A little late this Friday, my friends, but still within my deadline! As promised in my previous entry (well, the one before the silly MGTOW one, haha), today I’ll be giving you a quickshot review of William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Now, one thing I forgot last time was to give you a brief overview of Shirer’s background and the impact of his work. I’m sure more than a few folks who hang around this blog are familiar with that, but please be patient—bringing up new readers to speed will also allow me to segue into the real meat of this essay 🙂
William Lawrence Shirer was born to German-descended parents on February 23, 1904 in Chicago, Illinois. He passed away on December 28, 1993, in Massachusetts. He went to high school and college in Iowa; at the latter he got a job on the institute’s newspaper which would set him on his adult career path: Journalism. Shirer was one of the most famous American war correspondents during the mid-twentieth century; employed by CBS and the Universal News Service, he provided an eyewitness account of the Nazi regime’s rise and fall straight from Berlin. He was as gifted a writer as he was a newsman, penning many successful works of fiction (The Consul’s Wife) and non-fiction, (The Sinking of the Bismarck, Gandhi—A Memoir). Above all, however, he would be known for a single book: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. (1)
As I mentioned back in September, it is truly a magisterial work. My edition is 1,247 pages long, and Shirer spent five years after World War II poring through the voluminous archives the Nazis left behind. And I’m talking about thousands upon thousands of pages of documents, as the Nazis were meticulous record-keepers, even when it came to their own crimes. The result is one of the most exhaustive but also the most convincing and engaging books of history I have ever read. It’s exhaustive because of the amazing amount of detail Shirer delves into. Though it obviously can’t mention every single aspect of Germany’s history during this time period (no single human being could do that), it covers various personal details of Hitler’s ancestry, the development of (what Shirer thinks is) the German mindset over hundreds of years, many of the co-conspirators who helped Hitler rise to power, the most influential men in Hitler’s party and government, a gripping account of how they wheedled their way into power and brought down the Weimar Republic, the nightmare society they created, and a comprehensive account of the mistakes, overreaches, and defeats which finally brought them down.
I am very far from the only person to be impressed by this book. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was a worldwide smash hit when it was published, except perhaps in Germany. The historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld offered a succinct summation of its popularity: “First published in 1960, it dominated American bestseller lists for over a year afterwards, would sell millions of copies over the next thirty years, and would even be turned into a documentary film and dramatic cantata. It is the best-known and best-selling book on the Nazi era and, according to the New York Times, ‘one of the most important works of history of our time.’” (2)
The Germans, however, were much less fond of it. According to Shirer’s afterword in my 1993 edition, German critics savaged it and the Chancellor of West Germany himself, Konrad Adenauer, called Shirer a “German-hater.” According to Rosenfeld, some Germans said the book actually caused a deterioration in relations between their government and America during the 1960s! It never sold as well in Germany as it did in America, anyways. Shirer claims the Germans were simply “unable to face up to their past” in his Afterword, but…me, I’m not entirely sure. (3)
Personally, I can understand where some of the heat came from. I think Shirer’s analysis of the Nazi party and regime themselves are spot-on, he interprets the vast number of primary sources available very well and cites them diligently, as well as I would expect any professional historian to do. However, some of his apprehensions about Germany as a nation and people show through in the text here and there. At best, he calls them great but “baffling.” More bluntly, perhaps, he quotes Goethe in the epigram at the beginning of my edition: “I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality.” More importantly, his historical grounding of Nazism in particular strikes me as just as withering as Goethe’s quote in its condemnation of the German people, albeit subtler. In Chapter 4, “The Mind of Hitler and the Roots of the Third Reich,” he implies Hitler’s regime was the culmination of several centuries of German history. He asserts that Martin Luther’s eventual support of the nobility over the commoners during Germany’s medieval peasant risings “ensured a mindless and provincial political absolutism and reduced the vast majority of the German people to poverty, to a horrible torpor and demeaning subservience.” After the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia, Shirer claims that “[a]cceptance of autocracy, and blind obedience to the petty tyrants who ruled as princes, all became engrained in the German mind.” The conclusion, of course, is that these mental characteristics remained within the Germans as a people well into the twentieth century, meaning that they would bow down before Hitler and carry out his will cheerfully, since their history had bequeathed them with a lack of democratic feeling and an acquiescence to dictatorial authority. (4)
