THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, William L. Shirer

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH, William L. Shirer

In a memoir, A Native’s Return, W. L. Shirer tells about selling The Rise and Fall to a studio and the meeting the studio chief in 1960. Shirer was an East Coast guy, and he took along two East Coast friends: John Houseman and George Roy Hill, then a Broadway director.

The chief greeted them and while leading the way into his office, says to Shirer: “For three nights my wife and I have read your book [The Rise and Fall].”

Shirer looks at Houseman who says, “That’s absolute bullshit.”

Nobody can read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in three days, let alone three nights. It is an invaluable book by a writer/journalist writing about people he saw in action twenty years before. In this writing he got to tell a more complete story. Most of it centers in foreign policy and diplomatic efforts, incidences Shirer was able to observe and report at the time. The text presents well, spelled out or implied, about this blunder of that one. Shirer hits the German-Soviet Union August 1939 Pact, partitioning Poland and designating spheres of influence, hard. He notes correctly that Stalin’s agreement started the War: Hitler likely would not have invaded Poland with no agreement if the Soviet Union had not committed itself and Hitler were not certain.

It was an enormous mistake for the Soviets, a nation of chess players. Two little-known Soviet accommodations to German war successes included shipping supplies from Murmansk to Norway in 1940 and shipping rubber across Russia to Germany. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Soviets were confused, perplexed and overwhelmed – the Soviets had done almost everything the Germans wanted. But the German Army was professional and proficient. Millions of Soviet citizens were killed; complete Soviet armies were destroyed; and three million prisoners of war were captured (few lived to see the War’s end).

This complicity is observed, and a balance is noted. The Soviets complained that they had to face the German Army alone in Europe in 1942-1943. Early on the Germans did not make the mistake they made when invading Russia. Shirer notes the D-Day invasion force and its provisioning was a huge effort before June 1944. He notes the completely inadequate German preparations to invade Britain in 1940 and gives the assessment that the British would have chewed up any Germany army put ashore in Britain. Perhaps Stalin wanted the British and Americans to be as reckless with their men as the Germans and Russians were with their own.

Equally poor was the ability of the French and British to foresee foreign policy and diplomatic mistake after mistake. At one point Shirer says Charles Lindbergh was “startlingly naiveté.” Lindbergh was a moronic dupe. Yet at one place Neville Chamberlain (British Prime Minister) was “well meaning,” but Shirer hardens against the mustached P.M. Having read Shirer’s description of Munich (French/British surrender of Czechoslovakia September 1938), it is easy to conclude the only thing Chamberlain failed to bring to Britain after the negotiations was a toothbrush mustache. As PM Chamberlain interfered with Churchill’s plans to defend Norway. In short the best service Chamberlain performed for Great Britain was to die in November 1940.

Shirer notes what the German’s learned: Had the Czechs fought the Germans in 1938 Germany may have finally won but it would be greatly weakened the German army and left it incapable of pursuing further war.

Throughout the history Shirer noted the assassination attempts to kill Hitler. This is a matter of course, but the attempts are not equal and should not be treated that way. The assassination plot before the Munich agreement was very credible. Shirer’s book is an early history and is not as complete as Joachim Fest’s (and others) book on the same subject.

!I have read much about World War Two. Reading The Rise and Fall, I realized the war was fought in stages: I. Rhineland occupation, 1936; Austria Anschluss, March 1938; Czechoslovakia, 1938. Those lands and their industrial and economic bases were captured with no or little destruction. II. Poland, September 1939; Scandinavia, May 1940; Netherlands, Belgium, May 1940; France, June 1940. Those lands sustained more damage, but the industrial and economic base would be restored. III. Britain, Soviet Union, Balkans, Africa – the Germans were invading lands that were destroyed or desolate and the population was targeted. Little benefit came to Germany by having its armies run 1,500 miles across eastern Europe.

