6 things I learned from reading “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

It’s a surprisingly engaging book, written by William Shirer, much of it based on the captured Nazi documents. I read the first 4oo pages of the book over a year ago, put it down for a long time because I couldn’t hack it, and then read the last 1,100 pages on vacation in March.

Here are a few things I learned. If people are interested in this stuff I’ll probably write another one.

The bombing of Pearl Harbor might not have been the most important thing that happened the weekend of Dec. 6–7, 1941. A Soviet attack on German troops a day earlier was one of the most critical offensives in all of World War II.

Gen. Heinz Guderian, who was leading a Panzer division deep into Russia.

Americans naturally think of the bombing of Pearl Harbor as the major historical event of what was a very busy weekend in December 1941. It was huge in many ways, no doubt, but something that happened two days earlier, on Dec. 5, was arguably just as big. And certainly in Russia, it is a historic day of triumph.

Hitler’s treacherous June 1941 assault on Russia had carried German troops deep into Soviet territory. It was an impressive campaign over the course of five months, and the Germans had mustered the most powerful tank force in the world within a few miles of Moscow. On Dec. 2, a German reconnaissance battalion made it to a suburb of Moscow, “within sight of the spires of the Kremlin.” There the tide turned. The Wehrmacht stalled just short of the Soviet capital as winter set in. As Shirer explained, the German generals, including the often impressive Heinz Guderian, were in disarray. And then the Russians launched a counterattack:

Everywhere along the 200-mile semicircular front around Moscow the Germans had been stopped. By evening Guderian was notifying (Gen. Fedor von) Bock that he was not only stopped but must pull back, and Bock was telephoning Halder that ‘his strength was at an end,’ and Brauchitsch was telling his Chief of the General Staff in despair that he was quitting as Commander in Chief of the Army. It was a dark and bitter day for the German generals…The next day, December 6, General Georgi Zhukov, who had replaced Marshal Timoshenko as commander of the central front but six weeks before, struck. On the 200-mile front before Moscow he unleashed seven armies and two cavalry corps — 100 divisions in all — consisting of troops that were either fresh or battle-tried and were equipped and trained to fight in the bitter cold and deep snow. The blow which this relatively unknown general now delivered with such a formidable force of infantry, artillery, tanks, cavalry and planes, which Hitler had not faintly suspected existed, was so sudden and so shattering that the Germany Army and the Third Reich never fully recovered from it…
The Red armies had been crippled but not destroyed. Moscow had not been taken, nor Leningrad nor Stalingrad nor the oil fields of the Caucasus; and the lifelines to Britain and America, to the north and to the south, remained open. For the first time in more than two years of unbroken military victories the armies of Hitler were retreating before a superior force.
That was not all. The failure was greater than that. Halder realized this, at least later. ‘The myth of the invincibility of the German Army,’ he wrote, ‘was broken.” There would be more German victories in Russia when another summer came around, but they could never restore the myth. December 6, 1941, then, is another turning point in the short history of the Third Reich and one of the most fateful ones. Hitler’s power had reached its zenith.

I imagine Russians remember Dec. 6, 1941, with a lot of pride.

Germany and Japan were extremely cagey with each other in the days leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Joachim von Ribbentrop

Hitler initally wanted Japan to enter the war against Russia and help finish off the Soviets before either of them moved on to fighting the Americans. But Japan did not want to fight Russia, and still wanted a guarantee of German backing before it attacked the U.S. Ultimately the Japanese bested the Germans in these negotiations.

Hitler and his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop (here’s a photo of Ribbentrop and Molotov, shaking hands), had casually promised in the first part of 1941, in Hitler’s words, that Germany “would promptly take part in a case of conflict between Japan and America.” After Germany launched the attack on Russia in June of that year, Ribbentrop started begging the Japanese to attack the Soviet Union in Siberia. The Germans began boasting that Russia would be conquered by Christmas. As we have seen, that was premature, and the Japanese were not impressed by Nazi boasts of quick victory. Ribbentrop throughout the fall of 1941 and for two more years implored the Japanese to fall on Russia from the east, and the government in Tokyo replied politely to the effect, “So sorry, please.”

The bottom line is that Germany didn’t let Japan know it was going to attack Russia in June 1941, and in turn Japan did not fully take Germany into its confidence about its plans to attack the U.S. in December 1941.

On Nov. 28, not realizing that Japanese air craft carriers were already en route to Hawaii, Ribbentrop again flatly guaranteed to the Japanese that “should Japan become engaged in a war against the United States, Germany, of course, would join the war immediately.” By December 1, the Japanese ambassador to Germany, Hiroshi Oshima, was ordered to get the Germans to sign on the dotted line.

Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador to Nazi Germany, and a lover of classical music.

Shirer explains: “And now, when cornered, Ribbentrop stalled. Apparently realizing fully for the first time the consequences of his rash promises to the Japanese, the Nazi Foreign Minister grew exceedingly cool and evasive.”

Ribbentrop put Oshima off for a few days but finally, early on the morning of Dec. 5 (a Friday), Hitler gave the go-ahead. It was only 48 hours before the bombs were to begin falling on Pearl Harbor.

