this organization and sister organizations that they hoped to overthrow the Nazi regime before it can live up to its rhetoric.  Their remarkable story is told by Mildred’s great-great-niece, Rebecca Donner in her book ALL THE FREQUENT TROUBLES OF OUR DAYS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE AMERICAN WOMAN AT THE HEART OF THE GERMAN RESISTANCE TO HITLER.  The book’s title suggests that the narrative will focus mostly on Mildred, but in reality its presentation is much broader zeroing in on the actions of Arvid and a number of others in “the Circle.”

(Arvid and Mildred Harnack)

Donner’s book is a work of narrative history, but it comes across as a spy thriller, in addition to being the life story of a number of remarkable people.  At the outset, Donner focuses on Mildred who she describes as an “enigma who inspired a range of contradictory conclusions about who she was and why she did what she did.”  By 1932, Mildred had moved to Germany to teach at the University of Berlin which would be her foundation to gather like minded people to resist the Nazi seizure of power as she recognized early on the danger that Adolf Hitler presented.  Donner integrates Mildred’s early years and her relationship with her husband Arvid into the web of spies that emerges.  Mildred would soon be fired as a lecturer because her classes were deemed to be unacceptable to Nazi ideology particularly based on the American literary figures she presented in class.  Arvid held a compassion for Germany’s poor and his goal was to address the problems of poverty and develop solutions.  He would travel to the Soviet Union to learn about their economic approach and while there he would develop contacts that in the end would turn him into a Soviet spy against Germany.

Donner’s narrative encompasses most aspects of Hitler’s rise to the Chancellorship; the Nazi seizure power turning Germany into a dictatorship, Hitler’s expansionist foreign policy, and finally World War II.  Donner offers little that is new as she recounts the most notable events be it the Enabling Act, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht, the seizures of the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and finally war.  In doing so Donner integrates the resistance work of Mildred and Arvid and their compatriots until their  arrest by the Gestapo in August 1942.

Donner writes in a manner that the words seem to flow off the page as she tells her story.  She incorporates the latest research along with excerpts from important documents that include speeches, wording of leaflets, family letters, recruitment of assets, and the interrogations of prisoners by the Gestapo.  As Donner chronicles her story she does an excellent job at providing the texture of German society before and during the war as the Nazis implemented their draconian program.  Book burnings, racial laws, reducing women to being brood mares for the Nazi regime, violence and persecution of Jews that leads to the Holocaust, and Hitler and Goebbels’ ravings are all present. 

LIBERATION DU CAMP DE CONCENTRATION DE RAVENSBRUCK 1945
(Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for Women)

Donner’s research was enhanced by a number of sources.  Though Mildred destroyed her journal and was careful that no one see it, Donner’s conversations with her grandmother Jane who spent time with Mildred as a young woman in Germany is important.  Letters from Mildred would be found in a relative’s attic, and Donner was able to obtain observations by Mildred’s friends in letters and diaries, as well as trial records and memoirs by Mildred’s collaborators allowing Donner to tell a story that was mostly unknown.

Donner describes the recruitment and work of “Circle” members who engage in a myriad of activities to resist the Nazis that include posters across Germany, leaflet preparation and distribution, radio transmission of information obtained, newspapers, penetration of Hermann Goring’s staff and the Army High Command, providing evidence for atrocities, and finally spying for the United States and the Soviet Union.  As the war progressed it was clear that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler, but as Harold Nicholson once noted, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” leading Arvid who viewed himself as an anti-fascist to assume the role of a Russian spy passing along secrets that Hitler was about to attack Russia in the spring of 1941 which Stalin would ignore, and providing intelligence that once Stalingrad was taken the Nazis would march on the Caucasus to have access to Rumanian oil.

(Donald Heath Sr. and Jr.)

