Max'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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bookshelves: european-history

Was the Third Reich an extension of the national character and value system or was it an episodic totalitarianism derived from concentration of power and fueled by modern technology. Shirer’s narrative supports the former but the latter view has many proponents. One relevant piece of history I have not seen mentioned in the context of this argument is the German colonization of South-West Africa, now Namibia. I first stumbled on this awful history in Thomas Pynchon’s excellent novel “V.”, which led me to look into it a little deeper.

Between 1904 and 1907, well before the Nazi party, Germany set out to exterminate the Herero and Nama peoples in its colony of South-West Africa resulting in over 60,000 killed. The UN designated this tragedy the first genocide of the 20th century. The colonists took the natives cattle and property, and when they rebelled with their spears, the Germans went about killing every man, woman and child they could find. This only stopped when the civilian administration objected because there would not be enough natives left to tend the colonizers stolen cattle and perform manual labor.

The horrific acts of the Third Reich were conducted in Southwest-Africa 30 years earlier: Concentration camps were set up where there was mass starvation and extreme cruelty, woman and children were kept in pens to serve as sex slaves, and even the sinister medical experiments of Third Reich were conducted first here on innocent natives. The leader of these experiments, Eugen Fischer, became the chancellor of the University of Berlin where he trained prominent Nazi physicians in the 1930’s including the infamous Josef Mengele.

Clearly the evil of the Third Reich was more than an episode. Still, I find it hard to believe that this devolution into the abyss can be explained by the traits of a single nationality. With continued advances in technology and increased ability to concentrate power, understanding how and why a society can become this evil becomes an imperative.

Check out the Wikipedia entry on the Herero and Namaqua Genocide, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_a... .
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Reading Progress

Started Reading
November 1, 2012 – Shelved
November 1, 2012 – Finished Reading
May 5, 2013 – Shelved as: european-history

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message 1: by Lilo (last edited May 21, 2014 04:01PM) (new) - added it

Lilo You are asking: "Was the Third Reich an extension of the national character and value system or was it an episodic totalitarianism derived from concentration of power and fueled by modern technology?"

I would say that there is a bit of truth in the former as well as in the latter, but the real reasons lie elsewhere. Once I'll get an author page set up on GR, I'll blog about this subject. (Yet this might take a while.)

Upfront: Two non-fiction books exist that describe in detail how the Nazis took over a small town. One of these books "The Nazi Seizure of Power" (a rather dry read, based on a dissertation), I am presently reading. The other, "Pfaffenhofen unterm Hakenkreuz" (Pfaffenhofen under the Swastika), I read last fall and will be rereading soon. The latter book is out of print, yet I have been corresponding with the author about publishing an English version. (Pfaffenhofen is my hometown.)

What I find puzzling is that the "nazification" of both towns happened in a rather different way and was made possible for different reasons.

I do object to the conclusion of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", saying that the German population must have known what was going on in concentration camps. I can testify to it that neither my family nor any of their non-Nazi friends knew. (I am rather sure that the "ordinary" Nazi did not know either.) And we lived only 20 miles north of Dachau. The public did not know because Hitler did not want it to know.

Of course, everybody knew that concentration camps were no health resorts, and it was assumed that old and fragile people might die in those camps, but the general public had no idea about what was really going on there, and it especially did not know about death camps and gas chambers.

You say:

"Clearly the evil of the Third Reich was more than an episode. Still, I find it hard to believe that this devolution into the abyss can be explained by the traits of a single nationality. With continued advances in technology and increased ability to concentrate power, understanding how and why a society can become this evil becomes an imperative."

I 100% agree. And I am sure it can happen again and not only in Germany. (Just look at Iran and North Korea. And who knows where Russia is going.)

I must say, however: Germans were probably especially prone to dive into such abyss. They were brought up for centuries in the spirit of "Gehorsam ist die erste Buergerpflicht." (Obedience is the number one civic duty.) Besides, sub-ordinance to superiors might be in their genes. (Please note: It is not in mine. :-))


message 2: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Thanks for your comment Lilo. Max Hastings in his excellent book, “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” devotes a couple of chapters to the mass murders of the Nazi’s. My comments that follow are based on these. Afraid of the outcry, the Nazis kept the mass killing of the Jews in extermination camps a secret from the German people and the world. Even Allied intelligence which knew of the gas chambers had no understanding of the scale or scope of the killing. So, to your point, very few Germans were aware of the genocide of the Jews.

