On September 1, 1939, the Second World War began as the German army invaded Poland as part of Adolf Hitler’s quest for world domination. Britain had warned Germany that any military action against Poland would result in England coming to the aid of its ally. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) did not want to go to war with England, preferring to accomplish the annexation of Poland through diplomatic methods after having successfully partitioned Czechoslovakia in what is infamously referred to as the “appeasement at Munich”. But if Hitler did not want to wage war against Britain, knowing their intention to save Poland, then why did he give approval to the invasion that plunged the world into a major conflict? The answer to that question lies in the story of his Foreign Minister and Nuremberg defendant, Ulrich Friedrich Wilhelm Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893-1946).
In the annals of the Third Reich, perhaps no other figure is as glanced over as Joachim von Ribbentrop. Standing next to nefarious characters such as Hermann Goering (1893-1946), Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945), he is often an afterthought. Semi-illiterate but able to speak fluent English, he was one of the few officials in the Third Reich with extensive exposure to the culture of the west. And the time he spent in London early in his life, made him the right choice by Hitler for the position of Ambassador to Great Britain. By all accounts, no one found him to be enjoyable company but incredibly, he maintained a position close to Hitler’s ear with the Führer listening intently and in some cases implementing Ribbentrop’s suggestions. Their unusual relationship would have dire consequences in 1939 at Hitler set his sights on Poland. It is here in this phenomenal biography that we learn another part of the story behind the Poland invasion and Ribbentrop’s critical role in the events.
At first glance, it is easy to write of Ribbentrop as “non-essential” to the story of the Third Reich. And although he is mentioned in many books about the Nazi regime, his role is typically minor in the grand scheme of events. But make no mistake, his advice and misconceptions about foreign nations, played pivotal roles in the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich. Bloch has capture Ribbentrop’s life beautifully in this biography that tells the story of the former Foreign Minister for all to see. In comparison to the other figures of the Nazi regime, his personal life could be considered average. But his entry in the Nazi party and actions thereafter, helped changed the course of history. As I was reading the book, I could not help feeling mystified as to how a figure such as Ribbentrop maintained the confidence of Hitler as each blunder piled up. Admittedly, Hitler did not consult him on every foreign policy matter, apparently realizing his many shortcomings. But he did trust Ribbentrop enough on some of the most important decisions to be made, many of which changed the course of world history and produced a mark on the history of Germany which can never be erased.
Notwithstanding his restricted voice in Hitler’s government, he was an important figure in Hitler’s vision of a Anglo-German unification. In fact, Ribbentrop’s actions towards and with the British government are the crux of the book. Naturally, his positions as Ambassador and later Foreign Minister, resulted in his constant communication with the Ambassadors of England, Italy and Japan. However, his close position to the Führer did not earn him the envoy of others but rather their wrath. Hitler was known to pit subordinates against each other, using the divide and conquer technique. Their fights and attempts to sabotage each other take center stage in the book as they compete for Hitler’s approval, the elimination of enemies and advancement in rank. The story reveals a terrible cast of characters drunk on power and filled with venom for competitors and the Jews of Europe. Standing center among these characters was the sad Ribbentrop, the man often the butt of jokes and contempt, who was rarely seriously. Having finished the book, I am dumbfounded as to how Hitler’s administration functioned at all. The decisions they reached and methods used were simply surreal and Ribbentrop plays a direct part in many of them.
On October 14, 1946, Ribbentrop was the first to be executed after Goering committed suicide in his cell the night before. He left behind a widow and four children, all of whom are still alive today. Decades have passed since their father’s death and in the passage of time, their lives will also reach a conclusion. But they remain witnesses to a time in history in which the world was on the brink of complete anarchy as Adolf Hitler set out to dominate the planet. Next to him was his fanatically dedicated Foreign Minister. This is the definitive biography of the life and death of Joachim von Ribbentrop.
What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany – Eric A. Johnson and Karl Heinz Reuband
In April, 1945, allied troops moved through Germany as the walls surrounding Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) began to collapse. His suicide on April 30, allowed him to escape justice but helped to cement his place in history as one of mankind’s most tyrannical leaders. Concentration camps across Germany and Poland were liberated, releasing thousands of Jews who had been imprisoned as the Third Reich began its Final Solution, the plan produced by the minds of homicidal maniacs such as Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) and Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942). The emaciated figures that were once lively young men and women provided allied troops with a shocking sight that no one could ever forget. Even today, images and videos of bodies stacked upon bodies produces a feelings of disgust and anger toward those responsible for the crimes and others who feigned ignorance.
I have visited Germany twice and enjoyed my experiences there. Today it is hard to imagine that less than eighty years ago, one man plunged the world into war and oversaw the deaths of millions of Jews. When Adolf Hitler seized control of Germany giving the N.S.D.A.P. the majority presence, German society was transformed and turned upside down. Many Jews fled Germany before the Third Reich began its campaign of genocide and some of them never returned. The actions of an unhinged Hitler, nearly brought Germany to the brink of collapse. Widespread famine and lack of basic necessities made life in post-war Germany close to unbearable. Some undoubtedly believed that Germans only had their selves to blame for the war and should suffer for what they did to other nations. The United States and Soviet Union stepped in to divide Berlin and the wall constructed remained in placed until 1989. It was the end of two different German nations contained within one mass of land. The division is similar to the subject of this book entitled ‘What We Knew”.