Still, there was gamesmanship. Hitler stalled on declaring war against the United States, even after the Japanese attack. Japan’s foreign minister in Tokyo and the ambassador in Berlin were demanding a swift declaration of war. It came, but not swiftly. Four days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 11, Germany declared war on the United States.

Hitler basically accused Roosevelt of being a “1 percenter.”

Hitler speaking to the Reichstag delegates on 11 December 1941, having declared war on the United States. (German Federal Archive)

In front of the Reichstag, Hitler defended the war declaration and accused Franklin Roosevelt of madness, hypocrisy, warmongering and war crimes. A portion of the speech, which Shirer quoted at length, stuck out to me as fascinating for its echoes of class warfare. The “Upper Ten Thousand,” a phrase I had not heard before, is similar to the “1 percent” of today:

I understand only too well that a world-wide distance separates Roosevelt’s ideas and my ideas. Roosevelt comes from a rich family and belongs to the class whose path is smoothed in the democracies. I was the only child of a small, poor family and had to fight my way by work and industry. When the Great War came Roosevelt occupied a position where he got to know only its pleasant consequences, enjoyed by those who do business while others bleed. I was only one of those who carried out orders as an ordinary soldier, and naturally returned from the war just as poor as I was in the autumn of 1914. I shared the fate of millions, and Franklin Roosevelt only the fate of the so-called Upper Ten Thousand. After the war Roosevelt tried his hand at financial speculations. He made profits out of inflation, out of the misery of others, while I…lay in a hospital…

At any rate, Japan got what it wanted, a German declaration of war against the United States. Germany never got Japan to fight Russia.

Hitler, for all his early brilliance and decisiveness, did not have a global strategic concept.

An impressive run, but it wasn’t going to last.

The early victories of the Nazis were awesome to behold. German soldiers overran Poland easily in 1939, then took Norway and Denmark in a daring attack and nearly destroyed the British and French armies in the span of a few months in 1940. They used tanks, bombers and fighters in ways no one had before, and Hitler was a risk-taker who couldn’t be slowed until the Battle of Britain.

But despite all that, Hitler showed a major lack of foresight on at least a couple of things. 1) He was so engrossed in the Russian front that he failed to protect supply routes to Rommel in north Africa, which left the general and his troops at a severe disadvantage at crucial moments. 2) He underestimated both Russia and the United States. He failed to see how resilient the Russians would be or how the economic might of the United States could influence the outcome of the war. Considering that Russia was already turning back German troops when the U.S. entered the war, the outcome in retrospect looked like it could have been clear to a sharp observer by the beginning of 1942, a month after Pearl Harbor was bombed.

Joseph Goebbels murdered his own six children. They were ages 3 to 12. And despite her misgivings, Magda Goebbels was complicit.

A famous photo of the Goebbels family

Magda Goebbels decided she and her children would join their father, the Third Reich’s chief propagandist, in Hitler’s bunker as the Russians closed in on the center of Berlin. When the end came, she and Goebbels decided to kill themselves and they decided to kill their children too.

They followed through on this decision. Check out the pictures of these kids — all of them darling and apparently playing in Hitler’s bunker in their last days, unaware of their fate.

Goebbels, in his last testament, wrote:

together with my wife, and on behalf of my children, who are too young to be able to speak for themselves and who, if they were old enough, would unreservedly agree with this decision, I express my unalterable resolution not to leave the Reich capital, even if it falls, but rather, at the side of the Fuehrer, to end a life that for me personally will have no further value if I cannot spend it at the service of the Fuehrer and at his side.

Magda Goebbels (considered a lovely woman, she looked a like Meryl Streep in some photos), had her doubts, but ultimately she resolved that her children would die along with her and her husband.

“When the end comes you must help me if I become weak about the children,” she said to one of her companions in the bunker. “They belong to the Third Reich and to the Fuehrer, and if these two cease to exist there can be no further place for them. My greatest fear is that at the last moment I will be too weak.”

She was not too weak. Shirer says the children were injected with poison by the same doctor who killed Hitler’s dogs. It came to light later that the children were injected with morphine to knock them out, and then given cyanide pills by a different doctor.

Chillingly, Helga Goebbels, the oldest, may have tried to fight. The 12-year-old, according to a Russian autopsy, had bruises on her face while all the other children had none.

Her mother and father, after murdering their children and saying goodbye to others (Hitler had killed himself the day before), walked up to the garden above the bunker, where they enlisted an S.S. orderly to shoot each of them in the back of the head.

The Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden was an incredible spot and a frequent headquarters for Hitler.

Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden

Hitler was back and forth from the Berchtesgaden constantly. Here’s Shirer:

This fantastic retreat, built at great cost over three years, was difficult to reach. Ten miles of a hairpin road, cut into the mountainside, led up to a long underground passageway, drilled into the rock, from which an elevator carried one 370 feet to the cabin perched at an elevation of over 6,000 feet on the summit of a mountain. It afforded a breath-taking panorama of the Alps. Salzburg could be seen in the distance. Describing it later, Francois-Poncet wondered, ‘Was this edifice the work of a normal mind or of one tormented by megalomania and haunted by visions of domination and solitude.’
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