books · history

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer


The work of a thousand years is nothing but rubble”

This gargantuan book contains the comprehensive history of everything that happened in Germany since the rise of Hitler and all through the Second World War. It traces Hitler’s childhood, his earliest ideologies, influences and struggle, parochial though they often were, his subsequent rise to power, his ambitious plan to take over the continent and eliminate the superiority of Britain and France (in which he did succeed, despite his eventual failure) and in the same stroke establish Germany as the political and economic champion of the world, his recalcitrant military methodologies, his cruelly imposed New Order (which included the infamous Final Solution)  the thwarted attempts of those who tried to stop him, his subjugation and the ultimate farce that resulted in his demise, along with that of his craftily-created empire that extended from the English Channel in the West and went almost as far as Moscow in the East, covering France, Austria, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Greece and even most of Italy (as Mussolini collapsed towards the end), among others.

A thousand and one thoughts ran through my mind as I slowly consumed this large and very thrilling narrative of world events from the early twentieth century. William L, Shirer, an American journalist and war correspondent who had access to the large database of surviving Third Reich documents and was a witness at the Nuremberg trials which finally revealed, in totality, the complete extent of Nazi manipulation and atrocities and paid part of the retribution (although it can never be enough) that was required to restore the lost dignity of the European savagery it begot, is the author of this massive book. I will never deny how invaluable this book was for me to understand the Third Reich and Hitler better than i ever had before. But some of Mr. Shirer’s shortcomings percolated through the pages of this book in a glaring fashion.

First of all, in the foreword Mr. Shirer promises to be uncompromisingly objective as he proceeds to lay down the facts, but he fails to do so. He is not objective about Germany but highly prejudiced against it. He tries, of course, to keep the narration unbiased and succeeds in places but the overall effect is that the book is a very negative commentary on German people in general and Nazis in particular. The Nazi war crimes warrant for most of this, no doubt, but a historian should be a little less judgemental. Although there is a great deal of criticism for the Chamberlain-led British government, there is almost none for Churchill or Roosevelt. USA’s entry into the war is explained unsatisfactorily, so is the Japan-Germany alliance. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are skipped entirely. No mention of it can be found in the book at all, which is shocking. Mussolini’s fatal fall from grace is hurriedly explained towards the very end. And most of all, the war crimes committed against homosexuals is missing altogether because apparently Mr. Shirer considers homosexuality a perversion (there are allusions to this in the text although he doesn’t exactly say is forthright) and although all other Nazi victims are given due respect, the homosexuals are skipped out of existence.

But this book was nonetheless one of the most amazing books I’ve ever read and a treasure-trove of knowledge. It strengthened my hatred towards Hitler and everything he stood for but I wish it had given me a better insight into some of the welcomed reforms he brought for his countrymen in the ’30s (the ones that made Germans thankful for their Fuehrer and blinded so many to the gigantic errors of his ways).

The Early Years

The earliest influencing years of Hitler’s life were spent in Vienna before the first world war where, orphaned and destitute, he tried to make an artist out of himself. He saw himself as a connoisseur of art and culture, an opinion he stuck to till the very end. It was in Vienna that he first inculcated his Jew-hatred, his intense racism, his abhorrence for democracy, his extreme belief in the superiority of the German Aryans and the sub-humanism of all Jews, gypsies, Slavs and so forth and most importantly, his observations about the importance of powerful propaganda, something he was to later use as one of the most influential weapons at his disposal.

It was after the Great War where he fought as a soldier on the front lines, that he joined the National Socialist party, which was not founded by him, as many would think. At that point the Weimar Constitution had been created to rule over Germany. The disgraceful loss of war and some of the unfair impositions placed upon her had reduced Germany to a country of warring factions where the government was a fluke, the economy wrecked and surviving only on American loans. In this scenario, Hitler, having just discovered his powers of oratory, flung the National Socialist party into action. The Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 was his first comedic attempt at seizing power. Although repelled within a few hours and despicably laughable in its unfolding, it was this event that taught Hitler a very important lesson.

