I just finished listening to the audiobook The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I’m not able to competently evaluate all of its factual claims, but I thought the book was terrific. The narration by Grover Gardner was excellent, and the extremely long audio book kept me interested for the large majority of its 57 hours and 13 minutes run time. It took me over a month of listening to finish but it was worth it.
As long as the book is, I think almost every period was covered with the right amount of detail for a general overview. Shirer mentions some minor characters repeatedly thanks to the depth of detail, and this helped me with retaining the information and following the narrative. If most of the characters had only showed up once when they were at the center of action, I would have gotten lost and probably forgotten more. Shirer does a great job weaving in relatively minor players who will become important later. Shirer has funny and memorable adjectives for many of the characters – the “wily” Papen, “corpulent” Reich Marshall (Goering), Streicher the pornographer, Himmler the former chicken farmer, Rohm the homosexual etc.
In order to better understand the context and characters, I tried to integrate my listening with other WWII material to better understand the history. I listened to the audiobook In the Garden of Beasts right before this, and that provided good background for the Night of Long Knives. That book deals with the French and English ambassadors, Neurath, and Putzi Hanfstaengl who are also in this book. Hjallmar Schacht gets top billing in Lords of Finance, though I didn’t remember all the details from that book, which I read a while ago. I watched the movie Dunkirk right around when I got to that portion of the narrative, which was exciting, though the movie didn’t really add much information. I also watched Der Untergang at about the time I started this book and I very highly recommend the movie. The book provides good background and detail to the scenes in the bunker from the movie, Shirer mentions Hitler’s ever more violent outbursts, and even provides some detail on the infamous endlessly parodied “Der Angriff Steiners” scene from der Untergang. It’s also nice to be able to put the faces of the actors to the lesser known characters like Keitel, Jodl, Bormann etc. I thought about also integrating Saving Private Ryan, Valkyrie and Stalingrad (the German version), but it didn’t work out for me timing-wise. I still want to (re)watch these movies, I think I will be a much greater appreciation for the setting and the stakes. My old WWII history professor inspired me, he taught us the material through movies and his list included The Train, Schindler’s List, Das Boot, and Der Untergang among others.
The narrative gives somewhat short shrift to D-day, though in fairness the Battle of the Bulge receives more attention probably because it was more important from the German point of view and Hitler’s involvment. The July 20th plot is recounted in detail, though Shirer makes clear while discussing the various plots of the generals (aside from the July 20th plot) that much of the details are unknown and the generals involved had reason to exaggerate their plots. In contrast, Shirer takes Speer’s claims after the war at face value, I’m far from an expert on this but I think Shirer could have expressed more skepticism towards Speer (Speer meant to kill Hitler but was thwarted by a tall chimney?) I also couldn’t help but wonder if some of the other characters mentioned in the book were actually plotting against the regime and their actions are lost to us forever (Mother Night has this type of story line).
Shirer is opinionated, which I like. His “German essentialist” thesis (that National Socialism was a logical continuation of German history) has been criticized by some historians, but it had absolutely no negative impact on my enjoyment. I generally reject the essentialist theory out of hand, though I can’t blame Shirer writing in 1957 not far removed from two World Wars, with personal experience in Germany, for advancing it. In his afterword written in 1990, Shirer admits that his theory was probably biased because of his personal experiences. If Shirer stated that the rise and fall was mostly a series of random crazy coincidences and immensely bad luck (which is what I think it was) it would anesthetize his personal experiences and visceral description of the horrors of the concentration camps and scientific experiments. I think of the thesis (which isn’t that heavily emphasized in the book anyways) on a sort of meta-level that some critics of Islam or Russia today should bear in mind.
Despite Shirer’s own theory, the way the narrative unfolded emphasized the unfortunate contingencies of this story, and gave a lot of support to a “great man” theory of history. How many things had to go wrong for the Nazis to gain power, and stay in power. I lost count of the assassination attempts. The horrible events really were shaped by one individual, and this story is as much the rise and fall of Hitler as of the Third Reich. While it was helpful to learn that some of Hitler’s ideas were present in German society before his rise and therefore Hitler and National Socialism didn’t come from nowhere, I wasn’t convinced that racism and xenophobia in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s was much greater than elsewhere in Europe. It did seem that the Germans grievances to the WWI settlement had a strong negative effect on German politics and played in to the hand of nationalist politicians and parties like the Nazis. Hitler was apparently a true believer and absolutely dedicated to his crazy conspiracy theories. His “dedication” probably helped him rise to the top, he was not just a phony looking to enrich himself (like Goering), though many of his followers greatly enriched themselves through corruption etc. His constant harping on his obsessions and his outlook infected those below him who might have otherwise been relatively normal members of society, though he did also naturally attract virulent anti-Semites. I want to read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem to better understand her “banality of evil” thesis, based on the articles I have read I think it is compatible with an “incentive-structure” thesis, where leaders set incentives for obedience and belief in a particular world-view, and subordinates committed atrocities because of the terrible direction set from the top.
