Todd N's Reviews > The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
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it was amazing
bookshelves: kindle

This book was a Christmas present from a friend, though I also bought a copy on the Kindle so that I could read it outside of my house without having to lug around a brick-like book with swastikas on it. The Kindle version is especially handy if you are not quite at the bring-Nazi-related-stuff-to-the-office stage at your job yet. (The down side of the Kindle version is that the it is horrible at handling footnotes, and this book has many that are important to the story.)

This is a strange and unique book not only because Mr. Shirer lived in Germany for more half of the Third Reich (or Reich 3.0 as we call it in Silicon Valley) but also because he had access to a massive amount of top secret documents that were captured after the war. This included Hitler's own appointment book and many importnt documents detailing military and political strategy. What do you get the fascist dictator who has everything? A decent paper shredder. That and Moscow.

He also appeared to be on friendly enough terms that he could write to (Nazi) General Halder for points of clarification.

Because this book is about 1100 pages of main text, it's a good thing that Mr. Shirer is one of the so-called "Murrow Boys." He worked closely with Murrow at CBS and did other reporting. These guys are known for their clear, direct prose, though it gets a bit purple here and there in this book. I'm prepared to forgive him for that given the circumstances.

I love reading big, epic histories like this, but here is the main problem I had while reading this one: All of the big histories I have read before this one were all ancient histories. The temporal distance between then and now allows me to detach and think about what happened then abstractly.

So Alexander killed a bunch of Persians and Rome leveled Carthage and sowed their fields with salt, but f I felt anything while reading about these events it was sort of a vague sense of awe. But it isn't really possible to get behind Hitler or Germany in this way.

For one thing WWII is still very personal. For example, my great-uncle was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor (which I know was done by the Japanese not the Germans). One of my dad's earliest memories is everyone in his family crying when they got the news. The father-in-law of the friend who gave me this book was in Poland during WWII, and I've heard him tell some chilling stories. And I think everyone has friends whose families in Europe fled or were partially wiped out during the rise of the Third Reich.

For another thing Hitler wasn't that great of a military leader. His major triumphs were mostly political, and aside from the first year or so he didn't appear to have much of a handle on war strategy. In the introduction Mr. Shirer says in the introduction that Hitler is the last of the warrior conquerers in the vein of Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, but I don't agree with that.

So in 2,000 years -- about the distance between us and ancient Greece and Rome -- the events in this book will probably be seen as a particularly nasty blip in an otherwise unpleasant century, scientific discoveries notwithstanding.

But for people living now this is a thoroughly fascinating and well-written book.

It's divided into six books of unequal lengths. World War II doesn't start until half way through, at the beginning of the fourth book, so there is a lot of lead up and Hitler shenanigans until then.

The first part of the book covers Hitler's background, early life, and philosophical influences. This is where Mr. Shirer lays out his controversial thesis that The Third Reich grew out of something inherent in the German people rather than Germany merely getting caught up in the fascist vibe that was going around Europe in the '20s and '30s. He traces the seeds of Naziism all the way back to Luther. I don't know enough about history to have an opinion on this.

It also covers the early days of the Nazi party. [[[Aside: I didn't realize "Nazi" is an abbreviation for National Socialist. I'm definitely going to start calling people national socialists when they annoy me, as in "grammar national socialists."]]] Reading this part is sort of like watching The Bad News Bears with the knowledge that Walter Matthau is going to be responsible for the deaths of millions of people. The early Nazi party sounds like a bunch of loser-y misfits, and soon enough a lot of them outlived their usefulness so Hitler had them killed.

The big thing with Hitler was the way he understood and could influence politics. So if you found that whole plot line in Star Wars about how Senator Palpatine became the Emperor, then you should probably skip directly to the second half when Germany invades Poland.

Personally I found it fascinating the way Hitler played England and France like chumps and annexed more and more land. You can definitely see the weaknesses of a democratic society compared with a totalitarian society, but this is nothing that isn't already covered in Greek history.

There is a chapter about what day to day life was like during the Third Reich. It turns out that controlling media and propaganda are very important for maintaining a fascist dictatorship. Because I'm slow sometimes, my first thought as I read was that it sure was a lot like 1984.

The last few chapters in the third book are pretty tough going because it contains exhaustive detail about a lot of ambassadors running around making and breaking alliances. This is the only part of the book that is not that well-written and even somewhat repetitive. I did learn this odd fact: At the last minute an executive from General Motors personally flew to Germany to try to prevent war from breaking out. It's unclear what his motives were, but nothing came of it anyway.

The second half is the quickest 500 pages I have ever read. I've never been much interested in military strategy or wars after 1066AD, but this was just fascinating reading. We should all go to bed each night happy that Hitler screwed the pooch so bad in the way he directed the German Army. There are many points in the war where it is clear that the Axis powers could have forced a very different outcome. A few off the top of my head: holding back tanks at Dunkirk, starting the Moscow campaign a few weeks too late, not putting enough resources into Africa, holding back the Navy in the Battle of the Atlantic, holding back the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

One chapter that you may want to skip is chapter 27, which is about the New Order. This covers the treatment of Poland, the plans for Russia, the slave labor camps, the concentration camps, the death camps, the Einsatzgruppen, the infamous medical experiments, and many other horrifying things that are associated with the Nazis. One footnote claims that Himmler, the head of the S.S. mind you, almost fainted at the sight of one execution of 100 prisoners. I won't think any less of you if you skip this part. This is the first time I have ever read something that gave me nightmares.

The book ends a few days after Hitler's death. I read this chapter before starting the book, because I was always curious about the bunker and how that all went down. Badly, it turns out. Why did Hitler have his dogs killed? Why did Goebbels do what he did? I got on Wikipedia and was surprised to find that the location of the Fuhrerbunker actually has a marker.

Definitely recommended. It's a very important book. My brain is still digesting this book more than a week after I finished it, and I think it permanently altered my consciousness.
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 12, 2012 – Finished Reading
February 18, 2012 – Shelved
February 18, 2012 – Shelved as: kindle

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Indira Mullick I am reading this book now and is impressed and encouraged by your review of the same. Thanks.............

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