It is understandable why Shirer would have felt this way. He did, after all, witness Germany’s wild enthusiasm for Hitler with his own eyes. The cheering crowds, the endless streams of propaganda, and the fact that the Nazi regime was destroyed by its foreign enemies rather than an internal uprising would have well convinced me that there was some inherent love of dictatorship and subservience among the German people had I lived in that time. All the same, with the distance and historical perspective I have been given (writing this in 2013 rather than right after WWII), I cannot help but feel it is somewhat facile. As one of my teachers told me, “nothing is inevitable,” and the conception of any sort of history as “culminating” in any given government or event is a bit too teleological or reductionist for my tastes. This is essentially the same criticism the German critics had: Rosenfeld says “reviewers who were critical of the book had expectations shaped by a different historiographical paradigm – one which explained nazism under the broader phenomenon of totalitarianism, an idea that saw nazism’s roots in the general crisis of interwar Europe rather than solely in the German past.” (5)
Now, I am not an expert in totalitarianism or European history, but my own readings of history have taught me to be leery of any sweeping pronouncements on a given group’s “character.” I’m not saying a people’s history has no bearing at all, mind you! Did Martin Luther and the social effects of the devastating Thirty Years war have important implications for the subsequent development of German history? Of course! But was the Third Reich the “culmination” of the developments they set in motion? That’s a lot harder to prove. As Shirer notes, Hitler’s German supporters may have thought he represented the conclusion of their history, but I think it may have been better, from a historian’s standpoint, to not take their beliefs at face value; they may have believed what they wanted to be true rather than what actually was true, as is common with many men and women from many times and places. Shirer’s own narrative gives us reason to doubt his analysis of the German ‘mindset:’ He emphasizes repeatedly that Hitler was unable to gain much appeal when the country was doing well, and only managed to gain a foothold in politics when economic depression hit. He notes that when he first came to Germany before the 1930s, “one scarcely heard of Hitler except as the butt of jokes”. (6) If ‘subservience’ was somehow inherent to the Germans, why did they not display it when they were prospering? Why did it take the Great Depression for this characteristic to emerge? Germans are far from the only people to embrace ethnic hatred and sacrifice their freedoms for “security” when their bellies are empty. For this reason, I think a historian’s longer perspective gives one reason to be skeptical of Shirer’s, at least in this respect.
This is not to be too hard on Shirer, as I think a wee bit of anti-German sentiment might have been necessary in the political climate of the Cold War. Quoting Rosenfeld again, the West Germans had a desire to “repress the memory of the Third Reich” due political concerns. Since they really wanted American support against the Soviets in order to eventually reunify their country, they wanted to distance themselves from the Nazi regime (Rosenfeld, p. 114). If Shirer’s analysis made it a bit more difficult for them to do so, I won’t be too hard on him, since I don’t think even the worthy goal of reunification justifies whitewashing history. Additionally, I personally liked some of Shirer’s other departures from the historian’s rigor and ‘objectivity.’ As I mentioned in my review of The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, I enjoyed Shirer’s personal asides there, and I enjoyed them here as well. I found his criticisms of Mein Kampf’s barbarism and crudity amusing (pp. 80-87), I enjoyed his descriptions of Vienna and his little personal aside that he himself was a Protestant after criticizing Martin Luther–though according to his autobiography, by the 1960s Shirer had lost his faith in Christianity after learning about other religions like Hinduism. (7) I especially, really loved his description of the constant infighting between the homosexual members of the stormtroopers, like Roehm and Heims:
“These two and dozens of others quarreled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can.” (8)
So Shirer is essentially calling gay men catty bitches here. XD XD XD Yes, it’s totally un-historical, and there’s no way you could possibly get that published in an academic work today, for obvious (and understandable) reasons. But I still LOL’d hard when I read it. Again, as I’ve said before, it’s important to keep historical narratives at least engaging if not entertaining, and in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer succeeded magnificently there, at least for me.
All these criticism-compliments (or compliment-criticisms?) make me wish for one thing: That Shirer had lived to see the twenty-first century. Now, he didn’t exactly die young; remember that he died in 1993, making him a few months shy of 90 years old! I’d say he had a pretty good run, and I think he would agree; the last words of his autobiography are “I am glad to have lived through the tumultuous, turbulent twentieth century, with all its tremendous changes, despite its upheavals and violence”. Even so, and this may be somewhat selfish of me, I really would have liked him to have stayed around for maybe ten years more. Aside from the satisfaction being a bona-fide centenarian, it would have also allowed him to write, perhaps, on the beginnings of what might be an era as tumultuous as the ones he lived through. I wish I could read columns and essays by Shirer on the Clinton presidency, the Serbian war, the contested election of 2000, and of course, above all, 9/11. Given how deftly he excoriated one of the greatest evils of the previous century, I think he would have offered a similarly powerful condemnation on the terrorism and religious fanaticism which plagues us today. It may be presumptuous of me to say, but I cannot help feeling we are all poorer for being unable to enjoy his piercing insights on our times. I can take some consolation that Shirer felt the same way: As he wrote in A Native’s Return, though he didn’t fear death, he “would like to linger on a little longer” (9).
