The year 1938 was a momentous one for Germany. Prior to that, the focus of Hitler’s attentions had been primarily on domestic politics, as he pursued his piecemeal demolition of the strictures of the Treaty of Versailles. From the vantage point of New Year’s Day of that year, it was quite possible even for sober and sensible observers to conclude that Hitler was not the primary threat to the peace and stability of Europe. One year on, however, with the ink barely dry on the Munich Agreement and with the spectre of war once again hanging over the continent, such an opinion would have seemed like so much wild, deluded optimism.
This salient year is the subject of Giles MacDonogh’s new book. It is a well-crafted work, proceeding month by month, and covering such themes as the Austrian Anschluss, the growing domestic opposition to Hitler, the Sudeten Crisis and the grim tribulations of Germany’s Jews. The narrative is carried in part through the imaginative use of diary entries, which serve to combine both the grand schemes of the rulers, as well as the more everyday concerns of the ruled. Such accounts bring an appealing vitality to the book and provide an excellent opportunity to introduce a cast of new voices to an English-speaking audience. Alongside the well-worn sources, therefore, such as Victor Klemperer, Count Ciano and Joseph Goebbels, the reader is also presented with other, lesser-known diarists, such as novelist Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen, the Wehrmacht-resister Helmuth Groscurth and the luckless theologian Jochen Klepper.
The book is well-written, combining its diverse sources with elegance and skill, and painting an engaging canvas of the disaster that was developing in Germany and was soon to engulf Europe as a whole. With its bias towards Austrian events, it also betrays an intensely personal flavour. As MacDonogh explains in a brief postscript, 1938 was the year that his maternal grandfather’s family – Austrian Jews – was “scattered to the four winds”. Consequently, his searing descriptions of the fate endured by Austrian Jewry – from expropriation, casual cruelty and exile, to calculated persecution and murder – are especially impassioned and moving.
If there are grumbles, they are that MacDonogh’s obvious erudition is not always effectively translated into readable prose, and this might occasionally present a challenge to those readers who do not share the author’s comprehensive knowledge of the subject. Cursory references and names mentioned in passing would have benefited from a dash more context. Nonetheless this is a fine book. Its vignettes and set pieces are excellent and its author has not lost his eye for the telling detail or anecdote. It ably conveys the growing desperation and alarm felt by many that year, as Germany began to flex its muscles internationally and stepped up its persecution of its perceived enemies.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Killing Hitler: The Third Reich and the Plots Against the Führer (Vintage, 2007)