It’s the worst story ever told. While American World War II reporter William Shirer set out to write both the what and the why of Hitler’s Nazi regime, it’s because of his answer to the former that he is the Thucydides of the Third Reich. Spun from the personal papers of propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels (among others), Shirer’s 1,200-page tome is as Wagnerian in its grandiosity as were the ambitions of the Nazis. Entering stage left is the mustachioed führer, deflated by Shirer as a “half-baked, uneducated neurotic.” The reader bears witness to the full Nazi cycle, including moments like the “somewhat sultry morning in Berlin” in September 1939 when the “shift of laborers had gone to work on the new I.G. Farben building just as if nothing had happened.” That was the day Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland. The 1960 book topped U.S. best-seller lists for half a year and served as the template for a 1968 miniseries on ABC. The narrative is also suffused with Shirer’s controversial thesis, in which he subscribes to the view of the Third Reich as “a logical continuation of German history.” This so-called Sonderweg (special path) interpretation of Nazism as ingrained in German heritage will always find welcome reception. But it must follow that Goethe, Kant and the rest of the supposed murderers’ row are also owed credit for Germany’s postwar republic that champions tolerance.
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