The edition that I own of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich advertises that the book is one that “shocked the conscience of the world.” I saw this mainly as an indication of what the book must have meant to a public that might not have been as familiar with the crimes of the Nazis and, well, accustomed as we are today to frequent and thoughtless analogies; from goofy Mel Brooks Hitler parodies to the Soup Nazi, as a society we seem to have digested this period of human history as just that, a period of history, distant and with little relevance.
I think we may be doing a disservice to ourselves. I don’t mean to say that this terrible period should not be the subject of humor and satire — it must! — but having now completed Shirer’s enormous book, I am beginning to think that we are forgetting too much.
It’s easy to say that, for example, the tea-baggers calling Obama Hitler and comparing the health care bill to the Final Solution are out-of-bounds, an example of overheated rhetoric. But in a way, saying that these kinds of comparisons “go too far” really doesn’t go nearly far enough. And it may upset some of the more bloodthirsty liberals as well to hear that, yes, even doing a Bush or Cheney-to-Hitler comparison is way, way off base.
Let’s not even deal with the Obama/health care comparisons; they make no sense in the least. But the Bush/Cheney comparisons usually stem from the idea that the Bush team was imperialistic, hungry for the resources of other nations, and mainly heartless about who it hurt in its quest for power. Fine. All of that was true of Hitler. But it’s also true of just about every other imperial power in human history. You can’t be imperial unless you build an empire. You can’t build an empire unless you take someone else’s territory. You usually can’t do that without committing — or at least sincerely threatening — unthinkable violence.
But we use Hitler and Nazism as the standard of human evil for good reason. The Holocaust might be the most evil, horrific event of our species’ history even if had been merely a mass extermination — but it was not the first nor the last genocide, not the first or last slaughter of millions, that humans have known. The Holocaust was that plus, if it can be imagined, several additional levels of cruelty; the starvation, the slavery under unimaginable conditions, the insane medical experiments, the sadism of the Nazi captors, and the raw industrialism of the killing — rounding up the populations of already-rotted-out villages and systematically executing whole neighborhoods and families at once, forcing the soon-to-be dead to jump into pits filled with their dead neighbors and relatives before they themselves were murdered.
And when all was lost for the Third Reich, it was not enough to lose the war. Had Hitler had his way in his final days and hours, the entirety of Germany would have crumbled with him, as he ordered every aspect of German life — stores, waterworks, utilities, factories — destroyed so there would be nothing left for the Allies to take. As horrifically as he had treated his enemies, he was about to let the same happen to his own “superior” people for no other reason than pride.
Perhaps it’s not worth trying to figure out whether anyone in human history was “worse.” I’m no historian by any means. There are probably men and systems that were more evil but had less opportunity to do such harm (I don’t put it past the likes of Al Qaeda or the regime in North Korea to behave so madly and cruelly given the means to do so), and those who may have done more damage and caused more suffering, but are not remembered in the same way. But trivializing the terror that was Nazism in our daily parlance, to use the imagery as something applicable to our current politics is to forget. It’s to forget the tens of millions who not only died because of Hitler and his henchmen, but to forget the deep, unspeakable suffering of all those who found themselves beneath the Nazi boot.
And it is to forget what it is that brought Nazism to the forefront of German life. It is instructive that Hitler never succeeded in some violent takeover of Germany, despite attempts to do so. In the end, Hitler achieved power through “official” channels, bit by bit gaining the approval and acquiescence of the government and institutions, and bit by bit exploiting a frustrated and angry populace by stoking its rage, its fears, and its pride. Shirer himself, in a 1990 edition of his 1960 book, wondered whether a then-newly-reunified Germany might be ripe for another similar episode. 20 years later, his fears have not come true. Not there, anyway.
But he was right to be watchful. To trivialize the Third Reich today is to lose sight of how it could happen again, not in the Obama-is-Hitler sense, but in the sense of a charismatic person or persons taking advantage of a weakened and frightened public and a spineless government, and doing things in their name that they did not think human beings were capable of. It can happen again, but if we don’t learn the right lessons from history, we’ll miss it. And it will be too late.
All that said, do your brain a favor and take the big chunk of time you’ll need to read Shirer’s book. Learn something, why don’t you.