Shirer as Historian1
Hitler’s Reich Continues to fascinate the historians, more especially perhaps the amateur historians. Quarrying in the vast documentary mine excavated by their professional colleagues, they come up from time to time with one-man syntheses, bolder and less burdened by academic caution than the work of the professionals. There are merits to be weighed against the inevitable danger of rushing in where experts fear to tread. Specialists in German military history have pointed out errors of fact and judgment in John Wheeler-Bennett’s Nemesis of Power, published in 1954 and subtitled The German Army in Politics 1918—45. It remains a notable tour de force and a masterly piece of writing. Now, six or seven years later (and with echoes of Mr. Wheeler-Bennett’s performance clearly ringing in his mind), William Shirer comes along with an even bulkier and more ambitious tome: nothing less than a history of the Third Reich itself—that great, bloated, monstrous projection of the German nationalist dream, from its inception to its Wagnerian fall. A work which truly encompassed this barely credible saga of blood and mud could hardly fail to have its immortality guaranteed.
In fact, of course, Mr. Shirer has written nothing like the definitive historical study of the Third Reich which it has been his ambition to compose for the benefit of future generations. And the reason is obvious: no one possibly can. No single individual, that is. It is not just that there is simply too much to write about (including the entire Second World War, to which Winston Churchill alone has devoted six volumes of stately Augustan prose). There is the inherent limitation imposed by nature upon the range of experience and understanding available to a single mind. In his preface, Mr. Shirer rather daringly invokes Thucydides in justification of his own enterprise—apparently because, like his model, he too “lived through the whole war, being of an age to comprehend events and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them.” But Thucydides at one stage was in command of the Athenian navy. Had he been merely a chronicler for the Athenian equivalent of CBS, one wonders if his reminiscences would still be read.
This is not to deny that Mr. Shirer has made an effort to rise above journalism. Hostile reviewers have been unduly tart in dismissing him as a well-intentioned amateur, and his book as nothing more than an overblown biography of Hitler. He has cast his net wider than that—possibly too wide—and weighted it with an impressive array of documentary evidence churned up by years of research. Yet the ground he occupies has not been secured against damaging criticism. It is, inevitably, a middle ground. His aim after all was to be read by the average non-specialist with little knowledge of either German or European history. It may also be that his own mind is rather better attuned to that of the general reader than he himself suspects (his sketchy observations on German history and philosophy suggest as much). Hence the awkward impression of an enormously inflated newspaper report on Hitler’s Reich, self-consciously addressed to a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-brow readership. This is not altogether fair to Mr. Shirer, but not as unfair as his admirers seem to suppose. At any rate it must be said that—save for Professor Trevor-Roper—he has found no genuinely appreciative reviewers in Britain. And Mr. Trevor-Roper’s weird preface to the recently published Hitler-Bormann documents described as the Testament of Hitler suggests that his fertile mind has been a trifle unhinged by long contemplation of the late Fuehrer.
There may be a clue here to some of the weaknesses of Mr. Shirer’s tome, which for all its gigantic size and weight remains from first to last firmly centered on the personality of Hitler. Though no one could loathe the Fuehrer more than Mr. Shirer, a kind of inverted hero worship comes through the obligatory reference to “Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon” with which he regales the reader of his preface. Mr. Trevor-Roper, in his preface, falls into the same trap, and then entangles himself further by asserting, in his worst rhetorical manner, that Hitler was “the Rousseau, the Mirabeau, the Robespierre, the Napoleon of his revolution: its Marx, its Lenin, its Trotsky, its Stalin.” This tasteless nonsense is bolstered by the absurd claim that he “devised, made, and carried out a great revolution from start to finish.” In fact Hitler’s “revolution” had been prepared by half a century of Pan-German propaganda and racial theorizing, plus a century and a half of German nationalism. Not only did he not possess a single original idea, he was not even very good at spouting the ideas of his masters—principally Haushofer and the other “geo-politicians” (whose creed did not differ profoundly from that of imperialist ideologues like Halford Mackinder in England). Curiously, Mr. Shirer—no professional historian, let alone an Oxford don, just a conscientious chronicler—is sounder on this point than Mr. Trevor-Roper. His hold on German intellectual history is a little insecure, as witness his naive bracketing of Hegel with Treitschke, but he does record that the Third Reich was in a solid tradition. So it was, and historians do harm by treating Hitler as though he had been spawned by Chaos itself. There was no trace of Miltonic greatness about Mr. Churchill’s antagonist, whatever patriotic writers like Mr. Trevor-Roper may infer to the contrary.
