Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany


Hailed as “one of the most important works of history of our time” (The New York Times), this definitive chronicle of Hitler’s rise to power is back in hardcover with a new introductory essay by Ron Rosenbaum (Explaining Hitler and How the End Begins) commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of its National Book Award win.The fiftieth anniversary edition of the National Book Award–winning bestseller that is the definitive study of Adolf Hitler, the rise of Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, and World…

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How was Adolf Hitler able to maintain power in 1944 and 45 even after it was clear that he was going to lose?(r/AskHistorians)

That’s a complex question with a multipart answer.

First, Germany had several military organizations, each with their own brand of political and armed power.

For military forces, there was the regular Army, the SS, the Navy, and the Luftwaffe (Air Force). Each of those organizations had different histories and leadership. As a practical matter, only the Army and SS could hope to successfully carry out a coup against the Nazi leadership. They alone had large numbers of troops and a network of leadership throughout Germany that could assume power if ordered to do so. One immediate problem is then, for any particular group to act, they would have to either include other organizations in their plot, or prepare to neutralize them somehow, probably through force. This isn’t a coincidence, Hitler deliberately cultivated multiple leaders and kept them in opposition and rivalry to each other, and reducing the possibility of treasonous collaboration between different power bases was a primary reason.

The SS is an interesting case. Their motto was “Our Honor is Loyalty”, and their members were all required to swear an oath of loyalty to the person of Adolf Hitler. Today, we are far more cynical and jaded, but in that era, and in particular among the individuals who were told they were the elite of Germany who served in the SS, the oath was taken seriously. The SS were also indoctrinated in a very Darwinian view of German survival, a battle between races and cultures for the right to survive. Even if they were doing poorly, their worldview was framed in a context of an existential struggle to survive, reaching a compromise with inferior races and cultures was simply not an option. The only reason to replace Hitler would be to get a negotiated peace, and in the East, that option wasn’t on the table for the SS.

In the regular Army, at least some of the senior leadership were quite aware the war would not come to a favorable conclusion to Germany by 1944. There was an attempt on July 20th, 1944, to assassinate Hitler and replace the Nazi leadership. It was known to some senior officers of the army, including the famous Rommel, who gave it halfhearted support, something along the lines of “if you kill Hitler and we see you succeeding, we’ll support you, otherwise I don’t know you, good luck!”. Despite not actively supporting the plot, many Army leaders were executed simply for being aware of the plot and failing to report it.

The assassination attempt used a briefcase bomb with a timer, planted in the conference room where Hitler and his military staff had their war conferences. The bomb exploded with a chemical timer, but because of its position under a heavy table, it failed to kill Hitler. The aftermath was quite gruesome, the Nazis quickly identified the members of the plot and saw to their grisly execution after a one-sided show trial:

>Under Hitler’s orders, they were hung by nooses made from piano wire to ensure that they slowly strangled to death. But right before he would have died, Berthold was revived and then executed again, only to be revived and strangled again, at least a third and fourth time. And to really cap it off, all the executions were filmed so that Hitler could watch the torture-executions at his own pleasure.

Even before the assassination attempt, the fearsome Nazi Gestapo (Secret State Police) were on to the plot. The Gestapo was a very effective internal security organization. They tapped phones and telegraphs, bugged rooms, and most importantly, they had an enormous network of informants who would report to them any conversation where there was any whiff of treason or defeatism or disloyalty. Drivers, cooks, housekeepers, shop owners, even assistants, secretaries, and yes, spouses and family members were co-opted by the Gestapo as informants. Anyone in a position of leadership or influence would be heavily monitored for any indications of disloyalty.

In order to plot a coup, one must communicate with associates — and you quite literally took your life into your own hands every time you uttered a disloyal sentiment to anyone. Arrests, unexplained disappearances, show trials in the notorious kangaroo “People’s Court” all served as deterrent to would-be plotters.

After the July attempt, Hitler’s paranoia and vengefulness were unleashed on a grand scale, and officers were required to disarm themselves and were searched before coming into his presence. Carrying out an assassination after the failed attempt would have required extraordinary good luck, or a much wider conspiracy involving everyone from senior leaders to Hitler’s personal bodyguard.

For the general population of Germany, many people were aware the war was going badly, but Hitler’s leadership style encouraged fanaticism and an almost mystical faith in the ability of the Leader. The secret “Revenge Weapons” like the V-1 and V-2, while militarily not very significant, were examples of how Germans were encouraged to keep faith and look for unexpected triumphs.

You also have to consider the everyday, “man on the street’s” context: Hitler had raised a bankrupt, militarily impotent, and humiliated Germany up to tremendous heights in the previous 13 years. Giving perspective, Germany was forced to accept French occupation of the Ruhr because they refused to make large reparations required by the treaty of Versallies for World War I. Their army was limited to only 100,000 men, they could have no air force, and their navy was by treaty required to be little more than light surface ships only.

Then, in 1933, Hitler and the Nazis rose to power, and had one diplomatic and military victory after another. The ancient rival, France, was defeated in 1940, British troops driven from the continent, the Low Countries and Scandinavia occupied, Spain and Italy were either friendly neutrals or overt allies, the Mediterranean shorelines all flew the swastika flag even if British sea power continued to own her waters, and Eastern Europe was one giant German province.

Only since the defeat at Stalingrad had Germany ever perceived their progress as anything short of invincible. Stalingrad is widely discussed by historians because it was such a pivotal point in the war, the reversal of Nazi military fortunes but in terms of military force, and in psychological terms.

Before Stalingrad, Germany had achieved stunning victory after another against all comers. With the perspective of hindsight, we know how the Soviet land power was able to renew itself with overwhelming force; we know how Germany’s failure to close the Atlantic and defeat British sea power was a disastrous strategic mistake – but the average German didn’t know this in 1944.

I’d compare it to having a favorite team who took the pennant for most of a decade, before finally losing a season. Would you call for the coach to be replaced with just a losing year or two, after an unbroken record of Super Bowl victories over a decade long?

An essay like this needs a lot of source material. I’m an avid reader of 20th century world history, and here are the sources I’ve drawn on to offer this interpretation, which doesn’t tie to a specific passage or quote:

I cannot recommend enough historian Richard J. Evan’s three book series about Nazi Germany (Amazon links):

The Coming of the Third Reich * The Third Reich in Power * The Third Reich at War

For my original fascination with World War II and Nazi Germany, I have to acknowledge the widely discredited William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”. After reading about how modern historians tend to discredit this book that I enjoyed so much, it motivated me to find out exactly why it was consider a poor species of historical narrative. In failing, it taught me much.

For more on the only attempt to overthrow Hitler in the face of military defeat, the July 20th plot, here’s a good source:

A good source on the Nazi’s twisted worldview regarding eugenics:

For a survey over the context of the Nazi SS and their deep loyalty to Hitler personally:

French occupation of the Ruhr:

“V weapons”

When writing about Nazi Germany, one is hard pressed to actually winnow one’s sources due to the many excellent resources available. A quick Google search will yield a wealth of resources, and also a diversity of interpretations on almost any topic.

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William L. Shirer

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Simon & Schuster

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The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

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How was Adolf Hitler able to maintain power in 1944 and 45 even after it was clear that he was going to lose?

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