Notoriously Verbose: a weekly book review by the Sheaf’s long-time volunteer and friend Alex MacPherson.
There are probably lots of books that you’d like to read, and then there are the ones you really should read. William L. Shirer’s magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich falls unequivocally into the latter category.
Broadly speaking, Shirer’s book is merely another exhaustively researched history of Nazi Germany. You already know the story: an Austrian vagabond uses deviant rhetoric to attract legions of stupid and easily manipulated hooligans into his private coterie before embarking on a crusade to exploit a vulnerable people, become a dictator, conquer Europe, deploy the long-nascent Final Solution and propagate a new brand of ruthless autocracy. Nothing is new; in Shirer’s account Hitler is still a vile man and his henchmen still do vile things.
Why then, you might justifiably wonder, is this colossal book so important? The answer is simple. Shirer’s masterpiece is uncommonly well-written, a condition that promotes accessibility. More importantly, the author’s perspective — he lived and worked in Germany from 1934 until the crepuscular autumn of 1940 — is fascinating. Unlike many historians who write late at night in cramped basements and backroom offices, he was there, a witness to the ascent and subsequent decline of Hitler’s thousand-year Reich.
Finally, the book’s thesis buttresses George Santayana’s veracious aphorism, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Put another way, Shirer’s book is a paragon of inimitable journalism and unparalleled observational skill; nowhere can a more insightful examination of a great nation’s precipitous descent into fatuous nationalism and ugly servitude be found.
Historiography has largely been conceived of as the sole property of academia. Civilians were for many years considered unqualified to write works of legitimate history. Shirer himself acknowledged this pernicious attitude in the postscript for his book The Collapse of the Third Republic. The American author offered profuse thanks to “a number of eminent French historians, none of whom share the disdain their American academic colleagues have for former journalists breaking into their sacred field — that stupidity is unknown in Europe.”
Implicit in Shirer’s diatribe is the suggestion that scholarly writing is masturbatory, written not for the general public but for other academicians. Corollary to this position is the claim that historiography is largely inaccessible.
Given the importance of the topic matter, Shirer endeavoured to write a book anyone could read. To this end he relied extensively on his newspaper experience — Shirer instantiates the experienced correspondent’s sense of concision — and an innate ability to manipulate language. His writing is clear, his words well chosen. In spite of its size, Rise and Fall reads like a novel.
The structure of the book relies heavily on Shirer’s unique and pointed insights. As the Berlin correspondent for CBS News, he was permitted by the Nazis to observe the inner workings of the Third Reich. Because Hitler wanted to present Germany as a peaceful, even convivial nation, Shirer was a guest at many of the major Nazi rallies and events.
During his tenure he became acquainted with many of the regime’s leading figures. Most failed to impress him. His excoriations of the reptilian Nazi high command alone make Rise and Fall worth reading: Ribbentrop, the champagne salesmen cum foreign minister, he described as “incompetent and lazy, vain as a peacock, arrogant and without humour;” Streicher, Hitler’s insane newspaperman, “a depraved sadist… a blindly fanatical anti-Semite… a noted pornographist.” Tautology runs thick here.
More saliently, Shirer’s testimony is credible. He witnessed much political manoeuvring and was privy to the Fuehrer’s prolific bloviation. His ability to penetrate the latter was impressive. Shirer’s observations were prescient; he was able to strip away the veneer and portray Hitler for what he was: an irredeemable monster. Because he was a personal — and indeed, invited — witness to the devolution of Germany into a pattern of sycophantism and acts of unspeakable evil, Rise and Fall carries with it the irrepressible weight of truth.
Finally, Rise and Fall is important because its thesis has vast and relevant implications. Shirer argued that the ascendance of organized thugs and gangsters in Germany was facilitated — permitted, even — by a national character predisposed to accepting servility. Democratic vacillation led to ineffective governance. This contributed in turn to a growing sense of dissatisfaction; slavish devotion to an autocrat became more appealing than endless political wavering and inaction.
Widespread indifference gave Hitler the opportunity to legitimize falsification as a political instrument. A deep sense of suspicion regarding politicians allowed the Fuehrer to conceal his true motives with vile fabrications until he was firmly entrenched in power. The vitiation and eventual destruction of the moribund Weimar Republic occurred not because of Hitler’s persuasiveness but because of a desire for instantaneous change. The Germans, Shirer argued, wanted a leader who would unburden the country from the chains of Versailles, democratic fluctuations and return Germany to her old greatness. In short, a dictator.
Put another way, the zeitgeist encouraged and supported Hitler’s outrageous behaviour. A great people were subjugated because of their credulity. The paradigm shift was so rapid that Hitler’s own garbled musings, enshrined forever in the loathsome Mein Kampf, were roundly ignored.
Crucially, Shirer’s main thrust is free from the constraints of time and place. Another Hitler could rise wherever political ambivalence, reactionary thought and blind certainty are present. His theory has been largely vindicated by the inexplicable and calamitous rise of a new crop of dictators in the early 21st century. The inevitable unspoken coda of a book like Rise and Fall is plain: vigilance and dissent do not deny justice and order but sustain them.