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Mesmerized by Hitler – A Book Review

March 29, 2019

An Intimate Family History Explores How a Madman Captivated a Nation

Karl Koerber, Through the Whirlpool: Swept Up in the Nazi Apocalypse, self-published and available through amazon.ca, 240 pages, $15.85 (CDN), paperback with photographs.

Seventy-five years have passed since the end of the Second World War and we continue to be fascinated, even preoccupied, by it. Every year, another batch of new films, novels and histories surfaces to uncover more unknowns about the world’s bloodiest conflict. And yet several questions continue to trouble me.

How could an entire generation of Germans embrace Hitler and the Nazi program of world conquest? How could this madman mesmerize millions of well-educated, intelligent people? How could the population fall under his spell as if guided by some mass psychology of fascism? The questions gain renewed currency as the world watches a new madman borrow from the Nazi propaganda playbook.

The list of fascist-style executive orders grows daily: the insistence on an unnecessary border wall, the banning of Muslim immigrants, removing children from their parents and caging them in camps, the “fake news” mantra, boosting white supremacy, increasing military budgets while cutting social programs, deregulating environmental protections to benefit American corporations, supporting near genocide in Yemen.

Ultra-conservative Fox News personalities advise President Donald Trump on major foreign and domestic policy issues. Network executives move freely into presidential advisory roles. Criminals continue to be exposed as members of the White House staff. History is being rewritten to suggest that Republicans, the party of billionaires, is somehow the party of the little guy.

In one instance, a fake historian named Dinesh D’Souza compares Trump to Lincoln and lays the blame for all America’s ills at the foot of the evil-doing Democrats. While we may not yet face the same threat that Hitler nurtured, there are warning signs that point to an unsettling new political reality. Propagandists like D’Souza are just one of those signs.

With this in mind, I was pleased to find Through the Whirlpool, a childhood friend’s memoir of his parents’ young lives under the Swastika. And comparisons with Trump’s America, though Koerber does not overtly state them, are unmistakable.

Author Karl Koerber portrays the Germany his parents experienced as Hitler rose to power. To do so he recalls the state of the country in the aftermath of the First World War, the wild days of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Nazism through the Depression, and the world at war a second time. In his admittedly surface accounts of those events, we begin to find some explanations. 

Of course, I had found explanations elsewhere, including a visit to the German resistance museum in Berlin that provided the stories of numerous Germans who dared to defy the Nazi killing machine. I also learned more of the why and how of German complicity by watching the popular TV series Babylon Berlin and a lesser-known series called Generation War. Both pushed me closer to answers. The excellent German series Heimat provided still more insights and could serve as a visual companion to Through the Whirlwind.

But Koerber, not posing as a historian, offers explanations that come through intimate and honest accounts about the experiences of his parents, relatives, and survivors. Two of the most valuable resources were a taped interview with his father and an uncle’s memoir.

Hans Koerber served under Rommel, the Desert Fox, in Hitler’s Afrika Corps. He was captured at Al Alamein in 1942 and spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in the United States. His son Karl shares this explanation: “After the war, when the staggering toll of the Holocaust came to light and the illusion of the glorious new National Socialist Germany went up in smoke, those Germans who had been Nazi supporters were forced to confront a hard truth – the dream that had captured their imaginations had become a nightmare. Many, like my father, could not come to terms with this reality, and remained in a state of denial.”

Uncle Reinhardt’s memoir is much quoted and his attempts to understand why his father (Karl’s mother’s father) was a devoted Nazi are revealing. “From today’s perspective, one wonders how that could be,” he writes, but “the people of Germany did not know what we know today. The idea of democracy still had no place in the minds of much of the population. On the contrary, it was considered in much of contemporary society as something negative.”

Using these and other sources, Koerber questions his own parent’s motivations, particularly his father’s, and he probes deeply within their past in his search for answers and perhaps for peace of mind. What he uncovers adds much to my understanding of why the German population had sunk into momentary insanity.

In a caring way, Koerber takes us on a journey into his family’s past that offers the following explanation: “They counted themselves as believers. To them, the joyous, hopeful atmosphere surrounding Hitler and the Nazis was an antidote to the bleak mood that prevailed at the turn of the decade.” Koeber concludes that his father and many Germans erected a “subconscious barrier” to the result of those beliefs.

This is not an apologetic account, but rather a sincere attempt to uncover the reasons why ordinary people, such as his parents, embraced the Nazi storm. With a historical researcher’s care, Koerber sifts through the historical facts. With a son’s thirst to understand his family’s history, we learn about lives that were uplifted with national pride and then uprooted as their country was annihilated.

With a humanitarian’s compassion, Koerber has given us a non-judgmental view of ordinary Germans who lived through and participated in the horror of Nazism. With an eye to the future and the frightening possibility of a repeat of history, he ends with the wise words of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr: “in strength and humility, meet hate with love.” Koerber adds that it is indeed “love that shows us the way to peace.”

3 Responses to Mesmerized by Hitler – A Book Review

  1. Dona Harvey on March 30, 2019 at 8:18 pm

    What a superb, thoughtful, eloquent review. Thank you for linking Koerber’s book and family reflections to today’s new reality, not just in the U.S. but in many parts of the world. Today’s challenges do not mirror those of Germany 75 years ago, but, as you state, Koerber’s book helps us better understand the complexities of those times as well as our own.

  2. Judy Olive Smith on March 31, 2019 at 12:16 am

    Is this review going to appear in the main stream press? If not, it should. If you’re thinking that way, maybe try to shorten it a bit. It is very good, but too long.

    • Ron Verzuh on March 31, 2019 at 5:12 am

      Thanks for the thought. I hadn’t planned on trying to place it with a mainstream outlet.

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