(Yeah, yeah, I've spent more time reading than I have writing. Trying to rectify that.)
Everyone has that holy grail of a book. Some people work like dogs to finish books by the great Russian literary masters; others tough it out through the oeuvre of Steinbeck. They may not enjoy it, but, by G-d, you are not a real reader until you slam that back cover onto that tome of pain and frustration.
I finally finished my grail: the 1500+ page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. I labored for two months, reading mostly at home to avoid the embarrassment of busting out a book with a giant honking swastika on the front. I dropped it in the middle to blow through a cheap historical novel, only to pick it up again. I laughed, I cried, I did a victory dance when I turned the last page.
Rise and Fall, despite the paragraph above, was worth the pain. Years of Holocaust classes give you the suffering of millions, but they rarely share the gallows humor that should accompany the tales of the Nazi elite, a motley band of misfits. There were times during my reading that the leadership of the Third Reich reminded me of nothing more than one of those coming of age sports films where a strong, yet flawed leader tries to mold a championship-winning team out of a bunch of sad sack losers. Shirer does nothing to dissuade the reader from this conclusion. Indeed, he goes out of his way to show the gluttonousness, pride and absolute stupidity within those smart uniforms. The rest of the cast doesn’t fair very well either. Shirer heaps a fair amount of scorn on the rest of Europe’s leadership, portraying them as teams (if we are to continue the sports movie line of comparison) who alternately wrung their hands as the visiting German team charged down the court or flung the ball into Nazi hands before running in the opposite direction, shrieking like a school girl. Few people manage to make it out of the book with their reputations unscathed—mostly the desperate leaders of doomed Eastern European countries and Colonel Klaus von Stauffenberg (it’s hard not to come out with a little respect for the guy—he lost an eye, an arm, and several fingers on his surviving hand and still tried to blow up Hitler).
The sheer amount of information the Nazi regime left behind after their defeat is astounding. Journals, letters, and secret missives give us a glimpse behind the propaganda, behind the war machine that decimated much of Europe. Couple that with Shirer’s uncanny ability to actually be present at many of Hitler’s most important public moments and the reader is presented with the human interaction along with the solid facts. Accounts of Hitler’s raging tantrums sit comfortably beside the fact that the man was quite fond of sweets; the Fuhrer’s cold-blooded executions of his own staff rest near his ability to forgive a dithering Mussolini nearly anything. Shirer brings the Third Reich that we know and adds the gut-wrenchingly human side, making forgiveness all the more impossible to give.
Verdict: Library this one.
(Author’s note: As a Jew, I’ve been dealing with Holocaust for years and that occasionally does things to you, so I must ask that you understand my black humor is an attempt to mentally encompass this devastating era in both European and Jewish history. There’s only so many times you can read about death camp prisoners having their skins made into lampshades before you have to switch off.)