I spend a lot of time in the car. During most of that time I listen to music, but sometimes I try to multitask. That’s where audiobooks come in.
I spent years attempting to improve my audiobook listening skills. Early attempts were always thwarted by tangential thoughts. I’d hear a comment which would initiate a thought, and that thought would lead to other thoughts, and those thoughts would lead to unrelated thoughts, and inevitably a few minutes would pass during which I hadn’t heard a word of the narration. Rewind, rewind, rewind, try again. Fail again. Repeat.
Then I had back-to-back audiobook breakthroughs. A bit of beautifully pulpy perfect fiction with Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind. And Michael Lewis’ The Big Short, a fascinating, highly-readable book on mortgage securities, credit default swaps, and the people who predicted the 2008 collapse of the banking industry. Why were those books special? Maybe it was perfect structure. Maybe it was beautiful writing or intriguing storylines or great narration. Maybe all of the above. Whatever the reason, both books had me glued, figuratively, to my headphones and car speakers.
Shortly thereafter, now that I had solved my distraction issues, I opted for something deeper. Richard J Evan’s The Coming of the Third Reich had been on my shelf for a few years. It was intimidatingly long and promised to be a slow read complete with innumerable facts, data, and acts of brutality. But I went for it, and I listened, and I spent equal amounts of time astonished and bored and outraged and agitated and hateful. A year or two later, I listened to The Third Reich in Power, and the emotions were escalated a bit, because this is where the Nazi Party really showed its true colors.
So now we arrive at Evans’ The Third Reich at War. It’s the third and final volume in an epic historical saga detailing every aspect of the Nazi Party from the late 1920s until 1945. The first book explained how Hitler came to power, and how he used violence, coercion, nationalism, fear, politicking, and a fair bit of luck to do so. The second volume examined Nazi governance from roughly 1933 until the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The most stunning aspect of this period, other than the rampant anti-semitism and political murder, is the ideological blanketing of German culture. Every aspect of daily life became a Party issue, with guidelines and retroactive laws to control reproduction, indoctrinal education, arts, literature, science, philosophy, agriculture, etc.. This was a Party intent on absolute ideological dominance and war.
We watch Nazi documentaries on the History Channel. We’re taught glossed-over “safe” details in school. We’re mildly desensitized in America to the words persecution and genocide. We see fascism confused with socialism, both with intent and ignorance. As a collective, we rarely study history, because focus is always on growth, expansion, and “progress”. To an extent, what we know of Hitler and the Nazis has been popularized and caricatured, used to frighten in much the same way as a bogeyman in childhood stories. The result, in a way, is societal indifference to “ancient history”, regardless of the fact that the majority of people alive in the world today were born during the same century the Nazi’s ruled Germany. Signs of this indifference become obvious in our often absurdist political discourse, where comparisons to Hitler and Nazism are much too common.
Sadly, I must admit that I once fell into that trap. My political writing kicked into full gear for the first time in 2003. A bizarre presidential election in 2000 was followed up with religiously biased decisions about science. Then came terror and war. Then came political appointees taking the place of scientific experts and regulators. Fearmongering and rampant nationalism resulted in “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists” nonsense, and dissent was deemed treasonous in popular conservative rhetoric even if it wasn’t legally treated as such. Political propaganda, executive attitudes, and congressional measures encouraged a dark period of religious bigotry, anti-intellectualism, war, and ultra-nationalism. And while ultra-nationalism, when it bubbles up organically, may be great for helping a society heal after tragedy, it is always a dangerous tool when used to justify action by those in power.
At the time, I knew enough history to be stupid. I compared the ultra-nationalist tendencies of neo-conservatism to the early tactics of the Nazi Party. Thankfully, I never equated President Bush with Hitler, but I probably wasn’t far from doing so. When political tensions flare, hyperbolic rhetoric is sure to follow.
Later, in 2008, with Obama’s election, marred by the constant, laughable, conservative references to Hitler and the Nazi’s “National Socialist Party” moniker, I decided I needed a better education with which to point out the inaccuracies of all those historical references. Before that, my historical reading pertained mostly to classical periods and the American Revolution.
That’s when I learned my lesson. Equating either US political party to the Nazis is ignorant, exaggerated, and, in most cases, plainly wrong. Yes, all political parties and strategies share similarities, but they differ greatly in their execution.
Our best propaganda and fearmongering pales in comparison to the brutality inflicted by the Nazis, brutality that wasn’t entirely directed at Jews, as we too often believe. In their rise to power, Nazi brutality was first directed at political opponents. Beatings, theft, destruction of property, and murder, to be exact. Our politics, when compared to Germany in the 1930s, is positively jovial and good-natured and friendly. Over the years I’ve developed a new appreciation for America’s political discourse, for its lack of violence if not necessarily its intellectual rigor.
Nevertheless, here we are now. This final book is about Hitler’s war to dominate Europe and, ultimately, the world. I’m a couple hundred pages into it, and the numbers are staggering. Here are a few excerpts I’ve read recently, each detailing the initial days of the German invasion of Russia, where the order, more or less, was to kill everyone who might cause trouble, but especially Jews. Remember, this is a small window into a single battlefront. Similar events occurred everywhere the Nazis went, starting in Berlin and radiating outwards.
In the town of Stanislawow in Calicia, [Hans Kruger] rounded up the town’s Jews on 12 October 1941 and lined them up in a long queue that reached to the edge of prepared open ditches in the town cemetery. Here they were shot by German police, ethnic Germans and nationalist Ukrainians, for whom Kruger provided a table laden with food and alcoholic spirits in the intervals between the shootings… By sunset, between 10,000 and 12,000 Jews, men, women, and children, had been killed.
The Romanians [under Hitler’s recommendations]… crammed around 5,000 elderly and sick Jews into stables, scattered hay on the roofs, doused it with petrol and burned them alive inside. Those Jews who could walk, around 43,000 of them, were taken to a nearby ravine and shot one by one in the back of the neck.
Further south, Himmler’s other SS brigade… began the systematic shooting of the entire Jewish population, killing 23,600 men, women and children in Kamenetsk-Podolsk in three days.
“The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls. There were three groups of marksmen down at the bottom of the ravine, each made up of about twelve men. Groups of Jews were sent down to each of these execution squads simultaneously. Each successive group of Jews had to lie down on top of the bodies of those that had already been shot. The marksmen stood behind the Jews and killed them with a shot in the neck. I still recall today the complete terror of the Jews when they first caught sight of the bodies as they reached the top of the ravine.” In two days, the unit killed a total of 33,771 Jews in the ravine.
On and on, on and on. Utter madness, brutality, and disregard for human life. The numbers are staggering and gut-wrenching. I sometimes wonder if the words and numbers would have a greater impact in America if we replace the word “Jews” with the word “Christians”, but that’s a discussion for another day.
When I buy a book, I try to tuck the receipt into its pages. This is how I kept records before we had Goodreads, and it’s still a habit. Sure, I’m listening to the audio edition of this book, but audiobooks, like e-books, look terrible on bookshelves. So I bought the hardcover edition of this book upon its release in March 2009 because I already owned the first two books. It sat on my shelf for six years mostly because I first had to read those other two, which took a while.
I’m glad I read them, and I’ll be glad I’ve read this one when I’m done. In the meantime, my hours with it will be spent heartbroken at the limitless bounds of human violence, the effectiveness of indoctrination and propaganda, and the extent to which society is unsuited to deal with people willing to use the system against itself to achieve power.
On a happier note, I believe my great-grandparents left Poland for the United States in the 1920s, arguably just in time, proving there’s at least a bit of brilliance in our Koperski blood. If I could thank them now, I would.