My Year of Hitler

Six Things I Learned from Reading 8,000 Pages About the Nazis

My Year of Hitler

Kelly O

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In the past year, I've read more than a dozen books about Hitler, the Nazis, and the rise and fall of the Third Reich (including The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer, 1960).

That's about 8,000 pages filled with words about genocide, atrocity, military history, man's inhumanity to man—not to mention a dozen separate, and frequently conflicting, accounts of the man who most shaped the 20th century. Here are a few of the things I learned.

(1) Never read about Hitler on the bus. Unless, that is, you're looking for conversations with beady-eyed homeless guys who stare at you sideways and mutter, "He was right about a lot of things, you know." Followed by: "So... where are you getting off?"

(2) Because Hitler is such an impossible subject (simultaneously the inhuman embodiment of evil and an actual, if unknowable, human being), the best biographies have a Unifying Theory of Hitler. My favorite such mission statement is in Ian Kershaw's two-part biography, Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis (1998, 2000), laid out at length in the second volume:

In Greek mythology, Nemesis is the goddess of retribution, who exacts the punishment of the gods for the human folly of overweening arrogance, or hubris... History has no shortage of examples among the high and mighty, though "nemesis" tends to be a more political than moral judgement... Hitler's nemesis as retribution for unparalleled hubris would prove to be not just a personal retribution, but the nemesis of the Germany which had created him. His own country would be left in ruins—much of Europe with it—and divided.

Kershaw's hubris/nemesis theory—hammered over the reader's head repeatedly throughout more than 2,000 pages—is one way (although far from the only way) to understand Hitler: not as a monster, but as a human being who raised a terroristic police state in a country that was ripe for tyranny. More skillfully than most, Kershaw balances individual responsibility (Nazi Germany could not have come about without Hitler) with historical context (the political structures and social forces in place when Hitler seized power) in a way that other books, such as Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996), do not.

(3) Conversely, portraying Hitler as a monster (rather than a monstrous individual in a conflicted, and racist, society) diminishes him as a subject. When he wrote Rise and Fall, still (rightly) considered the most authoritative book on the subject, Shirer was little more than a decade removed from the events he was writing about. His source material was not only thousands of pages of documents from the confidential archives of the German government, captured at the end of the Third Reich in spring 1945, but personal experience (he worked in Germany as a radio correspondent for CBS from 1938 to 1941, writing three books: Berlin Diary [1941], The Nightmare Years [1984], and "This Is Berlin" [published posthumously in 1999]). Although Shirer states at the outset that he plans to be "severely objective" despite his "loathing" for Hitler's dictatorship, his palpable disgust for the people and events he's describing flattens his characterizations—for example, when he portrays Luftwaffe leader Hermann Goering as a clownish, obese buffoon; gay S.A. leader Ernst Rohm as a revolting sexual deviant; and party "philosopher" Alfred Rosenberg as "muddled," "shallow," and "confused." It's understandable that Shirer—a firsthand witness to the horrors of the Third Reich whose radio career in Berlin was ended by fascist censorship—would feel this way, but I prefer the further-removed accounts of John Toland (Adolf Hitler, 1976) and Kershaw to Shirer's exhaustive but still-seething overview.

(4) If you read Shirer, you'll have a relatively thorough education on Nazi Germany. However, if you want to go deeper, I would recommend Rise and Fall, Kershaw's two-part biography, and Richard J. Evans's now-three-part series, The Coming of the Third Reich (2003), The Third Reich in Power (2005), and The Third Reich at War (2008).

(5) There is something highly rewarding—even gratifying—about watching the bad guys get theirs. My favorite stories about the Nazi era take place in April 1945, when Berlin was surrounded in every direction and Nazis who hadn't left Berlin already realized they never would (Magda Goebbels forcing her children to take poison, Hitler's last look at the city he'd destroyed, loyal Nazis hastily gathering gasoline to burn Hitler's body along with that of Eva Braun). For the most thorough description published to date of the last moments of the Nazi regime, I recommend Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945 (2002), a grisly, bloody, absolutely devastating book that includes one of the most detailed accounts yet of those final, desperate days.

