Wednesday, January 16, 2013

A glimpse into Hell on Earth: a review of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich"

Why I read this book:

My initial introduction to William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" came several years ago when my friend Dexter*, whom I introduced earlier in this blog, and I were trading stories about ambitious projects - books of heft in theme and volume, the kind that cool the passions of bookworms everywhere. At the time, I was inspired to pick up "War and Peace" (I made it to page 300 - no small feat; the book has been sitting open on that very page on my night stand for the last two years); Dexter suffered the same fate with "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich".

With that introduction to this book, I was only too happy to pick up "The Rise and Fall" when Amazon offered it as a Kindle Daily deal. So many pages of knowledge for so little money - let's do this thing, Shirer!


1. A casting net - seriously, that's just insulting. These gladiators are trying to kill me, and you outfit me for crabbing in the Chesapeake bay.
2. A dagger - Excellent for slicing an apple, not so much to defend against the a-hole in the chariot.
3. A spear - "Hey, look, did Caesar just vomit all over the Assyrian Prime Minister?" (spear in the back). It could work...
4. A trident - It's all relative; I could have been that poor guy with the net.
5. A sword and shield - the complete package 


Before you open this book, make sure that you first visit the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C. Go there because a book, no matter how powerful or revealing, cannot strike your most primal sensations as your eyes or your ears can. Go there and walk the exhibits; read the correspondence from Nazi bureaucrats who treated death as a production process as they casually noted that the methods of mass murder at their disposal were not killing people fast enough. Feel the shiver run down your back as your mind slowly registers the horrid contrast between the numbers and projections stated as a matter of fact in a manner devoid of any emotion, as if the work were producing nuts and bolts, and the brutality that lies behind those words. Go there and stare at the mountain of shoes as it finally dawns on you that people, no different than you and I, walked in those shoes right up to the moment they were slaughtered on a scale that has known no precedent in its calculated brutality and magnitude. Go there because chances are that you grew up in a part of the world that grew prosperous and peaceful on the rubble of the most devastating war the world has ever known. Go there because you cannot really fathom what happened during the reign of the Third Reich because your parents taught you to share when you were a child, and your Mom cried when you pushed that annoying kid in kindergarten when he tried to take your fire truck even though he already had the police car AND the ambulance, and you found the whole experience so stressful that the lines between what is wrong and what is right, and what  the boundaries of conduct are, became engrained in you at an early age. Go there because your upbringing and the fortunate timing of your existence has shielded you from realizing the true depths of evil that humans are capable of. Go there so that you may realize that humans have the capacity to organize all their resourcefulness, intelligence, and passion into such hatred, cruelty, and genocidal atrocities that even the imagination of early civilizations and religions could not replicate it in their representations of evil.    

After you internalize in your psyche the human capacity for unspeakable evil, you should proceed to read "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich". For even as the book cannot make you feel the sheer terror of what transpired during World War II, these pages will meticulously catalog every minute detail  of the events that plunged the world into utter destruction and help you understand the events that transpired, the causes of this madness, and ultimately, what we can do to prevent something like from ever happening again. For a history book, the writing is surprisingly smooth; an impressive accomplishment given the subject and the incredible array of sources that the author has meticulously compiled for this authoritative study.

How did this horror happen? The rise of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany unequivocally owes its success to the unbending will and determination of a mad, but brilliant, maniac, albeit Hitler's crude, hateful philosophy found a fertile environment. Shirer argues that Hitler's dreams of German conquest and expansion resonated strongly with a people with a long martial history.
He does have a point - naming your reign the THIRD Reich does imply some continuity (the first Reich was the Holy Roman Empire and the second Reich was the Hohenzollern Empire). Shirer also draws interesting parallels between Hitler's philosophical foundations behind his mad rants in Mein Kempf and the works of some of the influential thinkers in German history. Shirer paints a damning portrait of the complicity or lack of resistance to Germany's descent into an instrument of the most immoral destruction in history by the most powerful elements of the German society: the old guard of the government, the business interests, and the Army. Once Hitler ascended to power, becoming bigger than God and Law, and turned his maniacal hatred outside Germany's boundaries, the duty of stopping him fell to the fragmented, selfish, and mutually distrusting world powers. Disaster was already guaranteed to Germany's neighbours by the time a wavering Britain, defeatist France, treacherous Soviet Union, and an aloof United States realized the extent and brutality of Hitler's aims. Among these titans, historians of the Western world have reserved the greatest condemnation for Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler's lies and unchallenged takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia. This hardly seems fair - while Chamberlain certainly misjudged Hitler's capacity for lying, treachery, and barbarism, the United States was only too happy to stay on the sidelines while the Old World destroyed itself into oblivion, and the Soviet Union was busy scheming with Hitler to take its share of conquests! These historians have clearly fallen for the "oldest sibling" bias: when the parents get home to find the couch on fire and the chandelier sticking out of the television, the oldest child gets punished on the principle of bearing responsibility for the domain in the parents' absence. Never mind that the middle child decided to practice her aim with a bow and lit arrows a la the Hunger games; never mind that the youngest decided that he is Tarzan; the oldest child shoulders the blame. In the case of Chamberlain, it must be noted that while history has judged the old gentleman harshly, he fought for peace with tenacity and conviction; and once he realized that he was faced with an aggressor with a bloodthirst that could not be satisfied, Chamberlain was resolute and steadfast in his opposition to farther Nazi aggression.

Chamberlain did not have a precedent for the cunning and evil that was his adversary. In no prior time in human history has such madness of hatred united with such daring in manipulation of human desire for reason and peace , and with the world's most powerful military at the disposal of a ruthless maniac.

But we do have that precedent now. And even as the last of the generation that defended the world from the horror of Nazism pass on, books like "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" live on to remind us that the quest for global peace and harmony cannot be a fool's utopian errand, but must rather be the essential goal to ensure that we do not destroy each other. This book is a reminder that war is hell, and that we cannot unleash it lightly; and just as we must resist the temptation of war when the national mood is that of bloodlust, we must not give in to naiveté and weakness when we are faced with an insatiable evil.

*Dexter - as in the kid from "Dexter's laboratory", not the serial killer from Showtime's "Dexter".

1 comment:

  1. Wow. And how did I miss this kindle daily deal?