(This is a review of Joachim E. Fest’s The Face of the Third Reich)
Joachim E. Fest has a profound personal history related to the material which he presents in this biographical and academic presentation. Because of the open resistance of his father to the Nazis in 1930s Germany, the author has inherited a view that the Germans are more responsible for the crimes of the Third Reich than other contemporary German historians often assert. The author served for a time in the Wehrmacht, personally experiencing Hitler’s war-machine for a brief period before he was made a prisoner of war in France. To add to his personal experiences he also obtained extensive education in several fields uniquely allowing him to understand the phenomenon of the Nazi Party, which include the study of law, history, sociology, and German literature at several educational institutions, including the University of Freiburg.
The focus of The Face of the Third Reich is predominantly intellectual but also inherently dealing predominantly with the political sphere of post-World War I Germany as well as an understanding of economic situations which allowed the Nazis to gain momentum. In the two biographical portraits which I have focused on, that of Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Rohm, the idea of a “lost generation,” which Hitler was a part of, is highlighted to great extent. This lost generation consisted of Germans who had fought in World War I and had allowed the war to become their defining experience. This combined with the fact that Germany had lost the war, and therefore their national pride, which created men who were disillusioned with the society around them.
This psychological disparity is the focus of the book. Adolf Hitler himself hated society, for he had never succeeded in anything as a regular person. His disillusionment, combined with psychopathic tendencies, led him to desire one thing and one thing only—power. The story of the rise of Nazi Germany is the story of one man’s psychological disparity propped up and supported by those who were similarly disparaged.
Heinrich Himmler was perhaps the Nazi who had the most in common with Hitler psychologically. Perhaps that is why by the end of World War II, the SS was as much a governing body in Germany as Hitler’s government. This is also reflected in the fact that both of them took their own lives as the war ended. They felt morally justified in having absolutely no morals. They both envisioned a pure race system, although neither of them fit the specific criteria for this pure race. Heinrich Himmler believed in brutality, taught brutality, and breathed brutality.
Another case altogether is Ernst Rohm, chronicled in this book as the leader of the SA and the first leader of the lost generation before Hitler was ready to take the reins entirely. When Hitler was forced to change tactics after his failed pusch, Rohm’s fate was inevitably sealed. Though Ernst Rohm related to Hitler in many ways, he could not gain the careful patience which Hitler was forced to adopt. Ernst Rohm wanted a military state and he wanted it immediately. Eventually Hitler was forced to end Ernst Rohm, and essentially end the SA as well.
The author provides a picture of a country torn apart mentally by war and economic disparity to the point of complete moral failure. Rarely can the crimes of a nation be laid solely upon one man, for that one man had to have had power ultimately given to him. It is true that Hitler connived and maneuvered his way into the legitimate government to overthrow it and that he proved himself cunning, deceptive, and a master of propaganda. But the state of post-World War I Germany was perfect for a man of Hitler’s brand. He was a product of the times as much as any of those he followed, and the history of Nazi Germany is the history of decent people willingly turning a blind eye and indecent people flocking to a sense of state-sanctioned brutality and lawlessness.
The Face of the Third Reich offers readers an exceptional look into the mentalities of those responsible for one of the most dreadful sequences in the history of mankind. By presenting the psychological viewpoints of the Nazi leadership we are presented boldly, and surprisingly, with the weaknesses of the human race. Honest readers will often find their own base tendencies within the pages. This book is Joachim E. Fest’s warning that the Nazi phenomenon was not merely the product of the evil genius of a single man, but the product of the way that single man was able to manipulate a nation and bring out the baseness that was already festering. To assume that such a thing cannot happen again is to invite its occurrence.