In fact, Shirer had a more encompassing objective, which was to link the obscene criminality of individuals to what was a communal frenzy—the hatred that drove an entire nation, the Reich itself. What distinguishes his book is its insistence that Hitler and his exterminationist drive were a distillation of the Reich, a quintessence brewed from the darkest elements of German history, an entire culture. He did not title his book The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (although he did a version for young adults by that title), but The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
It was a bold decision: He wanted to challenge the “Hitler-centric” point of view of previous treatments of the war. Hitler may have been a quintessential distillation of centuries of German culture and philosophy, but Shirer was careful not to let him or that heritage become an excuse for his accomplices.
“Third Reich” was not a term of Hitler’s invention; it was concocted in a book written in 1922 by a German nationalist crank named Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, who believed in the divine destiny of a German history that could be divided into three momentous acts. There was Charlemagne’s First Reich. That was followed by the Second Reich, the one resurrected by Bismarck with his Prussian “blood and iron”—but then betrayed by the “stab in the back,” the supposed treachery of Jews and socialists on the home front that brought the noble German Army defeat just as it was on the verge of victory in November 1918. And thus all Germany was awaiting the savior who would arise to restore, with a Third Reich, the destiny that was theirs.
Here Shirer opened himself to charges of exchanging Hitler-centrism for German-centrism as the source of the horror. But it doesn’t strike me that he attributes the malevolent aspect of the “Germanic” to an ethnic or racial trait—the mirror image of how Hitler saw the Jews. Rather, he sought scrupulously to trace these traits not to genetics but to a shared intellectual tradition, or perhaps “delusion” might be a better word. He tries to trace what you might call the intellectual DNA of the Third Reich, as opposed to its ethnic chromosomal code.
And so in tracing the formation of Hitler’s mind and the Third Reich, Shirer’s magnum opus focuses valuable attention on the lasting impact of the philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s feverish series of nationalist speeches beginning in 1807 after the German defeat at Jena (speeches that “stirred and rallied a divided and defeated people,” in Shirer’s words). Hitler was still a youth when he came under the spell of one of his teachers at Linz, Leopold Poetsch, and Shirer brings forth from the shadows of amnesia this nearly forgotten figure, an acolyte of the Pan-German League, who may have been the most decisive in shaping—distorting—the pliant young Adolf Hitler with his “dazzling eloquence,” which “carr[ied] us away with him,” as Hitler describes Poetsch’s effect in Mein Kampf. It was undoubtedly Poetsch, the miserable little schoolteacher, who foisted Fichte on Hitler. Thus, Shirer shows us, fanatical pro-Germanism took its place beside fanatical anti-Semitism in the young man’s mind.
Shirer does not condemn Germans as Germans. He’s faithful to the idea that all men are created equal, but he won’t accede to the relativistic notion that all ideas are equal as well, and in bringing Fichte and Poetsch to the fore, he forces our attention on how stupid and evil ideas played a crucial role in Hitler’s development.
Of course, few ideas were more stupid and evil than Hitler’s notion of his own divine destiny, forbidding, for instance, even tactical retreats. “This mania for ordering distant troops to stand fast no matter what their peril,” Shirer writes, “...was to lead to Stalingrad and other disasters and to help seal Hitler’s fate.”
Indeed, the foremost object lesson from rereading Shirer’s remarkable work 50 years on might be that the glorification of suicidal martyrdom, its inseparability from delusion and defeat, blinds its adherents to anything but murderous faith—and leads to little more than the slaughter of innocents.
And, yes, perhaps one corollary that almost need not be spelled out: There is danger in giving up our sense of selfhood for the illusory unity of a frenzied mass movement, of devolving from human to herd for some homicidal abstraction. It is a problem we can never be reminded of enough, and for this we will always owe William Shirer a debt of gratitude.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of Explaining Hitler and, most recently, How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.