(6) Constantly reading about horrors makes every part of your life a little horrible. For the first six months of my year of Hitler, I didn't relate the symptoms I was having—the grisly nightmares, the lousy moods, the sudden, random bouts of despair—to the fact that I had immersed myself voluntarily in one of the darkest periods in recorded human history. In fact, I think it only dawned on me that my Third Reich/Hitler obsession was skewing my outlook (and my relationships with other people, who got tired of hearing about this or that theory or version of events) when I started reading We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, Philip Gourevitch's indispensable 1998 account of the Rwandan genocide, as "relief" from World War II Germany and the Holocaust. So now I really am taking a break. Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich (1970), Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), and Ernst Hanfstaengl's Hitler: The Missing Years (1957) will have to gather dust on the shelf. I just picked up Barbara Walters's juicy autobiography, Audition (2008), and let me tell you—compared to Hitler, it's candy. recommended

This story has been updated since its original publication.


Comments (37) RSS

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danhowes 1
Jeez, a year of Hitler. Did you lose a bet or something?
Posted by danhowes on May 27, 2009 at 4:43 PM · Report this
did u read "the castle in the forest" by norman mailer?
Posted by mariannarossi on May 27, 2009 at 6:01 PM · Report this
At least you didn't read 'Ordinary Men' by Christopher Browning. There was a downer.
Posted by W on May 27, 2009 at 8:36 PM · Report this
lemonde 4
If you're interested in diving into another year-long task without the year-long commitment, then I would suggest the memoir, "The Year of Reading Proust" by Phyllis Rose.
Posted by lemonde on May 27, 2009 at 9:38 PM · Report this
You know, I've been studying WWII history for close to 30 years and while I learn more and more with each book I read, and as more is revealed (this just in, the Russians released some clear history for about 4 years!), I never will come close to ever understanding the mechanics of the birth of the mindset of it.

I'm so glad you were able to get a hold of it in just a year.

Also, any study of Nazism without Victor Klemperer's "I Will Bear Witness", is short sighted.
Posted by I'm so glad ECB is smarter than most folk! on May 28, 2009 at 8:56 AM · Report this
"Rise and Fall, still (rightly) considered the most authoritative book on the subject".

I'm sorry but no. Shirer's work is no longer considered "the most authoritative" work on the subject and it certainly shouldn't "rightly" be considered that. While pretty good, Shirer ignored a lot of the evidence at the time and in the 50 years since much more evidence has come to light. Shirer has been surpassed many times.
Posted by Robert S. Porter on May 28, 2009 at 10:07 AM · Report this
Dj Glam Dude 7
"At least you didn't read 'Ordinary Men' by Christopher Browning. There was a downer. " -- I read that book,very disturbing.

I am reading "On Killing" - by Dave Grossman right now.Next on the list is "Masters of Death" by Richard Rhodes.

I also recommend reading "The Cruel Hunters" by French MacLean.
Posted by Dj Glam Dude on May 28, 2009 at 10:50 AM · Report this
Very interesting essay, ECB. I hope you devote another year to another (if sunnier) topic.
Posted by Ronan on May 28, 2009 at 2:39 PM · Report this
But what about their transit and pedestrian policies?
Posted by Michel McGinn on May 28, 2009 at 4:47 PM · Report this
You've inspired me to take on the daunting task of watching a year of "Hogan's Heroes". If that works out well, I think I'll start studying the Pacific Theater with "McHale's Navy".
Posted by Cameric on May 29, 2009 at 4:48 AM · Report this
What seems left out of the discussion of what caused Hitler, Hitler the monster v. underlying conditions, is the variable of what the West did and did not do.

