Hermann Göring to Heinrich Himmler, April 1945: “Herr Reich Marshal . . . if anything should prevent you from succeeding the Führer—say you are eliminated—can I have the position?”
Adolf Hitler may have been close to the definitive self-made man, but he did not come into or maintain his power single-handedly. Far from it: without the early support of power-hungry men such as Ernst Röhm and Rudolf Hess, he might never have maneuvered his way from obscurity to Germany’s chancellorship. In this very long but unflagging study, English historian Read sharpens the focus on these lieutenants such that Hitler sometimes seems absent from the scene altogether. “Each member of Hitler’s inner circle,” Read writes, “was deeply and totally besotted, desperate to please him, and bitterly jealous of any attention he bestowed on other suitors”—a rivalry that Hitler found most useful, inasmuch as it prevented his juniors from forming alliances that could be turned against him. One such junior was Himmler, a party stalwart from the first, who asserted that he would shoot his own mother if the Führer commanded. Another was Joseph Goebbels, a genius at telling lies and having them believed; for instance, some 5,000 Jews survived the war in Berlin itself, “protected by sympathetic Berliners,” even as Goebbels insisted that the city was “Jew-free.” Another was Alfred Rosenberg, theoretician and de facto leader of the early Nazi party while Hitler was imprisoned, who, Read memorably writes, “was cold, arrogant, and boring beyond belief.” Yet another was Göring, the most militarily accomplished of the Nazis, who ordered the murder of his old friend, Hitler’s rival Röhm, in 1934, explaining to his American captors after the war, “But he was in my way . . .”
Each was effective in his own way, and Read’s narrative gives Hitler’s lieutenants their due for their roles in making the Nazi state the efficient death machine that it was—squabbling with one another all the while and endlessly jockeying for position.