Sixty-four years ago William L. Shirer wrote a history of the Nazi regime and its part in the Second World War. I am rereading it—a major task since it is over 1200 pages. The first time I read it, it did make a strong impression, but nothing like this time around. Nevertheless, hard as it is to go through, it is one of the best books I have ever read. I took it up again because my three sons have little idea of the holocaust and how it came about. One of them even finds it doubtful.
As you make your way through the history you begin to realize that it represented a new dimension of evil in the world. Ascribing the evil only to Hitler and a few fanatical followers is not possible. While not all Germans were involved, quite a number were complicit and approved of the extermination of Jews and others considered undesirable. The Nazis planned to literally enslave large European populations to serve as workers for the Third Reich. The torture and cruelty was beyond belief. That is the most difficult portion to read—to realize how many lives were destroyed wantonly. Shirer builds the story on facts and fact by deadly fact accumulates until the horror of the whole is laid out before you.
This is not an easy book to read, but it is extremely important that the history not be lost or neglected. No doubt Hitler was a madman, but he captivated a majority of the population of one of the world's most civilized and cultured nations. To say that it could not happen again is sheer foolishness. The human capacity for evil is unlimited.
Everyone should read Shirer. After the war, Germans claimed they knew nothing of the atrocities and immediately blamed the entire Holocaust on a small group of Hitler's cronies. Books I would recommend to anybody are The War Against the Jews, Eichmann in Jerusalem, The Psychopathic God, Constantine's Sword (book and film), and Hitler's Willing Executioners. There is also an interesting documentary called IIRC The Unknown Soldier, about a 1990s touring exhibit composed chiefly of regular German soldiers' (not SS) letters home from the Eastern Front along with photos sent home by the troops. The photos and letters leave no doubt that the regular army was fully engaged in the eradication of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Not surprisingly, it caused quite a stir in Germany. Then there is Shoah, a 9-hour documentary about what Germans knew and when they knew it, and The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, a fascinating study of Hitler's filmmaker, director of Olympia and Triumph of the Will.
Of course, there are countless books and films about the Holocaust, so it is shocking that so many people know nothing about it and that there is a growing number of Holocaust deniers out there, many in America.
Hitler said once that the world would do nothing to save the Jews because the world seemed not to have noticed the Turkish genocide against the Arminians in the WW I era. The world didn't save the Jews, nor did it save the Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge or the Tutsis from the Hutus in Rwanda. It doesn't look as if we are going to save the Ukrainians from the Russians, either.
Your comment brings to mind Satayana's famous remark:
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
I found the Richard Rhodes book helpful in understanding German ambitions. It's horrible to think they came so close to succeeding. Success and ultimate failure can be attributed to the gigantic ego of their leader.
Masters of Death
One of the things about Shirer's book that gives it credibility is that he gives Hitler credit for many succesful actions. After all he conquered with relatively little cost a large portion of Europe and up till 1943 looked unstoppable. The the decisions got worse and in some cases disastrous—the attempt to invade and conquer Russia, for example.
The early successes were genius in the sense that Hitler understood just how far his cajones could take him. My impression however, based on an admittedly limited knowledge of WWII, is that Germany jumped the gun. Had they waited one, maybe two years, continuing to build up their military resources, they would have been truly unstoppable.
The failure of the eastern campaign rests in the Hitler decision to force the siege of Stalingrad. Had he not reached for a symbolic victory, he could have bypassed it, seized all the oilfields and returned to choke it off. Pulling desperately needed portions of his military from where they were needed, he ultimately destroyed the German forces.
The Russian people deserves a huge amount of credit for holding on when things looked truly bleak, with incredible loss of life. The also performed brilliantly, although not necessarily efficiently, in their counter-offensive. It's terrible that the tyrant Stalin benefited so greatly from the sacrifices of the Russian people.
If they had indeed waited those couple of years, I wonder at all the historical changes which would have occurred, had the US deployed its nuclear weapons in Germany, rather than at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A year or two would have also seen the deployment of the Gloster Meteor and the P-80 Shooting Star to counter the Me-262 and Me-163. Hitler himself hamstrung the 262, wanting it to be a bomber rather than a fighter, a decision corrected way too late.
Suffice to say there are TONS of "what-ifs" in the whole matter of how WWII was fought, and I hope you'll pardon me for quoting C. S. Lewis, who said, "No one is told what would have happened."
True Loren. It's interesting to speculate though.
I wasn't aware that Hitler was an aeronautical engineer as well. A man of many talents.
Oh, yeah. Schicklgruber was an aeronautical engineer like I'm an understudy for Neil deGrasse Tyson! And if you believe THAT one...!
I am on friendly terms with a living 'nazi.'
A friends German mother in her late eighties served as a nurse during the second world war having been in a nazi youth organisation for girls like most girls her age at that time. Of course, she wasn't a real 'nazi' and is in fact a very good person with high standards and principles. She rarely talks about that time but over the years I have heard some very interesting stories.
It should be known that the allied bombing strategy was largely waged against German civilians, industry and industrial workers many of whom were guest workers from other European countries. The British bombed almost indiscriminately at night while the Americans bombed with more precision during the day. It wasn't a very nice thing to do.
It wasn't a very nice thing to do.
Indeed it was not. You have raised an important and relatively little noted aspect of the war that needs to be recognized more broadly. The British philosopher A. C. Grayling has examined this in his book Among the Dead Cities. The Americans did the same kind of bombing against Japan, especially Tokyo. You could make a case that this was the first war in which terrorism against the civilian populations was used as a weapon by both sides.
While I fully agree that that actions of the American and British were immoral, it's hard to make the case that German atrocities, in particular the concentration camps, were solely a response. Adumbrations of Hitler's actions can be found in Mein Kampf.
There were, of course, no "clean hands" in that affair. We (whoever that is) could point to Hitler as having "started it", but that implies picking some arbitrary point in history where "we" felt ourselves morally absolved. Clearly (?) Hitler's rise was one result that could have and did come from Germany's actions during and subsequent treatment after their WWI defeat. Culpability for failure to prevent WWII falls on all parties involved. Culpability for failure to prevent WWIII may well fall heavily on US opportunism after the fall of the Soviet Union when the neocons pressed to forgo any "peace dividend" and instead chose to expand NATO.