In terms of allowing him to get power and build a war machine, the whole appeasement debate, Chamberlain v. Churchill, USA sitting it out in the 30s, etc.

England did let them build a bigger air force. And England almost lost. And we the USA really didn't help all that much for 1.5 years. It was a close call.
Posted by PC on May 29, 2009 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Renée Krulich (Nay) 12
"Albert Speer's Inside the Third Reich (1970)" is actually comparatively light reading. One of my majors was history and I have been fascinated with Nazi Germany since I was a child though, so my immersion into the subject is a bit different than yours. I encourage you to go back to it at some point.
Posted by Renée Krulich (Nay) on May 29, 2009 at 12:32 PM · Report this
PC, et al: historians quietly forget the anti-Red paranoia that suffused the West. While a certainly present before the Russian Civil War, it became ubiquitous afterwards. Among the monied men with ready access to government, it was their #1 fear. The world-wide banking institutions (yes, including the Rothschilds) saw Hitler as a much lesser of two evils. They went far beyond ignoring/appeasing him, to actively investing in the Nazi regime. He was their "buffer against Communism." It is highly doubtful that Nazi Germany would be as successful as it was without the ready cash made available to it by the bankers & industrialists from America & Europe.
Posted by Maximillian Schell on May 29, 2009 at 2:52 PM · Report this

First, I must acknowledge that you are an excellent writer. Whenever I pick up the Stranger I immediately see if you have a piece and generally read it. You appear to do your best when you are doing, for lack of a better word, investigative reporting. Having said that much I must confess that I did not expect writers for the Stranger to be interested in such serious matter as Hitler and his philosophy, his take on what life ought to mean to folk. I had assumed that the writers of the Stranger are perpetual children involved in protracted rebellious behavior (oppositional defiant disorder, ODD) against their parents and God.
I tended to see the whole homosexual enterprise as nothing more than children, who, like the proverbial mice, are shaking their feeble hands at the sun trying to change it. Nature made human beings man and woman and made their sexual organs to fit each other. Homosexuals, as it were, want to defy that reality. Homosexuals want to change reality and recreate themselves in their own defiant self images hence men stick their penises into other men’s anuses (and infect themselves with all sorts of bacteria and virus and die from them, not to talk of the fact that they so destroy their anuses that they practically have to wear diapers to hold the feces that gush out from their over widened anuses) and call such obnoxious behavior sexual and women stick their mouths into other women’s vaginas and call such filthy and germs ridden behavior sexual…their mouths are almost always infected by the fungi and the other micro-organisms that live in the female vagina. (These people do not appreciate how annoying their behavior of making boys sexual objects is to some persons, persons who would like to put them out of their miseries for making their perverse way of life so conspicuous!)
Well, one had dismissed the Stranger and its writers as rebels who are out to remake reality and who would eventually grow up and accept reality as it is and quit their infantile life styles (their powerless efforts at being powerful). But lo and behold you claimed to have read up on Adolf Hitler and judging from the summary of the few books on him you provided apparently have done so. (You did not indicate whether you read Hitler’s own writings, such as Mein Kampf, Table Talks/Secret Talks, edited by Trevor Roper, or not; and said that you have not read Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich…you should read them…may I also add Robert Waite, The Psychopathic God and Alan Bullock’s Study of Tyranny).
My question is this: what motivated you to read Hitler? I understand that no one entirely understands why he does what he does yet it is nice to speculate on the subject. So, why did you read up on Hitler?
I have read just about everything that I could lay my hands on Hitler and have reached some tentative conclusions as to why he had a nihilistic approach to human beings.
I tend to see Hitler as a fore runner of what is going to happen in the future. For example, I expect that when society fully grasps what homosexuals do and its potential threat to civilization to react with disgust. I expect some demagogues to persuade a significant portion of society to round up homosexuals and gas them to death.
Of course, one does not support such a drastic approach to the absurdity that is homosexual defiance of nature; one merely states the fact that some persons find some behaviors so offensive that they are tempted to play God and try to do away with those who exhibit them.
Extreme idealists who appreciate the world’s imperfections, reject them and seek a perfect, ideal version of them are often tempted to do away with those human beings that they find particularly obnoxious.
I believe that Adolf Hitler was an extreme idealist (idealists can be on the right as well as on the left, fascists are idealists on the right and socialists are idealists on the left) who appreciated the imperfections of human beings and wanted to change people to fit his mentally constructed ideals of them, and in pursuit of his version of ideal human beings believed that if only he did away with those he associated with gross imperfection, such as Jews, homosexuals, the mentally and physically challenged, Slavic persons and non-white persons in general that he would be doing biological evolution a great service, that he would be improving the human stock.
It will take too much space and time to recapitulate what I have elsewhere written on why Hitler did what he did. I am just curious to know why you undertook to read him, a serious subject, rather than continue the prolonged teenage rebellion that is the nature of homosexuals and their local mouth piece, the Stranger.

