For as long as I can remember, my family has spent time each year in Cedaredge, a small little town in western Colorado. During our most recent visit, I was caught unprepared in a rain shower and, seeking cover wherever it could be found, I stumbled upon a library book sale. The combination of ridiculous prices, an eclectic selection, and nothing else to do with the rain about me conspired to fill many bags with good old books. Among them was an old edition of William Shirer’s classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
At over 1200 pages, it’s not a quick read–but it’s not a difficult one, either. The author is a journalist rather than a historian, and to the great credit of the book, he was a first-hand witness of many of the events chronicled in the book. The result is a rather interesting account of a pivotal period of the past century.
But then, there is a natural drama and grandeur to these events that transcends the pages. We see Hitler’s rise from a penniless wretch on the streets of Vienna to the most powerful man in Europe; we witness the shame of Nevill Chamberlain’s “leadership” contrasted with the breathtaking courage and splendor of Winston Churchill; we marvel as Fate herself seems to conspire to keep Hitler alive against all odds as he survives many would-be assassins only to topple from power due to countless bungled decisions for which only he can take blame.
As I plowed through the book as fast as I could manage, I was fascinated by how much of the history was readily applicable to our own time and place. Let me share some of the points that most resonated with me.
Religion and Wars
Some make the argument that religion is the primordial source of conflict in the world and were we but unshackled from our silly delusions of God’s existence, peace and harmony would break out across the land. (In an era of terrorists blowing up thousands of innocents under the banner of religion, it’s easy to be sympathetic to that position.)
The horrors of the war waged by the Nazis should give pause to that assertion. While not as hostile towards religion as the Communists, the Nazi Party’s leadership openly disdained organized religion and crushed any religious leaders unwilling to support the Party. To replace religion as the moral core of society, the Nazis established a new set of values anchored in the faux-science of their philosophers–and managed to get a significant portion of the populace to embrace them.
The sheer evil of the Nazis is breath-taking. The holocaust, of course. Their half-executed plan to simply starve the Russians and Ukranians–to ship their food to Germany and let them all die. Their reign of terror over all of their occupied territories.
And then, there was Stalin who had guns mounted behind his own front lines to shoot any of his men who retreated; who interned his own country’s POWs when they were liberated because he expected them to fight to the death; who killed thousands of his own people as they fled Moscow when it seemed clear that the Nazis would occupy the city (he wanted them to stay as a show of support).
Religious extremists have no monopoly on evil.
The Nazi’s exploited a basic human flaw with great success: we are heavily influenced by repetition. In a particularly memorable passage, the author describes how he personally witnessed countless people from educated backgrounds adopting the silly and baseless ideas of the Nazi party only because they were repeated so constantly through every medium. Even otherwise respectable, credentialed scientists and academics fell victim to the echo chamber.
Are there shared beliefs in our zeitgeist based on shabby science oft-repeated that we no longer question, that even our men-and-women-of-letters champion or fail to challenge? How much original research is in place before the media machine takes over, repeating it a thousand times until many or all believe?
We must question everything and have an anchor in something more than the fashion of the moment.
Deception in Foreign Relations
It is tempting to believe President Ahmadinejad of Iran when he asserts publicly that his government is seeking for nuclear technology only to provide power for his people. Especially when he is courteous and photogenic.
The Nazis bluntly lied shamelessly to any member of the press or foreign statesmen they could find. The sheer audacity of their deception is impressive. They lied about invading every country they eventually crushed. If rhetoric was not enough, they created fake events upon which to base their rhetoric. Yet their actions betrayed their true intentions; it was only the world’s willingness to accept seemingly innocent explanations for their war preparations and their troop movements and their alliances, etc. that led to disaster.
Effective foreign policy must simply ignore rhetoric and focus relentlessly on action.
Records of History
Rise and Fall would have been impossible to write had it not been for the voluminous records kept by the Nazis–the same records that contributed so well to their executions and imprisonments at the trials at Nuremberg. Some of the most interesting revelations were made possible by the odd memo here or the random piece of correspondence there. These threads would have been impossible for history’s actors to have seen as they were woven in time; historians had to discern the pattern. All thanks to meticulously filed and archived documents, preserved for us.
There is something about the Truth that is larger than any of us, or all of us. We owe it to our successors to clearly present their legacy. As tempting as it may be to manipulate facts and control the narrative–to emulate the totalitarian regimes in their absolute control of the facts–we cannot indulge in this desire.
We need to work out how to effectively archive digital information and how to balance the need for Truth with the right to avoid self-incrimination. I hope we get that figured out before many of us succumb to the temptation to shred a part of our society’s story.
The man at the head of the machine which caused the deaths of countless millions and further hardships upon most of the entire world never had to face justice. Hitler died on his own terms, so completely that his remains were never recovered. He left behind his belief that the Third Reich fell because the German people did not deserve him.
Some others in positions of authority were executed after the war following the various Nuremberg trials, but so many of these oversaw or directly committed mass murders. To kill one who has killed another is itself hardly justice–for the second killing cannot begin to undo the first–but it has a certain symmetry that feels to some like justice. But you cannot kill such criminals more than once. How do you extract justice from such monsters? Of course, you cannot.
And yet, shortly after sentencing many such to jail terms and executions, the sentences were commuted and the criminals were set free. Men who killed defenseless prisoners of war. Men who burned little children. Terrible people.
Still, the Nazi regime had a gangster element to it–via the SS and its derivatives–that successfully prevented dissent. Had these men refused to fulfill their dreadful orders, they would have reason to fear brutal torture of themselves and their families. Of course, the right thing to do is take a moral stand regardless of the outcome, but then, thanks to the propaganda built on “science” mentioned above, on what moral ground do you stand? Moral relativists at this point must eat their cake as we realize that, without immutable moral anchors, there can for some be no stand to take.
There is no justice in this world, though we try our best.