Monday, April 27, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 35 (DRAFT)

We left our shoes at the bottom of the wooden staircase that led down from the hotel pool deck to the beach. Bethany stood waiting, wiggling her red-painted toenails in the sand as I tucked my socks into my shoes. I even rolled up my pant legs, expecting that we would spend some time walking in the shallow surf. The hem of Bethany’s business skirt, three inches below her knee in full compliance with the company dress code, would certainly pose no problem.

There was a full moon that night, hanging over the ocean like a watching eye, but it didn’t cause me any self-consciousness. I loosened my tie and took off my suit coat, draping it over one shoulder like a GQ model. When our feet first touched the cool water, I reached out a hand and she took it, like it was the most natural thing in the world. We walked on in silence for a long time, not looking at each other and listening to the sounds of the surf.

“Are you still angry?” she asked me.

“Angry? Angry about what?”

“About what Mary did to the staff qualities?”

I looked inside myself and saw that I was still angry—angry that she had taken something so promising, so full of potential, and had turned it into another soul-sucking part of her operation, another cog in the machine that used people as its raw material and churned out only pettiness and perks for the elite. There was the anger, burning hot inside me like a thousand suns, but seeing it there, repressed and bottled as it was, it seemed small and trifling, an indulgence I neither desired nor could afford, and in a moment I let it go, spreading it out over the immensity of the sea and bidding it goodbye like the ashes of an abusive parent.

“No,” I said. “Fuck her.”

I don’t know if Bethany was surprised by my use of language, but I was. I never would have said such a thing back in the office or even at the hotel restaurant. But out there on the beach, it didn’t seem to matter as much. She didn’t sound surprised when she spoke.

“Well, I am,” she said. “We worked really hard on them and we were so close. They could have really changed things, and she torpedoed them. She clearly saw them as a threat to her power.”

“Don’t read too much into it,” I said. “Most of the time Mary acts out of instinct, not out of malicious intent.”

“I don’t care. She’s evil and I hate her. I used to look up to her, used to think I wanted to be like her, but not anymore.”

I looked at her, her hair partially hiding her face in the moonlight.

“Those are some strong words.”

“They’re true. I was a fool, looking up to that woman.”

I looked up the beach. A few dozen yards away was a little shack on wooden stilts, the kind of place where the hotels locked up their beach umbrellas and water jugs for the night. It had a little rickety staircase and a raised wooden platform facing the ocean.

“Let’s go sit down,” I said, tilting my head towards the structure.

We moved away from the waves, our wet feet seeking purchase in the warm sand as we struggled up a small rise. We were still holding hands but released so we could go up the steps single file, Bethany first, then me. I draped my jacket over the splintered railing, and we sat down on the edge of the platform, our legs dangling over the side and our crusty feet rocking back and forth in the breeze. We stared out at the ocean and in the far distance I could see the lights of one of those colossal cruise ships. There were people out there, I knew, thousands of people on that little patch of light, living, laughing, breathing, dying.

“David didn’t want me to come back to work after Parker was born.”

I didn’t know if this was related to our earlier conversation about Mary, but I didn’t question her. She began to remove her short business jacket and I helped her, her movements comprised of hooked elbows and stooped shoulders in the confined space, and as it came off I saw the thin stripe of perspiration down the back of her blouse.

“I thought he was trying to control me, to turn me into his mother.”

She stopped suddenly, as if she had much more to say, an avalanche of confessions, but stopped short, her toes on the edge of a precipice.

She looked at me.

“What?” I said.

Her eyes seemed more open than I had ever seen them before, pools large enough for me to drown in if I chose to do so, but her brow was furrowed, and her oddly-shaped nose wrinkled in concern.

“Bethany,” I said, taking her hand again. “What is it?”

She looked down at my hand, patted it softly, and then drew hers away. When she spoke she kept her face down, and her voice was resigned.

“I actually talked to that woman about it. Went to her and sought her advice.”

“Who?” I asked. “Mary?!”

“Yes, Mary,” she said bitterly, looking up but out at the ocean instead of at me. I sat quietly and watched the reflected moonlight dance across her face.

“Oh, I can’t believe how stupid I was!” she said, as if purging some dark secret. “Look at her, I told myself. She’s got two kids and she’s running this business. She’s a successful career woman with a family and an obedient husband, and that’s just what I want to be. She’ll help me. She’ll help me make this thing work.”

Mary’s husband Dan ran his own engineering consulting business out of their home in the northern suburbs. I didn’t know what Bethany meant by obedient, but I kept my mouth shut. Now that she got started, I knew, she wouldn’t want to be interrupted.

“But did she help me? No. Not one little bit. She made me feel like a fool, that’s what she did, made me feel like a child who couldn’t make up her mind when the truth was so obvious to grown-up women like her. I asked for some time on her calendar, told her I wanted her advice on a personal matter, but when I went to her office and shut the door it was like I was interrupting her or something.”

I could imagine. Especially given the subject matter. Mary had only one expectation when it came to female employees deciding to have babies. Given how many young women we had on staff and how many times it happened, it was shocking that no one had taken Bethany aside and counseled her. I was a man, but even I knew that Ruthie usually cautioned anyone Mary wanted to keep on how to handle the situation. The fact that she hadn’t made me wonder how long Bethany would be with the organization.

“You’re pregnant, aren’t you? That’s what she said to me—first words out of her mouth—like I was about to break water all over her Persian rug. I wasn’t even showing yet, and that’s what she says to me, as if the very thought made her ill. Ugh, you filthy cow, you’re pregnant, aren’t you?”

Bethany was crying now, not sobbing, but the tears were rolling down her face. I thought about rubbing her back, but kept my hands to myself.

“She called you that?”

“No,” she said, wiping a tear away with her finger while looking high into the sky, careful not to muss her mascara. “But she might as well have. The derision was certainly there in her voice.”

“What did you do?” Now that I had asked one question, the second was easier.

“Nothing, at first. I had gone there for advice, but being met with such hostility, I didn’t know what to do. Her next question took me just as much by surprise. You’re not going to stay home with it, are you? That’s what she said. It. Like it was a lizard or something growing inside me.”

“Well, even you didn’t know the baby’s gender at that point, did you?”

“Oh Christ, Alan, that’s not the point. You don’t call a baby an it. Even before she knows what the gender is, or if she decides not to find out, you never tell a pregnant woman she’s carrying an it. A baby isn’t an it. How can she not know that? She’s got two kids of her own and she doesn’t even know that?”