Mr. Shirer, being an American, is secured against such romantic, or nostalgic, temptations to read super-sensible significance into the second round of the Anglo-German struggle for mastery in this century. If anything he is a trifle too pedestrian for his subject. There is a certain flatness about his prose which contrasts oddly with the unbelievable personalities swarming across his canvas. He has also erred in taking in so much territory—including large chunks of diplomatic and military history—that the outline becomes blurred. At times one does not quite know whether he is writing an account of the Second World War or of the Nazi regime. Possibly he thought he could do both. The reader certainly obtains a highly competent and meticulously documented introduction to the subject, but the subject itself—the Daemmerung of so many traditional Germanic gods—is rather lost from view. It must also be confessed that Mr. Shirer’s most graphic chapter—his description of the July 20, 1944 plot against Hitler—is distinctly inferior in style to Mr. Wheeler-Bennett’s classic account.
Leaving aside questions of literary merit and niggling points of detail (e.g. Mr. Shirer’s regrettable failure to make better use of the publications of the Munich Institut fuer Zeitgeschichte), what do we learn from his story? Or perhaps the question had better be: what does the average non-specialist learn? (For German readers there are other sources—notably Professor K. D. Bracher’s monumental series of studies, which allot as much space to a single theme as Mr. Shirer does to the entire rise and fall of Hitler’s Reich.)
Principally, perhaps, what the general reader obtains from this work is a kind of perspective on Europe in general and Germany in particular. It is of course a highly idiosyncratic perspective. Mr. Shirer is a Wilsonian liberal, to whom nationalism—especially German nationalism—is profoundly unsympathetic. It is odd how little the peacemakers of 1919 (who in principle favored every kind of national movement) foresaw the effect of stoking this particular cauldron. About the only national movement they really did understand was the Czech one represented by that aged humanist, Thomas Masaryk: perhaps the last surviving classical liberal in Central Europe. This also explains why Munich was such an awful shock to American liberals (the British took it more philosophically, even when they disapproved of the arrangement). The Republic of Masaryk was something like a miniature replica of the heavenly city built (on paper) by the Wilsonians. Its fall was as great a blow to them as the almost simultaneous collapse of the Spanish Republic was to people further left. Mr. Shirer rightly devotes much space to Munich, and draws the appropriate conclusion that it made war both more certain and easier for the Germans to win. (Hitler, characteristically, was disappointed by Munich. “That fellow Chamberlain has spoiled my entry into Prague,” he told his entourage.) But one feels that the betrayal of October 1938 signifies more to him than a political debacle: it is treated as a turning point because it showed that Germany aimed at European hegemony, and that German hegemony was incompatible with everything the Wilsonians stood for: freedom, democracy, national independence. Central Europe of course has never really had any of these things (and now has less chance of getting them than ever), but as long as the Weimar Republic lasted, it looked as though it might acquire them. It took the second Russo-German war of the century to trample the remaining hopes underfoot.
