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Classics Reissued: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

(Fiftieth Anniversary Edition)

by William L. Shirer

Simon and Schuster, 2011

William Shirer’s monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns an unbelievable 50 years old in 2011, and Simon & Schuster has marked the occasion with a crisp and beautiful paperback reprint decked out in black, white, and blood-red – an ironically Nazi color scheme, but still: it’s far more eye-catching than the uniform gun-metal grey design they chose for the reprint they did a few years ago. The publisher’s push to get this anniversary paperback into bookstores is also welcome: the more readers who buy and read a copy of this stupendous book, the better.

This reprint includes a warmly appreciative Introduction by Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler, who quickly makes the kind of literary comparison that’s been made about Shirer and his work since the book first appeared:

His model, consciously or unconsciously, was the kind of historian, who, like Thucydides, had first-hand experience of war and then sought to adopt the analytic distance of the historian. His talent, which bridged journalism and history, was for narrative, for weaving together individuals and ideas, the personal and the impersonal factors of history into the tapestry of a vast, multifaceted story. The Greek and Roman historians we reread are the ones who survive as storytellers.

This is simply and entirely right: when talking about a work of history this epic, this disarmingly definitive, Thucydidean parallels seem almost mandated. Like Thucydides, Shirer was a direct participant in the early years of the great upheaval of his age. As Rosenbaum puts it, “He was forced to witness daily cruelty through gritted teeth if he wanted to remain in Germany to report on it.” As a journalist, Shirer reported on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to power, and like the best journalists, he could load his prose with tale-telling specifics when it suited him, as when recounting the infamous Night of the Long Knives:

 Hitler left Berlin on Thursday, June 28, for Essen to attend the wedding of a local Nazi gauleiter, Josef Terboven. The trip and its purpose hardly suggest that he felt a grave crisis to be imminent. On the same day Goering and Himmler ordered special detachments of the S.S. and the “Goering Police” to hold themselves in readiness. With Hitler out of town, they evidently felt free to act on their own. The next day, the twenty-ninth, the Feuhrer made a tour of Labor Service camps in Westphalia, returning in the afternoon to Godesberg on the Rhine, where he put up at a hotel on the riverbank run by an old war comrade, Dreesen. That even Goebels, who seems to have hesitated as to which camp to join – he had been secretly in touch with Roehm – arrived in Godesberg, his mind made up, from Berlin. Karl Ernst, a former hotel bellhop and ex-bouncer in a cafe frequented by homosexuals, whom Roehm made leader of the Berlin S.A., had alerted the storm troopers. Ernst, a handsome but not a bright young man, believed then and for the remaining twenty-four hours or so of his life that he was faced by a putsch from the Right, and he would die shouting proudly, “Heil Hitler!”

The interplay of tones and half-feinted asides in that paragraph is so masterfully done as to appear effortless, and it faithfully reproduces the zig-zagging clause-heavy way Shirer thought. It is, in other words, grand – full-house opera-style history-writing that’s not only infinitely grounded but also fully aware of its own towering assurance. When Shirer’s book first came out, the world was still in large part reeling from the war, the most mysterious and overwhelming event of the 20th century. It’s little wonder then that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich became such an instant best-seller: Shirer’s all-encompassing research, his personal credentials, his palpable anger – all these things combined to give a weirdly reassuring tone of authority to his book. All these things combined, of course, with the storytelling ability Rosenbaum rightly praises. Listen for the note-perfect conclusion to the sorry story of Mussolini’s ‘rescue’ by his formerly equal partner:

Though Mussolini was grateful for his rescue and embraced Hitler warmly when they met a couple of days later at Rastenburg, he was by now a broken man, the old fires within him turned to ashes, and much to Hitler’s disappointment he showed little stomach for reviving the Fascist regime in German-occupied Italy. The Fuehrer made not attempt to hide his disillusionment with his old Italian friend in a long talk with Goebbels toward the end of September …

Hitler and Goebbels were also incensed that Mussolini had had a reconciliation with Ciano and seemed to be under the thumb of his daughter Edda, who was Ciano’s wife – both of them had found refuge in Munich. They thought he should have had Ciano immediately executed and Edda, as Goebbels put it, whipped.

Likewise since Shirer lived through so much of the saga he describes, he’s constantly alert to portray it as series of events that unfolded day by day and could often have gone another way entirely. As more and more time passes and fewer and fewer people personally remember WWII, this sense of contingency becomes more muted, threatens to disappear altogether into hindsight. But in Shirer’s book, the Germans might have scrambled, might have rallied, might even have won, had things gone just a bit differently – as in one key moment in the Battle of the Bulge:

When a German armored group reached Stavelot on the night of December 17, it was only eight miles from the U.S. First Army headquarters at Spa, which was being hurriedly evacuated. More important, it was only a mile from a huge American supply dump containing three million gallons of gasoline. Had this dump been captured by the German armored divisions, which were continually being slowed down because of the delay in bringing up gasoline, of which the Germans were woefully short, might have gone farther and faster than they did.

One of the little controversies Shirer’s book provoked in that first year of its publication arose over the much-discussed question of German guilt – the extent, in other words, to which the German people were responsible for the calamities they brought upon both themselves and the rest of the world. In 1960, the prevalent line in intellectual circles was the easiest one to live with: that Hitler had been some sort of Rasputin figure, that he’d seduced an entire nation of otherwise morally upstanding people, and that after his death that nation awoke dazed as from a dream. Some of us have always deeply hated that line, and if it isn’t completely clear throughout his book that Shirer hates it too, he makes it clear in his book’s brilliantly bleak conclusion:

In 1918, after the last defeat, the Kaiser had fled, the monarchy had tumbled, but the other traditional institutions supporting the State had remained, a government chosen by the people had continued to function, as did the nucleus of a German Army and a General Staff. But in the spring of 1945 the Third Reich simply ceased to exist. There was no longer any German authority on any level. The millions of soldiers, airmen and sailors were prisoners of war in their own land. The millions of civilians were governed, down to the villages, by the conquering enemy troops, on whom they depended not only for law and order but throughout that summer and bitter winter of 1945 for food and fuel to keep them alive. Such was the state to which the follies of Adolf Hitler – and their own folly in following him so blindly and with so much enthusiasm – had brought them, though I found little bitterness toward him when I returned to Germany that fall.

The people were there, and the land – the first dazed and bleeding and hungry, and, when winter came, shivering in their rags in the hovels which the bombings had made of their homes; the second a vast wasteland of rubble. The German people had not been destroyed, as Hitler, who had tried to destroy so many other peoples and, in the end, when the war was lost, themselves, had wished.

But the Third Reich had passed into history.

The impulse Rosenbaum (and many others) feels to draw Thucydidean comparisons when discussing Shirer’s masterpiece is, as noted, entirely right even on grounds of composition and personal involvement, and there’s one other claim, stronger than the rest: like Thucydides’ book, like Herodotus’ book, like Tacitus’ – but also like more modern works by Carlyle, Gibbon, Parkman, Catton, and Morison – The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a great book, not only a history but also a part of history. Of all the attempts to wrestle the whole of the dark convulsion of World War Two into the prose of history, this was the first and is still the best. If you’ve never read it, you now have an impressive new paperback reprint waiting for your at your local book shop, and if you’ve read it already, here’s an reminder to re-read it – and marvel in horror all over again at the nightmares Shirer so perfectly dramatizes.

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