Bethany was crying again and now she slumped forward as if defeated. This time I did put a soft hand on her back, more fingertips than anything else, and traced gentle trails over the ridge of her shoulder blade.

She gave no outward sign of objecting to the touch of my hand. Lifting her head she stared out at the ocean, shaking her head dismissively. When she spoke it was as if she had firmly decided to stop crying.

“You know what makes me the most upset?”

I think the question was meant to be rhetorical, but in the pause that followed my cell phone rang, its shrill ring pulsing out into the night air. I took my hand off her back to fish the thing out of my pocket. Holding it up to see who was calling, the phone ringing even more loudly, Bethany became a fuzzy image in my far vision as I focused on the tiny screen.

It was Jenny.

I let it ring again, my mind empty apart from wondering why I had chosen such an annoying ringtone, and then looked past the phone and into Bethany’s wet eyes.

“Who is it?” she asked quietly.

“It’s my wife.”


“Do you want to answer it?”

No. “I probably should.”


“Go ahead,” she said, sighing, but not without understanding. “I’ll wait.”

I focused on the phone again, the digits of my home telephone number glowing back at me in the night air.


+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Robert’s Rules of Order by Henry M. Robert

This short work is commonly known as “the classic manual of parliamentary procedure.” And if my experience is in any way typical, it is casually referenced far more frequently than its principles and procedures are rigorously applied.

As the blurb on the front flap describes:

Even groups which have their own constitutions or bylaws frequently state that procedures not covered therein shall be governed by Robert’s Rules. One might not be able to identify General Henry M. Robert, but almost everyone knows that Robert’s Rules is a standard manual outlining the conduct of meetings.

Something that surprised me is what that outline actually looks like. Here’s one I found on the Internet that’s very similar to the one reproduced in my copy of Robert’s Rules:

Got that? Ready to chair your first session, guv’ner?

Much more useful that this chart and the encyclopedic description of each line that follows is the few places where the General offers some practical wisdom for anyone seemingly foolish enough to go down this road of managing his parliamentary procedure.

The chairman should not only be familiar with parliamentary usage, and set the example of strict conformity thereto, but he should be a man of executive ability, capable of controlling men; and it should never be forgotten, that, to control others, it is necessary to control one’s self. An excited chairman can scarcely fail to cause trouble in a meeting.

Anachronistic with regard to gender, sure, but as important today as it was in 1905. Anyone who has spent any time in association board meetings has undoubtedly seen the contrasting results affected by chairs who meet with Robert's admonition and those who do not.

But there's more:

A chairman should not permit the object of a meeting to be defeated by a few factious persons using parliamentary forms with the evident object of obstructing business. In such a case he should refuse to entertain the dilatory motion, and, if an appeal is taken, he should entertain it, and, if sustained by a large majority, he can afterwards refuse to entertain even an appeal made by the faction, while they are continuing their obstruction. But the chair should never adopt such a course merely to expedite business, when the opposition is not factions. It is only justifiable when it is perfectly clear that the opposition is trying to obstruct business.

Another pervasive problem even today -- factions using the very forms of parliamentary procedure to bend an assembly to its will rather than to its own. Chairs should have none of it, and must be able to master those factions at their own game when needed.

Some final advice from the General:

A chairman will often find himself perplexed with the difficulties attending his position, and in such cases he will do well to heed the advice of a distinguished writer on parliamentary law, and recollect that

“The great purpose of all rules and forms is to subserve the will of the assembly rather than to restrain it; to facilitate, and not to obstruct, the expression of their deliberate sense.”

That seems far more useful to me that the entire Table of Rules. Err you might, but never do so in support of obstruction; only in your efforts to quell it and to allow the will of the assembly to sensibly take form.

+ + +

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, April 13, 2020

Dragons - Chapter 34 (DRAFT)

After all the work was done and we had thanked and dismissed the staff for the night, Bethany and I went and grabbed a bite to eat. We didn’t go out like we knew a few of the younger staff were—Jeff and Caroline among them—but stayed at the hotel and got a table on the terrace overlooking the ocean. It was close to ten P.M., and we could see the lights of the hotels and condos up and down the beach and the moon and stars in the sky above, but the ocean was a dark and invisible mass, the sounds of the waves rolling forward but only their foamy crests visible in the moonlight. It was late and we were ready to unwind. We ordered a couple of tropical mai tais—a drink for tourists for sure, with goofy little umbrellas and giant wedges of pineapple—the appetizer sampler, and an entree salad to share.

We talked about work for a while, things we had done and had yet to do to prepare for the conference. When there was a lull, and after the waiter brought us our second round of drinks, Bethany changed the subject.

“So how’d it go at the board meeting today?”

The board meeting? I remember thinking distantly to myself. Had I been to a board meeting that day?


“The board meeting,” Bethany repeated, as if speaking to a moron. “Didn’t you give your report to the board earlier today?”

“Yes,” I said, deciding I had, and confirming it both for her and for myself. “Yes, I did.”

Bethany waited for me to go on. “Well...? How’d it go?”

“Fine,” I said slowly, my brain waking up, and realizing it was uncertain about how much I should share. “It went fine.”

“I hope they realize how much work we’ve put into organizing this conference,” she said pointedly. “You most of all.”

“Mmm mmm,” I said noncommittally, moving the umbrella out of the way and taking a slurp of my mai tai.

“What does that mean? Do they know how hard it’s been or not?”

“Not really,” I said easily, putting my glass down. “They seemed more interested in the bottom line. How many people we had attending. How much money we were likely to make. Stuff like that.”

“Well, that sucks,” she said, taking her own drink and rattling the ice in the bottom of the glass. “With Susan and Michael gone, you’ve bent over backwards to keep this stupid thing on track. We all have. Seems like that should at least be recognized.”

I shrugged, a little surprised by her tone, but not upset about it. There was more I could’ve said, and maybe that’s what she was fishing for. There was Paul’s question about being short-staffed and the lie Mary had made me tell, but I knew better than to share details like that with her. What happened at the board table stayed at the board table. It was a rule that didn’t have to be written down. It was partly the mystique Mary wanted to create about what happened behind that closed door, but it was also an important survival strategy. Having reached a position where I was now invited to attend board meetings, it would be suicide to start telling tales out of school.

“I’m sorry,” Bethany said, probably realizing she sounded more bitter than she wanted to.

I shook my head. “Don’t worry about it,” I said with compassion, and then with stoic resignation, “Ours is not to reason why.”

