Excerpt

03.26.16 4:05 AM ET

The Man Who Turned Hitler Into Hitler

In this prologue to the mesmerizing The Devil’s Diary, we meet Alfred Rosenberg, the evil mastermind who more than anyone shaped Hitler’s thinking.

The palace on the mountain loomed over a stretch of rolling Bavarian countryside so lovely it was known as Gottesgarten—God’s Garden.

From the villages and farmsteads on the meandering river below, Schloss Banz commanded attention. Its sprawling stone wings glowed a luminous gold in the sunlight, and a pair of delicately tapered copper spires rose high above its Baroque church. The site had a thousand-year history: as a trading post, as a castle fortified to withstand armies, as a Benedictine monastery. It had been pillaged and destroyed in war, and extravagantly rebuilt for the royal Wittelsbach family. Kings and dukes, and once even Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last emperor of Germany, had graced its opulent halls. Now, in the spring of 1945, the colossus was an outpost of a notorious task force that had spent the war looting occupied Europe for the glory of the Third Reich.

As defeat drew near following six punishing years of war, Nazis all across Germany had been burning sensitive government files before the documents could be seized and used against them. But bureaucrats who could not bring themselves to destroy their papers instead hid them in forests, in mines, in castles, and in palaces like this one. Around the country, immense libraries of secrets were there for the Allies to find: detailed internal records shedding light on the warped German bureaucracy, on the military’s pitiless war strategy, and on the obsessive Nazi plan to clear Europe of its “undesirable elements,” finally and forever.

In the second week of April, the soldiers of General George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army and General Alexander Patch’s Seventh U.S. Army overran the region. Since crossing the Rhine a few weeks earlier, the men had charged across the western reaches of the battered country, slowed only by demolished bridges, improvised roadblocks, and pockets of stubborn resistance. They passed cities flattened by Allied bombs. They passed hollow-eyed villagers and houses flying not the Nazi swastika but white sheets and pillowcases. The German army had all but disintegrated. Hitler would be dead in three and a half weeks.

Not long after the Americans arrived in the region, they encountered a flamboyant aristocrat who wore a monocle and high, polished boots. Kurt von Behr had spent the war in Paris plundering private art collections and ransacking common household furnishings from tens of thousands of Jewish properties in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Just before the liberation of Paris, he and his wife fled to Banz with loads of pilfered treasure in a convoy of eleven cars and four moving vans.

Now von Behr wanted to cut a deal.

He went to the nearby town of Lichtenfels and approached a military government officer named Samuel Haber. It seemed that von Behr had grown accustomed to living like royalty beneath the elaborately painted ceilings of the palace. If Haber would give him permission to stay put, von Behr would show him a secret stash of important Nazi papers.

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‘The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich’ by Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney. 528 p. Harper. $20.34

The American was intrigued. With operational intelligence at a premium and war crimes trials on the horizon, Allied forces had been ordered to track down and save every German document they could find. Patton’s army had a G-2 military intelligence unit dedicated to the task. In April alone, its target teams would capture thirty tons of Nazi files.

Acting on von Behr’s tip, the Americans made their way up the mountain and through the gates to the palace to see von Behr. The Nazi escorted them five stories belowground, where, sealed behind a false wall of concrete, a mother lode of confidential Nazi documents was hidden. The files filled an enormous vault. What could not fit inside lay scattered about the room in piles.

After surrendering his secret, von Behr—apparently realizing that his gambit would not save him from the ravages of Germany’s humiliating defeat—prepared to depart the stage in style. He donned one of his extravagant uniforms and accompanied his wife to their bedroom in the estate. Raising two flutes of French champagne laced with cyanide, they toasted the end of everything. “The episode,” an American correspondent wrote, “had all the elements of the melodrama Nazi leaders seemed to relish.”

Soldiers found von Behr and his wife slumped in their luxurious surroundings. As they examined the bodies, they spied the half-empty bottle still sitting on the table.

The couple had chosen a vintage rich in symbolism: 1918, the year their beloved homeland had been laid low at the end of another world war.

The papers in the vault belonged to Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue and an early member of the Nazi Party. Rosenberg was a witness to the party’s embryonic days in 1919, when bitterly angry German nationalists discovered a leader in Adolf Hitler, the bombastic, vagabond veteran of the First World War. In November 1923, on the night Hitler tried to overthrow the Bavarian government, Rosenberg marched into the Munich beer hall one step behind his hero. He was there in Berlin a decade later when the party came to power and set about crushing its enemies. He was there in the arena, fighting, as the Nazis remodeled all of Germany in their image. He was there to the end, when the war turned and the whole twisted vision fell apart.

In the spring of 1945, as investigators began leafing through the enormous cache of documents—which included 250 volumes of official and personal correspondence—they discovered something remarkable: Rosenberg’s personal diary.

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The account was written by hand across five hundred pages, some entries in a bound notebook, more on loose sheets. It began in 1934, a year into Hitler’s rule, and ended a decade later, a few months before the war ended. Of the most important men in the highest ranks of the Third Reich, only Rosenberg, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, and Hans Frank, the brutal governor-general of occupied Poland, left behind such diaries. The others, Hitler included, took their secrets with them to their graves. Rosenberg’s diary promised to shed light on the workings of the Third Reich from the perspective of a man who had operated at the very upper reaches of the Nazi Party for a quarter of a century.

