This is one of those books that, especially now that I have read it, I feel everyone should read — all 1,000+ pages of it. Up until recently, I never got around to it. Growing up in the 50s and 60s, there was a lot more interest in the Second World War then than there is now. TV shows such as Walter Cronkite’s “The Twentieth Century” and countless paperback books containing fictional war stories were a staple back then. I was more interested in science fiction books at the time, but always had a lingering curiosity about William Shirer’s book. I only recently got around to reading it. It is a tremendous, fascinating book which is very easy to read. The subject matter though is tough to stomach, even at this relatively far removed era. The rise of Adolf Hitler, from humble origins to mad dictator of Germany, is hard to comprehend. That the German people actually elected him into power, and that the democracies of Europe — France and Britain — so long failed to recognize the danger of this man and his regime, is also very hard to comprehend. It is fortunate for all of us that it was primarily Hitler’s overreaching himself, fighting on two fronts, that led to his downfall.
William L. Shirer was a news correspondent who was stationed in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. He was an eyewitness to Hitler’s rise to power. He heard all his major speeches, was present at the surrender of France, and saw all the major players (Hitler, Göring, Ribbentrop, Hess, and the rest) frequently. This gives the reader a feeling of being an eyewitness to these important events which other more remote histories lack. The other major sources of the book are the notes and diaries of the Nazis which the Allies obtained intact at the end of the war, and testimonies at the Nuremberg trial. There were also a precious few sane German generals (invariably dismissed from Hitler’s service, and lucky not to be murdered) with whom Shirer corresponded, who were important eyewitnesses to meetings with Hitler. This perspective sometimes introduces unnecessary personal attacks (Göring is invariably described as “fat” or “corpulent”, probably the least of his bad traits), but in general the closeup view is fascinating.
As early as “Mein Kampf” Hitler expressed his intentions clearly, although these early warning signs were ignored by the world. To sum him up: he was viciously anti-Semitic, he never got over Germany’s defeat in the First World War, and he felt that Germany was constricted by surrounding countries and needed “Lebensraum” (living space). After failing to achieve power in a coup, for which he was jailed, he worked politically to achieve his ends. The book goes over his rise to power in great detail. Reluctantly appointed by President Hindenburg to the post of Chancellor, subsequent elections (bolstered by support from businesses who were big supporters of the Nazis at first) consolidated his power, and, after the Reichstag fire (probably set by the Nazis) and the Enabling Act of 1933, Hitler became Führer and there was no turning back.
The book makes clear that Hitler was absolutely ruthless in accomplishing his aims, and surrounded himself with thugs such as Himmler and Göring who were as fanatical as he. Early on, when Hitler’s best friend, Ernst Röhm, showed signs of rivaling him in power, Hitler had him murdered. Hitler and the Nazis developed the SA (stormtroopers) who were a paramilitary group that rampaged through the land, beating up and murdering Jews and others that the Nazis didn’t want around. Thuggery and terrorism kept the people in line. But the German people did not complain too much, because Germany did very well economically at the start of the Third Reich. During the Great Depression, Germany prospered, in large part because the Nazis were secretly arming for war. Business liked it, and so did not complain. Anti-Semitism was widespread, both in Europe and here in America, so a common response to the anti-Jewish activities was that Jews largely had brought this on themselves. America in particular turned a blind eye at first to Hitler’s regime. England and France were more worried, because they were closer geographically. Hitler as a politician was at times brilliant, taking over Austria and Czechoslovakia with nary a whimper from the West. He really did not want to involve the West at all; his eye was on the East, on Russia. Yet he fooled Russia into cooperation with him, allowing him to take over Poland. He was surprised when France and England finally stuck to their guns and declared war on Germany because of their treaties with Poland. Unfortunately for Hitler he had no control over his ally Japan, who, without his knowledge, attacked Pearl Harbor and finally dragged the US into the war. Before that though he had turned on his Russian ally, and started the campaign which really took the wind out of the sails of the German army. It may have been the harsh Russian winters as much as the Russian battles that were the turning point of the war. The other turning point was the D-day invasion of France by the allies. Hitler could not keep up the war on both fronts. His generals had warned him about this, but they too were too timid or incompetent to act. A few were involved in plots to kill Hitler. All of these fizzled out due to back luck and bad planning, including Project Valkyrie. Germany’s greatest Field Marshall, Erwin Rommel, “the Desert Fox,” was part of that plot. Unlike all the other members of the conspiracy, who were executed, Rommel was so popular that he was allowed to commit suicide quietly, without linking him to the plot. This was about as “nice” as Hitler ever seemed to get.
There are insights into Hitler’s nature in the this book. Hitler was romantically involved with his cousin, Geli Raubal. At the peak of this relationship, she committed suicide, and this seemed to have a long-lasting effect on him. Hitler’s last days in his bunker in Berlin were filled with pathos. He missed an opportunity to escape to Austria and was thus trapped in his bunker, with the Allies steadily approaching. He still was der Führer, sending out orders to armies that had already surrendered, moving troops that no longer existed, still holding out hope. His former aids Himmler and Goering had betrayed him. The only people who stayed with him to the end were his mistress, Eva Braun, and the Propaganda Minister, the creepy Dr. Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels poisoned his young children, then he and his wife committed suicide. Hitler and Braun followed suit shortly thereafter, and within a week, the Third Reich, meant to last a thousand years, was no more.
My brother corresponded with Leni Riefenstahl, the German actress and director who directed the propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. On my wall there is an autographed picture of her, beautiful and glamorous, taken in the the 1930s, at a time when she was friends with Hitler and perhaps his mistress. She had sent my brother the picture when she was in her 90s, and she has since passed away. It is a strange reminder of that awful era.