Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

I have spent the past few evenings reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by famed World War II correspondent William Shirer.

The book, with a big swastika on its formidable spine, has been glaring at me from the shelf for several years. I have hesitated to read it because I get very involved with such tales and spend weeks on end meditating upon them. One hates to spend much time thinking about the grim tale of Nazi Germany.

But once I got into the book, I had a tough time putting it down. Shirer was in Germany until the early 1940s. He had a clear view of Hitler's rise. And he had access to almost all Nazi documents once the war ended.

What stands out is the level of moral decay in Nazi Germany. Bankers had no problem processing the gold taken from the teeth of concentration camp victims. Companies were happy to participate in experiments to find out the most efficient way to kill thousands without wasting ammunition.

Shirer quotes from internal Nazi documents which make one numb. The treatment of the civilian population in the western Soviet Union is one area which doesn't get enough attention. Millions were starved and killed. Hundreds of thousands were taken into slavery into Germany. The only check on the killing seemed to be the eventual shortage of slave labor.

Hundreds of thousands of Eastern European women were made slaves in Germany, to help German women with housework. They were not to be allowed outside the house. They were not to attend church. They were to be worked hard, with no limits on the number of hours worked. They were, most emphatically, not to be treated as human beings.

Quote from Himmler: "I care not one whit if 50,000 Slavic women die of exposure while digging a ditch. My only interest is that the ditch be completed." Cruelty was high virtue. Hardness was cultivated.

The Nazis knew they would be in trouble if they lost the war. As they retreated back towards Germany across Russia and Poland, they took steps to cover their tracks. One commander was cited as a hero for what was regarded as an incredible accomplishment: His soldiers dug up a mass grave containing 240,000 East European civilians and burned the corpses to destroy incriminating evidence.

One thing stands out about the post-war trials at Nuremberg: The lack of remorse. Instead, there was pride. Pride at finding a more efficient way to kill Jews. Pride at developing more humane ways of killing. One commandant viewed himself as sort of a Joan of Arc for tweaking his execution methods so there would be less screaming and carrying on by the doomed.

Constantly, Hitler prodded his underlings to be more cruel, more ruthless, more violent. Naturally, those who rose to the top were the scum of the earth, those without any moral scruples whatsoever. And naturally, those types fell to squabbling amongst themselves in brutal ways.

When Gen. Rommel was caught as a part of a plot to kill Hitler in 1944, he was, due to his heroic status with the German people, given the choice to kill himself rather than be slowly strangled with piano wire on film as were the other generals in the plot. S. S. agents came to his home, informed him that he would be dead one way or another in fifteen minutes, allowed him to say goodbye to his wife and kids, assured him he would be given a full state funeral, and handed him the cyanide pill. Rommel took it and was dead in three minutes.

One wonders, what would have happened if Hitler hadn't made a few collosal mistakes? What if he hadn't gone into Russia? What if he had stopped short in 1941 and simply used the 3 million troops that he sent to the Eastern Front to concentrate upon taking England? He might have succeeded. And he might have kept Western Europe as imprisoned by Nazism as Eastern Europe was imprisoned by communism for the next 45 years.

Hitler's plans for England, once it was conquered, were as brutal as his plans for Eastern Europe, plans which were actually carried out. All men were to be taken to the continent to be used as slave labor. The remaining population would be starved, as all foodstuffs would be taken to Germany.

Germany, the home of J. S. Bach, Martin Luther, and so much other good. What got into them?