For nearly two decades, around this time each year, I had a ritual: I would re-read Isaac Asimov’s autobiography. There are three volumes to this autobiography and I always read it in a specific order. I’d start by reading the most recent volume first, I. Asimov, which was a kind of retrospective of Asimov’s entire life. Asimov’s wife, Janet wrote the epilogue because Isaac Asimov died in April 1992, and the book wasn’t published until 1994. But I didn’t want to end on a sad note, so then I’d go back and read the much longer and more detailed two-volume memoir, In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt which covered Asimov’s life in great detail from his birth in 1920, through 1978. Thus, my re-reading would end on a happy note. Asimov was still very much alive.
I’ve read the books so many times that I have them virtually memorized and friends (and readers here) will frequently see me reminded of things in those books. Today’s reminder was a passage from a low-point in Asimov’s life right around the time he was 19 years old in September 1939. Asimov wrote:
As though it weren’t enough that my writing was at a low ebb and that I had added failure at graduate school to failure at medical school, there was catastrophe in the great world outside. All summer long, Europe had been going through a mounting crisis over Hitler’s designs on Danzig and Poland. I spent hours each day listening to the latest bulletins on the radio (and recording them in my diary), alternating in dread of another bloodless victor for Hitler, and in dread of another world war.
And, of course, as we all know, Hitler sent his army into Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War II began.
I emphasized that last line on purpose because I thought about it at lunch today while I started reading Chapter 17 of WIlliam L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. When I read Hitler’s “most secret” order of August 31, 1939 ordering German armies into Poland, I thought back to Asimov’s observation above. I’d read that passage 16 or 17 times in the past. I’d read a dozen or more books on the Second World War. But, as with my experience reading John Toland’s history of the Japanese war in the Pacific, The Rising Sun, none of the histories I’d read had focused on the German perspective and so a line like, “as we all know, Hitler sent his army into Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War II began” was somewhat illusory. I knew that was what caused the start of World War II. But I had no idea all of what was contained in that single line.
Hitler gives the order to invade Poland about 590 pages into Shirer’s history–almost the exact halfway point. That means that half of Shirer’s book is all about the events that led up to that fateful decision, events that are both fascinating and maddeningly frustrating. As I imagine many Monday morning quarterbacks1 have done upon reading Shirer’s book, I kept thinking to myself, how could no one see what was happening? It is so obvious in hindsight. Are we always so blind in the moment?
And then there are the parallels to modern events. For instance, very early in the book, I scribbled a note in the margin beside this passage:
To some Germans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Berlin. To the majority of Germans Hitler had–or would shortly assume–the aura of a truly charaismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgement, for the next twelve tempestuous years.
The notes that I’d scribbled to myself in the margins were: “rewrite this paragraph substituting three proper nouns.” Or,
To some Americans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Washington. To the majority of Americans Trump had–or would shortly assume–the aura of a truly charasmatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if possessed by a divine judgement, for the next twelve years.
Fortunately, we had perhaps learned some lessons from history. The majority of Americans (majority being at least fifty percent plus one) opted for a different leader after four years.
That long road to war where Hitler swindles not just the German people, but the entire world is a fascinating lesson in the dangers of demagoguery, but it is an equally fascinating look at how the protections built into a democracy can help prevent such things from happening. The secret German documents captured after the war and used in the Nuremberg trials–a primary source for Shirer’s book–show just how different and deliberate the secret story was within the high echelons of the Third Reich from what German citizens and the rest of the world was being told. I read chapters from this book, and then read news stories that point to hushed activity taking place in the White House during the Capitol insurrections and can’t help but see the parallels.
“And, of course, as we all know, Hitler sent his army into Poland on September 1, 1939, and World War II began,” Asimov wrote and there is just so much contained in that single line.
As I said, I am just now halfway through the book. It took 6 years for Hitler and the Third Reich to rise to power and start the Second World War. I go into the second half of the book at least knowing that the Hitler and the Third Reich will suffer a complete collapse in five more years.
Written on March 21, 2022.
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