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A book to remember
on 16 May 2001
William Shirer was an American journalist in Germany from 1934 until presumably 1941 (when Germany declared war on the USA after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour). Shirer occasionally mentions his participation in reporting history from Berlin or the front lines and admits to having been influenced by the endless barrage of Nazi propaganda. Occasionally his sharp post-war opinions on the characters of the various leaders depicted breaks through. The book is based on the huge amounts of documentary and verbal evidence that became available after the war and the Nuremberg trials. The book represents a huge work of research - one wonders, however, whether the author's motivation is an atonement to his blindness (along with many millions of others) to the monstrosity of the Third Reich as it actually happened.
On reading the book (a rich 1200 pages!) one wonders whether it should not have been called "The Rise and the Fall of Adolf Hitler" for it centers around Hitler and his generals and seems to almost forget Goering, Goebbels, Himmler and other Nazi leaders after their initial appearances. A central conclusion from the book is, no doubt, that the Third Reich and World War2 would not have come about were it not for this one man - Adolf Hitler. All the other players in Shirer's story pale into insignificance beside the genius, charisma, madness, vision, evil, manipulativeness, leadership and single-mindedness of the one man. The only other "heros" of the book, although not covered in great detail, are Stalin and, rather more so, Churchill whose vision, inspiration and leadership changed the course of history.
[Reviewer's personal note: WW2 and the Holocaust are themes of enormous importance to me personally. Both my parents were born in Germany and, had it not been for Hitler I would have been born a German. Once the Third Reich existed I might not have been born at all were it not for Churchill, and I almost certainly wouldn't have been living in Israel if weren't for WW2 and the Holocaust. The realization (sharpened after reading this book) that my life ,and that of so many millions of others, would have been so different were it not for two men is quite shattering.]
Besides Hitler, Churchill and Stalin most other players in the drama of the Third Reich appear in Shirer's book as sycophants, ditherers, brutes or nonentities. The weakness and blindness of pre-war England and France are difficult to imagine. The blind neutrality and unpreparedness of the governments of Belgium, Holland and Norway is also noted. The world's blindness is all the more noteworthy considering, as Shirer carefully points out, that Hitler laid out his philosophy and intentions very clearly in Mein Kampf which he wrote in the mid 1920's.
In hindsight, one is open-mouthed at the success of Hitler's bullying which allowed him to annex Austria and dismantle Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. Hitler also intimidated his generals who dared not disobey him even if it cost the lives of thousands of their troops and endangered their own. As the war progressed more and more of them either resigned or were fired in Hitler's increasing rage and frustration at ever increasing failures. It is quite amazing to read about the chain of events which led the ex-Austrian corporal to take over direct command of the German armed forces in the first place. There is no doubt that, during the early stages of the war, Hitler's ideas of where and how to attack and invade were smarter than those of his generals, as was his assessment of the procrastination and unpreparedness of the countries to the north and west.
However Hitler had a number of critical blind spots that were to cost him the war. He underestimated the will of the Russians to fight for their homeland as he misjudged the tenacity of the British and readiness to fight of the Americans. Hitler was more paranoid about the dangers close to home to his regime and his person. He made sure to eliminate (literally) any real or supposed opposition including the many members of the July 1944 plot. Shirer documents the various attempts within Germany during the war years to overthrow the Fuehrer which all failed from combinations of bad luck, ambivalence, mutual distrust and lack of resolve of the plotters.
The book's main themes are the rise of the Nazi Party, the build up to and then the conduct of the war until its demolition of the Third Reich. From a history of the Third Reich, I would have expected something more on the instruments of government and power under the Nazi regime. There is also little on the Nazis' innovative, systematic and extremely successful uses of deception and propaganda to further their aims. Shirer, however, chooses the more exciting stories and gives us a tantalizing insider's view of the Reich. The detail furnished by some of Hitler's loyal subordinates of meetings give us the feeling of having been there in the Chancellery or in Berchtesgaden as it happened. For those of us who grew up on the Allied story of the war, this glimpse into the enemy camp is a memorable one. I will not forget this book for a long time.