Monday, November 12, 2018


There's a knee-jerk reaction these days whenever someone compares Donald J. Trump to Hitler--a
shudder and a rejection of even the remotest  possibility. Unhappily, James Longo's Hitler and the Habsburgs might give you pause.

More of that in a moment. For now let me confess that I am no historian, and therefore not an objective judge of this fascinating book. The author makes no secret of his admiration, even affection for the Habsburg family, and for the Hohenbergs they became after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the monarchy of the Emperor Franz Joseph, was coerced into a morganatic marriage with a Czech duchess despised by other royals as his social--and ethnic--inferior: neither he nor his offspring were entitled to inherit the throne--or to use the family name. Longo's sympathies are clear; he even dedicates his book to a Hohenberg family heiress.

It's still a compelling read, and one that also engages the reader's sympathy to his subjects. As the former subject of a European monarch (Elizabeth II--unfortunately misspelled in this book, one of a few typos and misspellings I noted along the way: the infamous Nazi thug was Ernst Kaltenbrunner, not Kalterbrunner!), I have mixed feelings about aristocratic privilege. On the one hand, I am more than a little skeptical of blood-line heritage; on the other, I have a sneaking sympathy for those called upon to inherit the burden of leadership they in no way earned. Born in the years before Hitler's effort to compel all of Europe into his personal fiefdom, I also have an abhorrence of the barbarities of Nazism and the cataclysm that Hitler and his obedient Nazis perpetrated on the world.

So as a reader of this story I share something of the author's bias. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination famously led to the outbreak of World War I--and eventually to that of World War II--is portrayed here as an enlightened man, dedicated to a mission of peace and the integration of the ethnically diverse peoples of Central Europe. His two sons, Maximilian and Ernst, inveighed against Hitler even in the early days, before his rise to autocratic power, and thereby earned his lasting enmity. Their pre--World War II efforts to restore the monarchy in Austria in order to forestall the eventual "Anschluss" earned them long-term imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp. In Longo's telling they survived the most terrible of humiliations with dignity intact, and returned, after Hitler's defeat, to do what they could do in service to family, the Austrian people, and the peoples of central and eastern Europe.

Today's readers may well shudder, with me, when they read paragraphs like these:
Wealthy industrialists secretly financed Hitler's rise to power [...]. In return he quietly promised them to destroy the country's burgeoning Communist Party, smash the nation's labor unions, and provide his benefactors with unparalleled profits. The unemployed were assured full employment, and the forgotten man--respect. Hitler promised the military recruits, rearmament, and a restoration of power and prestige.
Just like the man in the Oval Office today. Quoting the journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler before the war, Longo adds: "Throughout the root of Nazism is unabridged nationalism which elevates a nation into a god." Inspired by Hitler's nationalism, there were sadly many Americans in the mid- to late-1930s who were militant proponents of "America First", and it terrifies me to think that our current "president" follows in their footsteps--along with the rabble of angry supporters he riles up at his endless (yes!) Hitlerian rallies.

So this is a timely book. No matter what you think of aristocrats and monarchies, you will surely share my horror of the racist political oppression that Hitler exerted while in power. You will surely share my disgust with the kind of rhetoric that hypnotized so many Germans into submission to the Nazi regime. You will surely share my conviction that, yes, without vigilance and, when necessary, unwavering resistance, this can happen again--even in America. The book is at once a nightmare of historical fact and a warning of the ease with which "the people" can be manipulated and power abused.

I quibbled a bit earlier about misspellings. They shouldn't happen in a book like this because they serve to distract from the reader's attention and credulity. For myself, too, I would have appreciated the inclusion of a family tree to which I might have occasionally referred in order to catch up on a name or family relationship; and also, to assist me in my deplorable ignorance and given the often shifting national alliances and treaties, a map of the countries of pre-WWI and pre-WWII Europe.

Otherwise, Hitler and the Habsburgs proved an excellent and a provocative read. I enjoyed it immensely.

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