Shirer’s classic work raises questions about today’s unrest

fire flames by indie art south
Nazi propaganda poster
Nazi propaganda poster aimed at factory workers in the 1930s. “Wir sind für” translates as, “We are for”.
Forms part of George Grantham Bain Collection (US Library of Congress).
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Pt. 2 in a series

How much do you really know about the Nazis and The Third Reich?

I dropped the ball as I made my way through William L. Shirer’s classic work ‘The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich’. I tend to read several books at the same time, and I ended up reading a bio of Churchill, a French Resistance fighter’s account of the Gestapo, and several other books relevant to that period in history. Reading contemporary accounts puts things in context I find.

I came to realize how relevant this work is today to the political climate in the US and in other countries.

William Shirer book Rise and Fall of Third ReichPeople continue to hurl the word ‘Nazi’ out on social media, and the use of the word is common regardless of political persuasion. Candidates from both major parties show up in memes with Hitlerian mustaches. I’d wager if you asked the average American a single specific question about how The Third Reich came to control an educated, industrious country, most would go quiet.

Current political unrest is nothing new. It’s occurred throughout all of history. Identity politics is nothing new. Destruction of history and artifacts is nothing new.

Bureaucracy a key to power

One significant cog in the Nazi takeover is relevant to those of us in the United States today—an all powerful bureaucracy supporting a major political party. The Third Reich’s father, Adolf Hitler, made good use of the “vast and sprawling bureaucracy” as the party ascended in Germany. [pg. 276] The following passage will sound familiar to anyone living in a country where central powers control citizens’ daily lives, directly or indirectly:

“Such was the government of the Third Reich, administered from top to bottom on the so-called leadership principle by a vast and sprawling bureaucracy, having little of the efficiency usually credited to the Germans, poisoned by graft, beset by constant confusion and cutthroat rivalries augmented by the muddling interference of party potentates…” [pg. 276]

How familiar this sounds to an American concerned about the ever-expanding federal bureaucracy in our nation employing more than 2.1 million civilians.

Independent thinking banned

It wasn’t enough for a single party to control the wealth and resources of a country. Thought was also a target—the Third Reich took policing thought very seriously, and students at universities as well as youth in general were primary purveyors of Nazi policy, even early on. On May 10, 1933, the evening came alive around midnight when “a torchlight parade of thousands of students ended at a square on Unter den Linden opposite the University of Berlin. Torches were put to a huge pile of books that had been gathered there…” Shirer said approximately 20,000 books were burned. This occurred, he said, “in several other cities.” [pg. 241]

The “joyous students” burned books, they explained, targeting any book “which acts subversively on our future or strikes at the root of German thought…” Among the authors whose works were destroyed are some of the great names in Western literature—Thomas and Heinrich Mann, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, H. G. Wells, and Jack London.

The central state assumed control of all thought. Most academics did not utter a single word of protest.

Faith leaders complicit, reaped what they sowed

You’d think leaders of major faiths would protest a political party setting itself on the level of a god. Most did not. They learned too late the consequences of yielding. Shirer explained that as 1938 dawned, “the highly respected Bishop [August] Marahrens of Hanover was induced…to make a public declaration that must have seemed especially humiliating to tougher men of God…” Marahrens was Evangelical Lutheran, and the shame in the history of my faith is evidenced by his action. Marahrens declared:

“The National Socialist conception of life is the national and political teaching which determines and characterizes German manhood. As such, it is obligatory upon German Christians also.” [pg. 239]

I think of that line on occasion when I sit in church and hear partisan lectures on politics.

By the time Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, a Catholic, openly welcomed Nazis to Austria, both leaders and congregants of major faiths were silent. They were not, said Shirer, “going to die or even risk imprisonment to preserve freedom of worship.” [pg. 240]

By 1941, the truth was out when Hitler’s secretary, Nazi official Martin Bormann, announced to the world, “National Socialism and Christianity are irreconcilable.” [pg. 240]

Innitzer learned about the Nazis in a personal sort of way when his palace, said Shirer, “was sacked by Nazi hooligans.” [pg. 350]

Tactics and strategy

Hitler knew how to seize a crisis, and he knew how to marshal support from minorities in Sudeten and Poland for instance. He took aggressive steps to wipe out local governance in the “separate states of Germany”—control was taken of local governments in the first year of the Nazi regime, Shirer said. “Local self-government…was also wiped out.” [pg. 275]

Regardless of demands The Third Reich made and received approval of, it would never be enough. “We must always demand so much…that we can never be satisfied,” Konrad Henleich, a gymnastics teacher said. He was leader of the minority Sudeten German Party. Through propaganda and economic warfare, Hitler gained concessions from Austria and Czechoslovakia, and he betrayed many promises he made. [pg. 359]

One of the most troubling points raised by Shirer involves the philosophy of a wildly popular professor, Heinrich von Treitschke who belonged to the National Liberal party in the late 1800s. Von Treitschke died in 1896. Some of his desires for a unified and imperial Germany rested on blood ties to ancestors and lands he viewed as rightfully Germany’s to take. Hitler took a page from Treitschke’s philosophy in more ways than one, but Shirer sums up one of the most troubling aspects of that philosophy at war with liberty-minded types in the United States today:

“The people, the subjects, are to be little more than slaves in the nation. ‘It does not matter what you think…so long as you obey.”

The professor’s students adored him.

Read Pt. 1: Revisiting a classic: Shirer’s work on the Third Reich

(Kay B. Day/June 23, 2020)

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