There are a number of interesting character portraits in the book apart from the main characters.  Martha Dodd, the daughter of William Dodd the American Ambassador to Germany story is fascinating as she engages in numerous affairs, spies on her own father, falls in love with a Russian spy who will be shot during one of Stalin’s periodic purges, among many escapades.  Another interesting and more meaningful character is Donald Heath, eventually the First Secretary in the American embassy in Berlin and his son Donald, Jr.  Donald, Sr. is Secretary of the Treasury Robert Morgenthau’s personal source for information concerning Hitler’s preparation for war. The Heaths and Harnacks become close friends and share intelligence to the point both families use the eleven year old Donald, Jr. as a courier to deliver important intelligence.  Donner makes the excellent point that American intelligence before the war and early on was deeply flawed containing numerous gaps to base important decisions.

By 1942 the Gestapo arrests the key members of “the Circle,” that include Mildred and Arvid, Liberto and Harro Schultze-Boysen, and  Greta and Adam Kuckhoff.  Of these individuals Hitler will harbor an extreme hatred for Mildred and though all are tortured she is the victim of the most extreme form of punishment.  Donner will spend a great deal of time describing their fate once they are arrested and most exhibit a remarkable amount of courage knowing full well they will be executed.

In appearance Mildred Harnack does not appear to be a spy.  She is an American educator teaching in Berlin.  She is a shy bookish individual and doesn’t seem to possess the tools to be a focal point of German resistance and as one Nazi official stated, her story would make a wonderful novel.  However, her work and those of those who were a part of “the Circle” is testimony to what impels people to act for what they believe and in the end are willing to pay for those beliefs and actions with their lives.

Mildred Harnack

(Mildred Harnack)

THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS by Judy Batalion

(Crowds of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, Poland, 1942)

The role of women during the Holocaust be it their experiences in the death camps, participants in the resistance, and the effect of Nazi atrocities on the families of victims has not received the attention it should.  Five years ago, Sarah Helms’ Ravensbruck: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women was published and provided numerous insights into what women experienced in the camps, but their role in the resistance has not received the serious treatment that needed to be afforded until now with the publication of Judy Batalion’s THE LIGHT OF DAYS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF WOMEN RESISTANCE FIGHTERS IN HITLER’S GHETTOS.   In her remarkable book Batalion has created a narrative that follows the exploits of a number of women who fought back against the Nazi genocide.  Batalion focuses on Renia Kuklieka, who was a courier for the Zionist youth organization; “Freedom,” Zivia Lubetkin, a “Freedom” leader in the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB) and the Warsaw Ghetto uprising;  Frumka Plotnicka, a “Freedom” comrade who led the fighting organization in Bedzin, Poland; and Vladka Meed, who rescued countless people from the Warsaw Ghetto and other acts of bravery and genius.    There are numerous other courageous women that Batalion brings to the reader’s attention and they all exhibit an unimaginable degree of courage, tenacity, and empathy as they confronted their situation on a daily basis.

Batalion tells her story through the eyes of numerous women through their personal experiences, first trying to maintain a degree of normalcy once the Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939.  They would continue their work with Zionist Youth organizations working to gain passage to Palestine, trying and manipulate the Judenrat, and training their members for what appeared to be a dismal and dangerous future.  Batalion examines the lives and personalities of these women and explores their character as they evolved into strategists, leaders, and carrying out dangerous missions.  Their bravery was unquestioned, and their work was rewarding in that they chose to return to Poland rather than emigrate to Palestine in order to contribute as much as possible to derail the Nazi machine.

Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944

(Renia Kukiełka in Budapest, 1944)

The origin of the book stems from Batalion’s research into the life of Hannah Senesh, one of the few female resisters in World War II not lost to history.  While examining material in London’s British Library she came across a book written in Yiddish, FREUEN IN DI GHETTOS (WOMEN IIN THE GHETTOS) published in New York in 1946.  Up until that time Batalion and numerous others were unaware how many women were involved in the resistance effort, nor to what degree.  The stories recounted in the book speaks of women who engaged in violence, smuggling, gathering intelligence, committing sabotage, and engaging in combat.  This exposure to the heroism of these women led Batalion to pursue her narrative that resulted in LIGHT OF DAYS.

