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4.0 out of 5 stars Unconventional history of Adolf Hitler's most formidable enemy within Germany, August 14, 2011
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This review is from: The Silences of Hammerstein (Seagull Books - The German List) (Hardcover)
THE SILENCES OF HAMMERSTEIN tells the story of General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord (a double-barreled last name often shortened to Hammerstein) and his remarkable family.

Who was Kurt von Hammerstein and why should anyone care about him? A short answer is that he was probably Adolf Hitler's most formidable enemy within Germany between 1930 and 1943. Hammerstein was Commander-in-Chief of the Reichswehr when Hitler assumed power as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. A few days before that, Hammerstein, strongly opposed to the Nazis and Hitler, had set aside his scruples against military interference in the affairs of government and gone to Paul von Hindenberg to warn him against appointing Hitler to the Chancellorship. (Hindenberg assured him he was considering no such thing.) Later, Hammerstein acknowledged that he and the Army, rather than trusting Hindenberg, probably should have taken steps to preempt and prevent, by force, the appointment of Hitler during those days of crisis leading up to January 30th. Hammerstein was eased out of his position as the head of the German Army via retirement in January 1934. Somehow he was spared from Hitler's orgy of retribution during the Night of the Long Knives, a few months later. In retirement and until his death to cancer in 1943, Hammerstein remained an implacable opponent of Hitler and was familiar with much of the plotting against Hitler from within. When, in 1939, Hammerstein was briefly restored to active duty, he (many historians believe) invited Hitler to visit the front with the secret intention of either killing or kidnapping him - but Hitler demurred.

Hammerstein also undertook many small acts of rebellion. He would use his access to inside information to protect people from the Gestapo, sending out warnings (sometimes through his own children) to those about to be arrested. He resigned from the Club of the Nobility when it expelled its last non-Aryan members in 1933 or 1934. He was the only general to attend the funeral of Kurt von Schleicher, after Schleicher (Hammerstein's long-time friend and the last Chancellor of the Weimar Republic) was one of the victims of the Night of the Long Knives.

Hammerstein was remarkably prescient: in 1929, he predicted that in a second world war, Germany would be partitioned; in 1939, he said that there was no way Germany could defeat the Soviet Union and he predicted that Germany would be crushed in the War. He also was remarkably perspicacious: for example, he understood, immediately upon its occurrence, that the Nazis were behind the Reichstag Fire.

Hammerstein famously made the observation that all army officers fit one of four profiles: clever and diligent (their place is the General Staff); stupid and lazy (suitable to routine duties); clever and lazy (qualified for the highest leadership duties because they possess "the intellectual clarity and composure necessary for difficult decisions"); or stupid and diligent (a type of officer that "must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief").

Nearly as remarkable was Hammerstein's family. Three of his daughters risked their freedom and even their lives in political activities against both the Weimar Republic and then the Third Reich; two of them were at one time Communists and spies for Stalinist Russia, and thus traitors to Germany. (Hammerstein himself, though opposed to communism as a political system, maintained ambiguously close relationships with some Russians as a matter of "realpolitik".) One of Hammerstein's sons was a conspirator and participant in the failed assassination and coup of July 20, 1944 and another son was a sympathizer; both had to go underground until the end of the War. His youngest son and youngest daughter, along with his widow, were imprisoned by the Nazis during the last days of the War, first at Buchenwald, then Dachau, and then in the South Tyrol.

It is a man, a family, and a story that deserve to be known, and for that we should be grateful to THE SILENCES OF HAMMERSTEIN. My reservations with the book have to do with the telling. Enzensberger clearly did a lot of research - in secondary sources, in archives, and through personal interviews - but it seems that he was either lazy or rushed for time when it came to pulling everything together. He gives us not an organized, coherent narrative, but rather about seventy-five vignettes or episodes, many of which are anecdotal in nature, some of which consist almost entirely of extended quotations from historical sources, and ten of which consist of imaginary "posthumous conversations" between Enzensberger and one of the now-deceased central figures (including Hammerstein himself). The author expressly states that the book is not a novel, and it appears that he deems it to be history. It is, however, unconventional and somewhat disorienting. Three plusses are the generous number of photographs, the relatively informal and frank writing style, and a quite readable translation.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 16, 2011 6:56:27 PM PDT
H. Schneider says:
I agree with your reservation about Enzensberger's approach to the story. I fivestarred it anyway for the sheer interest of the subject.
Thanks for following up on my suggestion! (however if I remember right, you reminded me of E. with a previous review, or was that somebody else?). H

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 7:50:03 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 16, 2011 8:02:20 PM PDT
H. --
Based on my previous reading and buying and their mysterious algorithms, Amazon recommended "Silences" to me. I put it on my wish list and then, lo and behold, the next day you reviewed it. A striking coincidence! How you were put on to "Silences" I do not know. I agree about the sheer interest of the subject. And to think that I knew absolutely nothing about Hammerstein previously.
-- Mike

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 16, 2011 8:03:54 PM PDT
H. Schneider says:
oops, I thought I had put you on the trail. Hybris.
I bought it when it was published in Germany, a few years ago. Enzensberger is an author who is always interesting, and this subject was also largely new to me. Frankly speaking, H's impact on history was minimal, but knowing about his circumstances helps to gain a more differentiated picture about the time. H

In reply to an earlier post on Aug 17, 2011 5:50:54 AM PDT
Well, you do deserve some of the credit for my purchase. If you had panned the book, I never would have pulled the trigger. So, thanks!
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