Friday, November 30, 2012

Visit our History Book Club!

Germany in the 20th Century

Hitler, 1939 (From LIFE Magazine)

            If you live near Rockport, Massachusetts, we invite you to join us for our monthly History Book Club meetings. 
            Every meeting is a new adventure for us all.  We are quite a diverse group--- not a bunch of serious scholars, trying to impress each other with what we know…
            Instead, we are people who are interested in history, and thinking and talking about how it intersects with our lives, and with our world.  
            From time to time, interested people drop in and share their life experiences, and their interests, with us, and then they disappear!  We’d love them to return, and continue with us on our journey.
            When we’ve discussed Russia Russians who live in the area have joined us to give their fascinating insight to the discussion. 
            This past Wednesday (Nov. 28, 2012), we discussed books about Germany in the Twentieth Century, and two bright ladies who had been born and grew up in Germany during World War II joined us, and gave us the benefit of their experiences.  You can read about that in the paragraphs below.
            If learning about our world, and what went on, and how it relates to you and your world interests you, come join us! 
            Our next meeting will be at the end of January, on Wednesday, Jan. 30th, 2013.  We’ll be discussing books about China in the Twentieth Century.  Pick a book in our library or yours and discover some piece of China’s history that catches your fancy.  It can be whatever you want—Sun Yat Sen or Madame Chiang, or Mao Zedong, the Chinese Civil War or the Boxer Rebellion.  Anything about China from 1900 to 2000.

Here’s our report of our most recent meeting:

The History Book Club met at Rockport Library’s Trustees’ Room at 7 p.m. 
Regular members present were Beverly and Dick Verrengia, Rick Heuser, Glen Nix and Sam Coulbourn.  We were joined by Ms. Waltraut (Trautel) Brown of Manchester, Sandra Stolle of Wenham and Doug Hall of Rockport. 

Trautel and Sandra were both born in Germany before World War II and came to the U.S. after the war. Doug received an advanced degree in German history. 

Dick Verrengia was first to report on The Coming of the Third Reich, by Richard Evans, 2004.
Dick started with William Shirer’s well-known account, but soon found that other historians found it very inaccurate, so he chose Evans’ book.  Amazon blurb: “There is no story in twentieth-century history more important to understand than Hitler’s rise to power and the collapse of civilization in Nazi Germany. With The Coming of the Third Reich, Richard Evans, one of the world’s most distinguished historians, has written the definitive account for our time. A masterful synthesis of a vast body of scholarly work integrated with important new research and interpretations, Evans’s history restores drama and contingency to the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis, even as it shows how ready Germany was by the early 1930s for such a takeover to occur. The Coming of the Third Reich is a masterwork of the historian’s art and the book by which all others on the subject will be judged.”
Doug Hall noted that the Weimar Republic was an experiment.   Those present discussed the Treaty of Versailles and how it had bound up Germany after World War I in such a way that made the rise of Hitler more likely. Sandra Stolle stated that Versailles was awful.  She also noted that many “myths” were attached to this era.  One, Americans have been told that at the 1936 Berlin Olympics Hitler refused to shake hands with Jesse Owens, the black runner from the U.S.  Hitler did shake his hand, she said.  Also Sandra said  that the number of Jews killed by the Germans was grossly overstated—it was less than 200,000.  Others present disputed that. Sam Coulbourn said that his roommate at the Naval Academy had spent WWII in Auschwitz as a child, saw his mother murdered by the Nazis, and always had stood by the number of about six million Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. 

Sandra Stolle next gave a brief report on three books. She was born in 1933 and grew up in Hanover.  All Things Nature's Blessed, A Woman’s Story of War and Peace (1988) was her most important book, because it was written by her mother, Ruth Beumann Mahler.  It is her mother’s personal account of the war years in Nazi Germany.  Sandra also reported briefly on Typische Ossi, Typische West, a book in German about East and West Germany, and the contradictions of Germans living in both parts from 1945 to 1989. She also mentioned Katyn, a book describing the massacre of some 8000 Polish officers by the Soviet NKVD.