Bethany smiled, but not in a knowing way, and I wondered what she would think about the second line of that couplet.

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I said, reaching again for the mai tai.

“Did Mary try to sabotage you?”

She startled me with the question, her lips still smiling, but her voice dripping with venom. It seemed both to come out of left field and to be strangely prescient.

I put the glass down without taking a sip. “What?”

“Mary,” she said slowly. “Did she sabotage you? Did she undercut you and try to make you look foolish in front of the board?”

I looked around at the handful of other patrons on the terrace. I didn’t recognize any of them but, for all I knew, they were all people attending our conference.

“Because that’s what she does. She’s a jackal. She sets people up to fail. You of all people must know that.”

“Bethany,” I said. “This isn’t a conversation we should have here.”

She sat there smugly, her arms crossed across under her breasts, not caring, challenging me to contradict her, here and now, to try and prove her wrong. Her nostrils flared while a sea breeze came in and lifted her dark hair off her shoulders.

“Let’s go for a walk,” I said suddenly, surprising myself as much as her.

“A walk?”

“Sure. A walk on the beach. Do you want to? It’s a beautiful night, and with the week we have ahead of us, it might be the last chance we get.” I paused, meeting her eyes without fear. “And we can talk more freely out there.”

“Okay, sure,” she said, now with comprehension. “That would be nice.”

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer

The Third Reich which was born on January 30, 1933, Hitler boasted, would endure for a thousand years, and in Nazi parlance it was often referred to as the “Thousand-Year Reich.” It lasted twelve years and four months, but in that flicker of time, as history goes, it caused an eruption on this earth more violent and shattering than any previously experienced, raising the German people to heights of power they had not known in more than a millennium, making them at one time the masters of Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga, from the North Cape to the Mediterranean, and then plunging them to the depths of destruction and desolation at the end of a world war which their nation had cold-bloodedly provoked and during which it instituted a reign of terror over the conquered peoples which, in its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, outdid all the savage oppressions of the previous ages.

That is a tight summary of Shirer’s thousand-page masterpiece. In commenting on it I fear I can only scratch the surface. It is one of those books, I think, that every thinking person should read. Here are some of the reactions I had to it.

The Rise

One of the best parts of the book is the description of how Hitler’s Nazi party came to power in Germany in the first place. There were several key factors that are often overlooked by casual history. The first is that the very institutions that comprised German society were either broken or, as is the case with the German Army, not subservient to the democratic government.

As a state within a state [the German Army] maintained its independence of the national government. Under the Weimar Constitution the Army could have been subordinated to the cabinet and Parliament, as the military establishments of the other Western democracies were. But it was not. Nor was the officer corps purged of its monarchist, antirepublican frame of mind. A few Socialist leaders such as Scheidemann and Grzesinski urged “democratizing” the armed forces. They saw the danger of handing the Army back to the officers of the old authoritarian, imperialist tradition. But they were successfully opposed not only by the generals but by their fellow Socialists, led by the Minister of Defense, Noske. This proletarian minister of the Republic openly boasted that we wanted to revive “the proud soldier memories of the World War.” The failure of the duly elected government to build a new Army that would be faithful to its own democratic spirit and subordinate to the cabinet and the Reichstag was a fatal mistake for the Republic, as time would tell.

And the Army was not the only institution that was improperly aligned with Germany’s attempt at republican democracy in the years after the disastrous First World War.

There was the judiciary:

The administrators of the law became one of the centers of the counterrevolution, perverting justice for reactionary political ends. “It is impossible to escape the conclusion,” the historian Franz L. Neumann declared, “that political justice is the blackest page in the life of the German Republic.” After the Kapp putsch in 1920 the government charged 705 persons with high treason; only one, the police president of Berlin, received a sentence -- five years of “honorary confinement.” When the state of Prussia withdrew his pension the Supreme Court ordered it restored. A German court in December 1926 awarded General von Luettwitz, the military leader of the Kapp putsch, back payment of his pension to cover the period when he was a rebel against the government and also the five years that he was a fugitive from justice in Hungary.

Yet hundreds of German liberals were sentenced to long prison terms on charges of treason because they revealed or denounced in the press or by speech the Army’s constant violations of the Versailles Treaty. The treason laws were ruthlessly applied to the supporters of the Republic; those on the Right who tried to overthrow it, as Adolf Hitler was soon to learn, got off either free or with the lightest of sentences. Even the assassins, if they were of the Right and their victims democrats, were leniently treated by the courts or, as often happened, helped to escape from the custody of the courts by Army officers and right-wing extremists.

Wait. Let’s take a pause there. Imagine that. Revolutionaries assassinate government officials, and the courts, because they are sympathetic to the militaristic and authoritarian impulses that inspired the assassins, only slap them on the wrist. Too frequently, I think, modern Americans accuse one side or the other in a political dispute of being Nazis, or of seeking to bring about a new “Nazi Germany” in our country. Conditions like this one with the German courts show, I think, how unrealistic some of those screeds are.

And speaking of that, there was also the currency:

The [German] mark, as we have seen, had begun to slide in 1921, when it dropped to 75 to the dollar; the next year it fell to 400 and by the beginning of 1923 to 7,000. Already in the fall of 1922 the German government had asked the Allies to grant a moratorium on reparation payments [forced on them by the Treaty of Versailles that ended the First World War]. This the French government of Poincare had bluntly refused. When Germany defaulted in deliveries of timber, the hardheaded French Premier, who had been the wartime President of France, ordered French troops to occupy the Ruhr. The industrial heart of Germany, which, after the loss of Upper Silesia to Poland, furnished the Reich with four fifths of its coal and steel production, was cut off from the rest of the country.

This paralyzing blow to Germany’s economy united the people momentarily as they had not been united since 1914. The workers of the Ruhr declared a general strike and received financial support from the government in Berlin, which called for a campaign of passive resistance. With the help of the Army, sabotage and guerrilla warfare were organized. The French countered with arrests, deportations and even death sentences. But not a wheel in the Ruhr turned.

The strangulation of Germany’s economy hastened the final plunge of the mark. On the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923, it fell to 18,000 to the dollar; by July 1 it had dropped to 160,000; by August 1 to a million. By November, when Hitler thought his hour had struck, it took four billion marks to buy a dollar, and thereafter the figures became trillions. German currency had become utterly worthless. Purchasing power of salaries and wages was reduced to zero. The life savings of the middle classes and the working classes were wiped out. But something even more important was destroyed: the faith of the people in the economic structure of German society. What good were the standards and practices of such a society, which encouraged savings and investment and solemnly promised a safe return from them and then defaulted? Was this not a fraud upon the people?