The core of female exploits originated from “female ghetto fighters”: underground operatives who emerged from Jewish youth group movements and worked in the ghettos.  These young women were combatants, editors of underground bulletins, and social activists.  The role that stands out is the contribution women made as “couriers,” disguised as non-Jews who traveled between locked ghettos and towns all across Poland smuggling people, cash, documents, information, and weapons, many of which they obtained themselves.  In addition, women fled into the forests and enlisted in partisan units, carrying out sabotage and intelligence missions.

Batalion has the uncanny ability to tell the personal stories of her protagonists uncovering their emotions, strengths, and private thoughts.  She presents the horrors of ghetto and camp life that the Nazis perpetrated very clearly.  She traces European anti-Semitism dating to the 19th century that culminated in Nazi atrocities.  German malice and sadism are on full display as they carried out Hitler’s Final Solution which made Renia and her compatriots sick and haunted from what they witnessed. For Jews anything they did or said at any moment could result in execution of themselves and their families.  Jews faced a dilemma even if they escaped the ghetto as their families would be eliminated in retaliation.  The options women faced were limited; stay and try to protect the community, run, fight, or flight.

Judy Batalion
(Judy Batalion)

Batalion accurately and poignantly describes life in the Warsaw, Bedzin, and Vilna Ghettos.  She examines people’s fears and coping strategies that were developed in order to survive from soup kitchens, autobiographical writings and meetings to share experiences, including medical care and cultural activities.  Batalion presents a vivid portrait of the role women played in the preparation for the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  She delves into the acquisition of weapons, explosives, and other necessities including the training that women had undergone.  The end result was a disaster from a military point of view, but it provided Jews with self-respect as they achieved revenge against the Germans as they killed over 300 Nazi soldiers suffering over 13,000 deaths of their own.  Renia and others escaped to continue their goal of revenge against the Germans.

The resistance organizations that women were a part of were not uniform in their beliefs and strategies.  Batalion explains their differences from the left wing Zionist groups to the more religious Akiva organization.  The key for these groups was that they were led by individuals mostly in their late teens and late twenties who were committed to seeking vengeance against  the Nazis.   Batalion’s presentation allows the reader to get to know Renia who by 1944 was only 19 years old and her compatriots on a personal level in addition to their exploits on the battlefield.

Perhaps Batalion’s most powerful chapter, “The Courier Girls” offers a description that humanizes the women in a world of atrocities and genocide.  Her details of their preparation and missions are eye opening and for them life affirming.  Another important chapter, “Freedom in the Forests – Partisans” is well thought out as life in the forest was extremely difficult but the partisans accomplished a great deal.  They set up a village of underground huts which included printing and weapons capabilities, medical attention, a communication network, the accumulation of clothing and food, in addition to the work of the couriers.

Forged papers of Zivia Lubetkin. (Courtesy Agnes Grunwald-Spier)
(Zivia Lubetkin)

At times reading Batalion’s account is literary torture as she describes the use of sex as a means of exchange for survival, torture, rape and other perversions fostered by the Nazis.  This material is difficult to digest unless you realize the perpetrators were a version of animals.  How Renia and others did not lose their minds is beyond my comprehension.

Batalion’s narrative is somewhat bifurcated as she relates the actions of couriers, events in the ghettos, partisans in the forest, and preparation by all groups in seeking revolt and revenge against the Nazis.  On the other hand, her story is one of endurance and survival as she probes the daily travails women faced under the most ominous conditions including imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of death.  A case in point is Renia’s capture resulting in constant torture and deportation to Auschwitz.  Her story is one of amazement as she would survive the camp by escaping, traveling across Slovakia, Hungary and Turkey and eventually arriving in Haifa, Palestine on March 3, 1944.

