Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Fuhrer in the Making - Book Review

When Nazi Germany took over Austria in March 1938, there was an outburst of not just anti-Semitism but outright sadism against the Jews. They were, among much else, made to scrub the slogans of the previous regime off walls and pavements. Then the expropriations started. An elderly Jewish couple who lost their shop appealed to Hitler in Berlin. Did His Excellency the Chancellor, they wrote, perhaps remember that as a young painter before the war selling his paintings on the corner of the Siebensterngasse, he would when it rained drop in at a certain shop and be given a cup of tea? Could he now see his way to helping the people who had treated him with such kindness? Hitler marked that the letter should be ignored, and the old couple surely went to a death camp.

We owe our knowledge of this fact to a remarkable 1999 book: "Hitler's Vienna" by Brigitte Hamann. Her extensive research revealed that Hitler was not really an anti-Semite until after World War I. What had happened in those crucial wartime years is the question that Thomas Weber now answers in "Hitler's First War." Like Ms. Hamann, he has searched out original documents and found new material. Like her, he fundamentally alters our understanding of one of the most studied figures of the 20th century.

Hitler wrote about his war experiences in "Mein Kampf" (1925), and biographers have generally relied on his account. He put himself across as a soldier-hero: a "runner" carrying messages back and forth through machine-gun fire and artillery, twice decorated with the Iron Cross for bravery, wounded and then, toward the end of the war, blinded by poison gas. He learned of the end of the war at a military hospital in Pasewalk, not far from Berlin, and he wept.

In Hitler's version, the weeping soon turned vindictive against the soft-brained academics, Jews and members of the left who, he alleged, had caused Germany to lose the war. Remaining in the army, he was sent to Bavaria to fight against left-wing revolutionaries. (And yet Mr. Weber has discovered that, briefly at the turn of 1918-19, and unmentioned in "Mein Kampf," Hitler wore a red brassard and supported the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.) Demobilized, he became an informer for the army's propaganda unit— though whether he volunteered or was coerced because of his short-lived involvement with the Bavarian Soviet Republic, Mr. Weber admits we cannot know—and was sent to monitor a meeting of the obscure German Workers' Party, soon to be re-named National Socialist German Workers' Party. Hitler was deeply impressed by the party's hypernationalism and anti-Semitism and joined within a week of attending his first meeting. He also found that he was a tremendously effective public speaker. The speeches do not translate: What sounds superb in one language can sound plain comic in another. But desperate Germans were soon paying to hear Hitler speak, and, as the party's chief source of revenue, he took over the leadership.

How did the young Hitler—diffident, gauche, without solid political convictions—turn into the fascist demagogue of 1922? There is no simple answer to this question, but "Hitler's First War" debunks some of the standard responses. Biographers have long assumed that the war marked a turning point: the comradeship of the trenches, the common soldier's hatred of the profiteers in the rear and the sense of betrayal with the peace made in 1918. Yet there was the nagging question of why the brave, decorated soldier of "Mein Kampf" was not promoted. Hitler served more or less for the whole of the war and never rose above the rank of corporal, which, given that he undoubtedly had leadership qualities, comes as a considerable surprise.

With some luck and a lot of diligence, Mr. Weber has discovered the missing documents of Hitler's war service, and it is fair to say that very little of Hitler's own account survives the discovery. There were indeed two Iron Crosses, but his regimental runner's job was not necessarily dangerous, and he lived in relative comfort at the regimental headquarters away from the front lines. Ordinary soldiers referred to such men as Etappenschweine ("rear pigs") —all armies have such a word: "cushy number" and "base wallah" are British examples. Officers had to dish out a quota of medals, and if you did not offend them they would just put your name on the list. Hitler was not, it appears, particularly courageous. He was just there. And, as it happens, a Jewish superior officer, Hugo Gutmann, recommended Hitler for his first Iron Cross. He was not thanked for this act in later life—though his fate, emigration to the United States, was greatly preferable to that of the old couple in Vienna.