This default, and this loss of confidence, would ultimately have a fatal impact on the German republic.

And was not the democratic Republic, which had surrendered to the enemy and accepted the burden of reparations, to blame for the disaster? Unfortunately for its survival, the Republic did bear a responsibility. The inflation could have been halted by merely balancing the budget -- a difficult but not impossible feat. Adequate taxation might have achieved this, but the new government did not dare to tax adequately. After all, the cost of the war -- 164 billion marks -- had been met not even in part by direct taxation but 93 billions of it by war loans, 29 billions out of Treasury bills and the rest by increasing the issue of paper money. Instead of drastically raising taxes on those who could pay, the republican government actually reduced them in 1921.

From then on, goaded by the big industrialists and landlords, who stood to gain though the masses of the people were financially ruined, the government deliberately let the mark tumble in order to free the State of its public debts, to escape from paying reparations and to sabotage the French in the Ruhr. Moreover, the destruction of the currency enabled German heavy industry to wipe out its indebtedness by refunding its obligations in worthless marks. The General Staff, disguised as the “Truppenamt” (Office of Troops) to evade the peace treaty which supposedly had outlawed it, took notice that the fall of the mark wiped out the war debts and thus left Germany financially unencumbered for a new war.

The masses of the people, however, did not realize how much the industrial tycoons, the Army and the State were benefitting from the ruin of the currency. All they knew was that a large bank account could not buy a straggly bunch of carrots, a half peck of potatoes, a few ounces of sugar, a pound of flour. They knew that as individuals they were bankrupt. And they knew hunger when it gnawed at them, as it did daily. In their misery and hopelessness they made the Republic the scapegoat for all that had happened.

This is all before Hitler. He would make use of this situation and these realities in order to orchestrate his rise to power, but the staircase that he would ascend had been built long before he arrived on the scene and, frankly, by people who should have known better. Let the following words sink it. Industrial tycoons, the Army, and the State, conspiring against the people to purposely ruin their currency. No wonder Germany had such a historical inheritance of intolerance and mistrust.

To the lack of political and dynastic unity was added, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the disaster of religious differences which followed the Reformation. There is not space in this book to recount adequately the immense influence of Martin Luther, the Saxon peasant who became an Augustinian monk that launched the German Reformation, had on Germans and their subsequent history. But it many be said, in passing, that this towering but erratic genius, this savage anti-Semite and hater of Rome, who combined in his tempestuous character so many of the best and worst qualities of the German -- the coarseness, the boisterousness, the fanaticism, the intolerance, the violence, but also the honesty, the simplicity, the self-scrutiny, the passion for learning and for music and for poetry and for righteousness in the eyes of God, left a mark on the life of the Germans, for both good and bad, more indelible, more fateful, than was wrought by any other single individual before or since. Through his sermons and his magnificent translation of the Bible, Luther created the modern German language, aroused in the people not only a new Protestant vision of Christianity but a fervent German nationalism and taught them, at least in religion, the supremacy of the individual conscience. But tragically for them, Luther’s siding with the princes in the peasant risings, which he had largely inspired, and his passion for political autocracy ensured a mindless and provincial political absolutism which reduced the vast majority of the German people to poverty, to a horrible torpor and a demeaning subservience. Even worse perhaps, it helped to perpetuate and indeed sharpen the hopeless divisions not only between classes but also between the various dynastic and political groupings of the German people. It doomed for centuries the possibility of the unification of Germany.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on Shirer’s prose above. Its dense in many ways, but beautiful in so many more. There’s a lot packed into every paragraph (the one just quoted demonstrating Shirer’s deep understanding of German culture and its underpinnings), but I suppose that’s what makes this book so worth reading (and perhaps re-reading).

But back to this strange and complex situation -- a failing democracy, undermined from within by the very institutions meant to defend it, all operating in a historical milieu of militant and self-styled religious and political division -- was broken any way you look at it. And into this comes the second factor behind the Nazi’s rise to power, often overlooked by casual history. It is a kind of one-two punch of the failures of democracy. First up, factions.

No class or group or party in Germany could escape its share of responsibility for the abandonment of the democratic Republic and the advent of Adolf Hitler. The cardinal error of the Germans who opposed Nazism was their failure to unite against it. At the crest of their popular strength, in July 1932, the National Socialists had attained but 37 per cent of the vote. But the 63 per cent of the German people who expressed their opposition to Hitler were much too divided and shortsighted to combine against a common danger which they must have known would overwhelm them unless they united, however temporarily, to stamp it out.

There were too many political parties in the German Republic, each vying with all the others for a slightly larger small piece of the overall pie. The differences between them were esoteric, but bitterly defended and fought. One case in point, the Communists.

The Communists, at the behest of Moscow, were committed to the last to the silly idea of first destroying the Social Democrats, the Socialist trade unions and what middle-class democratic forces there were, on the dubious theory that although this would lead to a Nazi regime it would be only temporary and would bring inevitably the collapse of capitalism, after which the Communists would take over and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. Fascism, in the Bolshevik Marxist view, represented the last stage of a dying capitalism; after that, the Communist deluge!

In such an environment dozens of ministers, each representing a faction barely eking into double digit support, can literally be a step or two away from ultimate power. Constitutional separation of powers become opaque, or, as the second punch demonstrates, dismissed entirely.

Adolf Hitler was made Chancellor of Germany, one of the three balancing positions of power in the German Republic -- the other two being the office of the President (a kind of sovereign for the country, made manifest in the person of Paul von Hindenburg) and the Reichstag (the true legislative branch, what Americans would call the Congress). From that position, Hitler was able to get the Reichstag to pass an emergency powers act, in which the Chancellor and his cabinet would be given exclusive legislative powers for a period of four years. The dismal state of the German Republic demanded it, more than just Hitler argued. The Reichstag was too divided and too factionalized to respond with firmness and alacrity to the multiple emergencies facing the nation. It was a bold gambit, but it made some sense in the moment that existed, and the act was passed by a vote of 441 to 84.

