Top positive review
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on 5 September 2016
William L Shirer was an American journalist who played a major role, alongside Ed Murrow, in waking his fellow countrymen up to the dangers of Nazism and the impossibility of US neutrality in the face of the existential threat to the liberal democratic world posed by Hitler. His most famous work is The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, in my view one of the best works of narrative history/journalism ever written. This book contains his diaries from when he was correspondent in Berlin, initially for two of Randolph Hearst's wire services, then for CBS. He arrives in the German capital at a time when "Hitler and the Nazis have lasted out a whole year in Germany and our friends in Vienna write that fascism, both of a local clerical brand and of the Berlin type, is rapidly gaining ground in Austria". World war is still of course, well over five years away, but Shirer is more prescient than many.
He chronicles the rise of fascism and collapse of social democracy in Austria, then the familiar litany of Hitler's advances, the Rhineland, Austria, the Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland before Britain and France wake up to the threat and finally abandon appeasement and stand up to Hitler. He is an excellent writer and brings home clearly the drama and horror of events as they unfold, in the sheer rapidity of the German advance into Poland and of the Blitzkrieg across northern and western Europe in 1940, which year covers half of the entire text of the book. Reading this account as the events unfold is very different from reading a historical account written with the hindsight knowledge of Nazi defeat in 1945.
While Shirer acknowledges that Hitler could never totally control Europe as long as Britain remained free, he thinks it plausible that Hitler could effectively control the world: "I am firmly convinced that he does contemplate [invading the USA] and that if he wins in Europe and Africa he will in the end launch it unless we are prepared to give up our way of life and adapt ourselves to a subservient place in his totalitarian scheme of things". He marks the contrast between the old world and the new in these striking words: "How dim in memory the time when there was peace. That world ended, and for me, on the whole, despite its faults, its injustices, its inequalities, it was a good one. I came of age in that one, and the life it gave was free, civilized, deepening, full of minor tragedy and joy and work and leisure, new lands, new faces—and rarely commonplace and never without hope. And now darkness. A new world. Black-out, bombs, slaughter, Nazism. Now the night and the shrieks and barbarism".
Despite this bleakly pessimistic vision, he thinks that "even if Germany should win the war it will lose its struggle to organize Europe". This derives from his belief that, contrary to the assertions of some that Hitler and the Nazis imposed their creed on a wholly unwilling populace, "the Nazi regime has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect it has been representative of the people it rules". He believes that "the German.......is incapable of organizing Europe. His lack of balance, his bullying sadism when he is on top, his constitutional inability to grasp even faintly what is in the minds and hearts of other peoples, his instinctive feeling that relations between two peoples can only be on the basis of master and slave and never on the basis of let-live equality—these characteristics of the German make him and his nation unfit for the leadership in Europe they have always sought and make it certain that, however he may try, he will in the long run fail". So while he accepts that only Hitler made this appalling war possible, in doing so the dictator was, in the author's view, drawing on the dark side of the nature of a critical mass of German people who craved submission and who had "almost joyfully, almost masochistically, ...... turned to an authoritarianism which releases them from the strain of individual decision and choice and thought and allows them what to a German is a luxury—letting someone else make the decisions and take the risks, in return for which they gladly give their own obedience". At the same time, this weakness caused Germany to underrate the infuriating stubbornness of British resistance, as the latter "won’t admit they’re licked. [The Germans] cannot repress their rage against Churchill for still holding out hopes of victory to his people, instead of lying down and surrendering, as have all of Hitler’s opponents up to date".
Shirer finally leaves Berlin towards the end of 1940 when the censorship has got so bad once Hitler has abandoned his plans to invade Britain and the Nazis are for the first time not having everything their own way, that he is virtually restricted to reading out the communiques of the High Command verbatim, without analysis or comment. He can do no more to raise the awareness of his American audience to the realities of Nazism. He concludes his diaries as follows:
"I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man’s hope and decency."
Superb writing and just a brilliant piece of narrative of these world-shattering events. 5/5