November 08, 2012
History is always anachronistic. That is, the account of the past is, by definition, written down from the point of view of the present, and the history becomes at once an account of the era it is about and an inadvertent record of the era from which it is viewed.
For instance, I am listening to William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, downloaded from Audible.com. I first read the book when I was 10 years old; my older sister had been required to read the book for her high school history class, and she passed it along to me in the correct belief that it would interest me.
The Rise and Fall became one of the formative experiences of my life. What stuck most clearly in my memory were five things:
1. The agony of the vivid and personal terms in which Shirer told of the Holocaust, so that I not only wept at the time of reading, but was haunted by the knowledge of how readily human beings descend to levels of barbarism that had been unthinkable to me up to then.
2. The grim knowledge of how those who are determined to rule over others will say whatever they think will achieve their purposes, with neither honor nor honesty – no sense that their words must be connected to reality, that having made a promise they must keep it, or that having declared a friendship they must be loyal.
3. The eagerness with which those charged with defending the free countries conspired to give Hitler everything he wanted, and in the name of "keeping the peace" threw away the freedom and national aspirations of other nations, only to be left to fight a much more difficult and costly war later.
4. The short-sightedness and stupidity of partisan politicians in Germany who refused to unite to oppose the obvious danger of the Nazi thugs. At no point was it anything less than obvious that Hitler intended to destroy democracy, brutally crush and kill his opponents, and take Germany to war. Yet industrialists, military leaders and rival politicians actively supported Hitler's cause in the foolish belief that they could somehow influence or control him.
5. Hitler's self-story, which grew into megalomania as he was proven right again and again. Even though in the moment of action he was often tormented with fear that he might be wrong, he nevertheless did act boldly, based upon his conclusions about the weakness and stupidity of his rivals and foes, and was right so often that his eventual arrogance can be understood.
Fortunately, this overweaning self-confidence became the Achilles' heel that brought him to utter ruin; but I learned that it is the person who acts boldly and, yes, courageously who changes the world, for good or ill; and I learned that even (or especially) the most evil person is the hero of his own self-story.
Those lessons have openly shaped my understanding of world and national affairs from the age of 10 onwards. Now, however, rereading the book 50 years later, I have realized that it shaped me in ways that I did not remember.
First, Shirer constantly refers to and evaluates the sources of his information. Sometimes two different diaries tell of the same account, while a memoir and contemporaneous notes offer competing versions. Shirer will typify a source as "usually reliable" or "often self-serving," as "designed to defend himself at Nuremberg" or astonishingly candid.
I have spent the rest of my life reading history in exactly the same manner, constantly asking myself, How could the writer possibly know this? What was the source he relied on for this conclusion?
Second, Shirer constantly shows us the contrast between Nazi propaganda and the actual events, and reminds us that incredible as the Nazi version was, the German people believed the propaganda.
However, he is fair about this: He himself was a leading American journalist (for UPI, CBS and others) during that time, and was often an eyewitness.
Even though he detested and feared Hitler, he still took many government lies at face value, unable to conceive of a government lying on such a scale. He was only able to find out the truth about many things after the war, when the whole archive of the Third Reich was laid open for examination.
Because of his account of Nazi propaganda, I have remained skeptical my entire life, realizing that I am rarely being told the whole story and assuming that stories are always being spun or outright lied about. Thus I have watched for the signs that should have told the German people they were being lied to.
I have also watched with sadness as the American people, too, swallowed obvious lies and propaganda and continue to do so, whether it emanates from the Right or the Left, from religious leaders or politicians, or even from absurd rumors that fly with the speed of viral web legends.
Until this week, though I had often told people that Shirer's Rise and Fall was one of the most important books in my development as a writer and thinker, I had not really understood how very deeply these lessons had penetrated my worldview and shaped my analysis of world affairs.
However, because 50 years have passed, I now see other things about Shirer's work that I could not possibly have noticed in 1961.
For one thing, Shirer has his own biases. The obvious one is his loathing for Hitler and the Nazis. He freely uses adjectives and characterizations that are hardly the language of the impartial historian. The Nazis behaved monstrously and he condemns them frequently.
But in 1961, this was such a universal view that it was almost obligatory to speak this way, and no reader would have taken it as excessive; indeed, Shirer is rather restrained in his condemnation of evils that had ended only 15 years before his book appeared.
Still, writers who have a particular worldview will inadvertently or deliberately "bear witness" to the beliefs that they have in common with their intended readers. When I see writers "bear witness" to global warming, to hating George Bush, to the evils of the Patriot Act, or to this or that shibboleth of their thoughtgroup, I may shake my head in despair; but I must also suspect that I am no less likely to be bearing witness to my biases in ways I do not see.
What I learn from this book now, after all the years of watching world and national politics and policies during the intervening decades, is that people have democracy only as long as they are willing to look past their own partisanship in order to cooperate in good government.
The Nazis could have been kept from power quite easily, right up to the very moment when they seized absolute control of Germany, had short-sighted groups and individuals only been willing to compromise with their sane rivals in order to prevent the Nazi takeover.
But each group only looked at what they feared to lose or what they hoped to gain. As long as the Nazis promised to crush the trade unions (a promise they kept), the industrialists helped them. As long as the Nazis promised to rearm Germany, the military helped them....continued on page 2