1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Rise and Downfall

Although it is not the longest book I've ever read, it comes close: William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. This is a book I've wanted to read since I was in sixth grade. It was far too daunting for me then, but it was worth the wait.

A mere summary?

I tell people that this book is an interesting summary of Hitler and the rise and fall of Nazism in a "mere" 1143 pages (plus notes). But it is a summary in the sense that one gets a feel for the major players and events but at no point is there a lot of historical depth.

Still, there is enough context and detail that events such as the rescue at Dunkirk are riveting even though one knows the final outcome.

One becomes aware of so many lost opportunities to stop Hitler early on, but one is also left with the sense that he might very well have gotten away with far more than he did and the present world order could be far different. Chilling.

Existential lessons

Perhaps what moved me the most in reading this book was the realization of things I've left undone or unsaid out of fear or of human respect or God-knows-what. I'm thinking of some events in the last few years in my professional life where I was a guilty bystander. Letting the emperor proclaim how great his (or her) new wardrobe was -- knowing all the while it was utter nonsense, or, worse still, harmful nonsense which did sensible and perhaps permanent harm to decent people.

Those omissions of mine - how were they any different from the silences of so many Germans in the 30s and 40s? We are all so ready to declaim, "THEY should have known better," but the plain fact is that they is us: my humanity, their humanity, your humanity - it is the same. Sure, the weight of the situation is different, but that points out the merely obvious by way of evasion.

Enter Downfall

If Shirer's book is a summary of the Nazi period, the same is true of the film Downfall of it's final days. Bruno Ganz is brilliant as Hitler: one gets a sense of his madness for sure, but also his "tenderness" and pockets of humanity that are hidden behind the famous mustache.

The film is based largely on a memoir of one of Hitler's secretaries, Traudl Jung (played by Alexandra Maria Lara) and much of the action is seen from her perspective. In an older documentary, an old Traudl addresses the "how could you?" question. She admits that it seemed to her for many years that she was not culpable for much of anything and then, one day, something happened. She came upon a memorial to Sophie Scholl and the White Rose movement. She saw Sophie's date of birth and realized they were the same age. The same age but such different responses to Nazism! It was there that she realized she could have acted differently.

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