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You want appease of me?!

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939
by Frank McDonough
Head of Zeus £30

In the early- to mid-1930s my grandmother (Irish, South African, later Australian) lived for a few years in the east of Germany, as a language assistant/housemistress in a boarding school. Her one recorded comment about Hitler’s accession to power was that he put an end to the suffering of an awful lot of German people.

I strongly doubt she hated Jews, or that she was a reckless war-monger (a decade on, her husband would be sent to Abyssinia). She simply recognised that the country was in an absolute mess – politically incontinent, almost bankrupt, starvation looming in the rural areas (for the remaining 60-odd years of her life she drank her tea black, a habit inculcated during those times of acute shortages). Strong solutions were called for – by both left wing and right – and Adolf Hitler seemed to be providing them.

She was not alone in these straightforward views.

The Hitler Years: Triumph 1933-1939 (part one of Frank McDonough’s two-book project on the disgruntled former corporal’s time as Führer) makes it abundantly clear that ‘even if Hitler had never come to power Germany would probably have had a right-wing nationalist coalition during this period.’ This would have had the backing of the humiliated German military, would almost certainly have demanded to renegotiate the Versailles Treaty, and would probably have gained the sympathy of the political classes in England and France, particularly when they were threatened with the alternative (purportedly) of Communism.

Hitler did not create the conditions that enabled his rise, and he fed, however cynically, on genuine – even legitimate – national grievances. He was appointed to the Chancellorship quite constitutionally (pundits both local and foreign not seeing this as any kind of fundamental moment), and his rule began as, and for a long while remained, a necessary and supportive coalition of the Nazi party, upper-class politicos, the army, the civil service and big business.

The reality is that he successfully won over most of the German population to his major public plans, so while all the now-familiar hallmarks of Nazi rule (book-burning, purges, camps, violent anti-Semitism) emerged in some form almost immediately, the German people had – at best – already capitulated. As Hitler himself said in a 1937 interview: “A government like ours could never stay in power without the will of the people to support it.”

But Triumph is the more interesting for pushing back against the cartoon of Hitler as all-conquering monster/supermensch, instead demonstrating the slow creep of the Nazi state takeover, the caution with which Hitler had to move, the resistance that he often faced, and his surprising and instinctive flexibility.

Challenges to his outright authority came from his own ranks (Ernst Röhm), political superiors (von Papen), economic circumstances, and the church (Lutheran as well as Catholic). Criticism was neither unheard of nor unheard. In 1935 the party was complaining that Hitler seemed to have relaxed his persecution of the Jews (he had, for diplomatic reasons), and his generals were outspoken about the country’s unpreparedness for war. As late as 1939 some of the high command were even plotting to arrest him (though, y’know… they didn’t).

So Hitler was also simply lucky. In any case – one must grimly conclude – from the German/Nazi/Hitlerian viewpoint, from 1933 to 1939, almost nothing went wrong. (The rest is volume two: Catastrophe).

All well and good (non sic); but did we really need another book about the Nazis?

With its no-nonsense chronological account, ‘immense readability’ (see press release), and, of course, parade of fascinating details, Triumph is essentially an undergrad primer on pre-war Germany, albeit a handsome one, decked out in appropriately-ominous black and red, and nicely illustrated (look: some ‘ordinary Germans’ pointing and laughing in the aftermath of Kristallnacht).

Avowedly for the ‘general reader’, however, the book has just a six-page introduction to cover all things relevant pre-1933, whereafter McDonough cannot seem to decide whether this is the first book that his reader will have read on Nazi Germany (‘Hitler, who had been an artist in his youth…’ [p311]) or if he should already know the details of the Locarno Pact.

The text is not flawless, either technically or stylistically (Hindenburg’s son Oskar is mentioned, by name, six times in half a paragraph), and McDonough’s ‘blow-by-blow’ approach inclines towards stolidity and repetition. There are also strange anachronisms (someone described as Göring’s ‘line-manager’, for heaven’s sake).

Finally, the book makes no important claims to access/info/revelations we’ve not heard before, and yet announces (press release again) that the completed, two-vol. publication will constitute ‘a definitive history of the Third Reich’. At this point, frankly, that seems optimistic.

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