Thus was parliamentary democracy finally interred in Germany. Except for the arrests of the Communists and some of the Social Democratic deputies, it was all done quite legally, though accompanied by terror. Parliament had turned over its constitutional authority to Hitler and thereby committed suicide, though its body lingered on in an embalmed state to the very end of the Third Reich, serving infrequently as a sounding board from some of Hitler’s thunderous pronunciamentos, its members henceforth hand-picked by the Nazi Party, for there were to be no more real elections. It was this Enabling Act alone which formed the legal basis for Hitler’s dictatorship. From March 23, 1933, on, Hitler was the dictator of the Reich, freed of any restraint by Parliament or, for all practical purposes, by the weary old President.

And, initially -- at least to a German people who had so long suffered under broken institutions and a forced inferiority in the community of nations -- that seemed like it might have actually been a good idea.

When Hitler addressed the Reichstag on January 30, 1934, he could look back on a year of achievement without parallel in German history. Within twelve months he had overthrown the Weimar Republic, substituted his personal dictatorship for its democracy, destroyed all the political parties but his own, smashed the state governments and the parliaments and unified and defederalized the Reich, wiped out the labor unions, stamped out democratic associations of any kind, driven the Jews out of public and professional life, abolished freedom of speech and of the press, stifled the independence of the courts and “co-ordinated” under Nazi rule the political, economic, cultural and social life of an ancient and cultivated people. For all these accomplishments and for his resolute action in foreign affairs, which took Germany out of the concert of nations at Geneva, and proclaimed German insistence on being treated as an equal among the great powers, he was backed, as the autumn plebiscite and election had shown, by the overwhelming majority of the German people.

That’s how the Nazis came to power and how they solidified their support and loyalty from the German people. And most of it, according to the jurisprudence of the day, was done legally. Throughout everything that was to come, Hitler maintained at least the appearance of constitutional legality.

Though the Weimar Republic was destroyed, the Weimar Constitution was never formally abrogated by Hitler. Indeed -- and ironically -- Hitler based the “legality” of his rule on the despised republican constitution. Thus thousands of decreed laws -- there were no others in the Third Reich -- were explicitly based on the emergency presidential decree of February 28, 1933, for the Protection of the People and the State, which Hindenburg, under Article 48 of the constitution, had signed. It will be remembered that the aged President was bamboozled into signing the decree the day after the Reichstag fire when Hitler assured him that there was grave danger of a Communist revolution. The decree, which suspended all civil rights, remained in force throughout the time of the Third Reich, enabling the Fuehrer to rule by a sort of continual martial law.

The Enabling Act, too, which the Reichstag had voted on March 24, 1933, and by which it handed over its legislative functions to the Nazi government, was the second pillar in the “constitutionality” of Hitler’s rule. Each four years thereafter it was dutifully prolonged for another four-year period by a rubber-stamp Reichstag, for it never occurred to the dictator to abolish this once democratic institution but only to make it nondemocratic. It met only a dozen times up to the war, “enacted” only four laws, held no debates or votes and never heard any speeches expect those made by Hitler.

Life in the Third Reich

One of the most compelling sections of Shirer’s book is the chapter he titled “Life in the Third Reich: 1933-37.”

What the Hitler government envisioned for Germany was clearly set out in a thirty-point program for the “National Reich Church” … A few of its thirty articles convey the essentials:

1. The National Reich Church of Germany categorically claims the exclusive right and the exclusive power to control all churches within the borders of the Reich: it declares these to be national churches of the German Reich.

5. The National Church is determined to exterminate irrevocably … the strange and foreign Christian faiths imported into Germany in the ill-omened year 800.

7. The National Church has no scribes, pastors, chaplains or priests, but National Reich orators are to speak in them.

13. The National Church demands immediate cessation of the publishing and dissemination of the Bible in Germany …

14. The National Church declares that to it, and therefore to the German nation, it has been decided that the Fuehrer’s Mein Kampf is the greatest of all documents. It … not only contains the greatest but it embodies the purest and truest ethics for the present and future of our nation.

18. The National Church will clear away from its altars all crucifixes, Bibles and pictures of saints.

19. On the altars there must be nothing but Mein Kampf (to the German nation and to God the most sacred book) and to the left of the altar a sword.

30. On the day of its foundation, the Christain Cross must be removed from all churches, cathedrals and chapels … and it must be superseded by the only unconquerable symbol, the swastika.

I’ve heard a lot of people debate whether Hitler was a Christian or an atheist, and I can see why some might use the above to argue for the side that he was a non-believer. But the more striking point to me is that while Hitler may not have thought of himself as a Christian, he evidently thought of himself as a God.

The emphasis on Mein Kampf is especially noteworthy. Because another amazing thing about Adolf Hitler -- he never hid what his real plan for Germany was. Indeed, he wrote it all down in his magnum opus.

Not every German who bought a copy of Mein Kampf necessarily read it. I have heard many a Nazi stalwart complain that it was hard going and not a few admit -- in private -- that they were never able to get through to the end of its 782 turgid pages. But it might be argued that had more non-Nazi Germans read it before 1933 and had the foreign statesmen of the world perused it carefully while there still was time, both Germany and the world might have been saved from catastrophe. For whatever other accusations can be made against Adolf Hitler, no one can accuse him of not putting down in writing exactly the kind of Germany he intended to make if he ever came to power and the kind of world he meant to create by armed German conquest. The blueprint of the Third Reich and, what is more, of the barbaric New Order which Hitler inflicted on conquered Europe in the triumphant years between 1939 and 1945 is set down in all its appalling crudity at great length and in detail between the covers of this revealing book.

But the larger point is how much life in Germany became the ideology of the Nazi Party an its unconquerable leader, Adolf Hitler. As reflected in the above excerpt about the churches, the dogma of the party took over every aspect of life in Germany -- the press, the work setting, the family unit, the social structure and gathering. Under such a relentless reordering of reality, even foreign journalists like Shirer found himself questioning himself.

I myself was to experience how easily one is taken in by a lying and censored press and radio in a totalitarian state. Though unlike most Germans I had daily access to foreign newspapers, especially those of London, Paris and Zurich, which arrived the day after publication, and though I listened regularly to the BBC and other foreign broadcasts, my job necessitated the spending of many hours a day in combing the German press, checking the German radio, conferring with Nazi officials and going to party meetings. It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a cafe, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons. It was obvious that they were parroting some piece of nonsense they had heard on the radio or read in the newspapers. Sometimes one was tempted to say as much, but on such occasions one was met with such a stare of incredulity, such a shock of silence, as if one had blasphemed the Almighty, that one realized how useless it was even to try to make contact with a mind which had become warped and for whom the facts of life had become what Hitler and Goebbels, with their cynical disregard for truth, said they were.

