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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Reading List: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Touchstone Books, [1959, 1960] 1990. ISBN 978-0-671-72868-7.
According to an apocryphal story, a struggling author asks his agent why his books aren't selling better, despite getting good reviews. The agent replies, “Look, the only books guaranteed to sell well are books about golf, books about cats, and books about Nazis.” Some authors have taken this too much to heart. When this massive cinder block of a book (1250 pages in the trade paperback edition) was published in 1960, its publisher did not believe a book about Nazis (or at least such a long one) would find a wide audience, and ordered an initial print run of just 12,500 copies. Well, it immediately went on to sell more than a million copies in hardback, and then another million in paperback (it was, at the time, the thickest paperback ever published). It has remained in print continuously for more than half a century, has been translated into a number of languages, and at this writing is in the top ten thousand books by sales rank on Amazon.com.

The author did not just do extensive research on Nazi Germany, he lived there from 1934 through 1940, working as a foreign correspondent based in Berlin and Vienna. He interviewed many of the principals of the Nazi regime and attended Nazi rallies and Hitler's Reichstag speeches. He was the only non-Nazi reporter present at the signing of the armistice between France and Germany in June 1940, and broke the news on CBS radio six hours before it was announced in Germany. Living in Germany, he was able to observe the relationship between ordinary Germans and the regime, but with access to news from the outside which was denied to the general populace by the rigid Nazi control of information. He left Germany in December 1940 when increasingly rigid censorship made it almost impossible to get accurate reporting out of Germany, and he feared the Gestapo were preparing an espionage case against him.

Shirer remarks in the foreword to the book that never before, and possibly never again, will historians have access to the kind of detailed information on the day-to-day decision making and intrigues of a totalitarian state that we have for Nazi Germany. Germans are, of course, famously meticulous record-keepers, and the rapid collapse and complete capitulation of the regime meant that those voluminous archives fell into the hands of the Allies almost intact. That, and the survival of diaries by a number of key figures in the senior leadership of Germany and Italy, provides a window into what those regimes were thinking as they drew plans which would lead to calamity for Europe and their ultimate downfall. The book is extensively footnoted with citations of primary sources, and footnotes expand upon items in the main text.

This book is precisely what its subtitle, “A History of Nazi Germany”, identifies it to be. It is not, and does not purport to be, an analysis of the philosophical origins of Nazism, investigation of Hitler's personality, or a history of Germany's participation in World War II. The war years occupy about half of the book, but the focus is not on the actual conduct of the war but rather the decisions which ultimately determined its outcome, and the way (often bizarre) those decisions were made. I first read this book in 1970. Rereading it four decades later, I got a great deal more out of it than I did the first time, largely because in the intervening years I'd read many other books about the period which cover aspects of the period which Shirer's pure Germany-focused reportage does not explore in detail.

The book has stood up well to the passage of time. The only striking lacuna is that when the book was written the fact that Britain had broken the German naval Enigma cryptosystem, and was thus able to read traffic between the German admiralty and the U-boats, had not yet been declassified by the British. Shirer's coverage of the Battle of the Atlantic (which is cursory), thus attributes the success in countering the U-boat threat to radar, antisubmarine air patrols, and convoys, which were certainly important, but far from the whole story.

Shirer is clearly a man of the Left (he manages to work in a snarky comment about the Coolidge administration in a book about Nazi Germany), although no fan of Stalin, who he rightly identifies as a monster. But I find that the author tangles himself up intellectually in trying to identify Hitler and Mussolini as “right wing”. Again and again he describes the leftist intellectual and political background of key figures in the Nazi and Fascist movements, and then tries to persuade us they somehow became “right wing” because they changed the colour of their shirts, even though the official platform and policies of the Nazi and Fascist regimes differed only in the details from those of Stalin, and even Stalin believed, by his own testimony, that he could work with Nazi Germany to the mutual benefit of both countries. It's worth revisiting Liberal Fascism (January 2008) for a deeper look at how collectivism, whatever the colour of the shirts or the emblem on the flags, stems from the same intellectual roots and proceeds to the same disastrous end point.

But these are quibbles about a monument of twentieth century reportage which has the authenticity of having been written by an eyewitness to many of the events described therein, the scholarship of extensive citations and quotations of original sources, and accessibility to the general reader. It is a classic which has withstood the test of time, and if I'm still around forty years hence, I'm sure I'll enjoy reading it a third time.

Posted at October 19, 2010 22:20