“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it.”- Santayana
There are some books you read which leave lasting scars on the mind. For me, that was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. Having first read it as a child when war was only a genre of films and comic book features, it exposed a dark truth about war and the evils of the Nazi regime. It was a book of horror. Having recently re-read it as an adult—after consuming many other books detailing history’s most terrilbe moments—its initial horror remains shocking.
Shirer’s extensive history of Nazi Germany is a heavy read not without its share of controversy (which given the subject matter, nor should it be). While it focuses on a uniquely German totalitarianism, its portrayal of victims and villains is universally human. Published only fifteen years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the book was a surprise success.
Shirer looks at a deeper history of German culture reaching back to Martin Luther, discovering the origins of the Nazi state in pride, militaristic inclinations, a society driven to order and one that rewarded strong national and cultural identities. Following the shame and loss of World War I, economic depression, the emergence of radical anti-liberal and anti-traditional politics, the Nazis promised a restored Germany filled with the romantic delusions of fundamentalist zealotry. The dream of a thousand year Reich was born, to be built upon the bones of millions of individuals.
The Nazi state, as impressive and imperial as it became, began as a putrid ideology festering inside beer halls, spread by the minds and words of angry radicals. The party grew over time, mutating with each personality and influenced from places of simplistic solutions and blame into a welfare-warfare state built on racial nationalism. Sharing the very worse of left and right wing politics, Adolf Hitler became the great leader.
The hatred that the Nazi regime was able to manifest was done with such scale and implementation that it took more than just the single ideology of Nazism to make it possible. If history had only limited periods and examples of genocide and cruelty then it would be easy to just blame the Nazi ideology itself. Mass extermination and torture of innocent human beings had and was occurring elsewhere. From the Armenian genocide to the cruel policies in the Soviet Union, these predecessors assured the Nazi leadership that they too could implement terror on the innocent with impunity. As Shirer details, the Nazi state had a unique evil to its policies.
The book’s bitter facts expose the willingness of well educated and intelligent individuals to surpass any morality so that they may satisfy scientific and medical curiosities. The extensive nature of experimentation is given a degree of detail. Research that was conducted on unwilling and tortured individuals who suffered so that scientists and a state obsessed with racial supremacy and war could expand its knowledge about the ability to heal and destroy. It took such men of talent to help make the Nazi war machine and state advanced and deadly.
It is why many such Nazi scientists were rescued from justice by the United States and Soviet Union after the war. The Cold War would give the Nazi scientists a context to further their research. Absent were the slave laborers mostly made up of European Jews, who were replaced by factories of employees willing to continue and expand the scientific and medical studies of their masters. Any crimes of the past washed away. For such men, was it purely ideology that drove them to dissect living human beings? Or an indifference to pain that led them to inject children with chemical cocktails that guaranteed an agonizing death? Or was it the unchecked pursuit of science alone that steered their instincts and desires?
One flaw commonly leveled at the book, especially from German critics, is Shirer’s assertion that the Third Reich is the fault the German people. Perhaps in some ways it was a uniquely German regime, but such horrors are not unique to Germany. The Soviet Union, before, during, and after the Stalin era reveals totalitarian characteristics and brutal tendencies that occurred without four centuries of Germany history. North Korea is a prison state which continues to abuse and terrorize millions. Chinese history, whether under Nationalist fascism, war lords, or the Communists is also replete with a history of slavery and torture. Each of these totalitarian states are responsible for mass murder. The dark aspects of humanity and the power of the state make such evil possible.
But it is easy to criticise Shirer from the distance of time and safety. He lived in Germany as a foreign correspondent. He witnessed the tyranny as a helpless observer and his perspective is coloured by those moments. His book ‘Berlin Diary’ is a journey from 1934 to 1941 when as a radio reporter for CBS he watched the rise of the police state turn into a genocidal nation at war. Published in 1941 just months before the United States would go to war, it helped to unveil the nature of the Nazi tyranny. Shirer knew people who were interned and risked their lives as whistle-blowers against state power. He dealt with the Nazi citizens and government alike, during the peak of the regimes hubris. It is at times that ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” borrows beats from his ‘Berlin Diary’.
In many ways this is a book of its time, written soon after the War and for an audience of those who may have suffered through and opposed the Nazi regime. It is also a book where the author injects certain bias, an example is how he views homosexuality as being a ‘perversity’. Shirer leans into the readers prior knowledge that Hitler is from the outset a known villain. Suggesting that all things Nazi as being evil, even before any examples of terrible deeds are given. But in doing so, Shirer attempts to theorise why Hiterlism was made possible. Just as Edward Gibbon looked for a conclusive sole reason as to why Rome fell, in ‘the Rise and Fall of Roman Empire” by blaming Christianity. Shirer also looks into the soul of Germany for his conclusive singularity. The fault being that of the German volk itself.
The street gangs,” in the words of Alan Bullock, “had seized control of the resources of a great modern State, the gutter had come to power.” But—as Hitler never ceased to boast—“legally,” by an overwhelming vote of Parliament. The Germans had no one to blame but themselves.
Shirer condemns every German, because of the belief in the democratic processes, that the voting majority who helped bring to power an unpredictable future of Hitlerism define all other Germans. It is in itself the very collective mindset that defined such a “gutter” culture. Crisis always makes it easy to find a simple answer and to impose blame on others. It removes the need for investigation and the understanding of complexity. It is how the Nazis were able to blame the Jews for defeat in World War One and economic depression. And in the years after the War a journalist like Shirer could readily blame the German people.