He was sent to jail for it, where contemplation forced him to conclude that he would rise to power on the wings of popularity, by winning over the German populace. It was also here that he penned Mein Kamph, the book that was later to be a bestseller and in which Hitler talks about his pseudo-evolutionary philosophies and his political ambitions.

In the 1930s then, when the great depression led to the withdrawal of American cash, Hitler made the most of it in a series of elections that the unstable democracy fell into, until in early 1933 he was named the Chancellor and by March he had dissolved all political parties and set out on his mission of totalitarian subjugation. The irony here is that although not given a complete majority, it was by a democratic process and popular demand indeed that Hitler became the dictator of Germany.

Laying Down the Foundation and Hitler’s Conquests

Luck shone down upon the Fuehrer almost as much as his personality traits shone through the dimming lights of Germany’s disgrace. Within a few years, Hitler had created a Germany which was highly self-sufficient. He put an end to trade unions. From now onwards, fixed wages will be decided. He dissolved all political parties except his own as well as all institutions that threatened to take him down a peg or two. He dealt with the army, which was the only one institute with the power to bring him down and from which, later, came some of the only few feeble attempts at overthrowing him from within, first by appeasing them and later by expelling any general who even slightly opposed any of his policies. He dealt with his opponents harshly. Gregon Strasser was one of the more popular Nazis who arguably held the loyalty of more people than Hitler himself did. Hitler ultimately had him executed by the Gestapo. Hitler’s Gestapo or the S.S., under the charge of his faithful Himmler became a symbol of terror in Germany first and later in her conquered territories. The very word sends a shiver down my spine.

It was here that Hitler first began to play a very powerful game on the world scene. Mastering the art of propaganda with the help of his loyal Propaganda Minister Goebbels, and simultaneously using his efficient oratory to its greatest extent, Hitler  first created a network of media controlled entirely by the Nazis. All voices of dissension were suppressed, all rival newspapers shut down. Even radio was banned although some continued to personally defy this order to keep up with news from abroad.

Joseph_Goebbels

Hitler set off slowly to conquer what had been lost. He tentatively pushed France’s buttons to see just how far he could go by breaching the Versailles treaty. He captured Rhineland, appeased the Britain and French forces. Then he took over Austria and later Czechoslovakia whilst the Anglo-French powers stood aside and let him with hardly any protest. It is so ironical, the way Chamberlain kept giving in to Hitler. Hitler wanted to dominate the continent but he knew he could not fight the Anglo-French army on the west and Russia on the east at the same time. What cost the continent dearly later on, could have easily been prevented at the earliest if Britain and France hadn’t kept isolating Russia, despite the latter’s many attempts at reaching out towards the two powers. But Russia was continuously insulted by a Bolshevik-fearing Europe. It was mostly because of this and also because he was keen on playing his own game that Stalin signed pacts with Germany.This Soviet-German pact provided Germany with a lot of necessary trade and pushed the Russian entry into the war back to 1941.

It was Poland that first tried to oppose the German dictator and put up a fight. France had to then honor its pact with Poland and was thus pulled into the war. With the east captured and Russia kept at bay with peace treaties, Hitler turned west and conquered France but stopped there because by then the Churchill government was in power and refusing to capitulate. Hitler did not know how to invade the island which was the only remaining obstacle in his conquest of Europe. And there he made his fatal blunder, despite the warnings of his generals.

Hitler had always meant to attack Russia. It had only been a question of when. With Britain still alive and kicking albeit feebly, Hitler turned East and launched an offensive on the Communist state, without stopping to contemplate how this could contribute towards the two-front war which was his nightmare. Taken by surprise though the Russian Red Army was, it quickly dug its heels and set to work. When the bitter Russian winter came, the snow and sleet became an advantage to the vast cavalcades of Russian forces. Whilst Hitler forced his generals to stand their ground and never retreat no matter what, the Russians took thousands of prisoners of war and began the slow drive backwards, sending Germany off its conquered lands slowly but surely.

