A week ago today I stayed up until 2 a.m. finishing William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I was determined to not let the sun rise on February without finishing that book. I needed it to be over. You can really only spend so much time immersed in Nazi Germany without beginning to go a little crazy, or get at least a little depressed.
It was a huge personal accomplishment to finish this 1500 page tome. Growing up, it always sat on my dad’s bookshelf and intimidated the hell out of me with it’s dark, imposing presence and swastika-bearing cover. I was convinced I wasn’t brave enough to read it for so long that reading it became like a rite of passage, an act (however small) of courage. A little slap in the face of Hitler: You have no power over me.
What finally got me to read it (aside from the fact that Sean gave it to me for Christmas)? Well, it’s just a small tidbit, but I think it’s important. An acquaintance on Facebook posted one day that she had just finished reading it. This acquaintance planted the idea in my head that I could read it too. Two things about this are meaningful to me:
1. I had always thought of this book as a “man’s book”. The more I read history, the more I realize that in many ways it is a male dominated genre. That doesn’t necessarily bother me, I just don’t want to be excluded—or exclude myself from it—because I am a woman. The acquaintance who read this book and then posted about it, is someone who I consider to be infinitely sweet and kind and feminine, and yet: she read this book. That must mean I can too, I thought to myself. I can and will be a part of this world. Interestingly enough, I just read a fascinating article about, among other things, a woman trying to write in another male-dominated genre, and the effort and frustration that go into that. With regards to history, I can’t help but think of Adrienne Rich’s line, “Time is male.” There is a lot to think about here, especially as I continue to devour history books.
2. Do you guys realize the hugeness of the fact that somebody else simply did something, wrote about it, and that was enough to plant the seed of belief in my mind that I could do it too? Now I know this is a very small example, but I think it illustrates a wildly important truth: what we do affects other people. It’s very basic, but we often seem to forget that we don’t operate in a vacuum. Even our smallest actions influence and affect the way other people inhabit the world, think about themselves, and dare to dream and act. Katherine Center says, “You have to be brave with your life so that others can be brave with theirs.” If that isn’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. It can be something as small as showing girls that it’s okay to love history—that they have a place here too.
As for the book itself, it was an incredibly well written, fascinating tale of evil and horror. Reading it felt like living inside a game of Risk/dystopian novel/Darwin and Nietzsche brought to life.
In the midst of all the atrocities and evils, there were two things whose presence surprised me as companions along the way, and gave me comfort as I journeyed through the Valley of the Shadow:
This may be controversial and offensive, but I do not mean it to be. Humor is not the only response to Hitler/Evil; nor is it always appropriate, but sometimes it can help. I found it made me braver and brought me comfort at times to laugh at the absurdity and insanity of Hitler and the Nazis. I couldn’t help but laugh at Hitler when he called himself the savior of Germany, or said he would long be remembered as the greatest ruler that Germany ever had. Sometimes people are so stupid/evil/insane that derogatory humor towards them is appropriate. (I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor here, too). Laughter can give power. There’s a way in which Hitler was infinitely stronger than me, or any individual like me. He could have, and did, destroy millions of powerless people like me with barely a word—and yet, we retain the power to laugh at him. It’s not enough to completely defeat him, of course, but if humor can add even an ounce of bravery to our spirits or a feeling of defiance toward evil, then I think it matters.
Shirer illustrates this point, of humor as a weapon, throughout the text as he continually refers to Hitler as “the Austrian corporal” or “the Viennese tramp” or “the failed artist”. He calls Goering, “the fat Reich Marshall”. It has a way of bringing these monsters back down to earth and reminding the reader that however atrocious and horrific these men were, there’s a sense in which they were just men and not invincible.
Obviously, the world could not defeat Nazism through humor alone—men braver than I will ever be still had to storm the beaches of Normandy, and fight and die—but why not claim humor and laughter as a valuable armament in the all out war against it evil?
2. The Weakness of Evil
This is a strange concept in the face of the power that Hitler accrued and the damage that he inflicted. As I read through the book, I spent a lot of time becoming increasingly afraid of Hitler and, in a sense, feeling terrified and paralyzed by the Nazis’ might. And then something very interesting began to happen: the Third Reich began to fall apart. It started to gradually disintegrate. You know why? Because they were evil. Literally, their wickedness destroyed them—and it was like an epiphany for me: oh, that’s right! Evil destroys itself! Evil cannot survive, in the long run. It’s self-destructive! Did I learn nothing from Harry Potter?!?!?!
I had become so shortsighted for a while that I began to think that evil could actually win. And I know it’s nuanced—I know the Nazis really did win for a while, and rampaged and pillaged and murdered in ways that can never be recovered from in this life. I don’t want to make light of that. But I read once that in many ways the “punishment” for our sins is often just the natural consequence of our behavior. For instance, if I am rude or unloving to Sean, I’ll probably reap a time of disharmony in our marriage. If I am selfish with my money, I won’t get to experience the joy that comes from being generous and giving freely.
In the same way, Hitler experienced the natural consequences of his behavior. Vast armies rose up to end his wicked ways. He destroyed himself physically, becoming weak and ill and completely incapable of using his mind to think rationally. People will roll their eyes at the Harry Potter reference, I’m sure, but Voldemort sowed the seeds of his own destruction by destroying his soul and blinding himself to the truth. Hitler did the same. By his own evil he made it impossible for himself to survive. And that is something to take comfort in. Though evil may outlive us, it is not stronger or more sustainable than what it right and true and good.
Anyway, those are my initial ramblings on this vast and overwhelming book. Make of them what you will, and correct me where I’m wrong.