Batalion’s epilogue is important as she delves into why women were left out of the “history of resistance” for so long.  She focuses on the politics of the newly created state of Israel, how their role was viewed by American historians, the image of women needed to fit the policy and personal goals of the survivors, and why so many women “self-silenced.”  It is clear that an incalculable number of women suffered from survival guilt, nightmares, and post-traumatic stress syndrome after the war, and Battalion’s recounting of their role is important to set the historical record straight, but also to clarify the emotions the survivors felt and how the next generation views what they accomplished.  I agree with Sonia Purnell’s comments in her April 6, 2021 New York Times book review that a simpler narrative with fewer subjects might have been even more powerful.

(Warsaw Ghetto, 1942)

GERMANIA by Harald Gilbers

Bombed Out Berlin
(Berlin at the conclusion of World War II)

With the untimely passing of Philip Kerr that ended his wonderful Bernie Gunther series I have been searching for a replacement that deals with police investigations within Nazi Germany apart from a total focus on the Holocaust.  I have explored Volker Kutscher’s Gereon Rath mysteries whose focus is at the end of the Weimar era as the Nazis are about to come to power.  The series is very satisfying as is Harald Gilbers novel, GERMANIA, the first to be translated from the German with two to follow.  Gilbers’ protagonist is a Jewish investigator named Richard Oppenheimer who had been fired long before the case that the author introduces.  The book was first published in Germany in 2013 and received the Friedrich Glausner Prize for best crime fiction debut.

The novel begins in bombed out Berlin in May 1944 where people gear up on a nightly basis for allied bombing. Oppenheimer and his wife Lisa, an Aryan are huddled together in the Jewish house where they live with other families in very crowded conditions.  One evening the SS shows up at the house and they transport Oppenheimer to a murder scene.  Since he has been let go as a detective years before Oppenheimer is at a loss as to why the SS is interested in his opinion.  The employment of Oppenheimer is the brainchild of Hauptsturmfuhrer Volger of the SS who believes that Oppenheimer’s past experience with a serial killer would be valuable with his investigation.  As Oppenheimer becomes involved in the case it seems that the murder of Inge Friedrichsen is only the first as two other women, Julie Dufour and Christina Gerdeler have also been victims within the last year.


The Lebensborn program was created by the SS in late 1935 in order to promote the growth of Germany’s healthy “Aryan” population. The term Lebensborn itself means “Fount of Life.” The program was designed to be the wellspring of future generations descended from those whom Nazi authorities deemed “racially valuable.” It originally focused on encouraging SS men to have large families and discouraging unmarried, pregnant “Aryan” women from seeking illegal abortions.

Front cover of a Lebensborn program brochure
(the symbol of the Nazi Lebensborn program)

Gilbers does an excellent job creating the ambiance of Berlin in May 1944 as the Nazi capital has become an obstacle course ridden with rubble from allied bombing.  Gilbers’ command of the history of the period is quite extensive as Albert Speer and Hitler’s grand architectural plans for the new city of Germania (to replace Berlin) are neatly integrated into the story.  Gilbers development of the Hildegard von Strachwitz’s character (Hilde) brings forth Kristallnacht as she begins her close friendship with Oppenheimer as she rescued him from an SA mob during the evening’s destruction.  Hilde, a rabid anti-Nazi and physician has done a great deal of work in psychiatry and become Oppenheimer’s alter ego as he tries to solve the murders.

Gilbers’ dive into Nazi history focuses on the distrust and deadly competition within the SS as Volger and Oppenheimer deal with their investigation that could involve the Nazi Lebensborn program.  Nazi racial theory called for pure blooded Germans and with the cost of Hitler’s war effort millions of German males would be needed to fight for the Fuhrer, so the program was ratcheted up.  It seems that Inge Friedrichsen had been a secretary at Klosterhide, one of the many Lebensborn sites the Nazis created, in addition her son Horst was part of the program.

