This Isn’t the William Shirer You’re Looking For: Thoughts on Steve Wick’s “The Long Night”

Readers of this blog may already be aware of my deep affection for the thousand-plus-page tome The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, journalist William Shirer’s invaluable 1960 history of Hitler and his Germany. It was with great delight, then, that I was made aware of a history of that history, Steve Wick’s The Long Night, telling the story of Shirer’s years covering the tumult in Europe, mostly from the eye of the storm itself, Berlin.

Though I feel it is missing a crucial chapter, it is a stirring tale. As Wick himself notes, it reads as much more of an adventure tale than a formal history or biography. Shirer struggles daily for over a decade with Nazi censorship, separation from his wife and child, a lack of support from his employers back home, his deep disappointment with the German people, and his own hubris and failings.

We learn a great deal about the mindset of the period, as Shirer was a tuned-in, worldly journalist who had come from extremely humble, rural beginnings. Of particular note to some of this blog’s readers is Shirer’s impression of the Scopes “Monkey Trial,” the event in American history that in many ways began the culture wars in which we struggle today:

As Shirer saw it, the drama unfolding in Tennessee in anticipation of the upcoming trial was reason alone to take leave of his country. “I yearned for some place, if only for a few weeks, that was more civilized, where a man could drink a glass of wine or a stein of beer without breaking the law, where you could believe and say what you wanted to about religion or anything else without being put upon, where inanity had not become a way of life, and where a writer or an artist or a philosopher, or merely a dreamer, was considered just as good as, if not better than, the bustling businessman.”

Even then, the willfully ignorant mob was making the rest of civilization feel unwelcome, just as the Tea Party imbeciles do today. Indeed, even Shirer’s struggles with a supposed journalistic need for “balance” over a human being’s honest impression rings true today. And like today, honesty did not always win the day over bland neutrality:

As for Hitler’s speech proposing peace for Europe, Shirer knew it was a lie. He was disgusted with himself for not declaring it so flat out. But he knew he could not, nor could he find a German outside the government to say it, and the frustration ate at him. “The proposal is a pure fraud, and if I had any guts, or American journalism had any, I would have said so in my dispatch tonight,” he wrote. “But I am not supposed to be ‘editorial.’ ”

But as a fan of Shirer’s definitive work, I concluded my reading with a slight sting of disappointment. Wick omits from his tale the writing of Rise and Fall; the process of putting this all-important book together is almost totally absent. Wick himself tells us near the book’s end that to do so would mean a wholly separate volume. “A biographer will someday write the story of the enormous hurdles Shirer had to climb to sell the book,” demurs Wick, and one can’t help but wish that this hypothetical book already existed within the one we were already reading.

What a herculean effort it must have been to pen such a book! Ten years of Shirer’s life was poured into it, and its influence will be felt for generations. Surely, this story can be told as well as the formative experiences in Europe that led to the book’s genesis. It is not Wick’s fault that this is missing (though having the words “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” in the subtitle does lead one on), but its absence is palpable and deflating.

That said, the book as it is holds up, and it is a story that needed to be told. We learn so much about what it means to be a journalist, a pro-democracy American, a liberal, and a vulnerable human being caught in a volatile, insane world.

Lest We Forget: Thoughts on “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”

The edition that I own of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich advertises that the book is one that “shocked the conscience of the world.” I saw this mainly as an indication of what the book must have meant to a public that might not have been as familiar with the crimes of the Nazis and, well, accustomed as we are today to frequent and thoughtless analogies; from goofy Mel Brooks Hitler parodies to the Soup Nazi, as a society we seem to have digested this period of human history as just that, a period of history, distant and with little relevance.

I think we may be doing a disservice to ourselves. I don’t mean to say that this terrible period should not be the subject of humor and satire — it must! — but having now completed Shirer’s enormous book, I am beginning to think that we are forgetting too much.

It’s easy to say that, for example, the tea-baggers calling Obama Hitler and comparing the health care bill to the Final Solution are out-of-bounds, an example of overheated rhetoric. But in a way, saying that these kinds of comparisons “go too far” really doesn’t go nearly far enough. And it may upset some of the more bloodthirsty liberals as well to hear that, yes, even doing a Bush or Cheney-to-Hitler comparison is way, way off base.

Let’s not even deal with the Obama/health care comparisons; they make no sense in the least. But the Bush/Cheney comparisons usually stem from the idea that the Bush team was imperialistic, hungry for the resources of other nations, and mainly heartless about who it hurt in its quest for power. Fine. All of that was true of Hitler. But it’s also true of just about every other imperial power in human history. You can’t be imperial unless you build an empire. You can’t build an empire unless you take someone else’s territory. You usually can’t do that without committing — or at least sincerely threatening — unthinkable violence.

But we use Hitler and Nazism as the standard of human evil for good reason. The Holocaust might be the most evil, horrific event of our species’ history even if had been merely a mass extermination — but it was not the first nor the last genocide, not the first or last slaughter of millions, that humans have known. The Holocaust was that plus, if it can be imagined, several additional levels of cruelty; the starvation, the slavery under unimaginable conditions, the insane medical experiments, the sadism of the Nazi captors, and the raw industrialism of the killing — rounding up the populations of already-rotted-out villages and systematically executing whole neighborhoods and families at once, forcing the soon-to-be dead to jump into pits filled with their dead neighbors and relatives before they themselves were murdered.

