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In the shadow of Dr Goebbels - An astonishing book,
This review is from: The Hitler I Knew: Memoirs of the Third Reich's Press Chief (Hardcover)
This is an astonishing book - the most clear-eyed psychological analysis of Adolf Hitler produced by a Nazi insider. Written by Hitler's press chief, Dr Otto Dietrich, it explains the workings of Hitler's mind and actions better than nearly any other book. Yet it's quite short - just over 200 pages. Dietrich knew how to write and brought all the skills of journalism - clarity and conciseness - to bear on his subject. His book is full of sharp insights into Hitler and his henchmen and their nefarious activities.
For almost 14 years Dietrich worked closely with Hitler. He organized the great Nazi propaganda campaigns during the elections of 1932, becoming Hitler's constant companion as he endlessly crisscrossed Germany by car and plane. At one time he controlled the entire German press. He also was in charge of foreign correspondents in Berlin.
During WW2 Dietrich met Hitler every day. When major events happened Dietrich determined the way they were reported in Germany and abroad. Dietrich demanded editors toed the Nazi party line. He ran courts that punished and purged editors who failed to obey Nazi orders. He knew what he was doing. He knew about politics and he was a true believer. In the beginning he says he really believed Hitler was a man of peace who was promoting the welfare of the German people.
`Whenever one thinks of the Führer,' he wrote in the 1930s, `a deep love surfaces that is sufficient to justify the sentence: "Hitler is Germany - Germany is Hitler!" ... He was not, is not, and never will be a dictator who forces the people to accept his personal wishes. He is a Führer, and that is the highest thing that can be said of any human being. That is why the people love him, trust him and rejoice in him. This man for the first time in history has allowed them to fully express themselves.'
By the end of WW2 Dietrich had changed his mind. He was angry - enraged at how Hitler had wrecked Germany. Five months after the end of the war Dietrich started writing this book in a British internment camp. He completed his manuscript in 1948. It was smuggled out of prison with instructions to published after his death. This came earlier than expected. He died in 1955.
In this book Dietrich rails against his former master and sets out to examine what went wrong. Why did Hitler, who was so popular and embodied the hopes of millions, crash in ruins? How was he able to fool everybody, including the author? What can we learn from his disastrous rule? This book is one of the earliest examinations of Hitler's reign - proceeding major works by Alan Bullock, John Toland, William Shirer, Joachim Fest, Albert Speer, Ian Kershaw, Richard Evans and countless others. When first written it broke new ground and is still a primary source for historians. Much of Dietrich's information has stood the test of time even if there are gaps in what we would like to know.
More than half a century after his death at the early age of 55 Hitler's press chief is emerging from the shadows. Less flamboyant than his Nazi rivals he has attracted less public attention. But Dietrich was a key figure - the ultimate spin doctor at the heart of the Third Reich. During his trial in 1949 for crimes against humanity Nuremberg prosecutors described him as 'by far the most important' of the Nazi leaders, including Goebbels, involved in propaganda. Indeed Hitler himself described Dietrich as `an extremely clever man.'
He was. He had a doctorate in political science. So what drew this intellectual and millions of Germans to the Nazis? The clue lies in the title. Nazi was acronym for the National Socialist German Workers' Party. Hitler, argues Dietrich, offered voters a German version of socialism - Socialism with a German face - a German folk-state containing the racial essence of the German people.
The communists, on the other hand, engaged in treason. They were in the pay of a foreign country. They received huge funds from Lenin's and Stalin's Soviet Union to provoke revolution and grab power in Germany. They engaged in nationwide terror - murdering and bombing and causing chaos. Hitler created the Nazis to combat them.
In this book Dietrich explains why Hitler's vision for Germany appealed to voters and why it went wrong. Hitler, he argues, was trying to create a classless state - a racial community of people that would eliminate `the evils of the party system' and solve what some saw as `the Jewish problem.' In the early days, he assures us, `There was no talk at all of extermination of the Jewish race.' The Germans also wanted to scrap the Treaty of Versailles.
The book is divided into two halves. The first part - Hitler as leader of party, state and armed forces - looks at Hitler's character and talent. `Hitler,' he tells us, `was a demonic personality obsessed with racial delusions ... But he was in no sense mentally ill; rather he was mentally abnormal, a person who stood on the broad threshold between genius and madness.'