It is clear to Volger that Oppenheimer is an excellent investigator, and he accepts the pressure from SS hire ups that he is working with a Jew.  The interaction between characters is one of the strengths of the novel.  The Volger-Oppenheimer dynamic is important as is the Hilde-Oppenheimer relationship.  For Oppenheimer he is in a quandary.  Should he assist in tracking down the killer or take advantage of an opportunity to get his wife and himself out of the country as Gilbers describes the plight of Jews in the east.

Heinrich Himmler
(Heinrich Himmler)

The story line unfolds very slowly, and the reader does not become aware of the murder of Dufour and Gerdeler until about a third of the book has passed.  Gilbers picks up the pace about halfway through the novel as the Nazi shadow begins to dominate.  To Gilbers’ credit he incorporates little known aspects of life under the Nazis as a few thousand German Jews were still living in Berlin because like Oppenheimer they were married to a Christian woman.  In addition, he refers to Oppenheimer’s use of Pervitin, a stimulant to get through the day, as well as its pervasive use by German troops, particularly tankers on the eastern front.

Gilbers does a nice job allowing the reader to project into the recesses of the killer’s mind as he describes the methods the killer used to eliminate his victims, the staging of the murders, and disposing of their bodies.  Certain aspects of the crime lead one to believe that the killer is a member of the SS which adds to the level of horror as Gilbers’ novel unfolds but its conclusion takes on a much different path.

For a debut novel GERMANIA is a success and it makes me want to read the next installment of Richard Oppenheimer’s adventures.  Hopefully, the English translation will appear soon as he has left the reader wondering what the fate of Oppenhiemer and his wife Lisa is.

The area extending north beyond the Brandenburg Gate was later controlled by Soviets for almost 40 year. Note the portrait of Stalin in the center.
(Berlin at the end of WWII)

THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE by Philippe Sands

The twisting tale of the career and flight of Otto von Wächter sounds like something that would make a superb film or a TV box set. Photo / Horst Wächter

(Otto Wachter)

Who was Otto Wachter?

According to the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal at the conclusion of World War II he served as Hans Frank, the Governor-General of occupied Poland’s deputy, the Governor-General of Krakow, and a number of other positions in the SS and SD in Austria.  He was indicted for mass murder of at least 100,000 people, if not thousands upon thousands more.  Wachter is the subject of Philippe Sands latest book, THE RATLINE: LOVE, LIES, AND JUSTICE ON THE TRAIL OF A NAZI FUGITIVE, the “Ratline” was an organization that Wachter and the likes of Adolf Eichmann, Joseph Mengele, Klaus Barbie, and countless others used as an escape route out of Europe as the war ground to a close.  Sands builds upon his previous book EAST WEST STREET: ON THE ORIGINS OF ‘GENOCIDE’ AND ‘CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY” were he wove together the story of his quest to uncover family secrets in the Ukrainian city of Lviv in the 1940s and the Nuremberg tribunal after World War II.  The route Sands describes, known as the “Ratline” was popularized in Frederick Forsyth’s THE ODESSA FILE, and thoroughly researched by Uki Goni, an Argentinian researcher in his book, THE REAL ODESSA and other monographs exploring how Nazis were able to avoid justice, the most important of which was Gerald Steinacher’s NAZIS ON THE RUN.  These works among many other titles uncover the role of the Vatican, the governments of Argentina, the United States, Switzerland among a host of countries each for its own reasons assisted former Nazis in their attempts to avoid prosecution.

Sands, a British and French lawyer, and Professor of Laws at the University College London is the author of seventeen books dealing with international law, many of which focus on the concept of genocide.  In his latest effort Sands traces the life of Otto Wachter, with special emphasis on his marriage to Charlotte Wachter, as he rose through the Nazi Party ranks, first in Vienna and later in Germany landing in his positions in occupied Poland.  After recounting his subjects’ Nazi career, he follows his attempts to avoid justice as he meanders his way employing the Ratline from 1945 to 1949.   Sands research is noteworthy as one of his main sources was through the relationship, he established with Wachter’s fourth child, Horst.  Through a series of interviews that resulted in a 2013 article for the Financial Times, Sands was able to extract a great deal of documentation dealing with the family from his mother’s diary, copiously kept from 1925, except at times when it came to the atrocities her husband was involved in.   But what must be kept in mind during Sands’ quest to decipher the life of a man on the run, and his wife’s attempts to help him; can be described as some sort of a “Nazi love story!”

