Insights from “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William R. Shirer

I just finished listening to “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” from Audible and highly recommend it. It left me enlightened and frustrated. I gained a lot of insight and information from the writings of Shirer, who was a war-time correspondent living in Germany from the early 1930’s through the early days of World War II.  I think there are some essential lessons from this book that are necessary for our day. Some of these might be uncomfortable.

1. Hitler was a crazy, power-hungry, amoral, weirdly brilliant individual. But the only way he was able to come to power was because of enablers in the German government and the German military (from 1926-1938) and then in the British, French, Polish, and Hungarian governments (1938-1939). He would have been stopped at multiple points from 1926-1939 had anyone he interacted with had the courage to say “NO”. He didn’t have the power, the buy-in from the people, the military strength, or confidence to accomplish anything. If the British and French governments hadn’t backed out of their promises to Austria in March 1938 or the British, French, and Polish governments hadn’t sold out Czechoslovakia in September 1938, there would have been no invasion of Poland in 1939. Now, I’m not talking about jumping into war. I’m talking about the opposite of appeasement, which is courageously standing up to bullies (which is all Hitler was at this point). Not at anytime in those first 5 years of Hitler’s Third Reich would anyone have to fire a shot to stop him. They just needed to live up to their agreements and alliances. They just needed to stand up for liberty, sovereignty, and human dignity. Let this be a lesson to us: When governments and leaders begin doing horrible things to their own people or their neighbors, we must say NO. Almost always, at the beginning, that will stop the horror. However, more often, our governments tolerate or even financially and militarily support those governments who are committing atrocities.

2. A people, a nation, can easily be deceived about what their government is doing and why it is being done. Why is it easy? Because most of humanity has bought into the assumption that their government has the interest of the people as its priority. However, if we really study history, the interest of the State is almost always different than the interest of the People. This from Hermann Goering:

Goering: Why, of course, the people don't want war. Why would some
poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that
he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece.

Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in
England, nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is
understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who
determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the
people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or
a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.

Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy the people have some
say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the
United States only Congress can declare wars.

Goering: Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the
bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them
they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of
patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in
any country."

Too often, we accept a government’s reasoning for going to war (not defensive war, but foreign, offensive, pre-emptive, or imperialistic war) without asking the questions of why and who’s interest does the war serve. This leads us to the third major insight:

3. Governments use propaganda to generate fear among their people and to convince the people that they need to hand over their liberties in order for the State to protect them from whatever bogeyman is out there. Since WWII, the U.S. government has done this by inflating the danger of the USSR from 1950-89; and then when that bogeyman not longer could generate the fear necessary to convince the people of the U.S. of the need for expansion of the military-industrial complex, the U.S. government inflated and exaggerated the danger of Islamic terrorists attacking the people of the U.S. If we continue to allow the State to tell us what is happening in the world, it will want us to be in fear. Hitler used the idea of the German people “running out of land” and thus needing all the land east of Germany that was home to the Slavic peoples, who, with Hitler’s twisted view of humanity, were lower than the Germans. If we allow the government to tell us who we should “hate” and why, we will be buying into horrible acts.

4. Never before or since has there occurred the complete and total destruction of a State. Because of this result to the Nazi Regime in Germany, it left all their secrets open to the world. I’m not going to imply that all states are as horrific as the Third Reich, but if all the secrets of all states were laid open to the world, we would be shocked and angered at actions that have occurred in the name of people of the world. A great source for awakening to the covert and secret actions of the U.S. government is a very well-documented book, “Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA“.

5. Shirer is very critical of the German people and their willingness to blindly follow or tolerate the horrors going on around them. I think he’s too narrow in his critique. I think most of humanity can fall into this trap of being followers and that this trap can only be avoided by broad and deep learning of history, philosophy, and human nature. Shirer is correct in that the German (or more specifically, Prussian–Salman Khan describes it well in his book) model of education develops a society with an over-reliance on experts and hierarchy that is antithetical to broad-based freedom, prosperity, and interpersonal respect. There was very little “independence” in German society of the late 19th/early 20th century (However, I’m from German stock that left Germany in the 1870’s because they didn’t want their sons to have to fight in the wars of Kaiser Wilhelm I, so I have some independent, draft-dodger-ness in me). But the educational model (see Khan’s book) perpetuated a servileness to the State that is unhealthy in ways that were most horrifically manifested in the toleration of the behavior of the Nazi State and demonstrated in the cowardice of many German politicians and military leaders who disagreed with Hitler, and saw him and Nazism for what it was, and yet were unable to muster the courage to fight against the brutality and idiocy of Hitler, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels, Heidrich, Hess, and Streicher. Only an education obtained by reading multiple sources from all over the world and political spectrum (as all are biased) and by exposing ourselves to great ideas in history, literature, science, and philosophy will inoculate us against the tendency to Statism.

In conclusion, I highly recommend reading this book so that each individual can draw his/her own lessons from this history of the only State that has been filleted open for us to see the innards of an entity that perpetrated such horror. It shows the essence of Statism and Party-ism at its worst. All States have some of Nazi Germany in them, to some degree. If we fail to question the actions and intentions of our governments and if we continue to allow political parties and the State define who we are and who we fear, we risk traveling a similar path.

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