I don’t normally like to do this, and I’m not saying that I’m living in a totalitarian state, but the last half of that excerpt could just as easily be said in some sections of 2010s America as it was of 1930s Germany.


What follows, of course, is war. In the next several hundred pages Shirer does historian’s work in describing and documenting every significant action of Hitler and his Nazi government, both diplomatic and militaristic. Things follow a regular pattern. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland -- it starts with Hitler expressing concern for the German populations living inside these strange borders, many of them created in the haste and ill-thought that accompanied the end of what is not yet called the First World War. All ethnic Germans, he will claim belong to and are under the protection of the German Reich, regardless of where they live. And then, after propagandizing oppression and atrocities committed against these ethnic German by these foreign governments, Nazi troops march in to rescue and protect them. And, of course, the Nazi troops don’t leave. Instead, they topple governments and absorb the now undisputed territory officially into the German Reich.

But throughout Shirer’s meticulous description of these events something is missing. Given his reliance on the official records and newspaper reports of these times, the madness that must have already been consuming Adolf Hitler is entirely missing from this part of the narrative. Political and military maneuvers, after all, can seem entirely logical and appropriate once one accepts the premise under which they are driven. And, of course, Hitler’s premise -- that ethnic Germans were being oppressed by the illegitimate governments under which they lived -- was no more true that the “fact” that Mein Kampf was the most sacred book to God and to the German nation.


And, eventually, madness is what many in the Nazi military would come to understand actually drove their Fuehrer. As he pushed harder and harder for new conquests -- over Denmark, Norway, France, Britain, even, eventually, his ally Russia -- the military commanders would push back, would object, and slowly, one by one, be removed or eliminated by the madman who held absolute power over them and their nation.

The former Vienna vagabond and ex-corporal was now head of state, Minister of War, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and Commander in Chief of the Army. The generals, as [General Franz] Halder complained -- in his diary -- were now merely postmen purveying Hitler’s orders based on Hitler’s singular conception of strategy.

This is what happens, I joked in the margin next to that paragraph, when you’re a leader that can’t work with people. They disappoint you. You replace them. Their replacement disappoints you. You replace them. The second replacement disappoints you. Eventually, you stop replacing people and just take on the jobs yourself, thinking it’s the only way for things to get done correctly, and not realizing that the problem isn’t them, it’s you.

We can make jokes about that, but in the case of Adolf Hitler, it’s not funny in the slightest.

Actually the megalomaniacal dictator would soon make himself something even greater, legalizing a power never before held by any man -- emperor, king or president -- in the experience of the German Reichs. On April 26, 1942, he had his rubber-stamp Reichstag pass a law which gave him absolute power of life and death over every German and simply suspended any laws which might stand in the way of this. The words of the law have to be read to be believed.

“...In the present war, in which the German people are faced with a struggle for their existence or their annihilation, the Fuehrer must have all the rights postulated by him which serve to further or achieve victory. Therefore -- without being bound by existing legal regulations -- in his capacity as Leader of the nation, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Head of Government and supreme executive chief, as Supreme Justice and Leader of the Party -- the Fuehrer must be in a position to force with all means at his disposal every German, if necessary, whether he be common soldier or officer, low or high official or judge, leading or subordinate official of the party, worker or employer -- to fulfill his duties. In case of violation of these duties, the Fuehrer is entitled after conscientious examination, regardless of so-called well-deserved rights, to mete out due punishment and to remove the offender from his post, rank and position without introducing prescribed procedures.”

Truly Adolf Hitler had become not only the Leader of Germany but the Law. Not even in medieval times nor further back in the barbarous tribal days had any German arrogated such tyrannical power, nominal and legal as well as actual, to himself.

That’s right. If you people won’t follow my orders, I’ll have the right and power to kill you. That’s how much of a genius I am!

And, very interesting, as Hitler chewed through the generals as World War II was coming to its close, his perspective on what was needed in such tough military times could be excellently summed up in this excerpt taken from that same diary of General Franz Halder.

Later the Chief of the General Staff, whose own days at his post were now numbered, would come back to this scene and write:

“Hitler’s decisions had ceased to have anything in common with the principles of strategy and operations as they have been recognized for generations past. They were the product of a violent nature following its momentary impulses, which recognized no limits to possibility and which made its wish-dreams the father of its acts…”

As to what he called the Supreme Commander’s “pathological overestimation of his own strength and criminal underestimation of the enemy’s,” Halder later told a story:

“Once when a quite objective report was read to him showing that still in 1942 Stalin would be able to muster from one to one and a quarter million fresh troops in the region north of Stalingrad and west of the Volga, not to mention half a million men in the Caucasus, and which provided proof that Russian output of front-line tanks amounted to at least 1,200 a month, Hitler flew at the man who was reading with clenched fists and foam in the corners of his mouth and forbade him to read any more of such idiotic twaddle.”

“You didn’t have to have the gift of a prophet,” says Halder, “to foresee what would happen when Stalin unleashed those million and a half troops against Stalingrad and the Don flank. I pointed this out to Hitler very clearly. The result was the dismissal of the Chief of the Army General Staff.”

This took place on September 24. Already on the ninth, upon being told by Keitel that Field Marshal List, who had the overall command of the armies in the Caucasus, had been sacked, Halder learned that he would be the next to go. The Fuehrer, he was told, had become convinced that he “was no longer equal to the psychic demands of his position.” Hitler explained this is greater detail to his General Staff Chief at the farewell meeting on the twenty-fourth.

“You and I have been suffering from nerves. Half of my nervous exhaustion is due to you. It is not worth it to go on. We need National Socialist ardor now, not professional ability. I cannot expect this of an officer of the old school such as you.”

“So spoke,” Halder commented later, “not a responsible warlord but a political fanatic.”

Indeed. We need National Socialist ardor now, not professional ability. That, in essence, is all you need to know about both the rise and fall of the Third Reich.


Want more proof? Read this.

On the morning of January 8, 1943, three young Red Army officers, bearing a white flag, entered the German lines on the northern perimeter of Stalingrad and presented General Paulus with an ultimatum from General Rokossovski, commander of the Soviet forces on the Don front. After reminding him that his army was cut off and could not be relieved or kept supplied from the air, the note said:

“The situation of your troops is desperate. They are suffering from hunger, sickness and cold. The cruel Russian winter has scarcely yet begun. Hard frosts, cold winds and blizzards still lie ahead. Your soldiers are unprovided with winter clothing and are living in appalling sanitary conditions … Your situation is hopeless, and any further resistance senseless.