Lawyer, humanitarian, and writer Philippe Sands. (Wikimedia Commons)

(Philippe Sands, author)

Horst was adamant during their many conversations that his father had done nothing wrong.  Horst argued that “his father was not responsible for any crimes…Rather, he was an ‘endangered heretic’ in the National Socialist system, opposed to racial and discriminatory actions applied in the German-occupied territories of Poland and Ukraine.”  His father was “an individual, a mere cog in a powerful system, part of a larger criminal group.”  Horst did not deny the horrors of the Holocaust and saw the process as criminal, but he did not think his father’s actions were criminal.

Sands does a remarkable job piecing together Wachter’s personal life and SS/SD career.  He takes the reader through the important events in Europe culminating with the Anschluss (union) between Austria and Germany and the role played by Horst’s god father Arthur Seyss-Inquart who served as Chancellor of Austria after it was taken over by Hitler’s forces.  Following the Anschluss, Wachter’s career advanced rapidly as he starts out as a lawyer in the Criminal Division of the SD ending up as Governor of Krakow were he implemented the creation of the Jewish ghetto for the city, the execution of numerous Poles, and advanced the process of Jewish deportation to the concentration camps.

Sands interest in Wachter is deeply personal as his grandfather, Leon Bucholz who lived in Lemberg, Galicia was deported from the city to his death during the Holocaust.  Between 1942 and 1944 Wachter was installed as Governor of the District of Galicia and supervised the city of Lemberg and probably signed the death warrant of Sands’ grandfather.

Horst Wächter

 Horst Wächter: ‘I do not return the objects for me, but for the sake of my mother.’

The most important  aspect of the book revolves around the 1945-1949 period.  This period comes to light once Horst agreed to make available his mother’s archive.  After the material was digitized Sands had access to “8677 pages of letters, post cards, diaries, photographs, news clippings, and official documents.” This required a painstaking act of reconstruction and interpretation that evolved over a number of years.  The result was detailed information how Charlotte Wachter assisted her husband even though she believed she was under surveillance.  Charlotte Wachter was the only reason Otto survived along with the vast network that supported him in the Austrian mountains in the Lower Tauerin area.

What becomes clear as the narrative unfolds is no matter how much documentation to the contrary concerning his father’s culpability in the death of thousands, Horst refuses to accept his guilt.  No matter how many interviews with people who were involved, scholars etc., Horst remained adamant.  As Otto Wachter came down out of the mountains and left for Rome in late April 1949, he took on the identity of Alfredo Reinhardt and would make his way to a monastery in Rome called Vigna Pia where Catherine Wachter sent money, clothes, and other survival necessities.  After living in the monastery for three months, Otto Wachter would die of a liver ailment leading to Sands’ investigation of how he died.  Horst was convinced that he was poisoned, probably by the Soviet Union, or perhaps by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, or even the Americans.

The last third of the book is spent analyzing Otto’s death.  What emerges is documentation of the role of a number of individuals, two of which stand out, Bishop Alois Hudal and SS Major Karl Hass.  It is clear from the evidence that Hudal was a focal figure in the escape of a number of important Nazis employing the “Ratline” and contacts within the Vatican.  Hass is an example of former Nazis that were used by the United States after the war in the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union.  Interestingly, he would escape and turn up working for the United States Counterintelligence Corps (CIC) on Project Los Angeles in Rome recruiting spies to be used against the Italian Communist Party.  It is clear from the evidence that  Otto was in contact with Hass right before he died.  Horst was certain that Hass might have been the double agent who murdered his father.