Posted by TJ123 on May 29, 2009 at 3:34 PM · Report this
I feel your pain. I spent a year reading Holocaust narratives because I have a sick, masochistic side awash with young German guilt. It really fucks with your psyche because you get so holed up reading these awful, inhumane and stomach-turning things that you forget how to relate to other people and their problems seem trivial. I remember during this sulky phase that my best buddy came to me crying about how her boyfriend broke up with her and I just brushed her off, being all like "At least you didn't get injected with gasoline or see babies thrown into a pit of fire." Trying to better myself by confronting evil only made me an asshole.
Posted by Lil' ol' me on May 29, 2009 at 8:41 PM · Report this
LEE. 16
wow, I should have stopped reading #14 when he mentioned the invented mental illness "oppositional defiant disorder", but no... I sloughed through it. that was just surreal.
Posted by LEE. on May 29, 2009 at 8:51 PM · Report this
@16: I stopped reading as soon as I realized what it was, which was sometime around mice shaking their hands at the sun. Maybe I'll finish it sometime, probably not.
Posted by Zach Annon on May 30, 2009 at 11:55 AM · Report this
Wow, #14, just quiet down and admit that you're gay, already ....
Posted by David 77 on May 30, 2009 at 1:43 PM · Report this
Ms. Barnes for all her reading about Hitler misses the two most important studies:

Dr. Fritz Redlich's
Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet (Paperback)…

And Dr. Ted Dorpat's


whereas Redlich approaches Hitler very much more from a medical perspective
than the psychoanalytic one that one would expect from him, Dr. Dorpat, a famous
Seattle psychoanalyst, put the last nail into the coffin of Hitler analysis by demonstrating
the effects of post traumatic stress on the monster. The ultra nationalist Hitler served for five years
straight at the front lines as a runner, until he was gassed, and was back at the front, until
shell shocked by a major close explosion. Hitler sought out war and fighting forever after and found
and kept bloodthirsty vengeful company. Hitler would have been little more than a
ranter on a soap box if when he found his "voice" he had not found sufficient wounded
followers who were quite willing to do what it takes to seize power.
Posted by mikerol on May 30, 2009 at 7:14 PM · Report this
First: what, was the Stranger starved for news items and decided to go with Erica Barnett's "utter lack of fun" reading list? Sounds like the opposite of fun, actually. A rule of psychotic bus ridership: if you invite the crazy by reading the Crazy, suck it up and quit bitching.

Second: how terrible horrible no good very bad Hitler was is only matched by the current horrible no good very bad information regarding sitting on your ass and eating homogenized foods. While I'll admit Hitler was a Very Bad Person as were the Very Bad Persons Working For Hitler, I can also admit that identifying Nazism as bad is like saying cigarettes are cancer sticks and kill you DEAD. No shit, really? And really, there's a lot of books out there on Hitler and the Nazis? REALLY?

