Revisiting a classic: Shirer’s work on The Third Reich

Nazi Youth with their first flag. From US Library of Congress
Nazi Youth with their first flag. From US Library of Congress; sometimes between 1923-1933.

Pt. 1

How much do you really know about the Nazis?

I was born in the aftermath of World War II, and there were so many of us born in hope after the great despair of the war, my generation acquired the now derogatory label ‘boomers’. It stands to reason that I would be very interested in that war, in what caused it, and why it mattered so much that we named it a world war after declaring the first World War would end all wars. I grew up hearing stories of oil cloth placed over windows when sirens would sound the alarm, and of ration cards for gas and sugar. I still have some of those ration cards.

Those are some reasons I am writing about my revisit of William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There’s another more immediate reason, though.

I do Twitter, and I read a lot of politics and arts news there. At present, I constantly see the term ‘Nazi’ being leveled at others by people who apparently have no idea what a Nazi really was. Some days it seems everyone on the right and left is a ‘Nazi’, if angry Tweets were truth rather than projection.

The term itself is confusing because it is born of two languages. The Nazi Party represented the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or the NSDAP, anglicized to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. In present times, there is much confusion over the term ‘socialist’, and there have been a number of instances for periodicals to downplay that aspect of the party name. Regardless, it is indisputable that the party controlled every living and nonliving thing in Germany once Adolf Hitler achieved power. As in so many other countries, the Great Depression and its miseries presented a great opportunity for someone with the skills of a Hitler. If ever there was a demagogue who knew how to seize a crisis for gain, that would be Hitler.

Critics and pundits have for decades put forth the question how Hitler and his party could achieve what they did in a country as educated as Germany. Part of it had to do with the aftermath of that great “War to End All War.” That sounded good on paper, and that’s the extent of it, even though some in media still defend the statement. The terms delivered to Germany certainly had an impact on the country’s economy. Hyperinflation and reparations took their toll, as did the expansion of socialist policy. Desperate measures were taken to improve the economy, but by the time Hitler’s party began to be a viable actor in politics, the German people were very vulnerable to any movement giving them hope for better times.

Fertile ground had already been prepared in Germany in the early 1800s, by a man named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Shirer explains how the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon helped plant the seeds of Aryan superiority. In 1814 Hegel was appointed chair of philosophy at the University of Berlin. Shirer explains:

“This is the subtle and penetrating mind whose dialectics inspired Marx and Lenin and thus contributed to the founding of Communism and whose ringing glorification of the State as supreme in human life paved the way for the Second and Third Reichs of Bismarck and Hitler. To Hegel the State is all, or almost all. Among other things, he says, it is the highest revelation of the ‘world spirit’; it is the ‘moral universe’; it is ‘the actuality of the ethical idea…ethical mind…knowing and thinking itself’; the State ‘has the supreme rights against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the State…for the right of the world spirit is above all special privileges…’” [pg. 98]

Reading that, you may as I do understand why benevolent anarchy looks good to many.

Hitler, as others have, also realized the necessity of mobilizing youth. All education eventually was absorbed and directed by the Reich. You’d think academics would’ve raised bloody hell about that. They didn’t. Instead, most in education fell into line. Shirer expressed surprise at “how many members of the university faculties knuckled under to the Nazification of higher learning after 1933.” [pg. 251] Some academics did leave their posts, perhaps because of the assault on academic freedom. They were a minority, as Shirer wrote:

“A large majority of professors, however, remained at their posts, and as early as the autumn of 1933, some 960 of them…took a public vow to support Hitler and the National Socialist regime.” [pg. 251]

Did the churches, mostly Christian and Catholic, fight to the last breath? No. After all, Martin Bormann, one of Hitler’s closest allies, publicly declared, “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.” [Pg. 240]  As for the Catholics, their pope took a practical approach, attempting an agreement that allegedly would let the church continue to control its own affairs. Now we know about this, as various media such as The Independent have written about it:

“[I]n 1933 as Vatican representative in Germany, the future Pius XII had agreed a treaty with Hitler, whose authoritarian tendencies he admired, to close down the Catholic -dominated Centre Party, one of National Socialism’s staunchest opponents. This treaty was based on the Vatican’s 1929 agreement with Mussolini, the Italian fascist leader. On being elected Pope in 1939, Pius’s first act was to suppress a document denouncing Hitler, entitled Mit Brennender Sorge (“With deep anxiety …”) that his predecessor had been writing on his deathbed. And throughout the war, Pius XII made no public condemnation of the Holocaust, save for a single ambiguous sentence in a 26-page Christmas message of 1942.”

I am only one fourth of the way through this book I first read in college, not because I had to. I bought Shirer’s book on The Third Reich at the same time I was taking a required course in astronomy in addition to my other courses. Although I love to read about stars, planets, and space, I really didn’t like astronomy and I really didn’t like the professor teaching the class. I dropped it. I stuck with Shirer’s book, though.

I found a small gem I’d forgotten in this book. In passages about Hitler’s control over all the press—that’s a full column for later on—I learned that the young man Hitler appointed to lead youth in the Nazi Party had ties to Americans. Two of Baldur Von Shirach’s ancestors had signed the US Declaration of Independence.

Like so many others Shirer, who worked as a journalist in the years Hitler came to power, only came to realize what a monster Hitler was with time. Because media promoted Hitler, and Germans in general—regardless of class—believed Hitler to be their savior, it took awhile for truth to come out. There are significant perils when there is no truly free press, or when the press is bound to one party.

(Kay B. Day/Nov. 12, 2019)

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