Dr. Gerhard Weinberg

By Rick Smith


Dr. Gerhard Weinberg, one of the foremost scholars on Hitler and Nazi Germany, remains quite active although he turned 78 on January 1.

Weinberg and his Jewish family fled Nazi Germany shortly before World War II. After 25 years, he retired from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He went half time for three years starting in 1996, but decided to "call it a day in 1999," he said. "They wanted me to do another three years. I said no thanks."

Today, he travels the world on speaking engagements and continues to write books about the Second World War. His latest, Visions of Victory: The Hopes of Eight World War II Leaders, was recently published by Cambridge University Press.

"I stay quite active, but of course I'm not teaching any more, so I can do this sort of thing," he said of his travels. "It's interesting, and people keep asking me to talk. As long as people are very interested and want me to talk about things, assuming they are subjects I know a little about, I find it interesting to do so."

When not traveling and speaking, books absorb much of his time. In 2005, in addition to Visions of Victory, he published the second edition of his massive, critically acclaimed World War II history, A World at Arms. The 1200-page epic has now sold more than 150,000 copies and has been translated into several languages. He also published a combined edition of two books tracing Hitler's path toward war, Hitler's Foreign Policy, 1933-39: The Road to World War Two.

"Three books in a year," Weinberg said, "that seems to me to be enough."

Weinberg and his family fled Germany to England and moved to the United States in 1940. At age 18, he entered the US Army and served in the army of occupation in Japan during 1946-47, where he received his first taste of the destruction of war.

Later, he enrolled at the University of Chicago on the GI Bill, where he planned to study the age of Otto Bismarck in Germany. But he encountered a graduate school professor who "had ideas and views on Bismarck completely opposite to mine. Since I couldn't afford to change universities, I changed centuries. That's why I became a historian of the 20th century. Such things change life."

Weinberg didn't return to Germany until 1962 when he took off a year for research. That work led to the two books on Hitler's pre-war foreign policy. He had earlier discovered the manuscript for Hitler's sequel to Mein Kampf-a detailed explanation of Hitler's views on why he sought an alliance with Italy. That decision had cost him votes in the 1928 German elections. "Hitler said no, no, I'm right and everyone is wrong" about working with Italy, Weinberg recalled.

The book was published in German in 1961, three years after its discovery. In 2003 it was translated and published in English. Weinberg was pleased finally to see the book in English.

"I'm not Hitler's press agent," he insisted, "but he is one of the central figures of the 20th century and he wrote two books. One has been available for decades."

Weinberg pointed out that in the sequel to Mein Kampf, Hitler goes to great length to discuss why Germany will have to go to war with the United States. "If he were to conquer the world, sooner or later he would have to deal with the United States," he explained.

Books, however, don't hold the preeminent spot in Weinberg's life. Asked what he considers his proudest achievement, Weinberg chose his work as a teacher. "I suppose teaching literally thousands and thousands of students and hopefully bringing ideas and thoughts to a fair number of undergraduates and a small number of those who did Master's and Ph.D.s with me over the many years," is a highlight, he feels.

"The other things are the publications, but I also played an important role in seeing that German records were properly microfilmed in the United States before the originals were sent back to Germany so scholars could have access to them. I see with a slight grin the footnotes [of others' works] that refer to microfilms I started and organized."

Weinberg lives with his third wife, Janet, near Hillsborough. He lost his second wife to breast cancer and was divorced from his first wife. He has a grown son, David, who lives in Chicago. When he is not working, the historian and Janet enjoy traveling in the West and rock hunting.

Wearing his trademark bolo ties, Weinberg plans to keep making speeches and to continue writing about World War II.

"When I write articles, deliver speeches and appear at conferences, I want to get people to understand that you cannot understand the disaster of World War II or the disaster of the Holocaust unless you see that the two are interrelated," he explained. "Too much of the discussion and too much of the literature looks at these two as a coincidence. In reality, they are closely interrelated and cannot be understood unless approached in this manner."

After all, Weinberg stressed, Hitler's war was "to create a demographic of the world that the Holocaust would be part."