Giles MacDonogh is quickly becoming a must-read historian for me. I've read a lot of World War II history books, as well as some history of Nazism books, but I have not before seen anything cover in such great detail the year leading up to the outbreak of the war.
MacDonogh covers it extensively, bringing up some details that don't generally make it into the history books, or at least things that aren't that prominent. It is a fascinating read.
MacDonogh takes 1938 month by month, discussing various scandals that broke out among the German military and the in-fighting between members of the Nazi party such as Goering and Goebbels, who hated each other. There is the annexation of Austria in a nearly bloodless fashion (at least militarily, and if the Jews of Austria aren't counted). We see behind the scenes for the discussions of the Sudetenland annexation and the final invasion of Czechoslovakia. MacDonogh’s book culminates in the infamous Kristallnacht, two nights of murder and mayhem that brought the Nazi hatred of the Jews to the forefront.
While many believe that the Nazis were always determined to exterminate the Jews, MacDonogh shows that this isn't precisely the case. The Nazis did their best to cleanse the greater German nation of all traces of Jewish influence, but they spent most of 1938 getting as many Jews deported as they could. MacDonogh spends a lot of time dwelling on the Jewish situation in Austria, Germany itself, and eventually in Czechoslovakia. Through a process of intimidation, governmental confiscation of property (necessary because the creation of Hitler's war machine was draining the German economy dry) and the gradual enforcement of laws that removed the ability for Jews to operate anywhere in society, the Nazis forced the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Central Europe.
The Jewish situation was not ameliorated by the unwillingness of many Western countries to assume Germany's "problem." Strong restrictions were placed on Jewish immigration. Great Britain limited both how many Jews they would take as well as how many Jews could emigrate to Palestine. Other countries would take only so many and no more. Some of them blatantly said that they did not want to create a "Jewish problem" of their own. By the end of 1938, the Jews of Europe were running out of places to go.
While MacDonogh does spend an inordinate amount of time on the Jewish situation, he doesn't hold back on discussing other issues. For each of Hitler's plans to be implemented during this crucial year, whether it was the annexation of Austria (the "Anschluss") or the eventual invasion of Czech territory, great debate took place among Hitler's advisors on whether or not such a plan was too risky, that it might bring France and Great Britain into a war for which Germany was not ready. MacDonogh details the various factions within the Nazi party and also a couple of scandals that don't generally make the history books.
Especially interesting are facets such as Goebbels’ love of women, so much so that he almost caused a crisis when his wife, Magda, tried to throw him out. Hitler himself had to intervene, and Goebbels was in Hitler's doghouse for the last few months of the year. Facts like these make these men seem more human - and thus more monstrous when you realize somebody human came up with the ideas that they did.
It came as news to me that the horrible nights of Kristallnacht were basically Goebbels' idea; while Hitler most likely acquiesced, other members of the Party were very upset with him for doing it. Goering, for one, understood that this particular event greatly hurt Germany's already bad reputation internationally, devastating when Goering himself was trying to secure international credit because of the huge German debts.
This is the sort of thing that makes 1938: Hitler's Gamble a must-read for any World War II buff. It hammers home the fact that Hitler could have been stopped if the other Allied nations had just stood firm from the outset. However, Hitler was quite adept at promising to only go so far, and he seemed more powerful than he actually was at the time. The "what-if" aspect of this book is almost the most horrifying.
MacDonogh utilizes a wide variety of sources for this book, including a number of interviews with people who were prominent back then as well as memoirs of those who are no longer alive. Sadly, the notation system is my least favorite for any history book, where there is no indication in the text that there is a note at the end of the book. Instead, the notes section uses small snippets of the text to indicate which portion is being referred to. After keeping track for a little while, I stopped bothering.
This is the only real flaw I could find in this book, however. MacDonogh’s great writing style draws the reader into the horrible events he is discussing. His research, to my inexperienced eye, seems top-notch, and he brings it all together to create a powerful book. 1938: Hitler's Gamble is well worth your time.