Black and white portrait photograph of Hudal

(Alois Hudal)

As Sands investigates the last three months of Otto’s life, he pieces together his movements and who assisted him with life’s necessities and the forged documents to survive.  What cannot be questioned is that Charlotte Wachter, Nazi acquaintances, and others from the Vatican were Otto’s prime enablers, many of which facilitated the “Ratline” for others like Walter Rauff, Joseph Mengele, Franz Stangl, Erich Priebke, Karl Hass, and others.  In effect Otto Wachter walked in the footsteps of his “old Nazi comrades.”

Sands has composed a remarkable historical detective story, bordering on a “thriller.”  Through the life of the Wachters, the Nazi “Ratline” comes into full focus, in addition to how Otto Wachter’s actions, a man who oversaw numerous atrocities during the war was not accepted by his son Horst.  As a result, the book has a great deal to offer about the mindset of a Nazi murderer, but also the lengths people went to, to allow him to maintain his freedom.

(Otto and Charlotte Wachter and their children))

HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ by Thomas Harding

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

After World War II a small coterie of individuals morphed into Nazi hunters.  From Simon Wiesenthal to agents of the Israeli Mossad their mission was to capture and bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice.  This has produced numerous books about their exploits in the form of memoirs, narratives about the role of governments, and certain individuals.  Of these individuals many remain unknown and little has been written.  Thomas Harding introduces us to Hanns Alexander, a German refugee and British serving officer who should be considered part of the pantheon of Nazi Hunters in his book HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ.

The format chosen by the author is a series of alternating chapters telling the life stories of the two men, at times in detail, and at times in a more cursory manner.  Beginning with Rudolf Hoss, the future Kommandant of Auschwitz we learn about a dismal childhood and a bigoted and fanatical father, along with a distant mother.  Hoss would enlist in the army at the age of fourteen during World War I serving mostly in Iraq and Palestine.  After the war Hoss would join the Freikorps which were irregular German military volunteer units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, which effectively fought as mercenary or private armies.   The Freikorps fought against communists in Latvia and also joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch. The Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt resulted in failure.  Hoss was also involved with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 which resulted in his imprisonment and being charged with murdering a “right wing” traitor.

By 1928, Hoss was released from prison and became enamored by Adolf Hitler. He married and hoped for an idyllic rural lifestyle.  Hoss would join the Atamanen League  under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in Bavaria.  Himmler took Hoss under his wing and by 1933 he joined the SS and became a supervisor at Dachau and developed what Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke called an “attitude of hatred.”  By 1936 he was promoted to SS-LT and became part of the camp administration and began his bifurcated life of rural family life and the demands of concentration camp work.  By 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen to be adjutant to the camp Kommandant, Hermann Baranowski.

Harding carefully recreates Hoss’ slow rise up the Nazi camp bureaucracy and at each step his responsibilities would increase.  By 1940 he was the Kommandant at Sachsenhausen and by April of that year he was tasked to oversee the construction of Auschwitz overcoming numerous obstacles to build the camp.  Due to a lack of food and sanitation Hoss adopted the drastic methods used at Dachau and Sachsenhausen including euthanizing thousands, mass shootings with burials in huge ditches, starvation, etc.  In the summer of 1941 Himmler informed Hoss about the Final Solution and between 1940 and 1944 he would witness the arrival of 1.3 million prisoners at Auschwitz.  Of these some 1.1 million that perished, 1 million were Jews.  Auschwitz had over 1 thousand guards and at any given time held 80,000 prisoners.  After a short assignment to straighten out Sachsenhausen he returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee “Aktion Hoss,” the extermination of Hungarian Jewry.  Within a year Hoss’ world fell apart and he realized he had to escape leaving his family in Flensburg took assuming the identity of a dead German sailor and hoped to disappear.