Did you really need to mentally masturbate in front of us, Ms. Barnett? Did you truly need to trot out the deep intellectual pursuits of Cap Hill's Half-Price Book Historical section? Or is it entirely possible that someone at the Stranger said, "Hey, Barnett. You should justify your overpaid ass somehow. Write something that isn't impinging on Savage's weekly columns about dicks, asses, sex, and fucked-up relationships that are thinly diguised metaphors for homosexual marriage civil rights"?

Yes, yes, yes. You read depressing shit. Bravo for you. However, you've yet to write any kind of book review, such as Benjamin Parzybok's brilliant book Couch or anything remotely considering "Hey, look at me, I'm one fucked-up chickie reading books about Hitler on the bus! Really, 1980s punks from New York were never so ironically cool."

Sorry, Barnett. This is one article full of ass-fail. I read all of the books in question, and not only are you utterly and completely slackasstic regarding your history, you don't deserve any cookies, kudos, or other similar baked goods for your absorption of nonfiction of Bad Humans Behaving Badly. Nominally Barnett writes Stranger Fluff, but this is edging into stupidity.

Why, oh why, has Barnett not been removed from more than copyediting before now? Other than her delicate mental state and attention to horrifying crap that nobody else would publish, outside of friends who cautiously, edgily smile at each other like a pair of former drinking buddies watching another buddy snort PCP and run amok with a shillelagh in a pub on Singles Night right after a traumatic breakup? I mean, come on. This is utter shite of the First Order of Shitedom. I could read books about masturbating Jewish lesbians who prefer lemon pledge in a series and make it more interesting than Barnett's latest "I read these books about horrible shit happening and ain't it neat?" literary diarrhetic expulsion.

In short: get a jorb, Barnett. Reading this was the opposite of intelligent.

Posted by Malachi on May 31, 2009 at 3:35 AM · Report this
sdleihsm 21

Recently on Poe News there was a link to a story
about Francisco Franco's monorchidism or "one testicle"
and apparently Hitler had only one testicle as well.
The article went on to say they suffered injuries in
battle that led to their conditions but in Norman
Mailer's last novel, The Castle in the Forest, he
portrays Hitler's condition as a birth defect. Could
Erica Barnett please clear this up? I need to know if
these two fascist dictators inherited monorchidism from
birth or if it was a result of war injuries.
Posted by sdleihsm on May 31, 2009 at 3:00 PM · Report this
sdleihsm 22

Both Francisco Franco and Hitler were monorchid or they had only one
testicle. Franco's condition was apparently due to a battle injury but Norman
Mailer in The Castle in the Forest portrays Hitler monorchidism as a congenitally
inherited condition that made his personality abnormal. Could the stranger clear
this up oh wait maybe this question is best put to Dan Savage.
Posted by sdleihsm on May 31, 2009 at 3:15 PM · Report this
It is ridiculous that you have done a year on Hitler without doing Arendt. Her Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem are possibly the most significant pieces of political theory produced about Nazism. Though they aren't really about Hitler. They're about the ideas and implications of the era.

Have you read Raul Hilberg? Bauman's Modernity and the Holocaust? What sort of research are you doing?
Posted by ariel on May 31, 2009 at 7:26 PM · Report this
Want more misery? Read "The Kindly Ones" by Jonathan Littell.
Posted by luigia on May 31, 2009 at 10:49 PM · Report this
One full year of reading about Adolf Hitler.
Good GOD, how depressing!

Hopefully, we have learned something from happened during the Halocaust years so that the tragedies of that time are not repeated.
Anybody wanting further chills can visit the Halocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
Posted by badgirl777 on June 1, 2009 at 2:21 AM · Report this
One year of reading about Adolf Hitler.
Good GOD, how depressing!

Hopefully we have, as people, learned from the devastating tragedies of the Halocaust years so that history won't repeat itself.