“In view of [this] and in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, we propose that you accept the following terms of surrender…

Not unlike the note Grant sent Lee at Appomattox.

They were honorable terms. All prisoners would be given “normal rations.” The wounded, sick and frostbitten would receive medical treatment. All prisoners could retain their badges of rank, decorations and personal belongings. Paulus was given twenty-four hours to reply.

And not unlike the terms Grant offered. Could the officers, I wonder, keep their horses? How would Paulus respond?

He immediately radioed the text of the ultimatum to Hitler and asked for freedom of action. His request was curtly dismissed by the Supreme warlord. Twenty-four hours after the expiration of the time limit on the demand for surrender, on the morning of January 10, the Russians opened the last phase of the Battle of Stalingrad with an artillery bombardment from five thousand guns.

The fighting was bitter and bloody. Both sides fought with incredible bravery and recklessness over the frozen wasteland of the city’s rubble -- but not for long. Within six days the German pocket had been reduced by half, to an area fifteen miles long and nine miles deep at its widest. By January 24 it had been split in two and the last small emergency airstrip lost. The planes which had brought in some supplies, especially medicines for the sick and wounded, and which had flown out 29,000 hospital cases, could no longer land.

Once more the Russians gave their courageous enemy a chance to surrender. Soviet emissaries arrived at the German lines on January 24 with a new offer. Again Paulus, torn between his duty to obey the mad Fuehrer and his obligation to save his own surviving troops from annihilation, appealed to Hitler.

“Troops without ammunition,” he radioed on the twenty-fourth, “or food … Effective command no longer possible … 18,000 wounded without any supplies or dressings or drugs … Further defense senseless. Collapse inevitable. Army requests immediate permission to surrender in order to save lives of remaining troops.”

Hitler’s answer has been preserved.

“Surrender is forbidden. Sixth Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution toward the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.”

It’s an interesting line for a commander to contemplate. To ask men to do more than what the men themselves think they can do. Lee did it, most notably, and most tragically, on the third day at Gettysburg. But Lee had something by this time Hitler did not. The love of his men.

The Western world! It was a bitter pill for the men of the Sixth Army who had fought against that world in France and Flanders but a short time ago.

Further resistance was not only senseless and futile but impossible, and as the month of January 1943 approached its end the epic battle wore itself out, expiring like the flame of an expended candle which sputters and dies. By January 28 what was left of a once great army was split into three small pockets, in the southern one of which General Paulus had his headquarters in the cellar of the ruins of the once thriving Univermag department store. According to one eyewitness the commander in chief sat on his camp bed in a darkened corner in a state of near collapse.

He was scarcely in the mood, nor were his soldiers, to appreciate the flood of congratulatory radiograms that now began to pour in. Goering, who had whiled away a good part of the winter in sunny Italy, strutting about in his great fur coat and fingering his jewels, sent a radio message on January 28.

“The fight put up by the Sixth Army will go down in history, and future generations will speak proudly of a Langemarck of daredeviltry, and Alcazar of tenacity, a Narvik of courage and a Stalingrad of self-sacrifice.”

Nor were they cheered when on the last evening, January 30, 1943, the tenth anniversary of the Nazis’ coming to power, they listened to the fat Reich Marshal’s bombastic broadcast.

“A thousand years hence Germans will speak of this battle [of Stalingrad] with reverence and awe, and will remember that in spite of everything Germany’s ultimate victory was decided there … In years to come it will be said of the heroic battle on the Volga: When you come to Germany, say that you have seen us lying at Stalingrad, as our honor and our leaders ordained that we should, for the greater glory of Germany.”

The glory and the horrible agony of the Sixth Army had now come to an end. On January 30, Paulus radioed Hitler: “Final collapse cannot be delayed more than twenty-four hours.”

This signal prompted the Supreme Commander to shower a series of promotions on the doomed officers in Stalingrad, apparently in the hope that such honors would strengthen their resolve to die gloriously at their bloody posts. “There is no record in military history of a German Field Marshal being taken prisoner,” Hitler remarked to Jodl, and thereupon conferred on Paulus, by radio, the coveted marshal’s baton. Some 117 other officers were jumped up a grade. It was a macabre gesture.

The end itself was anticlimactic. Late on the last day of January, Paulus got off his final message to headquarters.

“The Sixth Army, true to their oath and conscious of the lofty importance of their mission, have held their position to the last man and the last round for the Fuehrer and Fatherland unto the end.”

A curiously-worded message. Given how demoralized and near collapse Paulus was, one might believe that the note was a subtle poke in Hitler’s eye. But perhaps not. Given how near the end he was, it might very well have been sincere, since at that desperate point, the Fuehrer and the Fatherland might very well have been all that Paulus had left.

At 7:45 P.M. the radio operator at Sixth Army headquarters sent a last message on his own: “The Russians are at the door of our bunker. We are destroying our equipment.” He added that letters “CL” -- the international wireless code signifying “This station will no longer transmit.”

There was no last-minute fighting at headquarters. Paulus and his staff did not hold out to the last man. A squad of Russians led by a junior officer peered into the commander in chief’s darkened hole in the cellar. The Russians demanded surrender and the Sixth Army’s chief of staff, General Schmidt, accepted. Paulus sat dejected on his camp bed. When Schmidt addressed him -- “May I ask the Field Marshal if there is anything more to be said?” -- Paulus was too weary to answer.

Farther north a small German pocket, containing all that was left of two panzer and four infantry divisions, still held out in the ruins of a tractor factory. On the night of February 1 it received a message from Hitler’s headquarters.

“The German people expect you to do your duty exactly as did the troops holding the southern fortress. Every day and every hour that you continue to fight facilitates the building of a new front.”

This, at least, contains a kind of brutal practicality. And it, too, was met with another curiously-worded message -- the only kind of could be offered in the circumstances that the Supreme Commander had engineered.

Just before noon on February 2, this group surrendered after a last message to the Supreme Commander: “...Have fought to the last man against vastly superior forces. Long live Germany!”

Silence at last settled on the snow-covered, blood-spattered shambles of the battlefield. At 2:46 P.M. on February 2, a German reconnaissance plane flew high over the city and radioed back: “No sign of any fighting at Stalingrad.”