Outside Germany, Rosenberg was never as well-known as Goebbels, or Heinrich Himmler, mastermind of the SS security forces, or Hermann Göring, Hitler’s economic chief and commander of the air force. Rosenberg had to struggle and scrap against those giants of the Nazi bureaucracy for the sort of power that he thought he deserved. But he had the Führer’s support from beginning to end. He and Hitler saw eye to eye on the most fundamental questions, and Rosenberg had been unerringly loyal. Hitler appointed him to a succession of leading positions in the party and the government, elevating Rosenberg’s public profile and ensuring himfar-reaching influence. His rivals in Berlin loathed him, but the rank and file of the party saw Rosenberg as one of Germany’s most important figures: Here was a big thinker with the ear of the Führer himself.

Rosenberg’s fingerprints would be found on more than a few of Nazi Germany’s most notorious crimes.

He orchestrated the theft of artwork, archives, and libraries from Paris to Krakow to Kiev—the loot that the Allies’ Monuments Men would famously track down in Germany’s castles and salt mines.

In 1920, he planted the insidious idea in Hitler’s mind that a global Jewish conspiracy was behind the communist revolution in the Soviet Union, and he repeated the claim over and over. Rosenberg was the preeminent champion of a theory that Hitler used to justify Germany’s devastating war against the Soviets two decades on. As the Nazis prepared to invade the Soviet Union, Rosenberg promised that the war would be a “cleansing biological world revolution,” one that would finally exterminate “all those racially infecting germs of Jewry and its bastards.” During the first years of the war in the East, when the Germans had the Red Army pinned back against Moscow, Rosenberg led an occupation authority that terrorized the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine, and his ministry collaborated with Himmler’s genocidal crusaders as they massacred Jews throughout the East.

Adolf Hitler congratulates Alfred Rosenberg on his birthday, 1938

Alamy

Adolf Hitler congratulates Alfred Rosenberg on his birthday, 1938.

Not least, Rosenberg laid the groundwork for the Holocaust. He began publishing his toxic ideas about the Jews in 1919, and as editor of the party newspaper and author of articles, pamphlets, and books, he spread the party message of hate. Later, Rosenberg was the Führer’s delegate for ideological matters, and in cities and villages all across the Reich he was welcomed with bunting and cheering crowds. His theoretical masterwork, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, sold more than a million copies and was considered, alongside Hitler’s Mein Kampf, a central text of Nazi ideology. In his ponderous writings, Rosenberg borrowed antiquated ideas about race and world history from other pseudo-intellectuals and fused them into an idiosyncratic political belief system. The party’s local and district leaders told him they deliv- ered thousands of speeches with his words at their fingertips.

“Here,” Rosenberg boasted in the diary, “they found both direction and material for the battle.” Rudolf Höss, commandant of the death camp at Auschwitz, where more than a million people were exterminated, said that the words of three men in particular had prepared him psychologically to carry out his mission: Hitler, Goebbels, and Rosenberg.

In the Third Reich, an ideologue could see his philosophies put to practical use, and Rosenberg’s had lethal consequences.

“Again and again, I am swept up in a rage when I think about what these parasitic Jewish people have done to Germany,” he wrote in the diary in 1936. “But at least I have one gratification: to have done my bit in the exposure of this treachery.” Rosenberg’s ideas legitimized and rationalized the murder of millions.

In November 1945, an extraordinary International Military Tribunal convened in Nuremberg to try the most notorious surviving Nazis on war crimes charges—Rosenberg among them. The prosecution case was built on the mass of German documents captured by the Allies at the end of the war. Hans Fritzsche, indicted as a war criminal for his role as chief of the Propaganda Ministry’s News Division, told a prison psychiatrist during the trial that Rosenberg had played a critical role in the formation of Hitler’s philosophies in the 1920s, before the Nazis rose to power. “In my opinion, he had a tremendous influence on Hitler during the period when Hitler still did some thinking,” said Fritzsche, who would be acquitted at Nuremberg but later sentenced to nine years in prison by a German denazification court. “Rosenberg’s importance exists because his ideas, which were only theoretical, became in the hands of Hitler a reality … The tragic thing is that Rosenberg’s fantastic theories were actually put into practice.”

In a way, Fritzsche argued, Rosenberg carried “the main guilt of all those who sit here on the defendant’s bench.”

At Nuremberg, Robert H. Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor, denounced Rosenberg as the “intellectual high priest of the ‘master race.’ ” The judges found the Nazi guilty of war crimes, and on October 16, 1946, Rosenberg’s life ended in the middle of the night at the end of a rope.

Over the coming decades, historians trying to understand the hows and whys of the century’s greatest cataclysm would pore over the millions of documents salvaged by the Allies at the end of the war. The surviving documentation was extensive—secret military records, detailed inventories of plunder, private diaries, diplomatic papers, transcripts of telephone conversations, chilling bureaucratic memos discussing mass murder. After the trials ended in 1949, American prosecutors closed down their offices, and the captured German documents were shipped to an old torpedo factory on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. There, the papers were prepared for filing with the National Archives. Microfilms were made, and eventually most of the originals were sent back to Germany.

But something happened to the bulk of Rosenberg’s secret diary. It never arrived in Washington. It was never transcribed, translated, and studied in its entirety by Third Reich scholars.

Four years after it was unearthed from the Bavarian palace vault, the diary vanished.

THE DEVIL’S DIARY. Copyright © 2016 by Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney. Reprinted with permission from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney are the authors of The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich (Harper, March 29th, 21016). A former FBI Special Agent, Robert K. Wittman, served as their investigative expert involving cultural property crime. In 2005, he created the FBI’s rapid deployment national Art Crime Team (ACT). He is the author of Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures. Nationally renowned journalist David Kinney is the author of The Big One: An Island, an Obsession, and the Furious Pursuit of a Great Fish and The Dylanologists: Adventures in the Land of Bob. At the Star-Ledger, his team won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Jim McGreevey’s resignation.