Three years ago I implemented a personal tradition: to read a "Monster Classic" each year. This is my term, referring to a piece of writing that is great in reputation and girth. The how and when of it is to begin the Monster mid-summer and read it in fits and starts over the course of several months, with a goal of finishing before the end of the year. The why of it isn't so simple. Most avid readers I know have daunting lists of books they want to or feel they should read. I'm no different, but life is too short for shoulds. I'm after something that will change the way I look at writing, at storytelling, at the world.
For whatever reason I have chosen these books, I realized this summer that my Monster Classics are built on the premise of, or are greatly informed by, war. Two years ago I read Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, an allegorical tale shaped largely by Mann's reaction to World War I; last year, Tolstoy brought me War and Peace, that gorgeous and profound tale of Russia during the Napoleanic era.
This summer I turned from fiction to narrative non-fiction. World War II has long fascinated and disturbed me. I've sought, without success, to reconcile the incongruous romance of this war - the films, music, literature that conjure a sense of the heroic and of solidarity, the "Greatest Generation" united as Allies - with its human suffering so incomprehensible that the mind struggles against its limits to accept what the eyes witness in words and photos.
I selected The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for perhaps the same reason that millions before me have: to understand how one man created a machine of slaughter out of a country in shambles. After 1264 pages in six weeks, I am still bewildered. Of course I knew the external conditions: the carving up of Germany after WWI, the political disaster that the Treaty of Versailles put into motion, the desperate economic conditions in Germany as the Depression ground what little economy it had left into grist. But this diminutive Austrian who so captured the imagination and bent the will of a once-proud nation -- how did he do it? Why did he? And why did so many follow him into the hell of his creation?
William Shirer, a longtime foreign correspondent, worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940, leaving only when it became clear he and his family were no longer safe. He returned to Germany in 1945 to report on the Nuremberg trials. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published in 1960, barely a generation after the end of the war.
Because of Shirer's proximity and access to the majors players of the Third Reich and certainly because war was exploding all around him, the book has an immediacy and intimacy that sets it apart from a traditional historical examination of events. It also contains Shirer's interpretations, suppositions and ruminations.
As an American of German-Italian-Norwegian descent, I had a very hard time with Shirer's characterization of Germans as possessing a predilection for cruelty and war. There are few nations that remain exempt from this pointed finger. But it begs the question that even Shirer could not answer: how did the atrocities of the war escape the outrage of the German people? Shirer presents clues and circumstances which serve as a caution to us all. And many of which I recognize in today's socially and politically polarized America that feeds on propaganda and is increasingly indulgent of politicians' idiocy and rejection of facts.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is thick with military history - this is a book about war. That may seem obvious, but do not expect a sociological narrative. Shirer is a great journalist, which assumes certain skill in telling a story that will appeal to a lay audience. But this book, after its introduction to Hitler and his early life, uses the major events, invasions and battles of World War II to show the creation of an empire.
It is a testament to Shirer's skill that I became so caught up in the details of Hitler's conquests and defeats. Although I have read books about individual battles, I have never followed a comprehensive history of the European theatre. It was astonishing to read on-the-ground reports as nearly all of Europe fell at Germany's feet in a short period, then to sit above it all and witness Hitler's increasing megalomania that spelled out his downfall.
It is dense. It is detailed. It is exhausting, exhaustive, overwhelming and shattering. To read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is to have your heart broken again and again. Yet, to hold history at arm's length is to guarantee that it will be repeated.