Jürgen Habermas

Rick Heuser delivered a comprehensive report on Jürgen Habermas, including these books by the famed German sociologist and philosopher:
The Divided West, 2004
A Berlin Republic: Writings on Germany 1997
The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, 1987
Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, 1990.
No one else in the meeting had heard of Habermas.  Rick described this 83-year old philosopher’s brilliant work, championing international post-national societies.  He said that Habermas had been opposed to the 1989 East-West Reunification. He is perhaps best known for his theory on the concepts of communicative rationality and the public sphere. His work focuses on the foundations of social theory, the analysis of advanced capitalistic societies and democracy, the rule of law in a critical social-evolutionary context, and contemporary politics, particularly German politics.
Rick noted that Habermas especially favored strengthening of the United Nations, and saw the actions of President George W. Bush as ending U.S. effective cooperation in the U.N.  Rick also observed that the Pentagon looks at the world in a unipolar way. Sam agreed that the Pentagon was most comfortable with the old bipolar world, and is yet ill-equipped to envision the world as it appears today. There is always the tendency to create an “opponent”  for the U.S. and today that is China

Trautel Brown gave a detailed account of her book, the story of her life as a young girl in Germany.  She was born in Hamburg in 1927 during the era of the Weimar Republic.  She recalled the street fights in those days. She started school in 1933, and her father joined the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary arm of the German Army.  She said he loved to ride motorcycles, which he did in the SA. Her family moved to the country about 1933 and during these years there was a national drive to educate youth.  Her family took 40 boys on their farm to work.  About 1940 she and her sister were evacuated to Vienna, but then after a year she was returned to Hamburg, where she remained for the rest of the war.  Trautel met a German who had already come to the United States.  In order to become a citizen her prospective husband joined the U.S. Marine Corps. She and he were married in Milwaukee and then moved to Camp Pendleton, CA.  He served with the Marines in the Korean Conflict. 

Beverly Verrengia reported that she had begun reading Hitler by A.N. Wilson, but then shifted to Hitler, Germans and the Final Solution, 2009 by Ian Kershaw.
This book, written in rather abstruse form with very long sentences, wraps up more than three decades of meticulous research on Nazi Germany by one of the period’s most distinguished historians. The book brings together the most important and influential aspects of Kershaw’s research on the Holocaust for the first time. Kershaw provides an explanation of the uniqueness of Nazism.

Members discussed the destructive dynamic of the Nazi leadership and of the attitudes and behavior of ordinary Germans as the persecution of the Jews turned into total genocide.

Glen Nix reported on Weimar Germany by Eric D. Weitz, 2007. Glen observed that
Weimar Germany still fascinates us. This was a very creative period for Germany, and although we often remember it only as a time of huge inflation and the starting point for Hitler’s rise to power, it was really a time of strikingly progressive achievements--and even greater promise.  This book tells about some of Weimar's greatest figures, and recaptures the excitement and drama of the era, viewing Weimar in its own right--and not as a mere prelude to the Nazi era.

Sam reported on Payne, Robert, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, 1973 New York, NY: Praeger Publishers. 623 pp.

