Category Archives: This Week in History

Silence is Consent

Volker Ullrich, Hitler: Downfall, 1939-1945 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020, 838 pp.).

The first podcast that I ever recorded in this space, back in August 2017, reviewed the first volume of this fascinating biography of the Nazi Führer, Ascent: 1889-1939. Volume 2 followed here in the States in 2020, and I’ve just completed it. These 2 volumes are a worthy successor to the monumental biographies of Hitler by Ian Kershaw (2 volumes, 1998 & 2000), John Toland (2 volumes, 1976), Joachim Fest (1973), and Alan Bullock (1962).

Ullrich, the author, is German, born there in 1943 during the war, and it’s this nativity that gives his unsparing criticism of Hitler and his followers a moral weight it might otherwise lack. There is no trimming, no faint praise of the Nazis for making the trains run on time, no points for restoring German national morale after the devastation of the Great War—there is nothing here but unflinching critical analysis of the most heinous crimes ever carried out under the authority of government, all while focusing like a laser on the man from whose brain it all sprung.

This blog is not a full-on review of this book, simply a whole-hearted endorsement of it for anyone who wants to understand how the most evil regime in history came to power, held onto it for 12 years while demonizing Jews and other minorities, waged brutal and genocidal war, and then was utterly destroyed by the combined Allied might of the world’s leading democratic and communist regimes.

It is of course a story of unimaginable horror, but Ullrich’s real gift is helping us to see Hitler and his fellow Nazis as people, not as monsters.

This is important because, as he points out in the first volume, if they were in fact monsters then everything they did would be explainable. The fact is, they were flesh-and-blood human beings, which demands of good historians that they explain how the Nazis came to power with all their sociopathic and full-throated hatred for Jews, Eastern Europeans, and communists in full view. There were no secrets about what they intended to do. They then led one of the most cultured societies in Europe—not against its will, according to Ullrich—down the path of total war and ethnic annihilation, at the cost of hundreds of millions of lives.

To do all this is no easy task, but Ullrich pulls it off. Even as we already know the outcome, it is still a riveting story. Across 600+ pages of text we witness the invasion of Poland and the beginning of World War II, the air war with Britain, the fall of Paris, the titanic struggle with the Soviet Union, the enslavement and butchery of millions on the Eastern front, the Allied landing and the liberation of Europe, and the ongoing and horrific Final Solution. Through it all, Ullrich “normalizes” Hitler and in the process makes him seem more inhuman than ever, Still, as he writes, “there will always be aspects of Hitler we cannot explain.”

No matter how many books, documentaries, and films are produced about them, the story of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists will remain a repelling and fascinating part of our history of which we can’t get enough. It is a subject that is both timely and bottomless. As Ullrich wrote in Volume 1, there will never be a “definitive” biography of Hitler because “people will never stop pondering this mysterious, calamitous figure. Every generation must come to terms with Hitler.”

As another German historian, Eberhard Jäckel wrote, “We Germans were liberated from Hitler, but we’ll never shake him off. Hitler will always be with us, with those who survived, those who came afterwards and even those yet to be born. He is present—not as a living figure, but as an eternal cautionary monument to what human beings are capable of.”

Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power 90 years ago this week, on January 30, 1933. The world is still coming to grips with the horrors of the Third Reich, even as anti-Semitism and authoritarianism are both again on the rise.

It is a stark warning to all of us that, though Hitler and his regime may be gone, their legacy and influence are not. Right now, there are those seeking power by demonizing other people and feeding the worst instincts to hate and fear other human beings. Hitler reminds us, as Ullrich concludes, “how thin the mantle separating civilization and barbarism actually is.”

We stand by and say nothing at our peril.

Dispatches from Off the Deaton Path: Sherman’s March to the Sea and the Gift of Savannah

December 21 marks the anniversary of the end of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, the surrender of Savannah to United States armed forces during the Civil War, and Sherman’s Christmas “gift” of Savannah to President Abraham Lincoln. Sherman’s March was also an important part of the history of emancipation. This Dispatch examines that controversial event and its legacy in American history.

Steal Away Home

The baseball season ended Tuesday night in the most improbable way imaginable. Our Atlanta Braves won the World Series. I honestly didn’t think I might ever see those words again. It’s been 26 years since, midway through my graduate years at the University of Florida, I watched them beat the Cleveland Indians 1-0 to claim their first title in Atlanta. That long-ago October evening has faded to a distant memory, but not the pain of losing the next year after going up 2-0 in the Series against the hated Yankees, only to lose the next 4 in a row. The Braves never really came close to winning it all again. Until now.

I don’t need to recount to Atlanta and UGA sports fans the dangers of counting championships before the game or series is completely over. And I won’t do it here. But when the last out was recorded on Tuesday night, Dansby Swanson to Freddie Freeman, the overwhelming emotion I felt was one of relief. Other fans I’m sure can relate without any explanation needed.

This Braves team will obviously always be special. Unlike the 1995 team, no one predicted them to win anything, except perhaps the National League East again. By mid-season their underperformance made even that unlikely. The story of the mid-season acquisitions at the trade deadline that remade this team has been told and re-told elsewhere. Their winning without ever seeming as if they possibly could is part of the greatness of this year. The season felt like it was put together with duct tape and baling wire.

But for me, this year’s edition of the Braves is special for another reason entirely. This was the last Braves team that my father—a Braves lifer—ever watched. He died peacefully at his home on Sunday, September 5, a month from his 89th birthday, quietly drifting away as “the sun gradually wheeled his broad disk down into the west,” as Washington Irving so eloquently put it.

In the last month of his life, my father stopped watching his favorite TV shows; he stopped reading his Westerns; he stopped following the news. The only thing that he didn’t put away as he prepared to go was his love for the Braves. They were on and winning—9-2 against the Colorado Rockies—on the afternoon that he died.

That these Braves would go on to win the big prize in the same autumn as his death seemed cruel and yet somehow poetic. Each step that brought them closer to the summit—from Freddie Freeman’s improbable home run against Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers, to Eddie Rosario’s game-winning homer against the Dodgers, to his impossible catch in Game 4 to put the Braves up 3-1 against the Astros—confirmed that something magical and yet mystical was happening right before our eyes. The Braves weren’t doing this alone. As I mourned my father missing it all, I sensed that he wasn’t missing a thing. As one reporter noted after Rosario’s game-saving catch, there seemed to be angels in the outfield.

Baseball’s passing every year brings a sadness with it, but this season’s end brings more melancholy than usual for me. This year’s Braves will always be the last upon which my father’s eyes rested.

Baseball will come back in the spring. It always does. There will be new prospects and predictions and expectations. In the new season, any team, at least on Opening Day, might be champion.

But something will be missing next Opening Day. The irreplaceable man who taught me how to throw and hit a baseball won’t be there to see it.

He had, throughout his life and especially in his final days, “the capacity to wear glory with grace,” as Jesse Jackson so movingly said in his eulogy of Jackie Robinson. For me, this championship season will be forever linked to my father who, just as the leaves began to change and the days grew shorter, stole away home, and, like the Braves, ascended to glory.

I bet he had the best seat in the house.

S5E1: Happy Halloween

Once again this year, in celebration of the spooky season Stan reads a favorite ghost story, “Rats” by the master of the genre, M.R. James, first published in 1929. Also, this week in history and a dark day in Mayberry. Draw near the fire, dim the lights, and enjoy…..

Podcast S4 E10: We Salute You, and Farewell

This week Stan remembers the birth and death of two iconic musicians from the 20th century, and the recent deaths of five historians whose work over the past 60 years helped redefine several eras of American history.