There also wasn't much comradeship. When Hitler broke surface in politics, he asked his old comrades in the regiment for support and discovered that on the whole they had not liked him one bit. Men who had fought at the front in World War I were, moreover, not at all keen on staging a second war, and extraordinarily few of Hitler's old comrades went along with Nazism. Most supported the Weimar Republic. Mr. Weber's research shows that it's not really possible to connect the brutalization of men in the trenches to the birth of National Socialism.

It is very much to Mr. Weber's credit that he has managed to dig out the details, and we can place his book together with Ms. Hamann's as a triumph of original research in a very stony field. The conclusion that might be drawn is that Hitler was far more of the opportunist than is generally supposed. He made things up as he went along, including his own past. If we still haven't answered the question of what turned Hitler into an anti-Semitic idealogue, at least attention has been shifted to the Bavarian years of 1919-22. Ms. Hamann and Mr. Weber point the way forward for the next scholar's diligent researches.
—Mr. Stone is a professor of modern history at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey.

Beetle - The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith (D K R Crosswell)


There have been countless biographies of the generals of World War II, and many are excellent. This biography of Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower's chief of staff, is one of the best. Smith has never received the attention and the credit that he deserves. A chief of staff is perhaps bound to be an unsung hero, but "Beetle" Smith was far more than just a tough and able administrator. In the words of a fellow officer, he possessed "all the charm of a rattlesnake." Yet the bad-cop routine—one he used almost entirely with fellow Americans and not with Allies—was forced upon him because Eisenhower, his supreme commander, desperately wanted to be liked by everybody.

Like almost every key U.S. Army officer in World War II, Smith (1895– 1961) was spotted by George C. Marshall. After serving as Marshall's right-hand man in Washington, Smith moved to Europe as Eisenhower's chief of staff in 1942. His first operational task, while based in London, was to coordinate the North African landings codenamed Operation Torch. Although the invasion was a success, problems mounted rapidly. The most serious was the supply chain, which Smith tried to reorganize radically, but Eisenhower was reluctant to take hard decisions.

In addition to all his operational duties, Smith was also left to handle the press, and political and diplomatic relations, acting as Eisenhower's "primary shock-absorber." The politically naïve Eisenhower had suddenly discovered the pitfalls of supreme command, especially when it involved the latent civil war of French politics. His decision to make use of Admiral François Darlan, the head of the Vichy French navy, to defuse opposition to the Allied landings in North Africa produced a storm of condemnation in the U.S. and Britain, especially as Vichy's anti-Jewish laws were left in place. Eisenhower complained to an old friend of his role as supreme commander: "I am a cross between a one-time soldier, a pseudo-statesman, a jack-legged politician and a crooked diplomat." These first trials, and especially the failures in the advance on Tunisia, did not constitute Eisenhower's finest hour. He was close to a breakdown by January 1943, and his weak performance briefing the Com bined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca conference—Roosevelt thought him "jittery"—nearly led to his resignation. He confided to Patton that he thought "his thread [was] about to be cut." But the British did not insist on his removal, and with Smith's steady advice Eisenhower weathered the storm.

Eisenhower and Smith were both caught up in the great strategic debate within the Allied camp. Marshall wanted the invasion of France to have every priority and remained deeply suspicious of British attempts to postpone it by diverting efforts to the Mediterranean theater because of their material and manpower shortages. As in the Napoleonic wars, British strategy was to avoid a major continental engagement until, making use of the Royal Navy, the enemy had been worn down at the periphery. American doctrine was the very opposite: using industrial supremacy to fight a battle of equipment (Materialschlacht) and confronting the enemy in a head-on land engagement. Mr. Crosswell quotes the boast of one U.S. general: "The American Army does not solve its problems, it overwhelms them."