I also believe, however, that 9/11 and the conflicts it spawned would have given Shirer some perspective on the events of his own life. As the historiography discussed above implies, witnessing Nazi crimes firsthand soured Shirer on the German people as a whole. He would take a dim, suspicious view of them up to his dying day. Though Rosenfeld’s article doesn’t say that, Shirer himself did: “After the Nazi years, I no longer felt any affinity for the Germans. A people who could behave so bestially…were they not barbarians who needed to be watched and restrained?” He was also a member of an organization which advocated for a harsh peace with Germany and was wary of its reunification. How, he wondered, could we be sure they would not “break out again?” (10) But, as we know now, reality is very different. To Shirer’s generation, the Germans may have been known for war. To mine, they seem to be known for little more beyond silly talkshow hosts, bad anime voice acting, and absolutely bizarre pornography. The German people, contrary to what Shirer wrote in his afterword, really do seem to have changed—at least as far as I can tell. To many people of my generation, the real threat seems not to be Germans but Muslims.
History, it seems to me, more often than not surprises even those who study it. In most of his writings and politics that I’m aware of, Shirer’s focus is on the Germans and the threat they posed. He never wrote much about Islam, or even terrorism in general. Yet, as it seems to have turned out, a reunified Germany poses little danger to anyone. Far more worrisome is the spread of religiously-motivated violence. Now, with over a billion Muslims in the world, one cannot say all, most, or even a significant portion of them support violence. My parents certainly don’t. But there are enough who do to make them, and their fanatical fellows from across the religious spectrum (Christians, Hindus, and all others have their extremists as well, even in this day and age), one of the most pressing issues of our time. I think Shirer could perhaps find a degree of vindication of this, as he had a generally dim view of Islam. In Gandhi: A Memoir he recalls being unimpressed by the Koran, saying he did not find much inspiration in it and thought it, like the Old Testament, had too much emphasis on God’s wrath. He also offered a generally negative assessment of Muslims in India, criticizing them for abandoning the Indian nationalists in favor of the British (11). I’ll talk more about that in my Quickshot review of that book, and it’s just another reason I wish he could have lived to see our age. Still, he mostly wrote about and feared the Germans, not the Muslims, or worldwide religious fanaticism generally. It would seem to be the latter, not the former, which deserve the lion’s share of our concern.
It is possible, though, that I may be proven wrong about German harmlessness. The Nazi party is not entirely dead there. Perhaps it will rise again, and perhaps German guns will roar once more. However, I think that even then, Shirer’s prediction will be incorrect in one respect: The Germans will not be alone. In Greece, there rises the specter of the Golden Dawn, and even in America Hitler’s heirs are not silent or even very quiet. If Germany marches again, they will march alongside her, and while I cannot tell if they would march with or against the most fanatical religious extremists already on the loose today, I am fairly certain that all of them combined will visit as much misery upon the world as Germany did or could.
In the final analysis, then, and despite my admiration for Shirer and his impressive work, I think I must come down on the side of the German historians Rosenfeld described, those who claimed he did not truly understand the ecumenical appeal of totalitarianism. I, too, must disagree with Shirer’s final assessment of the German threat. The twenty-first century’s true challenge, it seems to me, is not a single totalitarian, expansionist nation-state like Nazi Germany but something perhaps even more difficult to destroy: The totalitarian, intolerant state of mind which characterizes both the religious and the secular fanatic and which is not at all limited to one race or country.
1: William L. Shirer, Twentieth Century Journey: The Start: 1904-1930 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1976), pp. 63, 72-78, 165-172, William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York: MJF Books, 1990), back flap.
2: Paraphrased from Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, “The Reception of William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the United States and West Germany, 1960-1962,” in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 29, No. 1 (Jan. 1994), p. 95-96.
3: Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 1146, Rosenfeld, p. 96.
4: Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, ix, vii, 90-100.
5: Rosenfeld, p. 103.
6: Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, pp. 90, 118.
7: Rosenfeld, p. 114, Rise and Fall, pp. 80-87, 236, William L. Shirer, A Native’s Return: 1945-1988 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1990), pp. 463-465)
8: Rise and Fall, p. 120.
9: A Native’s Return, back flap, p. 463
10: Ibid., pp. 455-456.
11: William L. Shirer, Gandhi: A Memoir (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), pp. 73n, 184-186.