Why do mass-murdering regimes, from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and today’s Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Party, become self-absorbed on documenting their brutality, tortures, and genocidal killings?
It was the question that arose as I read “The Devil’s Diary” (HarperCollins), published on March 29, 2016. The book about the diary of one of the least known Nazi leaders covers a lot of ground, some of it familiar, much of it new. It includes how Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg’s diary was recovered after it went missing more than 60 years ago at the Nuremberg Trials.
What separates “The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich,” from other books on World War II is a combination of rare insight into the mind and into the ideology that formed the Final Solution of the Nazi leaders.
Written by Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney, the co-authors use a broken linear timeline to tell the story. The first 60 pages begin at Nuremberg in 1949, with riveting details on the trial, and then it leaps to the 21st century. With a long-shot clue that Rosenberg’s diary might be in the United States, Robert Wittman, an ex-FBI special agent, used his detective skills to recover the historical artifact on behalf of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
But it would be “patience” that broke an impasse with the keeper of the diary. The tactic, an old FBI lever to apply psychological pressure on the “mark,” worked, since the man holding the diary didn’t have insight into what the FBI knew and what crimes he might have committed. Thus, a detective’s patience paid off and forced the return of the diary. I won’t spoil how it unfolded.
Why Rosenberg, Why Now
“Rosenberg’s diary is one of only three written by a top Hitler aide—Goebbels and Hans Frank left behind the others—and much of it had never been studied before,” the authors wrote via email.
They went on to explain that “Rosenberg was a true believer to the end” and that “he always believed in the righteousness of the cause.”
So influential was Alfred Rosenberg in steering Adolf Hitler that their relationship threatened his more powerful Nazi rivals in Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler. Over the years leading to the war, Rosenberg had stepped on their toes or was brushed aside as not a natural leader of their caliber. Perhaps more dangerous was his secret love affair with a Jewish woman that potentially threatened his life.
Blind Loyalty to the End
The book makes a convincing case that the Final Solution—the liquidation of European Jews—came from Rosenberg and that he was the one who convinced Hitler to act in that direction before and during the war.
For his tireless loyalty to Hitler, the Führer rewarded his chief ideologue to become the director of German-controlled Russia. But as history tells it, the turning point at Stalingrad crushed that plan and sent Rosenberg and the defeated Nazi army in full retreat, back to Germany.
The other main character in “The Devil’s Diary” was Nuremberg Trial prosecutor Robert Kempner. Not only did he put to death many leading Nazis, including Rosenberg (hanging), and convicted Göring (he committed suicide on the eve of his execution), but he also walked away from that landmark trial with Rosenberg’s diary.
Why would the chief lawyer take evidence from such a trial? It was likely he intended to write a book that he would have exclusivity to. But for many reasons, the diary languished as the years turned into decades, not to be shared with the outside world.
When I asked Wittman and Kinney why Robert Kempner never wrote the book on Rosenberg, the authors replied:
“The correspondence file between Kempner and [E.P.] Dutton peter[ed] out. . . At the time he was pitching the book he was looking to the next stage of his career. He sought out teaching jobs and government posts in the United States. His dream was to work for the FBI. But in the end he found a legal niche in Germany in pursuing reparations for victims of the Nazis. Later he did write a number of other books about high-profile cases he had been involved with, from Nuremberg to Eichmann to Anne Frank.”
“The Devil’s Diary” deftly writes a new chapter in the dark volume of books on Hitler and the Nazis. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect is how Rosenberg’s diary exposed the human frailties, weaknesses, and insecurities of the Nazi leaders.
Why Keep a Diary?
Robert Wittman is a New York Times best-selling author and, as half Japanese, he dealt with racism growing up in Baltimore. He has wondered about America’s darker side of the war with the forced internment of Japanese civilians living in the United States.
On why genocidal regimes have been bent on documenting the atrocities they commit, he and his co-author concluded:
“Much of what Rosenberg wrote was a pseudo-intellectual rationalization for what the Nazis did. Germans as a people had a tendency to put everything in writing. It’s also notable that they passed laws to give their actions a patina of legality and legitimacy.”
Yes, a “patina” in Rosenberg’s ill mind.
“The Devil’s Diary,” however, dives much deeper beneath the veneer to tell a robust and satisfying story, a study on the darker side of the human psyche.
‘The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich’
By Robert K. Wittman and David Kinney
528 pages; $35
James Ottar Grundvig is CEO of Cloudnician LLC, a mobile-cloud startup with big data pull. Since 2005, James has written and published from New York City as a freelance journalist and columnist.