But Marshall's plans for an early invasion of Northwest Europe were thwarted by Churchill, who went directly to Roosevelt. As things turned out, Churchill proved to be right to postpone D-Day, albeit for the wrong reasons. He longed to attack the "soft under-belly of Europe" through Italy and into central Europe to forestall a Soviet occupation after the war. (Roo sevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower all failed to foresee the Stalin's ambitions.) Marshall, on the other hand, was wrong because any attempt to mount a cross-Channel invasion in 1942 or even 1943 would have ended in disaster. The U.S. Army was simply not ready, the shipping and landing-craft were not available and the Allies lacked air supremacy.

The stress of Smith's job, especially dealing with the rival egos of Eisenhower's army group and army commanders—to say nothing of the constant political interference from Churchill—contributed to his irascibility and ulcers. His infrequent escapes from his desk revolved around needlepoint, fishing and collecting objets d'art. Smith was, in Mr. Crosswell's words, both "a loner and an inveterate collector all his life."

Eisenhower has always received the credit for the close Allied cooperation, but in "Beetle" we find that Smith achieved much of it working behind the scenes. Eisenhower knew this and wrote to Marshall about the necessity of promoting him. "Smith seems to have a better understanding of the British and is more successful in producing smooth teamwork among the various elements of the staff than any other subordinate I have." Yet Eisenhower's feelings about Beetle seem to have been ambivalent, even though he depended on his abilities to an extraordinary degree. They were never close friends, and Eisenhower failed to give Smith the credit he deserved. Smith's ability to get on well with the British also often led to accusations that he was prejudiced in their favor. Yet he was brilliant in containing inter-Allied explosions, especially those provoked by the prima donna Bernard Montgomery. Major turf wars w ere avoided by Smith's skilled handling of the insufferable British general. When Montgomery came to Eisenhower's headquarters in Algiers in 1943, he said to Smith: "I expect I am a bit unpopular up here." Smith replied: "General, to serve under you would be a great privilege for anyone, to serve long side you wouldn't be too bad. But, say, General, to serve over you is hell."

Montgomery, however, was not the only senior commander to exploit Eisenhower's failure to establish firm control and his attempts to compromise. American generals like Omar Bradley and George Patton also played games and threw tantrums, which Smith had to resolve. "The trouble with Ike," Smith observed, "is that instead of giving direct and clear orders, [he] dresses them up in polite language; and that is why our senior American commanders take advantage." Eisenhower's reliance on charm and manipulation all too often failed to work. Patton likened him to a politician running for office rather than a real commander.

This book, which manages to be both brutally honest and fair, does little to bolster the Ike myth, but clearly shows his moment of glory during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944, when he really did at last take a grip. But Eisenhower quickly lost it again during the rest of that terrible winter. And perhaps predictably, it was Smith who had to fire a semi-deranged Patton in September 1945 after his outrageous remarks attacking denazification.

Smith was disappointed not to get Eisenhower's job after the end of the war. But his talents for tough negotiation were not ignored. He was appointed to Moscow as ambassador, and Eisen hower said that it would "serve those bastards right." Although in bad health, Smith was called upon again, in 1950, to reorganize the fledgling CIA. He was appalled by the gifted amateurs in covert operations, who clearly were out of their league up against the ruthless KGB. On becoming president, Eisenhower again called on Smith—to serve under John Foster Dulles at the State Department—and Smith dutifully obeyed. His main role was dealing with the collapse of French Indochina and the Geneva conference in 1954. Struggling against ill health, partly due to a diet of cigarettes, "bourbon and Dex edrine," Smith died in 1961.

Mr. Crosswell's account both of Smith's life and of supreme command in Europe is expert and written in good clean prose. Almost a third of it is devoted to logistic problems, which have never received the importance they deserve, especially for the war in Northwest Europe. Although strangely structured, with Smith's postwar career at the beginning, the book provides a vital addition to our understanding of the politics and problems of allied warfare.

—Mr. Beevor is the author of "D-Day: The Battle for Normandy" (Penguin).