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The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer. Simon & Schuster, 1959. 1,252 pages.

If I had read this book five years ago, I would have read it pretty much purely as history. Barack Obama was still president of the United States. Having elected its first black president and experienced eight years of economic recovery with competent, scandal-free government, America seemed to have outgrown its worst vices. Now we know that America has not outgrown its worst vices.

In writing this post, three times I’ve written something angry, and three times I’ve deleted it. Instead of venting my anger over the ugly turn in American history that we are now living through, I think I’ll just say this: There is no better time to read this book than now. Adolf Hitler, of course, was character number 1 in this history. Just behind him were Hermann Goering (who cheated the hangman with suicide by cyanide) and the others who had great power who were hanged at Nuremberg. There were hundreds more with lesser roles whose names are on the historical record. And there were the millions of nameless Germans who should have known better but didn’t. If you read this book now, you will recognize these people, because today people just like them are still with us. That these people today have not acquired the power to do the damage the Nazis did, or that they’d be satisfied with domination and oligarchy and anti-democracy tyranny rather than genocide, says little about their character. They are the same people.

We are fortunate that so many records survived to document this history: the secret government records captured in Berlin, the diaries, the letters, and the Nuremberg interrogations, depositions, and testimony. Those are the sources that Shirer used to write this history.

Shirer writes, in his afterword to the 1990 edition:

“Perhaps it will help too if the erring governments and the wondering people of this world will remember the dark night of Nazi terror and genocide that almost engulfed our world and that is the subject of this book. Remembrance of the past helps us to understand the present.”

If only the worst people among us could recognize what they are and how eager they are to be misled. But, because of what they are, I doubt that they ever will.


  1. Dan wrote:

    I took a graduate history course called Germany since 1918. In that we read several books – 14-18, Ordinary Men, Germans into Nazis, and the most comprehensive of them, The Nazi Seizure of Power. It illustrated the town-by-town terror they imposed on the people of Germany in consolidating their power up to 1933.

    In hindsight, Weimar, which gets blamed for being a hedonistic state devoid of decency, just had weak liberal institutions incapable of holding back the anger of what would become the NSDAP. Maybe the decentralized nature of America will keep something exactly like the Nazis from consolidating power throughout, but I think rural America is ripe for something similar.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  2. daltoni wrote:

    Hi Dan. For all the length of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, one realizes that there is much, much more to the story. As for the U.S., my hope is that some of the anger will subside once Republicans figure out that the tactics they’ve been using won’t win any more national elections. Then we can get back to rebuilding our institutions.

    Wednesday, August 12, 2020 at 5:47 pm | Permalink
  3. Henry Sandigo wrote:

    Many years ago while stationed in Germany I was able to tour 2 concentration camps. The experience has not left me…in one, I think it was France, the liberators left everything in place, placeing pitch tar on devices that could deteriorate over time (hang-mans noose-gallows-etc.)and then the one at Dachau, that had been turned into a memorial, very clean, so you could not see the aftermath, though it made you think. Then last year, in Hungary (I think)many miles from any village or city – a quarry mine where prisoners were forced to cary granite blocks up a steep steps, many fell off and died. My wife found her family name in one of the registers adjacent to the gas chamber. I cannot understand how it happened, but I do really. And of course we have seen over the last few years in different parts of Europe & Africa the same type of slaughter. I really think it could happen here, given the right circumstances and the hate I have seen flaunted in the news by supremacists.

    Saturday, August 15, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

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