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1938: Hitler's Gamble

by Giles MacDonogh

The Year That Changed Everything

A review by Doug Brown

While 1939 is the year World War II officially started in Europe, Hitler laid the groundwork in 1938. At the beginning of the year Germany still had its post-Versailles borders; by December Austria and half of Czechoslovakia were part of the Reich. In addition to valuable mineral resources for the war machine buildup, this expansion brought a lot of liquid money to debt-ridden Germany. And Hitler got it all without military conquest.

Nineteen Thirty-eight is structured chronologically, with chapters for each month (though April, May, and June share a chapter). While MacDonogh does give us glimpses of what was going on elsewhere in Europe and America during the year, the emphasis is on Germany and how Hitler's ambitions became reality. The Reich leadership that MacDonogh presents is much more in line with any administration than the traditional notion of a group of men slavishly devoted to their leader. Goebbels hated Goring; Goring hated Ribbentrop; and Himmler played everyone against everyone. Kristallnacht was Goebbels's spur-of-the-moment idea to try and get back into Hitler's favor (he had fallen out of favor by jeopardizing his marriage with affairs). Goring complained to Hitler of the loss of productivity and the cost of repairs, as he was in charge of the four-year plan; he wanted Goebbels fined. Hitler seems to have spent much of 1938 mediating between his underlings.

Nineteen thirty-eight was also the year that anti-Semitism finally became enforced policy. The goal was not extermination, but emigration; the Nazis just wanted them out of the Reich. Even here, though, the main players worked against each other. While Heydrich and Eichmann were working to get Jews visas and get them on trains out of the Reich, Goring wanted them to stick around for a while so he could glom their funds for his four-year plan. The real stumbling block to emigration, though, was all the other countries. As much as revisionists like to say that only the Nazis were anti-Semitic, the sad fact is no country wanted a large influx of any ethnic minority, but particularly Jews who had lost all their funds at the Reich border (and thus would be financial burdens). By the end of the year, most borders were closed to Jews who could not support themselves, which was most of them.

While in general 1938 is well researched, there are lapses where MacDonogh makes unsupported allegations. Here are two examples. In January, evidence came to Goring that one of his rivals, Field Marshal von Blomberg, had made a poor marriage choice. Goring and Hitler had recently attended the wedding, but now Goring had the bride's arrest record -- for prostitution. He gleefully took the evidence to Hitler, knowing his rival was finished. MacDonogh then states, "Blomberg had in all appearances walked into a honey trap -- possibly set up by his rival." There is no reference in the notes section to support this, nor am I aware of any source that maintains anything other than Goring simply capitalized on his discovery of Blomberg's indiscretion. In November, the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris that led to Kristallnacht is generally thought to have been motivated by the fact that the Jewish assassin's parents had been herded into a barracks along with 500 others. The assassin heard about this on November 3, and the next day purchased a handgun, went to the German embassy, and shot Ernst von Rath. MacDonogh relates this, and then states that it is the "official version," which was a whitewash to cover up the fact that von Rath was a "prominent homosexual" who had just returned from Calcutta "with a dose of anal gonorrhea." In supposed suppressed testimony, the assassin had confessed to an affair with von Rath, and had shot him when von Rath hadn't procured papers for him to legally remain in France. MacDonogh's support for this startling accusation? He has surely found the "suppressed" testimony, yes? No. The source given in the notes is a recent newspaper article titled "Historian Says Jewish Boy Killed His Nazi Lover." Such claims require better support than fourth-person allegations; a newspaper reporter says a historian says doesn't meet academic muster.

These few forays into lurid "but maybe the historians don't have it right" rumor mongering aside, 1938 is a good overview of a very important year in history. It is aimed at more of a general audience than folks who have already read a fair amount of Third Reich history. The accounts of the Austrian Anschluss and the Munich Conference where Czechoslovakia was carved up get solid coverage, both the events themselves and the events leading up to them. Most eye-opening for the casual reader, though, will likely be learning that Hitler and his staff did not have a rock-solid plan that they unerringly moved towards; they were making it up as they went. Although the book's subtitle implies a single gamble, Hitler made several gambles in 1938. Some didn't pay off (he hoped to form an alliance with England against France), and some did (Austria, the Sudetenland). Those wanting a more scholarly approach should read Richard J. Evans's The Coming of the Third Reich and The Third Reich in Power; for the general reader, 1938 is a good addition to the popular history on the rise of the Reich.

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