History is not so simple and the crimes of Nazi Germany can not be just blamed on Adolf Hitler as a sole individual or even the whole of Germany as a collective. It is easy to say that such an evil mastermind is responsible alone for the millions of dead. That removes guilt and responsibility of the many individuals who themselves pulled the trigger. The destinies of millions were steered at times by themselves not just by Hitler. His hatred may have provided a mandate, but no good person eagerly butchers a baby simply because they were told to. And those who profited from the misery and exploitation did so with their own self interest often hidden beneath the proclamation that it was for the Fatherland. For the Nazis that cause was a hatred of other races, notably the Jewish people. It will only be inside the pages of a David Irving book that such facts are disappeared.
At the heart of Nazi ideology is antisemitism. The steering irrational vulgarity that directed not only Hitler but the ideologically pure. Perhaps it is rooted in Martin Luther’s works but it is not unique to Germany, or even Europe for that matter. The anti-capitalist rhetoric combined with the scientific racism that was in its peak during this time found a common cause with the traditional antisemitic tendencies that existed in parts of European culture. These elements were crucial components of the Nazi ideology, it was not mere fascism or a variant of national communism. It may have had commonalities with those ideals, it was its own unique monstrosity. The censoring and burning of books, labour camps of mass murder are not uniquely Nazi either but they adopted and ritualised such acts to a grand scale.
Not found inside the book, but apparent the world over is the apathy of the morally neutral or even those who know better but are unable or unwilling to resist. Those who go along with it all, no matter how evil the path is. Those who simply did their job or informed on a neighbour because it was the law. Not unique to Nazi Germany, it was happening then in the Soviet Union, and even now in the war on terror. The apathy and obedience is what erodes liberty and justice. It is in the end what empowers and allows the greatest evil capable of becoming the very law of the land.
Nazi Germany was a regime where men of great intelligence could meet at Grosser Wannsee and plan the mass extinction of millions of human beings with bureaucratic calculation. Perfectly legal, but terrifyingly absent of justice. And many who may have lacked ideological purity implemented such horror, merely because it was their job to do so.
The book is a testament to its audience and time, it celebrates the allies and especially the Americans as knights that saved the world from the evil Nazi regime. It lacks the nuance and complicated nature of war. Being opposed to the Nazi regime does not simply rid one of any guilt should they commit atrocities themselves in the pursuit of defeating such an evil foe. At times the book can read as though Shirer wanted to pen a comic book, casting the Nazi’s as a rightfully evil villain but the US and Allies as a Superman or Captain America. To colour these panels the major players of the Nazi party and German military are either described as “stupid” without any real examples or in the case of a man like Ernest Rohm his defining crime being that he was a “homosexual”.
There are many good reasons to read the book. The depth and detail in parts that help to display the horrible nature of the Nazi state along with the sobering realisation that this actually happened. This is a living history that endured for years and harmed millions of human beings and has ramifications even to this day. The murderous street fighters of the early Nazi’s that were at times mere thugs would in a matter of years mature into a party of statesmen and central planners that would steer the nation that they claimed to love into the depths of chaos. By displaying the swastika one is not going to resurrect the Nazi state, it is unlikely that such a state shall ever reemerge. By opposing such an ideology does not necessarily make one a good person. After all Stalin himself was a nemesis of Hitler. Nazi Germany’s greatest foe and perhaps the greatest benefactor of its demise was the Soviet Union. Despite that, the Soviet state was also antisemitic and a collective nightmare riddled with slave camps, mass executions and perverse medical research. There is no good when the world is presented with the Nazi state or the Soviet Union. Only death and misery.
A book like The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a lesson that can teach the reader the dangers of an ideology that imposes a collective world view and worships hatred. It also reveals the power of the state itself. An unnatural entity that has the power to ruin everything. The lesson is not that Nazi Germany or Hitlerism will emerge again but that many other regimes will arise with shared characteristics. Or that those who oppose Nazism as a symbol will adopt many of its methods and intolerance. When street thugs with idealistic energy burning down shop fronts may some day mature into statespeople and impose their ideals onto others through the power of the state. It should be concern for all.
The great paradox of such a collective tyranny is that the individual citizen does not matter. Race, nation, class are all used to define ones status and worth. And yet these collective regimes require individuals of exceptional nature to lead and to engineer the technology and programs required to make the ‘perfect society’. Becoming a pyramid with hierarchies of elites, at the bottom the common volk and the Untermensch. The state exists to empower the proletariat but from within the state itself rises an elite hierarchy of planners that live better than any past kings or aristocrats. The Nazi state was certainly one such frightening empire of history.
Shirer has compiled a detailed book, but does not give you all of them. Extensive research of primary sources has occurred since the book was written. But as a marker in time it stands on its own merits and will leave one with a heavy heart. Nazi Germany was a human tragedy, but it is not the singular anomaly in the history of humanity. The Nazi state provides fascination in a similar way as serial killers; it is romanced and enshrined as the template for all evil. Its victims become statistical props who are devoured on such a scale that they loose any individual humanity. Their victims are more than just Anne Frank and the countless statistics. The millions are used as a means of contrast against other murder states, providing fodder for academic debates over which regime was worse. That the Nazi state ever existed is frightening. That other such states also exist is scary and that many deny that the evils of Nazism ever occurred is plain sick.
“The man who has no sense of history, is like a man who has no ears or eyes.”– Adolf Hitler