The Adults in the Room Couldn’t Stop Him: Hitler and the March to World War II

European leaders of 1938 Peace Conference (Credit: Getty Images)

By BETH HARPAZ
Editor of SUM

Professor Benjamin Carter Hett (GC/Hunter, History) is out with his fourth book on Nazi Germany. The Nazi Menace chronicles the origins of World War II in the worldwide “crisis of democracy” that developed in the 1930s. It also details British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s misguided efforts to appease Adolf Hitler, and shows how leaders like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt “learned to respond” to the rise of fascism. 

Hett spoke with The Graduate Center about parallels between the 1930s and the world today, how students in the 21st century regard World War II, and how playing with model airplanes as a kid sparked his interest in one of the book’s most memorable digressions. Hett also offers insight into his gripping account of German officers who planned a coup against Hitler but never followed through.

The Graduate Center: What are the parallels between the years leading up to World War II and the world today?

Hett: There are several parallels, and they are very alarming. The 1930s saw a surge around the world in nationalism and its accompanying phenomena, particularly the desire for economic autarky, racism, nativism, and hostility to immigrants and refugees. It was also a time when political questions were very open in the sense that liberal democracy, communism, and fascism all had considerable constituencies around the world and were competing for power in most countries. 

In one particularly important country, the leader was someone whom responsible people in the armed forces, the intelligence services, and the diplomatic community thought was crazy and dangerous, and they saw themselves as the adults in the room who had the task of controlling him. However, they failed to do so and the crazy leader got rid of the adults one by one. You can probably guess who this particular crazy leader was.

GC: How do 21st century students regard this era? Do they know much about it? 

Hett: Some of my students come in knowing quite a bit. Some of my students come in knowing very little. I think because of the amount of media attention that is still given to the Second World War and the era of fascism, most students at least think they know something, even if it is something they saw in a sensationalist documentary, and even if what they think they know is that Hitler escaped to Argentina after the war. One thing I can say for sure is that interest in this era remains strong. I think, very much to their credit, most of my students have great difficulty understanding the barbarities and cruelties of Nazism. But they are curious about it too.

GC: The New York Times’ terrific review of The Nazi Menace paid tribute to, among other things, your “knack for the capsule biography,” citing in particular your profile of Hugh Dowding, who created Britain’s air defense network. The book includes a number of compelling sidebars like that. Did you have a favorite? 

Hett: I really love the story of R.J. Mitchell, the designer of the fabulous British fighter plane called the Spitfire. It’s partly because I am a former 10-year-old boy who spent a lot of his time making model Spitfires, and partly because there is an emotional power and romance to the story of this brilliant engineer fighting back a mortal illness to make this incredible plane, which then not only saved his country but Western civilization. And he died three years before he could see what his design would mean for the world. It is tragic, but also beautiful. How can you not love such a story?

GC: Your account of the resistance movement among German officers is absolutely riveting. You write that their coup plans were initially derailed by public support for the Munich agreement, when Chamberlain and others agreed to let Hitler take Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia on condition that his aggression end there. The officers kept looking for the right moment to remove Hitler from power in the late 1930s, or even assassinate him outright, but they never did (though they came close with Operation Valkyrie later on, where a bomb was detonated but Hitler survived). What happened to this earlier resistance? And why weren’t they caught? 

Hett: One of the remarkable things about the Third Reich is that Hitler’s rule and even his greatest successes were always accompanied by a resistance movement from within. The resistance movement I describe in this book began amid the crises of 1938 and continued right up until the point of the famous Valkyrie assassination plot of 1944. We can safely say that the people involved in these plots were not very effective or successful conspirators. But we should also recognize just how many difficulties they were up against. In a regime like Hitler‘s, resistance pretty much by definition could only come from people who had the levers of force in their hands, and that really means the military. But the military is there to serve and follow orders and not question the politics, so the officers who moved into the resistance movement had to do so in a state of great tension with what they saw as their basic mission in life. That they made the leap anyway is very much to their moral credit.

As to why they were not caught and arrested earlier, the German officer corps was a very tightknit community, the members of which were linked often by family ties, and in any case by ties of social class and common background and common political and moral outlook. Therefore they could trust each other to an unusual degree. Even officers who knew about the various plots and didn’t support them still would not betray the plotters whom they knew about because of these ties. There are a number of examples of this in the record.

GC: Before getting your Ph.D. in history, you got a law degree. You say in your online profile that four years working as a lawyer “felt like eight.” Tell us more!

Hett: I went into law for a standard 21-year-old reason: It was what all my friends from college were doing. Getting out was more complicated. What I noticed after practicing for a few years was that the job had three attributes which I did not like: It took almost all my time; it was very stressful; and it was also very boring. I had always been interested in history and eventually I made the decision to quit and do something I really loved and believed in, and I have never regretted that decision.

GC: What's your next project? 

Hett: I am toying with the idea of writing something about the late 1940s in the United States. What fascinates me about that era is a contrast: On the one hand it was a period of almost unparalleled triumph in American experience, after not only winning a world war but emerging as a great power on an order the world had never seen before, with literally half of the world’s economic activity in American hands. But at the same time the late 1940s were in many ways very dark, anxiety-ridden and troubled years, with conspiracy theories running rampant in political life, with a never-fully-acknowledged PTSD crisis among returning veterans, and with racial conflict becoming ever more significant and severe. It might well be that there’s a parallel or a lesson somewhere here for our own times. We’ll see.

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

Submitted on: OCT 21, 2020

Category: Faculty Books | GCstories | General GC News | History