Dietrich was impressed by his leader's abilities:- `Hitler had extraordinary intellectual gifts - in some fields undoubted genius. He had an eye for essentials, an astonishing memory, a remarkable imagination, and a bold decisiveness that made for unusual success in his social undertakings and other peaceful works.'
But Hitler had no moral sense - `his thinking was both primitive and cranky'. He had a split personality and was at war with himself. He had no restraint and became more extreme and dictatorial as time went on.
Dietrich provides a subtle and nuanced examination of Hitler's curious character - one of the best I've read - and helps unravel the mystery of this terrible man who destroyed so much. He tells us how Hitler changed from a popular leader to a gambler with destiny and examines his foreign policy during the war.
On page 38 he says:- `On the day the war began Hitler donned the gray uniform and declared that he would wear it until the end of the war. When he put off his civilian clothes, he also stripped himself of the political skill he had possessed up to then. Throughout the war until the day of his death he displayed not a single impulse toward political activity, no ambition to employ statesmanship in foreign affairs. All his fire, his hardness, his savagery, and his passion which had failed him in foreign politics he now poured into the role of a soldier and Supreme Commander. The fact that he led the war not as statesman, but as a commander obsessed with military ambitions, was the crowning misfortune that his demonic personality brought to the German nation.'
Two pages later he writes these prophetic words that are relevant today:- `History shows that wars fought on a military plane alone seldom come to a good end. And heads of state who during a war have done nothing but lead campaigns and have failed to consolidate their victories politically - have failed to shape successful battles into a new order - resemble rockets that shoot flaring into the sky and fall, burnt out, as fast as they rose. In this sense Hitler was a shooting star that glowed only briefly and in its fall shattered the German Reich and shook the entire world.'
If only George W. Bush and Tony Blair had read those words before they invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. As for the Vietnam war... I could go on...
Dietrich's message is clear - there's more to war than `shock and awe'.
In addition, he examines the administrative chaos caused by competing empires in the Nazi government, Hitler's ruthless will power, his lack of flexibility and much else. In part two he describes scenes from Hitler's life - so different in reality from what the public thought at the time. What he tells us may be familiar now, but was new when he first put pen to paper and has been confirmed by historians since.
What about the Holocaust? It gets scant attention in this book. That reflects the different way people look at WW2 today compared to the past. Nowadays more emphasis is put upon this appalling tragedy explains the historian Roger Moorhouse in his modern introduction to Dietrich`s book:- `This tendency to view the Third Reich almost exclusively through the prism of its persecution of the Jews is of rather modern provenance and would have been alien to many in the 1940s.'
Nonetheless, the question refuses to go away. So how anti-Semitic was Dietrich? More than he lets on. As Prof Jeffrey Herf reveals in his book "The Jewish Enemy - Nazi Propaganda during WW2 and the Holocaust" Dietrich played a major role in the campaign against the Jews. As I said, at Nuremberg prosecutors described Dietrich as 'by far the most important' of the Nazi leaders, including Goebbels, involved in propaganda. He was found guilty of Crimes against Humanity for disseminating anti-Semitic propaganda in his daily press directives issued during the Holocaust:-
`It is thus clear,' stated the Tribunal, `that a well thought-out, oft-repeated, persistent campaign to arouse the hatred of the German people against Jews was fostered and directed by the press department and its press chief, Dietrich. That part or much of this may have been inspired by Goebbels is undoubtedly true, but Dietrich approved and authorized every release . . . The only reason for this campaign was to blunt the sensibilities of the people regarding the campaign of persecution and murder which was being carried out . . . These press and periodical directives were not mere political polemics, they were not aimless expression of anti-Semitism, and they were not designed only to unite the German people in the war effort . . . Their clear and expressed purpose was to enrage the German people against the Jews, to justify the measures taken and to be taken against them, and to subdue any doubts which might arise as to the justice of measures of racial persecution to which Jews were to be subjected . . . By them Dietrich consciously implemented, and by furnishing the excuses and justifications, participated in, the crimes against humanity regarding Jews . . .'
Holocaust apart, what is extraordinary about this book is the detail - how Dietrich wrote a sophisticated analysis so soon after the war describing what was wrong with Nazism. He got much of it right and his examination stands up to modern scrutiny.