And when all was lost for the Third Reich, it was not enough to lose the war. Had Hitler had his way in his final days and hours, the entirety of Germany would have crumbled with him, as he ordered every aspect of German life — stores, waterworks, utilities, factories — destroyed so there would be nothing left for the Allies to take. As horrifically as he had treated his enemies, he was about to let the same happen to his own “superior” people for no other reason than pride.

Perhaps it’s not worth trying to figure out whether anyone in human history was “worse.” I’m no historian by any means. There are probably men and systems that were more evil but had less opportunity to do such harm (I don’t put it past the likes of Al Qaeda or the regime in North Korea to behave so madly and cruelly given the means to do so), and those who may have done more damage and caused more suffering, but are not remembered in the same way. But trivializing the terror that was Nazism in our daily parlance, to use the imagery as something applicable to our current politics is to forget. It’s to forget the tens of millions who not only died because of Hitler and his henchmen, but to forget the deep, unspeakable suffering of all those who found themselves beneath the Nazi boot.

And it is to forget what it is that brought Nazism to the forefront of German life. It is instructive that Hitler never succeeded in some violent takeover of Germany, despite attempts to do so. In the end, Hitler achieved power through “official” channels, bit by bit gaining the approval and acquiescence of the government and institutions, and bit by bit exploiting a frustrated and angry populace by stoking its rage, its fears, and its pride. Shirer himself, in a 1990 edition of his 1960 book, wondered whether a then-newly-reunified Germany might be ripe for another similar episode. 20 years later, his fears have not come true. Not there, anyway.

But he was right to be watchful. To trivialize the Third Reich today is to lose sight of how it could happen again, not in the Obama-is-Hitler sense, but in the sense of a charismatic person or persons taking advantage of a weakened and frightened public and a spineless government, and doing things in their name that they did not think human beings were capable of. It can happen again, but if we don’t learn the right lessons from history, we’ll miss it. And it will be too late.

All that said, do your brain a favor and take the big chunk of time you’ll need to read Shirer’s book. Learn something, why don’t you.

Clearing the Smoke from History’s Horrors and Heroes

I’ve just read Nicholson Baker’s take on the first years of World War II, Human Smoke, and it is certainly unsettling. But I have come across a couple of reactions to the book of late that complain that Baker is trying to convince the reader that WWII was a bad war that should never have been fought, and that Churchill and Roosevelt were as bad as Hitler. This leads to a pretty much categorical dismissal of the entire work. Here’s a bit from the New York Times review:

Muddled and often infuriating, “Human Smoke” sounds its single, solemn note incessantly, like a mallet striking a kettle drum over and over. War is bad. Churchill was bad. Roosevelt was bad. Hitler was bad too, but maybe, in the end, no worse than Roosevelt and Churchill. Jeannette Rankin, a Republican congresswoman from Montana, was good, because she cast the lone vote opposing a declaration of war against Japan. It was Dec. 8, 1941.

[ … ]

Almost unbelievably, [Baker] includes multiple instances in which Churchill and Roosevelt rejected the idea of negotiating with Hitler. Although he offers no commentary on the matter, the reader is forced to draw the conclusion that negotiation was a sensible idea cavalierly tossed aside by leaders who preferred war to peace.

As “the reader” in this instance, I at no time felt “forced” to draw any such conclusion, nor any other proffered by this and other similar criticisms. If I felt that the book’s central message was so naively simplistic, I would likewise dismiss it.

What the book does do is to remind us that the events of World War II were not black and white, that Churchill and Roosevelt were not utterly pure and heroic in their motives or executions, and that there was a legitimate anti-war sentiment that pulsated at the time—one that was as well-intended and as based in honest principle as any opponent of, say, the Iraq invasion in 2003 (putting aside whether the opponents of battling Hitler were in that sentiment correct, which I think history bares out that they were not). The principled pacifists of that era deserve to have their story told, stories seldom told—how many World War II histories can you think of that feature Gandhi as a central figure and moral voice?

The book also reminds us, very often through primary sources such as diaries and direct quotes, how removed those waging war can be from those suffering unspeakably from its horrors. The prime ministers, presidents, ambassadors and generals often seem heartless and utterly out of touch in regards to the real world consequences of the war’s mass butchery of human beings.

Yes, Baker shows us the often-bloodthirsty and callous sides of Churchill and Roosevelt, but this aspect of such a giant figures needs to be aired, needs to be remembered. It is important that we are reminded that throughout history the good guys are not always good—a lesson which, to this reader, only made the bad guys seem even worse. As jaw-dropping as some of the Allies’ actions and sentiments were, the acts of the Nazi regime as recounted by Baker were so horrific, so awful, so monstrous, that Churchill at his worst never approaches the evil of Hitler.

Baker makes that very distinction clear without having to say it explicitly. Baker gives us the real human beings as they were in this chapter of the human story, and does not need to explain that, yes, of course, Hitler was far worse than any Allied leader. Perhaps some folks, still oversensitive and over-reverent of certain persons and eras, just need it spelled out more plainly, and have the same versions of history fed to them on slightly different spoons each time.