Historians have always debated what ordinary Germans knew and did not know. Surely, there were many Germans who sought to save their own lives and desperately avoided being linked in any way to Hitler’s failed regime. Many claimed that they had no idea Jews were being systematically murdered in concentration camps. For the Jews, it was hard to believe they could proclaim such ignorance when Antisemitism was a pillar of the Nazi ideology. Americans and other foreign nations always pondered the same question. This book by Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband has attempted to take on those questions in the search for the truth about how much the German people knew about the fate that awaited millions of Jews across Europe. Divided into two parts, the first half of the book contains interviews of German Jews who either fled Germany or survived concentration camps. The second half contains interviews of non-Jewish Germans who witnesses the events that transpired. What’s revealed in these pages is both eye-opening and enlightening.
As to be expected each side has their own convictions about what each side knew. Whether they were telling the complete truth is something we will never be able to answer. But what is clear from the book is that the place in Germany in which one lived, played a role in what they knew or did not know. The authors do not attempt to make any decisions about who is to be believed or not believed. They simply present the statements for the reader to decide. From a personal standpoint, I did find that denial is apparent in many of the interviews of non-Jewish Germans while the Jewish Germans unanimously agree that their neighbors definitely knew of the systematic extermination of the Jews and used it as an excuse to plunder and seize what was left over in houses and apartments. Several of the Jewish survivors vowed never to return to Germany and believe that they never did. But they were among the fortunate who were able to survive the Third Reich and tell their stories here.
The debate about the knowledge of the Reich’s atrocities by German citizens will continue for an eternity. But what is clear is that there was much many had knowledge of but preferred not to know. The stories of what really happened cannot be lost to history and to prevent another Holocaust requires that demons from the past are confronted. These are the stories of Germany’s survivors who are here to tell you what they knew.
“To sin in silence while others doth protest makes cowards out of men.” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox
The Rise and Fall Of The Third Reich:A History of Nazi Germany-30th Anniversary Edition-William L. Shirer
History always has many witnesses. Audio, video, word of mouth and the written word serve as the recorders for the events that are occurring. When Adolf Hitler began his rise to power, all of Europe and the rest of the world took notice. Many of those nations never imagined that the menace from Austria would become Chancellor of Germany and unleash a wave of terror never before seen across the continent. His climactic rise to power and fall is a case study that has been the subject of debates and discussions since the end of the Second World War in 1945. Even today we continue to learn new facts about Hitler and secrets of the Third Reich. William L. Shirer (1904-1993) lived in Germany as correspondent for CBS news and served as a first-hand witnesses of the rise of national socialism carried under the banner of Hitler’s N.S.D.A.P. As the war in Europe unfolded, he returned to the United States and his memories of his time in Germany served as the basis for the Berlin Diary. During his residence in Germany, he had been censured by Nazi regime from speaking on air. Shirer took advantage of the time to start a book on the Reich, a book that became a masterpiece and the definitive account of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.
Hitler’s seizure of power by means of annexation of the smaller countries surrounding Germany showed to the world the true nature of his regime and the pending doom that awaited Europe. By the time the war was over, nearly fifty million people had died. Germany was split in half and became the center of aggression between the United States and Soviet Union. The story of the Nazi empire has caused many to ask how did Hitler assume power and why did the German people give it to him? And if the German military was as supreme as their leaders thought, why did Germany suffer defeat in a second world conflict? The answers to these questions are contained within the pages of this book and Shirer provides a staggering amount of information about what really transpired behind the scenes hidden from the German public. The book is divided into several smaller parts, each focusing on a different period in the war. But the author covers the Reich from start to finish giving the reader a complete account of one of history’s darkest moments.
While the book is not a “official” textbook to be used by educators, I do think it should supplement any course material on the holocaust and the war. Shirer’s work is of critical importance and will remain with us for generations. It is the go to source for the story of the Nazi reign. All of the characters make an appearance in the story and some parts of the narrative are a bit comical as the Nazis simply make up the rules as they go along. But what is even more intriguing is the often opposing views taken by Hitler and his Generals. Many knew that a madman had seized power and was leading Germany down a path of destruction yet no one seemed to be able to stop the Austrian menace. Shirer once said that “the cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it”. The Führer, seemingly one step ahead of those under him, often played subordinates against each other creating a climate of suspicion that undermined any efforts to remove him from power. And at his call, were a number of loyal Nazi party members all too happy to do the regime’s dirty work.
I cannot overstate the importance of this book. To understand the machinations at play that pushed the German war machine forward, Shirer’s words are an invaluable source. The book is by no means short, running well over one thousands pages. But contained within those pages is the story that can never be erased. The world has changed drastically since 1945. Hitler’s ghost is still among as those loyal to the Nazi party, pledge their undying allegiance to an ideology that went down at the hands of Allie forces more than seventy years ago. His supporting cast of characters retain their places in infamy as part of a failed regime that based its foundation upon the idea of “Aryan supremacy”. But unbeknownst to the Germany people, there was much that was hidden from them by Hitler, the man some came to love but many began to fear. Had they known the truth about the Nazis, perhaps he would have been removed from power before the war reached its deadly heights. We can only ask what if at this point about how things might have been. But as we look back and study the war, Shirer is there with us reminding us along the way of everything that happened during the rise and fall of the Third SS Reich.