Anybody wanting further chills can visit the Halocaust Museum in Wasington, D.C.
Posted by badgirl777 on June 1, 2009 at 2:24 AM · Report this
One year of reading about Adolf Hitler.
Good GOD, how depressing!

Hopefully we have, as people, learned from the devastating tragedies of the Halocaust years so that history won't repeat itself.

Anybody wanting further chills can visit the Halocaust Museum in Wasington, D.C.
Posted by badgirl777 on June 1, 2009 at 2:24 AM · Report this
Sorry---I guess the computers are slow this morning.
Posted by badgirl777 on June 1, 2009 at 2:25 AM · Report this
Parsnip 29
All this history-buff dick-measuring is a delight.

Where else in America can someone who's spent a year of their life exhaustively comparing serious studies on one subject be so dismissively called on the carpet as a philistine.

Seattle, you intimidate me.

#14, you terrify me. Sorry my behavior is "obnoxious" and "annoying" to you. I'll try and keep it on the d/l, 'less someone starts to "appreciate" it.
Posted by Parsnip on June 2, 2009 at 2:02 PM · Report this
#14 sounds like they have some skeletons in their closet...and some butt plugs.
#20 is only slightly less annoying.
Posted by nobodyUknow on June 2, 2009 at 6:08 PM · Report this
"And by the by, blessed are the atheists, for they also have their own covenant with God.
Posted by The Max"

This is totally off topic but I wanted to thank this poster, The Max. I'm an atheist and I like to think that if there were a god, he's be looking down on us, shaking his head fondly.

Oh, and poster #14: wow. You obviously don't get to have sex otherwise you would know it's a beautiful thing. Here's hoping you will get laid someday and it changes your perspective. If you're straight, you will love women and all their parts. If you're a closeted gay man, you will love men and all their parts. Sex changes everything.
Posted by Brooklyngirl on June 4, 2009 at 10:34 AM · Report this
Hitler's biggest problem was that basically he suffered from an
overactive sense of humor.
Posted by dan l on June 4, 2009 at 3:05 PM · Report this
#14 must be one of those homeless bus crazies. Guess he's just sane enough to get on the internet at the library.
Posted by Dysphoria on June 4, 2009 at 7:02 PM · Report this
@14: SHUT UP!!!!
Posted by lucyliu on June 5, 2009 at 4:04 AM · Report this
@14 needs a butt plug for his overactively mumbling mouth.
Posted by simplyput on June 5, 2009 at 4:07 AM · Report this

Great article. I'm a historian at a university in Virginia, specialize in WWII and I'd strongly recommend Arendt's "Eichmann in Jerusalem" at some point. Excellent book, will stay with you for a long time.

Posted by Harry on June 6, 2009 at 9:06 AM · Report this
Got to read "Germany's Hitler" by Heinz A. Heinz. ketchup better than blood. Also August Kubizek's "My Young Friend Hitler." Great Reading reveals the Hitler that was able to basically charm a majority of Germans.
Re: The books you read: its about as balanced as reading Jerry Falwell's views on Gay rights. At least read both sides of an issue before deciding you are now informed. Even Hitler's wikipedia page is a better source than all the war propaganda you read. Also it was strange that you mention the fall of Berlin and actually gloat on it but never mention the Soviet rape gangs that descended upon Eastern Europe. Any female 12 and over was gangraped. When Stalin was informed of these atrocities, his response? "Our soldiers deserve a little leisure time." That goes without mentioning the many millions murdered by Stalin and the Soviets. Body count far outnumbers the Nazis and lasted alot longer as well. As for the young German comment #15...I guess all the Native Americans ethnically cleansed and genocided are no biggie. Hitler used to boast how he wanted to clean out the non-Germans from Eastern Europe the way the Red Indians were removed from America. He had a great role model in the good ole USA. KARMA BITES!
Posted by Hyu Mahn Bein on June 16, 2009 at 4:16 PM · Report this

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