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Monday, May 21, 2012

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany”, by William L. Shirer

1245 pages, Simon and Schuster, ISBN-13: 978-0671624200

William L. Shirer's classic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the most complete single volume account of the history of Nazi Germany ever written. Shirer was a journalist, not a historian and the advantages of this show in his very readable prose and his vivid descriptions (for example, often referring to Herman Goering as "the fat Field Marshall"). The book starts with the birth of the Nazi party and how it found a spokesman early on in an ex-serviceman named Adolf Hitler. The narrative continues through until the end of the war, Hitler's suicide and the final few days under Admiral Doenitz. The only warning to the casual reader is that the book's length exceeds 1100 pages and it is crammed to the brim with facts. Also, it should be noted that the book was published over forty years ago and does not include more recent information that has come to light from, for example, the former East German archives. Nevertheless, this is still a classic work of journalistic history.

Shirer's book is abundantly documented, largely thanks to the bonanza of Nazi documents that fell almost untouched into Allied hands at the end of the war. Perhaps it was that mania for organization and precision that contributed to the "Final Solution": first, the determination that the Jews were to be eliminated and then the search for a method to most efficiently bring this about. So from mass shootings in the trenches, they progressed to Auschwitz and the gas chambers, and kept searching for ways to improve the rate and efficiency of the carnage right up to the end.

What kind of people would participate in something as monstrous as this? Some of the most chilling passages in the book are the descriptions of the defendants' testimony at the Nuremberg trials, as when one officer says without batting an eye that he personally oversaw the deaths of 90,000 people. Even this pales before the descriptions of the medical experiments in the concentration camps, when respected doctors prostituted their science and their souls in some of the most despicable tortures ever perpetrated on human beings, and lost their own humanity in the process.

One of the main strengths of the book, besides the wealth of documentation, is that it was written only 14 years after the end of the war, when many of the main characters were still alive. Shirer gives grudging respect to those Germans such as Halder and Speer who were able to face up to and acknowledge their own guilt and complicity that allowed the unspeakable to become real. One wonders what Heydrich or Von Ribbentrop would have told him had they not been executed, one by Czech partisans and the other by a hangman's noose after the Nuremberg trials.

Shirer narrates in detail the failed plot to kill Hitler by his own officers in 1944, the revenge exacted by Hitler and his kangaroo courts, the Allied invasion of Western Europe and the final assault by Russia and the Allied forces that destroyed Nazi Germany, and not a minute too soon. He feels some sympathy for the German people who followed Hitler blindly to their own destruction, like lemmings over a cliff. It is difficult to share his feelings. One reads this awesome book and feels that they brought it on themselves, they enthusiastically backed Hitler's rise to power, and in doing so, unleashed a monster.

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