Nevertheless, one critic has dismissed this book as `a self-serving piece of rubbish.' The book may be self-serving. But it's also a perceptive analysis of Hitler's personality. Decades later many of the facts he presents - and his arguments - have been confirmed by distinguished historians. Whatever one thinks of the man's morality he wrote a valuable book. Dietrich was an intelligent intellectual. Like Albert Speer, who also wrote perceptively about Hitler, he provides problems for modern readers and comes with a health warning. But to dismiss him out hand is wrong. This book is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the tyrant.
Psychologically Hitler is one of the most puzzling major leaders. He's more difficult to understand than Churchill, Mrs Thatcher, Eisenhower etc. Dietrich was one of the earliest insiders to write a book that explained the tyrant's dual nature and how it fooled so many people. He makes Hitler understandable. One can see how the trick was done and why socialism, Hitler-style, seemed so appealing to many in the beginning. Dietrich wrote a number of books supporting Hitler, including "With Hitler on the Road to Power" in 1933 where he enthusiastically described what he thought was Hitler's struggle for the soul of the German people. `I presented National Socialism as imbued with the desire for peace,' he admits. `At the time I honestly believed this. Now I owe to the public the tragic sequel to that book, the second part of the drama, which alone explains Hitler's plunge into the abyss and the collapse of the German Reich.'
In his introduction the historian Roger Moorhouse raises an interesting question. When did Dietrich start to have doubts about Hitler? Dietrich is vague, but gives readers hints in his preface printed as an appendix at the end of this edition. He claims in the course of years he came to hate Hitler's despotic nature.
But once he'd boarded the Hitler train speeding towards its doom it was impossible to get off. `In spite of repeated attempts on my part to break free,' he says, Hitler `did not permit me to leave ... Only at the end, when I watched the inglorious collapse and the obstinacy of his final downfall, was I able suddenly to fit together the bits of the mosaic I had been amassing for twelve years into a complete picture of his opaque and sphinx like personality. Revelation of the bestialities in the concentration camps at home and in Poland opened my eyes, and showed me in firm outline the shifting contours of this man's character. When we study his portrait in retrospect, the lights and shades fall quite differently from the way we used to see them. Up to the end, we were looking at the portrait from an entirely different angle. The uncanny duality of his nature and the monstrousness of his true being suddenly became apparent.'
Hence Dietrich's complete reversal after the war and repudiation of Hitler and the Nazis. The Nuremberg tribunal sent him to seven years imprisonment, but he was out of jail in 18 months. Like many high Nazi officials, he denied he was aware of the crimes of National Socialism. And he tried to downplay his own role in the co-ordination and control of the press. He claimed he served Hitler only as `a postman'.
`I always acted in good faith and from patriotic motives,' he claimed. If that was a crime then he was just as guilty as 70 million Germans were guilty.
In 2010 Stefan Krings published a major biography entitled "Hitler's press chief Otto Dietrich" (1897-1952). He argues at times Dietrich was even more powerful than his rival Dr Goebbels. Krings says that for decades historians have been fixated on the more colourful Goebbels and shifts the balance towards Dietrich.
It's an argument Jeffrey Herf makes in his book "The Jewish Enemy". He says:- `Joseph Goebbels enormous celebrity, his voluminous published work and his remarkable diary have all influenced scholarship about Nazi propaganda. Whereas the minister of propaganda was obviously a key figure, he did not control daily and periodical journalism in the Third Reich to the extent that is often thought to be the case. Adolf Hitler did, or rather Hitler did so via Otto Dietrich and the Reich Press Office.'
In short, Dr Dietrich was a much larger cog in the Nazi propaganda machine than many people once thought. Expect to hear more about him as the years roll by.
Meanwhile, his memoirs present readers with dilemmas judging by the conflicting views they excite. If you're an unrepentant Nazi and refuse to admit you were wrong you cause offence. If you criticise Nazism, repent and say democracy is the way forward you're told you're self-serving and insincere. This has prompted one critic to observe:-
`So a repentant Nazi. Strange how few repentant Communists or socialists are around nowadays. Communism slaughtered even more people than the Nazis and they still do in China, North Korea and Cuba. But most socialists haven't the common decency to admit they were wrong. It needed a Nazi to show them what they should have done.'
Make of that what you will.