Despite its heft, this 768-page tome has the sharp impact of a punch to the stomach. From the first paragraph, it changed the way I look at life -- a feeling that only intensified chapter after chapter. A thorough, serious and supremely researched work, Mazower's book makes good use of our sixty-year distance, as well as many recently unearthed documents, to present a dispassionate view of the unstructured madness that motivated Hitler and his ministers, as well as all the key players, often right down to individuals.
The power and insanity of these true events is, if anything, intensified by Mazower's measured recounting of events that try the mind, imagination, and spirit. The experience of encountering this narrative had my mind flipping back and forth from "how could this have happened?" to "this actually happened." Mazower's steady, stern gaze into the heart of madness and its mechanisms is so fresh and powerful that it changed the way I looked not only at history, but at today's world -- political, social, and spiritual.
They were not pretty revelations. Consider: Jean Cocteau courting Hitler's favorite sculptor around Paris, just after taking part in the funeral of painter Chaim Soutine, a desperate suicide in the face of genocide. Consider: The flight of General Hans Frank, one of Hitler's hand-picked territorial leaders, leaving a trail of cigars and wines, one step ahead of the Russians. And there are dozens if not hundreds more vignettes.
The bold stroke of the book is showing that the Nazis had no plan whatsoever. The spiritual, ethical, and moral flaws of the Nazi regime, not to mention the shoddy genetic science that propped up much of their rhetoric, are well documented. What Mazower adds to this is showing how their lightning victories in the first year of the war combined with their furious cleansing policies to forge diplomatic, economic, and strategic blunders that, thankfully, doomed them.
Amongst the myriad leaders portrayed, Himmler, head of the S.S., comes forward as not only a warped, heartless mystic with an unrealistic management style, but as a vicious political infighter as well. In fact, his horrid life becomes something of a leitmotif for the tale, from his rise to his obsessions to his delusions of making a deal with Eisenhower (completely ignored) to his snubbing by Hitler to his cowardly flight and suicide. Painful, magisterial, and fresh, this is a book that must be read.
It helps to know a bit about the history of the war coming in to the book, or have a good reference text at hand, since Mazower sometimes elides grand events, assuming knowledge on the part of his readers. But never does the book descend into turgid history-speak or dry analysis. He writes with clarity and passion. If I had one quibble, and it is a small one, it is that I wish Mazower had woven even more human stories into his narrative. The intimate pictures that he paints are beautiful and resonant, such as the vignette that kicks off the entire effort, a story that somehow connects German colonialism, the decrepitude of Nazi-ism, loss, and tragedy. I am not suggesting he become a Barbara Tuchman (though I relish her historical storytelling); I would look forward to another book by Mazower focusing on the human dimension. The topic certainly encompasses many more examinations.
In the end, what emerges is a fantastic tale of obsessive madness. Would that it were a fantasy. - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.