Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Hitler I Knew by Otto Dietrich


Reviewed by L. Gregory Graham


I would love to make this book required reading for anyone who considers himself an educated person. It is a primer on how a good nation goes bad. Ignorance does not lead Germany into the clutches of Hitler. There is no thirst for world dominance in them. Their populace is as educated as any at the time. They wanted what we all want: a job and a little security in their lives. They surrendered personal freedom to get it, not a big thing for a people used to living under a Kaiser. Unfortunately, the author points out that times had changed. War had become total, communications instantaneous, and the world far too complex for one man to run.

As sometimes happens, the reason the author wrote the book and the reason why it is so important to read are different. Dietrich, a man who was in almost constant contact with Hitler throughout his career as leader of Germany, wrote this book to explain to the German people following WWII why they were not at fault for the rise of Hitler and the destruction that ensued. He spends a great deal of time describing how Hitler burst upon the scene as a man of destiny. How he seduced the people into believing that he was always right, always fair, and always had their best interests at heart. How he ultimately concealed his dark side: his all-consuming hatred for the Jews, his plans for world domination, and his willingness to sacrifice everything to achieve it.

I’m not sure how well he does that, but then my sensibilities are not his, nor is my time his. I do not automatically assume that my government has my best interests at heart. It is an attitude with a long tradition in the United States.

What I find fascinating about this book is how Hitler, a man devoted to improving the welfare of German lives, eventually through the force of his personality destroyed everything that he held dear. He did not plan to reduce Germany to ashes and rubble, he did not plan to destroy an entire generation of young men, nor did he plan to turn his beloved country into a captive nation for the remainder of the twentieth century and yet that is what he did. How does that happen?

“Hitler had extraordinary intellectual gifts—in some fields undoubted genius. He had an eye for essentials, an astounding memory, a remarkable imagination, and a bold decisiveness that made for unusual success in his social undertakings and his other peaceful works,” Otto Deitrich writes in the opening pages of his book. These are qualities that any board of directors would find appealing in their CEO. No wonder the people loved him. He put seven million unemployed back to work. He thumbed his nose at France, England and America who had stupidly demanded reparation payments following WWI, and he reminded his downtrodden citizens that they were a great people, and a great civilization. So far, so good.

Then the German people gave him ultimate power when he asked for it. Why shouldn’t they? He had done so many good things for them. The new powers would only make it easier for him to give them more. No person, no institution could say no to him or even question his decisions, and the good he had done crumbled away as individual prejudice replaced reason, and might replaced morality.

It practically makes me want to give the American system of checks and balances a big wet kiss on the one hand, because I think it would stop a homegrown Hitler from coming to ultimate power. On the other hand, I also worry about the desperation of the unemployed who might be willing to trade freedom for a steady job, quality medical care, and a secure retirement. These are things in short supply in America at the onset of the second decade of the twenty-first century. Perhaps our leaders should take note.

The book documents Hitler’s fall into megalomania. It happens by degrees. The public man gradually surrounds himself with friends and sycophants who dwindle to a few trusted aides as the war grinds to its horrible conclusion. The smiling, avuncular personality sloughs away throughout his reign revealing a brooding presence much given to rage, denial, and ultimately suicide. In the end, he demands that Germany die alongside him because in his mind, he is Germany.

Read this book if you desire a subjective look at Hitler by a man who witnessed his rise and fall. Read this book if you wish to understand how Hitler seduced Germany, and how Germans willingly allowed it to happen. Finally, read this book if you wish to see how unchecked power in the end destroys what it loves most.