            I was fascinated to read Robert Payne’s book, but now I find that he used some questionable sources, and so a part of this book has been discredited since 1973.  Payne died ten years later. 
            The material in question was about Adolf Hitler’s visit to Liverpool, England for a year in 1910 (p. 97).  It turns out this was all made up by Bridget Hitler, the wife of Hitler’s brother Alois.
            Let me home in on one of the more mystifying episodes of Hitler’s conduct of World War II. 
            On November 12, 1940 a train bearing Soviet officials steamed into Berlin’s Anhalt Station.  There were red hammer-and-sickle flags flying amidst the red, black and white Nazi banners. 
            Leader of the Soviet delegation was Vyacheslav Molotov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union.  He was met by Joachim von Ribbentrop, Foreign Minister of the Greater German Reich.  Molotov was being invited to discuss with Hitler how the world would be divided up among the four totalitarian powers—Germany, Japan, Italy and the USSR.
            That morning Ribbentrop and Molotov met in the German Foreign Office.  Ribbentrop launched into a series of speeches about the imminent downfall of  England and the need for closer relations between Russia and Japan.  He urged the Russians to turn their faces to the south, to acquire warm water ports, not in the Dardanelles, but in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.  He hinted at Russia being invited to acquire that country from the British, whose empire was now in the last stages of disintegration.
            In the afternoon, the meeting shifted to Hitler’s Chancellery.  Molotov was surprised to be greeted by Hitler with Hitler’s “Heil” salute. Hitler then gave him a limp handshake, but gazed piercingly into Molotov’s eyes.   One member of the Soviet delegation recounted that Hitler’s sharp nose was pimply, and his clammy palm felt like the “skin of a frog”.
            Immediately, Hitler launched into an hour-long speech about the imminent downfall of England and the soon-to-be complete destruction of her armies in Africa.
            When the speech was over, Molotov asked why a German military mission had been sent to Rumania without consulting the USSR; he asked what German troops were doing in Finland
            Hitler was polite, but gave meaningless answers to Molotov, and went on to call upon the Soviet Union to consider a Soviet-German war on the United States.  He considered that the U.S. would eventually imperil the freedom of other nations.  Not by 1945, of course, but perhaps by 1970 or 1980.
            As it grew dark, Hitler looked at his watch and remembered that a British air raid might be expected shortly, and they should adjourn until the following day.
            The talks continued all the next day, and that evening the Soviets hosted Ribbentrop and the other senior Germans (Hitler was absent) at their embassy, which had once been the palace of the Tsarist ambassador.  Vodka flowed and there was plenty of caviar and then a fine dinner, until it was interrupted by an air raid. 
            Ribbentrop suggested they all go to shelter, and the servants loaded the food and drinks onto trays.
            Ribbentrop was still talking about the urgent need to divide up the British Empire, now that England had been so decisively beaten.
            “If England is beaten, why are we sitting in this shelter?” asked Molotov.

            In the days that followed, Stalin studied the German proposal for a four-part pact, and appeared to believe that Hitler was leveling with him.
            Molotov sent a memorandum back to Hitler agreeing to the pact, with minor conditions, including German withdrawal from Finland, access to ports close to the Black Sea, and recognition of a Soviet area of influence  in the direction of the Persian Gulf.

            On December 18, 1940, Hitler issued Directive No. 21, ordering that, even before the conclusion of war with England, the Soviet Union be crushed in a rapid campaign.
            This operation became Barbarossa, named after a 12th century German emperor.  Planning went into high gear, and the word of invasion of Russia leaked everywhere. A spy in the German embassy in Tokyo sent word to Moscow.  Churchill informed his ambassador in Moscow, who passed the word to Molotov.  The State Department in Washington informed the Soviet ambassador.  But Stalin dismissed all these warnings and went off to spend a quiet summer at his estate at Sochi on the Black Sea.
            It is hard for us to imagine the absolute white-hot hatred Hitler had for the Soviet Union. Moscow and Leningrad were to be wiped from the face of the earth—no buildings, no people--- nothing! The order to advance was given at 0300 on the morning of June 22, 1941. One hundred fifty-four German divisions, 18 Finnish, 14 Rumanian divisions swung into action.
            The story of Stalin’s complete inability to understand that Hitler had turned on him is one of the most amazing stories of this period.  For the first several days after the start of Barbarossa, Stalin remained incommunicado.  His staff, frantic as German divisions raced across Russia, could not reach him. 
            And the story of Hitler, who fixed his mind on something to the exclusion of everything else, wrote his own death sentence.  Imagine if he had maintained his pact with Stalin and concentrated on finishing off England.
            Imagine if the U.S. had remained in isolation and not entered the war.


The next meeting of the History Book Club will be Wednesday, January 30th at 7 p.m., at the Library.  The topic will be China in the 20th Century.


Samuel W. Coulbourn

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