However, what the German people and other nationalities did know and accept is still appalling. The T4 Nazi euthanasia program which began in July 1939 exterminated 70,000 German and Polish (only a few thousand were Jews) mental asylum inmates that the government deemed “unfit for further existence” establishing the government’s prerogative to make such a decision. Most Germans were also aware of the widespread use of slave labor in Germany during the war. It was no secret that like the Jews these people were deprived of property and freedom and frequently abused and killed through attrition or directly if circumstances dictated. It would seem logical that most Germans thought this was the fate of the Jews that were being rounded up and marched off with what little they had left. Many Germans believed that in being sent to work camps the Jews were getting what they deserved. So even though unaware of the holocaust, one must still ask how so many Germans and other Europeans could sympathize with and participate in these barbaric practices.


message 3: by Lilo (last edited May 26, 2014 02:32AM) (new) - added it

Lilo Max wrote: "Thanks for your comment Lilo. Max Hastings in his excellent book, “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” devotes a couple of chapters to the mass murders of the Nazi’s. My comments that follow a..."

I read Max Hastings's book in 2011.

I agree with what you say. However, before Hitler came to power, the Nazis were not taken all that seriously by non-Nazis. Also, except for some isolated incidents, the atrocities did not really start until Hitler was in power. And once Hitler was in power, Germany was turned into a police state within very short time. And then, any opposition equaled suicide.

From what I take from the above mentioned books ("The Nazi Seizure of Power" and "Pfaffenhofen unterm Hakenkreuz"), there wasn't all that much anti-Semitism to start out with. It only kept being fueled by the Nazi's immensely powerful propaganda machine. People were brainwashed. And as "The Nazi Seizure of Power" states, the anti-Semitism, even when fueled, was more an accepted general ideology and less any hate against individual Jews. Most non-Nazis would have never sympathized with and even less willingly participated in these barbaric practices, and I am rather sure that not even all Nazis did or would have.

Don't forget, hardly any private people had phone, and there was no TV and only state-controlled radio and newspapers. People heard of deportations, but unless they got to talk to someone who had witnessed those deportations, people did not know details.

And these deportations only became known towards the end of the war. I remember when my family first heard about them. I must have been 3 or 4 or 5 years old. This means, it must have been between 1943 and 1945. I remember my grandmother lamenting about those poor people, especially the old, who would be uprooted and sent to some far-away place, which was, most likely, some barren, undesirable area. From how she talked, I am sure she did not have the slightest idea of the true circumstances, and even less of the destination.

It was about the same time when my family learned about Hitler's euthanasia plan. I remember my family discussing it. I don't remember what was said but remember that they disapproved of it. I don't think they had any idea about the numbers; at least, they did not mention that this would affect a huge number of people. I also don't know if they had learned about it from the radio (or newspaper), or if they had learned about it from the local "Amtsarzt" (public health officer), with whom they were acquainted. I read in "Pfaffenhofen unterm Hakenkreuz" that this "Amtsarzt" got repeatedly into trouble with Nazi authorities for failing to report retarded children and helping to hide them.

The problem with any totalitarian politics is that those who are against it don't fight it with as much energy as the power-craving work to establish it. And most of those who are against it don't even see the danger until it is too late. Once a totalitarian regime is in power, opposition soon equals suicide.

Most educated upper-middle class families considered Hitler an uneducated idiot and thought he would disappear from the political stage by himself. So they didn't bother to get very active fighting the Nazis. Besides, most upper-middle class families were afraid of the "bolsheviks", and they made the grave mistake to throw the social democrats into the same pot with the (rather aggressive) communists. And they considered the Nazis, whom they did not take seriously enough, as a counterbalance to the "bolsheviks". Thus, the middle class, and especially the upper-middle class missed many chances to prevent Hitler's seizing of power.


message 4: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Lilo wrote: "Max wrote: "Thanks for your comment Lilo. Max Hastings in his excellent book, “Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945” devotes a couple of chapters to the mass murders of the Nazi’s. My comments t..."

Yes, it is easy to be critical when looking back. If reading history has taught me anything, it's that things seldom turn out as expected.


message 5: by Lilo (last edited Jun 20, 2014 12:03AM) (new) - added it

Lilo I am presently reading (almost finished) "The Berlin Diary", by William L. Shirer. I find it fascinating. I am stunned, however, that Shirer was under the impression that most Germans were followers of Hitler and believed every lie he and Goebbels said. I had always been under the impression that Nazis and non-Nazis were about half and half. Yet I might have been wrong.

You write, "If reading history has taught me anything, it's that things seldom turn out as expected." You are so right. And concerning WWII: "It certainly did not turn out the way Hitler had expected." Thank God and the Allies!


