The best books about the Nazi leadership

Robert Gerwarth Author Of Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich
By Robert Gerwarth

Who am I?

Robert Gerwarth is a professor of modern history at University College. After completing his DPhil at Oxford, he has held visiting fellowships at Harvard, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author and editor of more than ten books on modern German history, most recently November 1918: The German Revolution.

I wrote...

Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

By Robert Gerwarth,

Book cover of Hitler's Hangman: The Life of Heydrich

What is my book about?

Reinhard Heydrich is widely recognized as one of the great iconic villains of the twentieth century, an appalling figure even within the context of the Nazi leadership. Chief of the Nazi Criminal Police, the SS Security Service, and the Gestapo, ruthless overlord of Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and leading planner of the "Final Solution," Heydrich played a central role in Hitler's Germany. He shouldered a major share of responsibility for some of the worst Nazi atrocities, and up to his assassination in Prague in 1942, he was widely seen as one of the most dangerous men in Nazi Germany. Yet Heydrich has received remarkably modest attention in the extensive literature of the Third Reich.

Robert Gerwarth weaves together little-known stories of Heydrich's private life with his deeds as head of the Nazi Reich Security Main Office. Fully exploring Heydrich's progression from a privileged middle-class youth to a rapacious mass murderer, Gerwarth sheds new light on the complexity of Heydrich's adult character, his motivations, the incremental steps that led to unimaginable atrocities, and the consequences of his murderous efforts toward re-creating the entire ethnic makeup of Europe.

The books I picked & why

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Hitler: A Biography

By Ian Kershaw,

Book cover of Hitler: A Biography

Why this book?

If you only have time to read one book on the Nazi leadership, it should be this one. It is not the lightest of books (and it has two volumes), but it is well worth your time. Adolf Hitler was obviously central to the Nazi dictatorship and the number of books written about him reflects that. There are lots of biographies on Hitler – even a lot of good ones – but Ian Kershaw’s two-volume life of Hitler remains unsurpassed in my view. Kershaw skillfully combines his biography of the dictator with a wider social and political history of the Nazi dictatorship, so readers learn a great deal about both the man at the top of the regime and the ways in which the Third Reich functioned.

Heinrich Himmler

By Peter Longerich,

Book cover of Heinrich Himmler

Why this book?

As head of the notorious SS, Himmler’s importance in the Nazi dictatorship was second only to Hitler. He had direct responsibility for the Nazi terror apparatus and was one of the chief architects of the Holocaust. During the Second World War, Himmler also commanded the Waffen-SS and built an economic empire in which concentration camp inmates and other slave labourers were exploited. Peter Longerich is a leading expert on the SS and the Holocaust and he helps us to understand how a seemingly normal, middle-class man from Munich could rise to such heights of power, committing unparalleled crimes along the way.

Speer: Hitler's Architect

By Martin Kitchen,

Book cover of Speer: Hitler's Architect

Why this book?

Albert Speer is one of the most enigmatic figures within the Nazi leadership. I have always been intrigued by the fact that most biographies of him – including Gitta Sereny’s famous Speer: His Battle with Truth – have been fairly benign in their judgment of Speer’s character and deeds. Although directly responsible for the slave labour programme in the later stages of the war and a member of Hitler’s inner circle until the end in 1945, Hitler’s favourite architect managed to get away with a comparatively light sentence at the Nuremberg Trials, where he admitted partial responsibility. Handsome and well-spoken, Speer was often publicly perceived as one of the “less bad” Nazis. Martin Kitchen’s biography revises that image and convincingly shows the reader how intimately involved Speer was in many of the crimes of the Nazis.

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

By Mary Fulbrook,

Book cover of Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

Why this book?

“Leadership” in Nazi Germany took various forms and happened at different levels. Local party leaders or commanders of individual SS task forces made life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. In order to fully understand the workings of the dictatorship, it is also important to understand the involvement of “ordinary” Germans.

Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings is an important intervention in the debate about Nazi perpetrators, victims, and the legacies of the Holocaust. In order to understand the horrific events that occurred in Nazi Germany and the ways in which ordinary people participated in it, Fulbrook has gone through mountains of archival material and composed a book that is concerned with both the Holocaust and the ways in which those involved dealt with its legacies – in a legal as well as personal sense - after 1945.

Origins of Totalitarianism

By Hannah Arendt,

Book cover of Origins of Totalitarianism

Why this book?

Although the oldest book on this list by quite a margin, Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism remains one of most interesting and important books on why the twentieth century became the age of brutal, ideologically driven dictatorships. She discusses how anti-Semitism became such a powerful force in politics, the long-term impact of imperialism, and the mechanics of totalitarian movements.

At a time when “strongmen” are gaining popularity again and liberal democracy appears to be besieged, it is well worth reading her (again). Arendt’s most alarming observation – also relevant for today - is that totalitarian policies and instruments were not specific to Nazism, Italian Fascism, or indeed any other radical ideology. And that they may well appear again in other guises. She also makes the important point – again very topical – that totalitarian regimes are reliant of disinformation, thereby undermining individuals’ ability to distinguish between fact and fiction.

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