William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, and Me

I’m introducing something new this Friday, my friends. I call them ‘quickshot’ book reviews. Rather than full, exhaustive book reviews, these will concentrate on specific aspects of a single book and how they relate to me, meaning they’ll be fairly short—hence the name, “quickshot” J The first review will be on William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler.

Mr. Shirer died when I was six years old, and we never met once, in person or otherwise. I never even knew what he looked like until high school. Even so, he and I have something of a close relationship, though most would find it equal parts strange and amusing. It is that relationship I wish to discuss with you today, my friends. We’ll start off with just one of his books—The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler–but in future entries I may talk about The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as his autobiography, his biography of Gandhi, and a biography about him. For now, though, let’s begin with his smaller book on the German dictator’s life.

I honestly don’t remember how The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler came into my possession, as reading it is one of my earliest memories. I believe I first caught hold of it when I was maybe 5 years old, so I assume my family must have owned it previously, perhaps before I was born. Maybe my older brother bought it. At any rate, I didn’t actually read it at that time—I suppose I was just too young (I wouldn’t describe myself as precocious). The only part of it I recall reading was the back cover. That’s a bit of a funny story, actually. The description on the back begins, “Who was this Adolf Hitler who rose from the gutter to conquer most of Europe?” At my young age, I didn’t realize that “rose from the gutter” was an idiom meaning “rising from a lowly position.” For at least a few years I thought Hitler had literally risen from a gutter somewhere in Germany, like magic. XD XD XD

It was something I often did as a young child. I rarely actually read books, I just skimmed the blurbs on their backs. That wouldn’t change until I was maybe 6 or 7 years old and, on a whim, decided to actually open up one particular book (Bruce Coville’s Aliens Ate My Homework) and found myself hooked. After I’d finished that story, I started to read pretty much anything I could get my hands on. I ended up picking up The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler again, and this time actually read it all the way through. It would end up having no small influence on my subsequent path through life.

The prose Shirer used in this book was simple and direct—certainly not dumbed down, and certainly effective and conveying his meaning, but he didn’t use many “ten dollar words” or focus on many complicated historical concepts. As you could discern from its title, the book also focuses much more on Hitler himself, rather than delving into the politics, social structure, etc. of the Nazi regime itself. This kept it much shorter and easier to get through than Shirer’s vastly larger magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I’m not sure if The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler was intended for a younger audience, but those characteristics made it an excellent introduction to Shirer’s work for a person of my age back then. I would end up reading Rise and Fall of the Third Reich later, in high school, and greatly enjoying it, which will be the subject of a later entry. At the moment, though, I think it is enough to say that I was fortunate to be introduced to Shirer’s work with The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, as it was easily comprehensible and quite engaging for a youngster.

Looking back on it now, I also think this book was the first real work of history I’d read. Given the attested affection for history I’ve talked about before, perhaps you can surmise that it was the spark of my affection for the subject. 🙂

