Jackson J. Spielvogel’s Hitler and Nazi Germany A History is an excellent text, covering nearly seventy-five years of German history in approximately three hundred pages. Stretching from Germany’s beginnings as a unified nation in 1871 to its surrender to the Allies on 7 May 1945, the text provides a look at aspects of the country’s history and culture which is shockingly detailed, given its brevity. Take, for example, this passage on Nazi artwork—
The mere rendering of numerous details from everyday life, however, was insufficient to meet the National Socialist ideological goals. Rather, those details had to be inflated to convey a deeper National Socialist message. Portraits of farmers, hunters, and wood cutters were supposed to convey figures close to nature, examples of a healthy and pure race. Artisans symbolized the importance of work. Representations of mother and child, children, and family circles were supposed to present the sacred, eternal values important to the Aryan race. Landscape paintings were intended to portray the sacredness of German soil and the German fatherland. Female nudes were to be vibrant beings demonstrating the biological value of the individual as a precondition for racial rebirth.(158)
—in which Spielvogel covers depictions of disparate figures in the highly-propagandized art of the Third Reich. This is the author’s metastructure of information delivery. In larger sections of the book, he keeps with this method of hyper-functionality by making his topic sentences condensable into paragraphs such as the one above. If, for example, a reader were to reduce Spielvogel’s section on “The System of Terror” in this manner—
As master of the police, the SS was concerned primarily with the domestic enemies of the regime. … The role of the Waffen-SS lay in a future war with Germany’s external enemies. … Both party and state offices were responsible for dealing with these domestic enemies. … The Gestapo as a state agency consisted of more professional police agents. … As a means of systematizing the instruments of terror, the concentration camp came to play an important role. … By 1934 the SS had taken over all the concentration camps. (106-07)
—then he or she would gain much more insight into the section than would be expected.
Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History is organized incredibly well. The metastructure aside, each chapter begins with a short introduction to its content, often providing background information or linking it to previous chapters, and ends with a comprehensive list of “Suggestions for Further Reading.” Taking the metastructure into account, each chapter of the book may be seen as an expansion of sections, making the text both highly collapsible and highly utilitarian. However, the fact that its design prizes functionality over fashion makes it a challenge for some readers, who will be affronted by Spielvogel’s walls of unbroken text.
Spielvogel’s system breaks down at several points in the book, as it does when he fails to provide reasoning for his claims. In the chapter “Nazi Germany in Wartime,” he writes, “As the war progressed [top Nazi Party officials’] incompetence became more and more observable. Although Nazi fanatics, they were often unable to communicate, were inefficient, and tended to lose their nerve in emergencies. The speeches they made to encourage support were often stupid and irrelevant” (247). Yet Spielvogel gives no evidence as to how exactly their speeches were ineffective, or extraneous. For a text peppered heavily with block quotations, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History falls short on this point.
Similarly, there are times when it seems that Spielvogel has, in the interest of brevity, left out pertinent information. He mentions that “ was not the time for an anti-Christian crusade, and Hitler saw to it that [anti-Christian Nazi Martin] Bormann’s circular was withdrawn,” but fails to tell his readers which channels Hitler utilized to do so (257). When the audience learns that “[t]he Protestant minister Friedrich von Bodelschwingh refused to hand over children from his asylum for retarded children and was able to survive only because of his popularity and the accidental bombing of his institution,” they are left with the burning questions of how Bodelschwingh’s facility came to be bombed, and if anyone—particularly one the children he was trying to save—was killed in the incident (257). And later in that same chapter—“By late evening … the War Ministry had been stormed and the coup quickly smashed. [Colonel Count Claus von] Stauffenberg and a few of the chief conspirators were shot on the spot by order of General [Friedrich] Fromm. Himself one of the conspirators, Fromm acted in this fashion to try to save himself, a ploy that ultimately failed” (262).—readers will encounter Fromm’s mysterious failed ploy, the consequences of which are implied, but are not confirmed, to be death. These gaps in Spielvogel’s narrative are obvious to any reader who appreciates the attention to detail afforded by the metastructure.
A knowing audience reading Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History will notice its failure to mention two critical aspects in the early days of the Nazi Party. First, “The Growth and History of Nazism” mentions that few of the ideas in Hitler’s Mein Kampf were original in the early twentieth century. While mentioning that “German nationalism, … anti-Semitism, and anti-Bolshevism … linked together by a Social Darwinian theory of struggle” are what make up the Nazi belief system, the chapter neglects addressing Mussolini’s Fascism, or any other European nationalist movements that were active at the time (42). Later, “The Nazi State” notes that,
Before the Nazi seizure of power in 1933 the Catholic church had been a major opponent of Nazism. This position was dramatically reversed in July 1933, when the new Nazi government concluded a concordat (agreement) with the Roman Catholic church leadership. The church agreed to recognize the legitimacy of the Hitler regime and to eliminate all the political and social organizations of German Catholicism. (111)
This approach, however, ignores the involvement of the SA, who threatened the Catholic leadership with bodily harm in order to guarantee signature.
Despite these flaws—which truly are a few black spots on the record of a superb book—readers will enjoy the snarky tone Spielvogel takes on when talking about some of the more ridiculous aspects of history. For instance, when discussing Hermann Göring’s involvement in the Four-Year Plan, Spielvogel writes that, “Göring established an elaborate organization—so elaborate in fact that it had to be basically reorganized in 1938”(95). Later, adopting the same derisive tone, he states, “If the 1000-year Reich had taken a genuine interest in the happiness of its Volksgemeinschaft members, then it might have lasted longer than twelve years” (188). It is in these sardonic moments that Spielvogel’s own feelings on his subject matter shine through his academic writing, giving his book of otherwise grim material a few wry chuckles.
Overall, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History proves an enjoyable read for those interested in its subject matter. The author weaves together information-dense sentences into easy-to-read prose, making it a surprisingly comprehensive history for its size, and an exceptional starting point for students of history. While its practicality at times makes it daunting, it also lends itself well as a quick reference work. Readers will ultimately find much less fault than function with Spielvogel’s book, making it an asset to their libraries.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This review was originally submitted to Dr. Tammy Pike‘s History 493 at USC Upstate in Fall 2013.
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