Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

The Hitler Book

Books on Hitler have been done to death. In fact, everything on Hitler has been done to death. The endless fascination with the twentieth century’s greatest villain has led to him or the Nazis appearing everywhere. And it still is a popular topic: the relatively recent movie release of Valkyrie and the endless series of Call of Duty games (nearly all set in World War II) prove there either is a lot of interest in the material or someone with a lot of money who thinks there is a lot of interest in it.

Yet it is always the oldies that pull at our heartstrings the most. Aging gamers will never forget Wolfenstein 3D, despite (and partially because of) the horrendous graphics and unsophisticated gameplay. It was simple and to the point and did just that perfectly. Its common companion in the book world could be Mein Kampf (haven’t read it though so I can’t say anything about pulling heartstrings), but let’s go the lesser known route, to a more historical work that you’ve likely never heard of: The Hitler Book.

The Hitler Book is an essential piece of literature, but for very different reasons than something like the role Wolfenstein 3D and Doom play in video game history. The Hitler Book is neither difficult to read nor unsophisticated: when set in its context it is a dazzling piece of work. Fascinated with Hitler, Stalin decides to rack up as much info he can find on his old rival and does so through two recently captured assistants of Hitler’s, Heinz Linge and Otto Gunsche. Both of these men are revealed to have been quite close to Hitler for a number of years, and through a number of nefarious methods the information Stalin requires is extracted from them about their old boss. In order to ensure that neither man is lying, they separate them and check their stories against each other’s (although there are some cases where both men aren’t present). Stalin’s men thus obtain as much information about Hitler as they can about very specific parts of Hitler’s life that they think would interest Stalin the most.

It is thus an official account of the last decade (roughly) of Hitler’s life. The editors make it abundantly clear that this is not an unbiased account, however, and that the original Soviet editors at the time have made a number of edits to appease Stalin. Thankfully these notes are clearly made and the points where any dates are off in the original accounts are corrected by the editors. The book follows Hitler throughout the war and shows many facets of his personal life, from his failing health to temper tantrums and many, many other quirks.

But the book does not attempt to make him appear less villainous than the picture we have of him today. It is simply a different portrayal of him, as a man who was extremely loyal to his friends yet possessing a number of flaws. Yet as the report is prepared for Stalin, there is an undoubtable omission in the book: the Holocaust. The book hints at it only a single time, and the editors’ conclusion reveals that, simply put, Stalin didn’t care about the Jews and thus he required no information about them.

This alone separates The Hitler Book from the last book we discussed, Mao: The Unknown Story. Mao starts off at Mao’s birth and goes straight to his death, and stops there (leaving the fate of China completely unknown to the reader). Furthermore, Mao introduces every key character and anything notable about the character to make the book as readable as possible. The Hitler Book is almost the exact opposite. This book assumes you know all the players in the Nazi regime, and since I didn’t, was a bit harder to follow along. The Hitler Book also starts off as Hitler gains power and stops at the Russian capture of Linge and Gunsche, covering a much shorter time span. Although this is clearly because Stalin already knows who the key players are, I would have definitely liked to see more explanation from the authors as to who was who or the hierarchy of the Nazi government that I could quickly refer to when an old character returns out of the blue.

Another minor quip I have with The Hitler Book is that it would have been nice to have had a couple maps at the very beginning of the book to refer back to. As I don’t know the layout of Europe pre-1945 that well, it was difficult to follow along with where battles were taking place and the Internet only helps so much. In fact, I got spoiled on this from the Mao book, where there are a number of important maps laid out and easy to refer to later.

These small complaints aside, however, the book is a fascinating read. It shows Hitler in his most relaxed state and a bit more unbiased, as it comes from someone other than Hitler himself. It thus gives the best window into Hitler that I’ve come across thus far from a purely historical standpoint and shares an excellent trait with Mao: it is an important piece of the puzzle that is the world today. Whereas Mao shows how China ended up on the path to the country it is today, The Hitler Book shows something unexpected: how the Cold War started, which ultimately changed the very nature of the United States and froze it in its current interventionist foreign policy. Hitler saw the fear of Communism in the eyes of the British and Americans, and although he couldn’t exploit it, predicted the Cold War coming a mile away. Some of this appears to be influenced by the Soviet editors (since the book is written during the Cold War), but enough of the evidence that backs up the events involved supports the general idea. This book plays an essential role in explaining the personality that makes up the man, and as long as you read it with the notes the editors give at the beginning about it (and keep a laptop nearby pointed at Wikipedia), it makes a captivating read.