The thing with Shirer’s narrative was that it was relatable reading. Not just engaging or entertaining, but relatable in the sense he seemed, at least from the text, to react to the events he described in a way I could understand and sympathize with. He didn’t insert too much of himself in the work, of course—professional historians oughtn’t do that, and journalists doing history shouldn’t either. However, he did sprinkle in little personal asides and moral pronouncements here and there. Not too many, but just enough for me to gain an appreciation of his moral sense, which was enough to make me empathize with him (even as a child) and therefore immerse myself even further into his narrative. When discussing Hitler’s time as a vagrant in Vienna, Shirer indulges himself with a charming little paragraph praising the city. “The Viennese are the most attractive people I have ever known in Europe,” says Shirer, “They are gay. They find life worth living and they make the most of it.” (p. 15) Any more than a paragraph and I might have gotten annoyed, but as it was, a small personal aside like that gave me insight into Shirer as a person and reminded me that he was a human being writing about events affecting real human beings. Nestled within an accurate description of how German anti-Semitism influenced Hitler was a provocative statement that it become a “terrible disease” for the dictator (p. 20). Statements like this are peppered throughout the book (though not too often), and culminate in its last sentences: “The remembrance of the grisly world nightmare he provoked, of the millions of innocent human beings he slaughtered, of the hurt he did to the human spirit, lingers on. The memory fades but slowly as the years pass and mankind resumes its age-old effort to make the world a more decent place in which to live.” (pp. 181-182) That kind of sermonizing might not be appropriate in a more academic work—you’d probably not find something like it published in a professional historical journal. Even so, though I believe there is something to be said for a more clinical, ‘objective’ history, just a hint of the personal touch, as Shirer so adeptly weaves through his writing, reminds us that history often has a moral component as well. Though not every historical narrative will have villains quite as detestable as Hitler, it is a good thing to take umbrage at injustice in the past or sympathize with its victims even if they’re long dead. A little bit of emotional stimulation in one’s history—not too much, but about as much as Shirer indulged in—might sharpen our ability to interpret similar emotions in the present.

Although I wouldn’t really get into history until my freshman year of high school, I think it was The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler which really showed me how history could be emotionally evocative and morally meaningful without being preachy or sentimental, and that insight likely set the course of my life thereafter. Since I became interested in history, I ended up concentrating in the subject in high school, majoring in it in college, and continuing to pursue it in graduate school. Now, what expertise I have (African-American history) isn’t quite the same as what Shirer wrote about (World War II-era Germany), but I doubt I would be studying it if Shirer hadn’t lit my flame (so to speak) for history in general in the first place. And, of course, that interest in history would inform my life and my interests in a variety of other ways. I take particular enjoyment in historical videogames—not those based off of IRL history per se (Civil War games, things like Call of Duty or other World War II FPS games, and so on), but games which are heavily inspired by history, such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. I’ve also tried to write my fanfiction with a little bit of the historian’s eye. I wrote Wayward Son with some attention to how the fictional history of Elibe influenced the situations Renault found himself in, ranging from tidbits about culture and religion to how various wars and the misrule of previous kings gave rise to the conflicts which ended up defining his life. Though my fanfiction was written years after I first read William Shirer and got into history, I’d like to think it’s been informed, in some way, by those early readings…

So, tonight, on my 26th birthday, I raise a glass to you, William Shirer. You helped shape me, as a man and a writer, into who I am today. I hope you can rest easy, knowing your work continues to inspire at least one person long after your death.

This concludes my first ‘quickshot’ book review. To reiterate, for this quickshot review series, I won’t be doing full, exhaustive book reviews, but rather concentrating on smaller aspects of them and how they relate to other subjects I’m interested in. The bibliographic info for the book I looked at today is:

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler. New York: Scholastic, inc., 1961.

Future books I plan to look at include:

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Twentieth Century Journey

Gandhi: A Memoir

(All by William L. Shirer)

The Long Night: William Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick.

(About William L. Shirer)

One other piece of non-fiction I also hope to review sometime is Manga Girl Seeks Herbivore Boy edited by Brigette Steger and Angelika Koch.

And some other bits of fiction:

George Orwell’s 1984

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World

Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon

And, finally, several involving a favorite paradise scenario of the “manosphere:” Women-free societies of only men:

Frank Herbert’s The White Plague

Phil Wylie’s The Disappearance

Lois McMaster Bujold’s Ethan of Athos

Please look forwards to them! 😀

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2 comments

  1. […] and fanaticism more than anything else in our minds. Perhaps this is ironic—as I’ve mentioned before, Shirer and I never met personally, so it might be strange that our attitudes on religion would end […]

  2. […] that book for me or my brother intentionally, if they did at all, but it seems they chose wisely. It ended up getting one youth interested in history, at least! (p. 263-266) He also told a droll anecdote about his book being optioned up at Hollywood and a […]

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