By that time 91,000 German soldiers, including twenty-four generals, half-starved, frostbitten, many of them wounded, all of them dazed and broken, were hobbling over the ice and snow, clutching their blood-caked blankets over their heads against the 24-degrees-below-zero cold toward the dreary, frozen prisoner-of-war camps of Siberia. Except for some 20,000 Rumanians and the 29,000 wounded who had been evacuated by air they were all that was left of a conquering army that had numbered 285,000 men two months before. The rest had been slaughtered. And of those 91,000 Germans who began the weary march into captivity that winter day, only 5,000 were destined ever to see the Fatherland again.

Meanwhile back in the well-heated headquarters in East Prussia the Nazi warlord, whose stubbornness and stupidity were responsible for this disaster, berated his generals at Stalingrad for not knowing how and when to die. The records of a conference held by Hitler at OKW with his generals in February 1 survive and shed enlightenment on the nature of the German dictator at this trying period in his life and that of his Army and country.

“They have surrendered there -- formally and absolutely. Otherwise they would have closed ranks, formed a hedgehog, and shot themselves with their last bullet … The man [Paulus] should have shot himself just as the old commanders who threw themselves on their swords when they saw that the cause was lost … Even Varus gave his slave the order: ‘Now kill me!’”

Hitler’s venom toward Paulus for deciding to live became more poisonous as he ranted on.

“You have to imagine: he’ll be brought to Moscow -- and imagine that rat-trap there. There he will sign anything. He’ll make confessions, make proclamations -- you’ll see. They will now walk down the slope of spiritual bankruptcy to its lowest depths … You’ll see -- it won’t be a week before Seydlitz and Schmidt and even Paulus are talking over the radio … They are going to be put into the Lublanka, and there the rats will eat them. How can one be so cowardly? I don’t understand it …

“What is life? Life is the Nation. The individual must die anyway. Beyond the life of the individual is the Nation. But how can anyone be afraid of this moment of death, with which he can free himself from this misery, if his duty doesn’t chain him to this Vale of Tears. Na!

“ … So many people have to die, and then a man like that besmirches the heroism of so many others at the last minute. He could have freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow! …

“What hurts me most, personally, is that I still promoted him to field marshal. I wanted to give him this final satisfaction. That’s the last field marshal I shall appoint in this war. You musn’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”

There followed a brief exchange between Hitler and General Zeitzler on how to break the news of the surrender to the German people. On February 3, three days after the act, OKW issued a special communique:

“The battle of Stalingrad has ended. True to their oath to fight to the last breath, the Sixth Army under the exemplary leadership of Field Marshal Paulus has been overcome by the superiority of the enemy and by the unfavorable circumstances confronting our forces.”

The reading of the communique over the German radio was preceded by the roll of muffled drums and followed by the playing of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Hitler proclaimed four days of national mourning. All theaters, movies and variety halls were closed until it was over.

This is what happens to megalomania. It feeds and feeds and feeds until it can only feed on itself.


Shirer wisely uses the proceedings and transcripts of the Nuremberg trials as one of his chief source materials for his thousand-page dissertation on the Third Reich. And some of the information found there is downright chilling.

“ … My foreman and I went directly to the pits. I heard rifle shots in quick succession from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks -- men, women and children of all ages -- had to undress upon the order of an S.S. man, who carried a riding or dog whip. They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of under-linen and clothing.

“Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another S.S. man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand. During the fifteen minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy …

“An old woman with snow-white hair was holding a one-year-old child in her arms and singing to it and tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The parents were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about 10 years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head and seemed to explain something to him.

“At that moment the S.S. man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about twenty persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound … I well remember a girl, slim and with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said: ‘twenty-three years old.’

“I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already two-thirds full. I estimated that it contained about a thousand people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an S.S. man, who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette.

“The people, completely naked, went down some steps and clambered over the heads of the people lying there to the place to which the S.S. man directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or wounded people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots. I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay beneath them. Blood was running from their necks.

“The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot.”

I’m sure I’m not the first to say it. That men could be so methodical, both in their slaughter and in their sacrifice, is a horror from beginning to end, now and forever.

But, somehow even worse, is this.

There had been, the records show, some lively competition among German businessmen to procure orders for building these death and disposal contraptions and for furnishing the lethal blue crystals. The firm of I. A. Topf and Sons of Erfurt, manufacturers of heating equipment, won out in its bid for the crematoria at Auschwitz. The story of its business enterprise was revealed in a voluminous correspondence found in the records of the camp. A letter from the firm dated February 12, 1943, gives the tenor.

“To the Central Construction Office of the S.S. and Police, Auschwitz:

“Subject: Crematoria 2 and 3 for the camp.

“We acknowledge receipt of your order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising the corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was also ordered and one for transporting the ashes.”

The correspondence of two other firms engaged in the crematorium business popped up at the Nuremberg trials. The disposal of the corpses at a number of Nazi camps had attracted commercial competition. One of the oldest German companies in the field offered its drawings for crematoria to be built at a large S.S. camp in Belgrade.

“For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders.

“Each furnace will have an oven measuring only 24 by 18 inches, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.”

Another firm, C. H. Kori, also sought the Belgrade business, emphasizing its great experience in this field since it had already constructed four furnaces for Dachau and five for Lublin, which, it said, had given “full satisfaction in practice.”

“Following our verbal discussion regarding the delivery of equipment of simple construction for the burning of bodies, we are submitting plans for our perfected cremation ovens which operate with coal and which have hitherto given full satisfaction.

“We suggest two crematoria furnaces for the building planned, but we advise you to make further inquiries to make sure that two ovens will be sufficient for your requirements.

“We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens as well as their durability, the use of the best material and our faultless workmanship.

“Awaiting your further word, we will be at your service.

“Heil Hitler!

“C. H. Kori, G.M.B.H.”

Heil, Hitler, indeed. The whole society was pressed to this incredible and genocidal task, businessmen embracing it as they would any other kind of government contract. But...

In the end even the strenuous efforts of German free enterprise, using the best material and providing faultless workmanship, proved inadequate for burning the corpses. The well-constructed crematoria fell far behind at a number of camps but especially at Auschwitz in 1944 when as many as 6,000 bodies … had to be burned daily. For instance, in forty-six days during the summer of 1944 between 250,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Jews alone were done to death at this camp. Even the gas chambers fell behind and resort was made to mass shootings in the Einsatzkommando style. The bodies were simply thrown into ditches and burned, many of them only partly, and then earth was bulldozed over them. The camp commanders complained toward the end that the crematoria had proved not only inadequate but “uneconomical.”

Perhaps capitalism is not up to the task of mass murder. For that, perhaps only National Socialist ardor will do.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at