Equally maniacal and idiotic were Nazi racial policies. I have not read it but surmised if the Germans were not so obsessed with killing people and more devoted to overcoming their opponents’ military abilities, Germany had a chance to win the war. Shirer somewhat discusses this point especially with the invasion of the Soviet Union(June 1941). But the Germans were incapable of treating any occupied peoples (Danes and Dutch included) as anything other than second-class human beings.

Omissions occur in an 1140 page book like this. The text concentrates on The Rise of the Third Reich. The telling of The Fall, one-quarter of the book (December 1941 to May 1945), concentrates on the military and Nazi leadership.

By in large absent from the book is Third Reich Domestic Germany, and much Sociology of the German People – there is no humor, comedy or black humor.

Military campaigns especially those adversely affecting Germany are raced through e.g. the air war against Germany is told statistically (except the German people wanted to lynch captured American and British fliers). That air war kept 70 percent of the Luftwaffe at home defending the fatherland; the Soviet army benefitted from the lack of air support.

The German people knew they were losing the war – lines on a map got closer, but more likely they witnessed bombed out cities, factories, facilities and homes. “The White Rose” protests (February 1943) seemingly came from nowhere because the German people are portrayed as monolithic.

There are evaluations by German generals justly criticizing Eisenhower’s hands-off participation of the Sicilian and Italian campaigns.(1943, 1944)

A theme in the book is suggested by the facts, but I did not sense it was cogently advanced. It is obvious that the Nazis tried to construct a very robotic society founded on terror and murder. Most of the terror and murder are set out, but other forms and uses of coercion to conform and to comply are omitted. Any society urges compliance from its population and uses overt and subtle means to insure order and stability. The idea of happiness might arise from these efforts: If everyone is content doing the same thing, everyone should be happy. I don’t know if anything like this postulation popped up in Nazi Germany. I suspect it had to – the rulers’ definition of happiness for each individual – is present in any totalitarian society. Shirer does not get around to tell his readers about it.

When The Rise and Fall was published (and perhaps today), the Germans grossly objected to it as anti- German and anti-Germany. The book is fair; those German critics and defenders are wrong. Those German critics and defenders exalt in German culture. It is true that the Germans excelled in music and advanced that art much. I note though that Mendelssohn was considered Jewish, and by the late ninetieth century the Germans were not the best composers. (Mahler was Jewish.) The other arts? Painting: Albrecht Durer, the best German painter but who since 1530? Sculpture – Nada. Literature: Goethe, but who else throughout the nineteenth century – persons who weren’t Jewish, or considered non-Aryan, disreputable and degenerate like Thomas Mann? Education: The Germans had to best universities until the brains left, and the Americans got the pickings. Film: Thank you for sending Billy Wilder and many other great talents.

If the Germans base their superiority on uncontaminated, cultural and intellectual attainments, Shirer tells the Nazis destroyed that superiority immediately. Shirer suggested but fails to analyze how a people so supposedly artistic sensitive and appreciative of fine arts and achievements, can be politically dense, stupid and inept. An idea was recognized that the Germans swooned about the arts and intellectual accomplishments; so long as that production was possible, Germany was superior. After the Second War Bertolt Brecht conceived the axiom (paraphrased): Maybe the Germans will now stop thinking about trees. (quoted in Hitler, Joachim Fest.)

Shirer gives no cause and effect, but there is a suggested answer. German philosophy. While many European countries experimented and implemented enlightenment policies and improvements, making strides to remove themselves from the strictures surviving from medieval society, the Germans looked at the enlightenment and ran the other way: Shirer writes an essay(Chapter 4) about the creeps of German philosophy – Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche and Marx. Divorced from any human exposure and experience these men advanced concepts of people, their thinking and society that decades later resulted in National Socialism, Hitler and the horrors perpetuated. As part of their intellectual superiority the Germans got caught up in ideas completely remote – intense philosophical stories, pretentiously profound, devoid of faith and disassociated from any human thinking and behavior. That an an excellent definition of a Nazi.

If German critics and defenders complain about The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, they should start with this pillar of William L. Shirer’s book.

 

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