William Shirer’s opus on the history of Nazi Germany is a definitive work, which should find its way to the bookshelf of any serious student of history. The writing is tremendously evocative, and based in large part on Shirer’s own personal recollections and observations during the period, with the rest of Shirer’s analysis stemming from meticulous research that he performed in detailing the history behind the Nazis’ ascent to power, their fall, and all of the depredations they were responsible for in between.
This is not to say that the book is perfect. Far from it; Shirer ridiculously insists that somehow, the homosexuality of a number of members of the SA either caused, or was the result of–we are never told for sure–their various lunatic actions. This is absurd; homosexuality is no more indicted by the example of the SA than vegetarianism is indicted by the example of Hitler himself. To be sure, Shirer wrote his book in a different time–the copyright dates back to 1959–and so, attitudes on homosexuality were not the same then that they are now, but still, it is more than a little jarring to read some of the things that Shirer has written on the issue.
Equally jarring–and wrong–is Shirer’s argument that the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was somehow responsible for the rise of Nazism. The Nazis’ reading of Nietzsche was, at best, highly selective, and Nietzsche’s works were misrepresented by his sister, who did much to tarnish Nietzsche’s legacy. It is a pity that this history is not accurately set out in Shirer’s writings, though admittedly, he was parroting the conventional wisdom of the time.
All of this having been written, Shirer’s work remains tremendously valuable, and well worth having. Shirer is merciless in describing the violations of human dignity that the Nazis were responsible for, especially towards Jews. Relatedly, it should be noted that no intellectually honest person can compare the record of the Nazis with that of the Bush Administration on the issue of dealing with wartime detainees, as many have sought to do; whatever one things of waterboarding, and the methods of interrogation employed by the Bush Administration–many of which I am against, and I believe were counterproductive–nothing that the Administration did even comes close to comparing with Nazism. It’s good that Shirer reminds us–even those of us well-versed in history–just how obscene and despicable Adolf Hitler and his lot really were, and it would seem that many people ought to read, or re-read his work, in order to remind themselves just what the Nazis were like, and just how much perspective they need to employ before comparing the Nazis to contemporary governments.