Revisiting The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
Nineteen sixty: Only 15 years had passed since the end of World War II. But already one could read an essay describing a âwave of amnesia that has overtaken the Westâ with regard to the events of 1933 to 1945.
At the time, there was no Spielberg-produced HBO âBand of Brothersâ and no Greatest Generation celebration; there were no Holocaust museums in the United States. There was, instead, the beginning of a kind of willed forgetfulness of the horror of those years.
No wonder. It was not merely the Second World War, it was war to the second power, exponentially more horrific. Not merely in degree and quantityâin death toll and geographic reachâbut also in consequences, if one considered Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
But in 1960, there were two notable developments, two captures: In May, Israeli agents apprehended Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and flew him to Jerusalem for trial. And in October, William L. Shirer captured something else, both massive and elusive, within the four corners of a book:Â The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He captured it in a way that made amnesia no longer an option. The issue of a new edition on the 50th anniversary of the bookâs winning the National Book Award recalls an important point of inflection in American historical consciousness.
The arrest of Eichmann, chief operating officer of the Final Solution, reawakened the question Why? Why had Germany, long one of the most ostensibly civilized, highly educated societies on earth, transformed itself into an instrument that turned a continent into a charnel house? Why had Germany delivered itself over to the raving exterminationist dictates of one man, the man Shirer refers to disdainfully as a âvagabondâ? Why did the world allow a âtramp,â a Chaplinesque figure whose 1923 beer hall putsch was a comic fiasco, to become a genocidalÂ FĂŒhrerÂ whose rule spanned a continent and threatened to last a thousand years?
Why? William Shirer offered a 1,250-page answer.