Nazi Germany. Hitler. The SS. The names bring up connotations ranging from the cinema of Steven Spielberg and Mel Brooks to tasteless political posters at town hall meetings and anti-war protests. In the eternal words of stand-up comic Bill Hicks: “We're going in for God and country and democracy and here's a fetus and he's a Hitler.” In our modern age, we have called whatever enemy of convenience a Hitler. The same phenomenon throughout history with different groups of people thinking the Antichrist was Nero, the Pope, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, FDR, Ronald Wilson Reagan, Ayatollah Khomeini, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Barney the Dinosaur, and, most recently, Barack Obama. What was once a dire metaphysical threat has now become a punch line … and a funny one at that. Since Hitler’s demise, nearly every US President and nearly every dictator working against US interests (or for them) has been labeled “a Hitler.” Reducing those dark years that engulfed the world to a punch line is a dangerous thing. Reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer has been a useful corrective to the omnipresent cheapening and poisonous cultural illiteracy that permeates our present political discourse.
Published in 1960 during the height of the Cold War, Rise and Fall represents one of the first and most comprehensive analyses of Hitler’s Germany. When reading the book, it is important to remember the subtitle. It is “a history” of Nazi Germany, not “the history.” Even in 1100 pages, Shirer gives the reader a summary of Hitler’s rise, the European theater of war, and the Shoah. Even with the oceans of ink spilled in trying to comprehend the madness and seduction of the Third Reich, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is still a very useful book for those interested in Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust.
The book remains important as a document of witness. William Shirer was a newspaper correspondent in Germany during Hitler’s ascent to absolute power. On occasion, he editorializes and lets his rage show through. In this case, just because he is angry does not mean he is inaccurate. One also has to remember it was written in 1960 with the wounds of the Second World War still fresh. The Thirtieth Edition, published in 1990, comes with an Afterword by Shirer. He writes about his worry that a united Germany would become a militarist threat. Hindsight has proven Shirer wrong, although the hatred, anti-Semitism, and anti-democratic intimidation have now become the modus operandi of different actors.
Homosexuality also, in Shirer’s estimation, becomes another manifestation of Nazism’s decadence and criminality. Ernst Roehm, head of the SA, is labeled “a pervert” because of his homosexuality. Roehm participated in his fair share of political violence, but his predilection for male company is immaterial. Homosexual men with less than admirable personal lives are nothing new, and the Nazi movement was not the only mass movement to Roehm-type figures. One’s sexual orientation does not presume one’s political orientation. Roy Cohn and Harvey Milk illustrate this point.
The book excels in condemning the Nazis by using primary documents. Shirer uses testimony from the Nuremburg trials, memoirs, and the captured “confidential archives of the German government and all its branches.” He shines a light on the hidden documents and lets the participants incriminate themselves.
Shirer, as a newspaperman, makes his book an exciting read. It is a page-turner with forward narrative momentum like the best of thrillers. (For those interested in the political aspects, Stanley Payne’s A History of Fascism 1914-1945 is a more academic treatment. Payne analyzes the specific characteristics of “generic fascism” and proceeds to illustrate the various fascist movements in Europe showing how fascism is a political philosophy as varied as any other.) In the end, Shirer’s book is a masterful telling of a dark decade that nearly destroyed civilization and remains no laughing matter.