When Shirer got in to the details of the holocaust and experiments it can be difficult to stomach, and I had to take frequent pauses during this part. It is incredibly difficult to understand how subordinates could not use the simplest heuristics (don’t slaughter women and children) to push back against the terrible Nazi ideology. That many didn’t shows the tremendous power that a leader has in setting the culture and actions of subordinates.
Shirer’s opinion which I most disagreed with was his Hitler “genius or “evil genius” theory. Obviously it’s hard to think about this sort of thing objectively, but as with the narrative actually supporting a contingency explanation instead of an essentialist German thesis, Shirer’s own narrative gave plenty of examples where Hitler’s blundering refusal to listen to his generals accelerated his downfall. I think Hitler was not particularly smart, smart people don’t believe in idiotic conspiracies, smart people delegate authority when it is obvious they lack the necessary expertise, they don’t talk constantly for hours on unrelated topics in the midst of dire circumstance, and they aren’t fooled by their own propaganda, etc. etc. Hitler’s genius, such as it was, seems to be the lesson that if you disregard all morality, you can gain temporary advantages in negotiations especially if your negotiating partners are not aware of your character. Before the war, England and France seemed willing to grant Germany the claims that they viewed as plausibly-defensible, assuming they were dealing with a rational good faith negotiator.
Maybe Hitler’s “genius” was also the inclination to take aggressive and risky actions which were viewed as unlikely to succeed by the status quo (the generals) which could in certain situations (probably when the opponent has low information and you have an advantage) yield surprising upside. However, as conditions changed, it seems that the payoff from aggressiveness and risk taking declined and actually turned negative. I’m thinking here of Hitler’s refusal to retreat from Stalingrad, the Battle of the Bulge, and refusal to delegate authority on D-day. Once the advantages had been gained, a more conventional strategy might have held the territory more effectively.
Ultimately, I have to trust Shirer’s recounting of the facts, and that is the one thing that gives me pause while reflecting on the book. I don’t know this topic well enough to know how correct Shirer’s summaries are. Shirer’s recounting of the sheer duplicity prior to WWII is shocking, and at times listening I wondered if Shirer could be biased against the Germans. It’s simply hard to comprehend the degree bad faith negotiation by the Nazis with no defectors on the German side. I know that given the realities of holocaust I am probably focusing too much on Nazi negotiation tactics, but as a lawyer I am used to seeing cases where looking at the evidence from each point of view, both sides have a plausible argument based on legitimated misunderstandings etc. Here, it is almost inconceivable how the Nazis could justify their actions, and all I could think of to explain it was that some conspiracy-theory prone paranoid people are intrinsically corrupt and willing to take moral shortcuts. One of the few satisfying aspects of the narrative was learning that Ribbentrop was executed at Nurnberg.
Shirer ends his afterword with the traditional “Remembrance of the past helps us understand the present” cliché. And I think there really is a lot to learn from this history and a lot to think about. Not in any particular order, here are some things I thought about while listening to the narrative – these are meant go beyond the obvious stuff which hopefully everyone knows at this point.
First lesson: we may be attracted to leaders who express certainty, confidence, and a clear world-view, and this can have bad results depending on what the specific ideology of the leader is. Second lesson: A leader has huge influence on the incentives for subordinates. A leader’s ideology can attract like-minded followers, and with a few true believers at the top, the incentives can lead to shockingly bad behavior from subordinates. Third: The power of incentives generally – I’m already on the economics band-wagon so I believe in the power of incentives. Here, the incentives were to follow orders and endorse Nazi ideology, and it’s crazy how few people defected, including organizations that were otherwise not aligned with the unhinged parts of Nazi ideology. Fourth: conspiracy theories and paranoia may be closely related to immoral behavior, and perhaps the most dangerous people are those who sincerely believe conspiracy theories and don’t merely espouse them for short term gains. Those who truly think their opponents are acting in bad faith or evil should be kept from power if at all possible, as paranoid conspiratorial thinking might be directly related to immoral behavior. Fifth lesson: state control of the media works, and this can be extremely dangerous because it will increase support for the government in power, perpetuate the length of the government’s rule, and hide inconvenient facts which many people will never discover on their own. Possibly those pulling the strings will begin to believe their own propaganda. Sixth and related to this – few people will make an independent effort to figure things out and spread the news. Figuring things out without guidance is difficult. Seventh: When war happens, resistance dwindles further. Criticizing the leadership in times of strain is extremely difficult, and war can unite an otherwise apathetic populace. Eight: we may be underestimating the risks of patriotism and nationalism, and militarism. National Socialism presents a tail risk of what can happen. National Socialism undoubtedly received great support from grievances based on WWI, and general German nationalism that supported some of the Nazi aims. What positive contributions have come from patriotism to possible offset the disaster of National Socialism? Should we try to influence people in countries where we see nationalism and nationalist grievances taking hold? Lastly: how bad would things have to get for me to dissent and act against an immoral organization. Would I be able to find out the truth by myself when others did not care and it was relatively difficul? Would I be able to ignore incentives if they were set up to reward transparently evil ends? How often should I consider what current incentive structures reward? And should we generally be thinking more about what structure incentives are creating?
I don’t think that we are generally in a situation at all like the Third Reich. But this story shows how hard it can be to be a good person, and how easy it is to fail at that.