Although Mr. Shirer knows all this, he is obstinate enough to write his history of the Third Reich as though Germany had been a Western democracy which unaccountably went wrong owing to the loss of the 1914-18 war, inflation, unemployment, and other factors exploited by the demonic Nazis, and Hitler in particular. In fact Hitler—to give him his due—was simply hankering after the traditional Central European setup, wherein the Germans were the dominant factor—the “master race” in Pan-German terminology—lording it over subject Slav populations. This aim was regarded as respectable by millions of Germans who were not Nazis. As far back as 1890, the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Count Waldersee, lectured William II on the need to create a Greater Germany in Central Europe “including of course Bohemia which has to be re-Germanized” (see F. L. Carsten, “Germany—from Scharnhorst to Schleicher,” in Soldiers and Governments, London, 1957). He also advised the Emperor that preventive war against Russia was required, and “if your Majesty wants to preserve peace, it is better to do so by firm measures; Slavs want to be treated with kicks; they kiss the boot that has kicked them.” This kind of attitude was so traditional that Hitler really had very little trouble recruiting millions of ordinary conservative Germans to his cause. The same applies to anti-Semitism. Mr. Shirer refers with indignation to the callous attitude of Count Schwerin von Krosigk, Hitler’s Finance Minister, when after the first great Nazi pogrom in 1938, the necessary bureaucratic measures were taken to relieve the German Jews of their remaining property. In the “cabinet” meeting, Krosigk—in Shirer’s words this “former Rhodes scholar who prided himself on representing the ‘traditional and decent Germany’ in the Nazi Government”—casually agreed that “we will have to do everything to shove the Jews into foreign countries.” Mr. Shirer is deeply shocked by this, but then no one has told him that as far back as 1893 the Conservative party—the embodiment of German aristocratic and Lutheran traditionalism—adopted a straightforward anti-Semitic platform. The signatories of course would have been appalled could they have foreseen the consequences; in fact some of their descendants belatedly joined the resistance and were hanged for their part in the 1944 plot against Hitler; but by then the damage had been done.
As history, then, Mr. Shirer’s work fails, because his perspective is somehow not quite appropriate to the subject matter. One needs to understand that what was regarded as normal and reasonable elsewhere, was not—until 1945 anyhow—so regarded in Germany, except by the Social Democrats and a minority of liberal intellectuals (many of whom were Jews, and on that account virtually without influence, although they did not realize it). Germany simply was not the kind of country where a liberal like Mr. Shirer could spontaneously feel at home, though as a reporter stationed in Berlin since the 1920’s he appears to have enjoyed the intellectual freedom of the Weimar Republic. But then the Republic was a pretty fragile thing, and in some respects had little reality beyond the radius of Berlin and a few other cities.
As a biography of Hitler, on the other hand, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has very considerable merits. Its journalistic manner is appropriate to its matter, for Hitler is not really a proper subject for academic historians. He was much too melodramatic to fit their analytical models, and the mental brew he hatched from Darwin, Nietzsche, Treitschke, and the geo-politicians, lacks the kind of orderliness and symmetry historians need for their categorization. One can of course compare him to Napoleon, on the grounds that both tried to conquer Europe, both failed, and both were instrumental in overstraining and ultimately wrecking the military power of the nation they led. But whereas Napoleon has continued to fascinate historians and poets—possibly because he embodied the latent tension between classical rationalism and romantic extravagance which was beginning to become a problem around 1800—one suspects that Hitler will find few biographers. His personality is too grotesque and repulsive to inspire a new generation of myth-makers, and no military dictator, unsuccessful conqueror, or captain of industry (if there are any left a hundred years from now) is going to take the Fuehrer as his model, in the way many of them have (consciously or unconsciously) modeled themselves on Napoleon. Indeed it is to be feared that Mr. Shirer’s work will be among the last—outside Germany anyhow—to be devoted to this particular subject, which of course is an excellent reason why it should have been written. The world is moving on toward global complications which—whatever the outcome—will increasingly make the Third Reich seem both remote and grotesque: the final convulsion of European nationalism. A fitting tombstone for a dead epoch, Mr. Shirer’s conscientious chronicle serves to remind the reader that the almost unbelievable horrors of the 30’s and 40’s really did happen in the way in which they were witnessed by those condemned to live through them.
1 A review of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer (Simon & Schuster, 1245 pp., $10.00).