Jill Hutchinson Excellent review. IMHO this book is the classic history of the Third Reich.


message 7: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Jill wrote: "Excellent review. IMHO this book is the classic history of the Third Reich."

Thanks, Jill.


Numidica Max, I read this many years ago, and then lived three years in Germany. I could see during my time there, from interacting with Germans, how their rule-following tendencies could be used by someone like Hitler to achieve and hold power. Like Trump, Hitler dismissed with normal, accepted processes when he formed his government, and selected only Nazi ministers instead of sharing power as was normal in coalition government. As Lilo says, "Most educated upper-middle class families considered Hitler an uneducated idiot and thought he would disappear from the political stage by himself". Does this sound a bit like the people who didn't turn out to vote in the US in 2016? I think so. So, yes, I think it really can happen anywhere, but in the U.S. it would be much more difficult for Trump to consolidate power because a) he is not nearly as crafty as Hitler was, and b) power is naturally more balkanized in the U.S. system than it was in Germany in the '30's.

Anyway, good review, and thanks to Lilo for his perspective.


message 9: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Numidica wrote: "Max, I read this many years ago, and then lived three years in Germany. I could see during my time there, from interacting with Germans, how their rule-following tendencies could be used by someone..."

Numidica, I agree it could happen anywhere including the U. S. While power is split up in America, we already see Trump usurping the power of Congress and how will a court enforce its ruling if Trump just ignores it. I agree Trump may not be smart or organized enough to gain total power. But he's already destroyed many norms and many more will fall if he gets reelected. He's set some scary precedents for a more clever future president to take better advantage of. I'm not sure what the new normal will look like post Trump.


Numidica Yes, the breaking down of precedents is a much bigger deal than most people understand at this point. Maddeningly, just when this is so important, the Democrats have yet to produce a candidate who has an ironclad chance of beating Trump, and they are bickering amongst themselves. But the election is still over 15 months away, which is an eternity in politics.


message 11: by Kuhajeyan (new) - added it

Kuhajeyan Gunaratnam Excellent review.


message 12: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Kuhajeyan wrote: "Excellent review."

Thanks, Kuhajeyan.


message 13: by Mike (last edited Jul 16, 2019 01:23PM) (new) - added it

Mike I've just started this myself. Interesting comments, both in the review and in the thread, that I'll try to keep in mind.

Just my two cents- it's hard for me to believe that national characteristics/habits of thought could predetermine a Hitler, but I'm sure they could make a more congenial or less congenial atmosphere for one, depending on those characteristics. As Numidica says, it's a bit more difficult in the modern US for structural reasons- not necessarily because Americans in general are any more resistant to demagoguery. In most countries, if you elected a Trump, you'd never have a chance to vote freely again. I think we're a bit lucky in that sense.


message 14: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Mike wrote: "I've just started this myself. Interesting comments, both in the review and in the thread, that I'll try to keep in mind.

Just my two cents- it's hard for me to believe that national characteristi..."


Thanks for chiming in, Mike. I guess I don't find "a bit more difficult" reassuring. Trump is already defining which Americans belong here and which ones don't with a 45% approval rating and complete support from his party. Trump won in 2016 with 46% of the popular vote.


message 15: by Max (new) - rated it 5 stars

Max Numidica wrote: "Yes, the breaking down of precedents is a much bigger deal than most people understand at this point. Maddeningly, just when this is so important, the Democrats have yet to produce a candidate who ..."

Yes, and lots of big donor money is lining up to help Trump. Plus the Democrats have to hold on to the House.


message 16: by Mike (new) - added it

Mike Max wrote: "Yes, and lots of big donor money is lining up to help Trump..."

Despite the populist rhetoric Trump campaigns on, of course. The donors know who their friends are...


message 17: by Mike (last edited Jul 17, 2019 04:08AM) (new) - added it

Mike Max wrote: "Mike wrote: "I've just started this myself. Interesting comments, both in the review and in the thread, that I'll try to keep in mind.

Just my two cents- it's hard for me to believe that national ..."


Oh no, me neither. Definitely no reason to be reassured. It's just that when I read about the Third Reich, one thing that strikes me is how quickly it all happened, how quickly Hitler consolidated power.

On the other hand, Putin changed things in Russia at a slower pace, relatively speaking, and kept the rituals of democracy in place, but still- Russians voted for him once and that was it, one wrong choice and no more democracy. We've got another chance next year, and we'd better not blow it.

I agree with what you said about things 'post Trump', though. It's not going to solve the root problem unless the factors that allowed him to gain popularity in the first place are addressed.


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