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

Hanns Alexander came from a not especially religious upper-class Jewish family in Berlin where his father, a physician built a successful medical practice.  Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by Berlin’s most successful and powerful people and his father was one of the city’s foremost physicians.  As long as the Weimar Republic survived the Alexander family did well.  Hanns and his twin brother Paul were precocious boys who even into adulthood loved to play pranks.  However, their world began to come undone with the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s assumption of the German Chancellorship in 1933.  Slowly the noose was tightened around the family as Dr. Alexander’s medical practice was gutted by Nazi racial laws and they witnessed the actions of bullies and thugs on Berlin’s street against Jews.  Dr. Alexander, like many assimilated Jews believed the violence was temporary and it would soon pass, and normality would resume.  Much to his chagrin this was not the case and the family left Berlin in a piece meal fashion for England.

On a visit to London to see his daughter and grandchild in 1936 Dr. Alexander learned he was on a Gestapo list and sought refuge in England.  Later in the year with the Olympics being publicized emigration laws were eased and the twins Hanns, and Paul, 19 years old left Germany, followed months later by their mother.  With the arrival of war in 1939 both boys decided to enlist but since they were German refugees, they were part of a large group that was suspected of possibly being spies.  It took Hanns months to prove he was not and in December 1939 he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps created to make use of thousands of German refugees against Hitler.  Training was mostly non-military and his assignment consisted of manual labor in support of the army.  He would be sent to France and was part of the 300,000 British soldiers who were saved at Dunkirk.  Hanns realized the only way he would be treated with respect was to become an officer. And in January 1943 he was accepted as part of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and after real training landed at Normandy in June 1944.  His role was to translate for the interrogation of captured German officers.

<p>The <a href="/narrative/9934/en">defendants</a> listen as the prosecution begins introducing documents at the <a href="/narrative/9366/en">International Military Tribunal</a> trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. November 22, 1945.</p>

(The Nuremberg Trials)

It is at this point, about two-thirds into the narrative the book takes an especially important turn as Harding finally deals with Hanns’ work as a “Nazi hunter.”  If there is a major criticism of Harding’s work is that he spends too much time providing the comparative background of his major characters and not enough dealing with events following the defeat of the Nazis, in an addition to a number of historical issues and editing.  First, he relies too heavily on Hoss’ prison memoir composed in Poland as he awaited trial.  As historian David Cesarani points out in a The Independent, 4 October 2013 book review there are numerous examples of Hoss’ jumbled approach to historical detail, not to mention his deliberate attempt to shift blame.  Further his reliance on Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn’s psychological profile  seems to soft peddle Hoss’ ideological formation, training, and socialization of the SS.  Harding states that Dachau was the first concentration camp, not so, it was first built as a camp for political prisoners and a model for what later camps would become.  Harding also states that Auschwitz was located in “rural isolation,” in fact it was a busy town next to a major railroad junction.  Harding’s description of Zykon B gas (it was not an insecticide but used to exterminate lice on clothing) and its application in showers is another misstatement as it was not “poured out of false shower heads,” when it resulted in death from pellets dropped into a tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

The key for Hanns was translating for the interrogation of Josef Kramer, Hoss’ former adjutant.  His trial in September 1945, “The Belsen trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others” became a dry run for the Nuremberg Trials.  Following Kramer’s conviction Hanns received permission to hunt for uncaptured war criminals.  He was promoted to Captain and was now a fully-fledged British war crimes investigator, not just a German refugee who helped with translations.

According to John Le Carrie, Hanns’ hunt for Hoss reads like a spy novel.  True, as the last 50 pages plus traces Hanns’ pursuit of Hoss, even though the reader is completely aware of how the story will end, Rudolf Hoss hanging from the gallows in 1947.  Harding follows Hoss’ movements, contact with his family, his final capture, interrogation, as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials,  and trial in Poland in detail and forms the most important aspect of the narrative.  In addition, Hanns Alexander happens to be the authors great-uncle and he devoted six years of research to finally tell his story, an important one, but one that could have been organized better with improved editing.

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

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(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

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To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

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(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

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Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

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(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

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(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

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