Nineteen sixty: Only 15 years had passed since the end of World War II. But already one could read an essay describing a “wave of amnesia that has overtaken the West” with regard to the events of 1933 to 1945.
At the time, there was no Spielberg-produced HBO “Band of Brothers” and no Greatest Generation celebration; there were no Holocaust museums in the United States. There was, instead, the beginning of a kind of willed forgetfulness of the horror of those years.
No wonder. It was not merely the Second World War, it was war to the second power, exponentially more horrific. Not merely in degree and quantity—in death toll and geographic reach—but also in consequences, if one considered Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
But in 1960, there were two notable developments, two captures: In May, Israeli agents apprehended Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and flew him to Jerusalem for trial. And in October, William L. Shirer captured something else, both massive and elusive, within the four corners of a book: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. He captured it in a way that made amnesia no longer an option. The issue of a new edition on the 50th anniversary of the book’s winning the National Book Award recalls an important point of inflection in American historical consciousness.
The arrest of Eichmann, chief operating officer of the Final Solution, reawakened the question Why? Why had Germany, long one of the most ostensibly civilized, highly educated societies on earth, transformed itself into an instrument that turned a continent into a charnel house? Why had Germany delivered itself over to the raving exterminationist dictates of one man, the man Shirer refers to disdainfully as a “vagabond”? Why did the world allow a “tramp,” a Chaplinesque figure whose 1923 beer hall putsch was a comic fiasco, to become a genocidal Führer whose rule spanned a continent and threatened to last a thousand years?
Why? William Shirer offered a 1,250-page answer.
It wasn’t a final answer—even now, after tens of thousands of pages from scores of historians, there is no final answer—but Shirer reminded the world of “what”: what happened to civilization and humanity in those years. That in itself was a major contribution to a postwar generation that came of age in the ’60s, many of whom read Shirer as their parents’ Book of the Month Club selection and have told me of the unforgettable impact it had on them.
Shirer was only 21 when he arrived in France from the Midwest in 1925. Initially, he planned to make the Hemingway-like transition from newsman to novelist, but events overtook him. One of his first big assignments, covering Lindbergh’s landing in Paris, introduced him to the mass hysteria of hero worship, and he soon found himself covering an even more profoundly charismatic figure: Mahatma Gandhi. But nothing prepared him for the demonic, spellbinding charisma he witnessed when he took up residence in Berlin in 1934 for the Hearst newspapers (and, later, for Edward R. Murrow’s CBS radio broadcasts) and began to chronicle the rise of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler.
He was one of a number of courageous American reporters who filed copy under the threat of censorship and expulsion, a threat that sought to prevent them from detailing the worst excesses, including the murder of Hitler’s opponents, the beginnings of the Final Solution and the explicit preparations for upcoming war. After war broke out, he covered the savagery of the German invasion of Poland and followed the Wehrmacht as it fought its way into Paris before he was forced to leave in December 1940.
The following year—before the United States went to war—he published Berlin Diary, which laid out in visceral terms his response to the rise of the Reich. Witnessing a Hitler harangue in person for the first time, he wrote:
“We are strong and will get stronger,” Hitler shouted at them through the microphone, his words echoing across the hushed field from the loudspeakers. And there in the flood-lit night, massed together like sardines in one mass formation, the little men of Germany who have made Nazism possible achieved the highest state of being the Germanic man knows: the shedding of their individual souls and minds—with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems—until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian they were merged completely in the Germanic herd.