Book Review: Giles MacDonogh’s 1938

In Hitler’s Gamble, historian Giles MacDonogh stirs heated debate in Vienna regarding the truth of Austria’s pre-war role

Jewish chrildren on their way to safety after Kristallnacht | Photo courtesy of

New Evidence

“The year 1938 was one of cataclysmal change for Germany,” writes English historian Giles MacDonogh in 1938: Hitler’s Gamble. Indeed Austria, Czechoslovakia and eventually the rest of the Continent would endure the same fate. By May 1945, “much of Europe was a collection smoldering ruins filled with fresh or festering corpses.” In the years that had passed in between, over 50 million people met violent deaths.

“But there is a real danger in hindsight,” MacDonogh went on to the assembled listeners at the British Bookshop on Weihburggasse in Vienna’s 1st District, where the author appeared Jan. 21 for a signing and discussion of Hitler’s Gamble, his most recent book, released last June.  The Oxford-trained historian addressed a crowd of about forty who had come to the shop to hear him speak about the events on the eve of World War II, the “Anschluss” of Austria by Nazi Germany in March, the pivotal Munich Conference in September and the tragic Reichskristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – in November, that began the mass deportation of Jews to the concentration camps.

The question of the evening was: Was 1938 an unmitigated national catastrophe for Austria, or can any of the events that happened here that year be redeemed?

As people filtered into the shop, manager Michael Lock greeted the guests and offered glasses of wine, as visitors wandered between the rows of bookshelves extending around the corner in one direction and in the other, down a ramp and on into another room. A group of women was overheard in intense discussion of the significance of the new information, some significant details MacDonogh had uncovered through access to the journals of diplomats and political figures who served under Hitler and helped during the chilling transformation that resulted in the end of the Austrian Republic, and marked the beginning of the Nazi terror.

One Austrian man commented on the book, “Some of the explicit details of the personal experiences given in the book were startling.” Some of these details are easy to envision such as Jewish stores being ransacked, synagogues set on fire and Nazi authorities forcing Jews to hand over keys to their homes in instances of forced exile during the German occupation of Vienna.

Several older men in the crowd spoke of their family ties to members of the Jewish community who had been forced from Vienna, or sent to concentration camps just months after Austria lost its independence to the Third Reich in 1938. MacDonogh briefly touched on the circumstances of the Viennese Jews, who through flight or their annihilation became virtually extinct. He also took on the troubling issue of the Führer’s initial popularity with the Austrians, something he said, “surprised Hitler.”

On his discovery of the new material, MacDonogh’s research and writing of the book took only a year, of which he commented, “I stampeded through it.” Rich with detail and insight reflecting a deep familiarity with the period, the work reveals a level of expertise in the subject that achieves mastery.

Through the course of the discussion, MacDonogh’s also touched on the grinding poverty in Austria that helped shape the attitudes of the Viennese towards Jews who had risen to more prominent positions in the society, following nearly a century of acceptance and protection under Kaiser Franz-Joseph’s “many-peopled land” – his Vielvölkerstaat.  He described how non-Jews were envious because of the Jews’ status in the society and in the economic turbulence of run-away inflation and high unemployment that defined the inter-war years, were already looking for a scapegoat when Hitler arrived in Austria. The author is a relaxed man, a bit of the tweedy academic in stripped tie and corduroy pants, as he gave a brief summary of Austria’s involvement and mentality towards the Third Reich and the German occupation of Austria in the pivotal year of 1938. He took momentary breaks to sip from a glass of Chardonnay and allowed the members of the crowd to discuss amongst themselves the ideologies of the “Austrian National Identity” that shaped the mental and political ideologies in Austria in 1938.

One older gentleman sitting in the first row, who announced proudly that he was born in 1922, dominated much of the discussion, even leaving MacDonogh waiting with admirable patience for an opportunity to speak. In response, a woman sitting in the middle section tapped her husband on the shoulder and quietly whispered for him to ask a question so the older gentleman would be silenced, allowing MacDonogh to once again proceed. Soon, however, a heated argument erupted when an Austrian man voiced his disagreement with a British gentleman’s interpretation of how things were in Vienna under Hitler’s regime and criticized him for having his facts wrong concerning the occupation.   In the end, it was MacDonogh who had the last word, and the crowd applauded him enthusiastically as he graciously autographed copies of his book for those present and walked around answering questions and chatting with the crowd.

MacDonogh has also written for major newspapers in Europe and Great Britain and is the author of 13 books on topics such as German history and Austrian wines.


1938: Hitler’s Gamble
By Giles MacDonogh
Basic Books, 2009

Available at
The British Bookshop
1., Weihburggasse 24-26
(01) 512 1945

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