A Personal Preamble
Reading William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich rocked my world. At the time, I wasn't much into reading historical tomes, and it swept me away by its sheer scope in addition to the material covered. When I read Eric Larson's In the Garden of Beasts a few months later, it seemed to be a sort of on-the-ground companion narrative of what life was like in Berlin during Hitler's ascent to power, and that was the end of my WWII erudition for a while. That "while" ended, and several WWII-centric books later, I came across Shirer's actual eyewitness account of many of the events he would later go on to chronicle, as they unfolded at the time.
Why the good marks?
Obviously, I thought very highly of this book (4.5 of 5 stars). Part of that has to do with the times, but more relates to the way in which Shirer positions himself as an observer. I recently found a photo (below) of Hitler arriving at a youth rally in Berlin in 1934 that seems to capture a sense of in-betweenness I found in the pages of Shirer's diary, and it's this liminal phase that is easily lost to history.
Hitler's countenance in this picture is striking for all the things that it is not (I encourage you to click to enlarge, it's also something in the eyes). The people are gathered, clearly taken with the pageantry of it all, but they are not amassed in a uniformed sea of Sieg Heil salutes. One of the soldiers in the background is himself trying to photograph the Fuhrer as he goes by.
The distance between the Berlin in this picture and the one so masterfully portrayed in Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle (circa 1945) is beyond vast. Though William Shirer will not take you all the way there (Berlin Diary was first published in 1941), I found his perspective to be worthwhile.
There were several things that made Shirer a particularly interesting tour-guide. Hired by broadcast pioneer Edward R. Murrow (left, below), Shirer was in Berlin (and various other locales) as a radio correspondent for CBS.
Though not a scholar of military or political history, Shirer had a certain depth of understanding of the geopolitical underpinnings of Hitler's rise to power. After covering a rally at Nuremberg in September of 1934, he begins to realize the impact of the strategic use of color, music and "restoration of mysticism" on the German people:
In such an atmosphere no wonder, then, that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high. Man's—or at least the German's—critical faculty is swept away at such moments, and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself.
As a journalist, Shirer's reports were subject to the oversight of censors, which, in addition to his direct contact with men on the ground and colleagues in the U.S., left him with a deep skepticism lacking in, say, a Martha Dodd (who he did run into a couple of times). The extent of this censorship would, ultimately, lead Shirer to question the value of bothering to report at all. His notes are interesting as a chronicle of what wasn't being said by the press to the people back home.
However, Shirer was quite unenlightened (in hindsight, even naïve) on other matters. Perhaps due in part to the continual outpourings from the Goebbels propaganda machine, Shirer often writes of "the German" as an archetype, or of "the Germans" as a people in sweeping terms. He describes Germans as "a people without doubt," and with a "deeply ingrained" sense of militarism.
Some of these impressions grow from the conversations he recounts, such as a September 13, 1939 discussion with a maid in Berlin just after receiving telegrams on the latest bombings in Poland:
“Why do the French make war on us?” she asked.
“Why do you make war on the Poles?” I said.
“Hum,” she said, a blank over her face. “but the French, they're human beings,” she said finally.
“But the Poles, maybe they're human beings,” I asked.
“Hum,” she said, blank again.
At the same time, he acknowledges the dissonance between the theoretical conception of "Germans" and "Germanism" with what he observes of the people around him.
S., a veteran correspondent here, thinks every woman, and child in this country is a natural-born killer. Perhaps so. But today I noticed in the Tiergarten many of them feeding the squirrels and ducks — with their rationed bread.
For one thing, I have a greater appreciation for the impetus behind the work of Stanley Milgram (who produced Obedience to Authority) and others in the wake of World War II. In the end I wouldn't say that I learned so much about what happened during the early years of the war, but more how it seemed.