Summary: Hitler in Hell is one of the most important books of the year. As America drifts to fascism, we must understand what happened to Germany. Books like this can help us avoid taking a dark path like they did. It can happen here, in some form.
The fall of Germany to fascism was one of the epochal events in western history. Fascism, in its many forms, is endemic to western societies. But Germany, a center of culture and science, should have been the most resistant of nations. How did it fall so far, so fast? These answers might help us prevent this infection from flaring up again.
An ancient adage says that you do not understand a situation unless you can explain how each party saw it. The countless histories of WWII ignore one perspective: Hitler’s. How would he explain his actions? What methods brought him to total rule of the largest nation in Europe and conquests unrivaled since Napoleon?
Based on a stupendous amount of research, Martin van Creveld has given us some answers in his newest book, Hitler in Hell.
“The method I chose was to try to get into his skin, as far as possible, so as to understand what made him tick. …Where there were gaps, I used what knowledge and understanding I thought I had in an attempt to close them. …I tried to understand Hitler’s actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them.”
This is the ultimate celebrity bio, the extreme version of a “how to” book. Hitler started with nothing, joined the Nazi party when it was little more than a sewing circle, took command of Germany at the depths of the Great Depression, and led it to the fastest recovery in the world. This book explains how he did it. So much of the 20th century followed paths that he blazed. If only he had stopped there.
The book is important in two senses. First, the tides of fascism are rising again in Europe and America. Screaming Nazi! Nazi! Nazi! probably doesn’t help. It is like a disease. We need to understand it better. Causes, contagion, and cures. History, in the form of Hitler’s words and deeds, is a useful guide.
Second, Hitler’s story is rich with useful lessons about building organizations and changing the course of nations. It is one of the most insightful and practical guides to success I have seen. Seeing events through Hitler’s eyes makes learning from him easier, since Hitler’s monstrous deeds make objective analysis of — let alone learning from — them almost impossible.
How did he do it?
It is a sad commentary on America today is that Hitler looks more like a serious political reformer (albeit a psycho reformer) compared to our own political activists (who seem better suited to run peasants protests and street parties). For example, Hitler built using a demographic group ignored by our political parties.
“A true mass party, one capable of seizing power and, eventually, shaking the world, could only be built by enlisting the lower middle classes. This includes people such as small shop owners, teachers, low-level civil servants and clerks, and salespeople. It was they, not their social superiors, who had the necessary stamina and were ready to make the sacrifices any great struggle requires.”
He forged these people into a weapon. Read this and ask yourself if this could happen in America.
“Here, I want to put it on the record that the SA were not just a band of rowdies. To be sure, they were a rough bunch, addicted to drinking and brawling. They liked beating up people, including Communists, socialists, Jews, and similar swine. Who would begrudge them that pleasure? And how, given their low social origins and the nature of their opponents, could they be anything but what they were? The day-to-day lives of many of them were desperately hard, so much so that, at times, we had to organize soup kitchens for them. No wonder they looked forward to the moment when they could put on their brown shirts and take action. Almost any action. …
“However, there was another side to the SA, which subsequent historians have done their best to deny. Starting at a time when our Party’s prospects looked anything but bright, they joined us and did their duty week after week, month after month, sometimes year after year. All this, for very little pay indeed. Those of them who were employed gave us their leisure hours. Many also brought along their wives, girlfriends, and sisters. They distributed rolls, ran soup kitchens, looked after the men’s uniforms, dressed their wounded, and mourned their dead.
“Dead they had, 86 in 1931 alone, and wounded plenty more. After all, their opponents often gave as good as they got. Under their rough exterior, many of them were idealists. Their contribution to our eventual victory was much greater than that of some others I can think of.”
On the other hand, Hitler had a cold, realistic knowledge of the material he used.
“The idea that the masses are capable of abstract thought is pure illusion. In so far as the propagandists ’ objective is not to enlighten them but to seduce and inspire them, perhaps it is better that way. Their character is feminine; they respond to emotion, not to the intellect.”
Hitler was successful beyond imaging. He attended a meeting of the German Workers Party in September 1919. A week later they invited him to join the party as member #7. At his first public meeting they had 11 people. On 24 February 1920 the party — now the Nazionalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) — held its first mass meeting before 20,000 cheering Germans.
The competition was fierce. “By one count Germany had 73 different völkisch movements, all with programs more or less similar to our own. In Munich alone there were at least 15.”
It answers many important questions
Hitler in Hell gives answer to many questions. Was the Nazi party a movement of the Left or Right? Both (extreme politics cannot be fully described using a one-dimensional spectrum). What was Hitler’s relationship with the rich and powerful of Germany? How did Hitler win the trust and support of so many Germans?
The book also gives a fascinating look at WWII, written by one of the top military historians of our time. This alone is worth the price of the book. But the core of book is more relevant to us than the oft told story of the Third Reich’s conquests and eventually defeat.
Trump’s win revealed the hollowness of US politics. Stronger leaders will exploit this. Studying books like this can help us get through what might be some tough times ahead — without the hard ending of Germany.
Other posts about Hitler in Hell
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy. He has written 24+ books, about almost every significant aspect of war. He’s written one of the seminal books about WWII: Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945 (German soldiers were better than ours!).
He has written about the history of war, such as The Age of Airpower. He has written about the tools of war in the fascinating Technology and War: From 2000 B.C. to the Present and Wargames: From Gladiators to Gigabytes (see the chapters about modern gaming, wargames for the people). His books discuss the methods of war: Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance, and Air Power and Maneuver Warfare.
Perhaps most important are his books examine the evolution of war, such as Nuclear Proliferation and the Future of Conflict, The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (IMO the best work to date about modern war), The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq, The Culture of War (my favorite), and More on War (2016).
And perhaps the most important for us is his magnum opus: the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State— describing the political changes now unfolding before our eyes.
For More Information
- Americans trust the military most. 29% are ready for a coup. Ready for fascism?
- Why they lose: the Left tells us that Trump is like Hitler.
- Edward Luttwak: Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.
- America is mainlining fascism. It won’t end well for us.
Other great books about Hell
Recommended: The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner (1995) — The WaPo calls it “a lively popular introduction to views of the other world from ancient Sumer to the present, with a rich concentration on the middle millennium of Hell’s history.” The publisher says it is a “survey of how, over the past four thousand years, religious leaders, artists, writers, and ordinary people in the West have visualized Hell-its location, architecture, purpose, and inhabitants.”
The most entertaining book about Hell: “Don Juan in Hell” from George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. A unique and fascinating vision of Hell, the opposite of van Creveld’s (in Shaw’s play, the damned enjoy Hell and would find Heaven boring — and vice versa).
John Milton’s story of Hell: Paradise Lost.
A great guidebook to Hell: Dante’s Inferno (illustrated by Dore).