And then at Japan’s instigation, USA finally entered the war, reinforcing the battered English divisions with supplies of their own. The dreaded two-front war was the ultimate collapsing factor in the Third Reich’s history.

The July 20 1944 Conspiracy

Perhaps one of the most thrilling stories from World War Two is the sad and failed attempt of a group of German generals to thwart Hitler. There were many failed attempts at first to overcome and later to assassinate Hitler but by being unpredictable the German warlord kept the upper-hand until the 20th of July, 1944. By then Germany was most definitely losing and many German factions were eager to  jump the sinking ship. Some wanted Hitler’s end to be from within the country. Led by General Beck, the conspirators were however, more taken in by Colonel Stauffenberg, the bravest opposer to Hitler that I have ever read about. This one-eyed, one-handed charismatic thirty-six year old took it upon himself to plant the bomb in Hitler’s presence.

Luck was against the conspirators however. Although there were many things they should have done which they didn’t, Hitler was not killed off by this bomb due to one simple reason. One of his Generals shifted the case containing the bomb to the opposite side of a supporting pillar which shielded Hitler from the direct impact of the explosion. What a stroke of unprecedented luck!

The pre-injury Stauffenberg

The consequences for the conspirators were horrible. They were all eliminated for being traitors. Many were given farcical trials where they were humiliated and later slowly hanged. Hitler wanted an example set and he managed to set it. It was quite painful and hurting to read about.

The Grotesque Ending

Like everything else about it, the end of the Third Reich was grotesque too. One of the last orders Hitler gave his men were to destroy all industries, farms and so forth in Germany. His absolutely contorted love for his Fatherland was such that he did not want to leave anything for the German people to rise back from after he was gone. He meant to destroy everything that could ever be used to reconstruct Germany. He could not envisage a Germany without National Socialism, he could not envisage the disgrace of the first world war repeated under his watch. It is just as well that many of his generals did not obey this last order, although some did. Thankfully too, towards the end the people in the concentration camps were left to more or less fend for themselves. As the armies advanced from both sides, most Germans fled before the Communist outfit and chose, instead to surrender to the American-English advancements from the other side. Until the very end, almost, Hitler kept up the hope that the fronts of his enemies would collapse because Britain and USA would never let Europe be run over by the Bolsheviks. He chose to ignore the fact that it was he who had imposed the war upon the continent, it was he who had deftly signed treaties and broken almost all of them, except the ones he kept to Mussolini, with whom he shared a somewhat special bond (he fantastically sent a covert operation to rescue the Fascist leader and later set him up as a Nazi puppet when the latter was too broken to rule by himself).

Towards the end Hitler was physically and mentally unfit. He became weak, developed some sort of neuralgia in his arms (reported twitching by many survivors shows how complete his breakdown was). He became highly suspicious of his closest aides, including the staunchly supportive but highly opportunistic Goering, and delusional about winning the war even when Russian forces were fighting mere feet away from his Berlin Chancellery.

Hermann Goering

 

But he was determined to go down with Berlin.  He had little in the way of personal possessions and he hadn’t even considered taking as a wife the woman who loved him with unequaled (if foolish) devotion- Eva Braun. With death knocking on the front door however, he finally granted her her wish and married her in a macabre ceremony attended by the few who stayed with him until the end. When news of Mussolini’s desecrated body reached him, he became more determined than ever to not let himself and his wife fall into the hands of the Russians or the Jews. He killed himself with a shot down his throat. His bride of a day and a half swallowed a vial of poison and shared his fate. Their bodies were later burned down. Goebbels and his wife, loyal until death, committed suicide as well, taking with them the lives of their six young children.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich had little new to offer me with regards to the atoricities inflicted on its victims. Everything it said was confined to a single chapter and I had read about in other places. There were no unpleasant nightmares there, at least. When it must have come out, however, a lot of that material must have been new and shocking and saddening to the world  I believe. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn about the most important lessons one should draw from history but I would also suggest supplementing it with a little diverse literature to prevent certain antagonistic emotions from creeping into your mind through the influential narrative of the author.

William L. Shirer
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