I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site about the influence on my reading interests of the first book about the Second World War which I read, Shirer’s ‘Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’. So, while I’m under house arrest, I thought I’d revisit an article which I wrote a couple of years ago.
“This edition is beside me on my desk as I write – not the original book, that’s somewhere in a box – but the copy I bought second-hand a few years ago, when I decided to replace my original, and knew that only the same edition would suffice. It’s the 1964 edition, printed in 1976 when I was eighteen; and it still evokes the same affection that my original copy did in my youth, as it fired my curiosity about what happened in those middle years of my birth century, and moreover, WHY it happened. What events conspired to irrevocably change lives of working class people, like those of my father, sixteen when the war started, and my mother, still only eleven, and their families? Because what I’ve always found fascinating about our history is the relationship, the tension of consequences, between what politicians and so-called “statesmen” do, and the impact on the ordinary people, who have to suffer, endure and ultimately come to terms with, those actions and decisions. And how, in so many cases, the supposed “leaders”, the men (because they’re predominantly men) who stick out their chests and occupy the world stage, turn out to have feet of clay, and retreat into history’s shadows as the guilty or culpable, whilst the “man and women in the street” always turn out to be the true heroes of history’s tragedies.
Shirer’s book not only opened my eyes to what I’d always simply known as the “second world war”, and showed it to me as a series of cataclysmic, world-altering events and conflicts, but it also laid out to me that this “event” wasn’t one thing, that could be conveniently wrapped up in a single title, like a movie, with a single cast, a hero, and a couple of supporting stars. No, it was something that seemed to have no start and no end. Of course, human nature being what it is, we naturally like to book-end it between September 3rd 1939, when Mr Chamberlain, (more of him later, as they say) made a speech on the wireless about Germany not answering his latest letter; and September 2nd 1945, when the Japanese Government acceded to the Emperor’s decision, held up their hands and said “stop”. Very neat – World War two in a box. It would have been even neater if the Japanese had had a sense of timing, and delayed their surrender for another day, to make the affair exactly six years from start to finish. I suppose having 34 kilotons of atomic bombs dropped on you in two days spoils your sense of timing. But of course, it wasn’t neat at all – these things never are. And reading Shirer, I understood that this horrendous conflict had its roots in World War One, and beyond; and that the effects would be felt for as long as any of the participants lived, especially since there was hardly a life in many countries which wasn’t changed, influenced, shattered, or altered beyond recognition to what had gone before. And that doesn’t start to consider those killed, murdered, tortured, made to disappear, and the lives of those they loved and who loved them.
Now, Shirer’s book isn’t the single greatest history book ever written about the Second World War, and like all history books, it became the subject of excited disagreements between historians and writers. But it’s very good, very readable. Shirer, in his defence, wasn’t a historian, but rather a journalist, and so his work, easily read, and wide-ranging in its breadth, was of far more use to me at that time, as a teenager new to the subject with little more than a (as it turns out) scant knowledge beyond watching the “World at War” on a Sunday, and hearing my parents and family talk about “the war”, which still loomed large in the national consciousness. After all, when I was born the war had only ended formally some thirteen years previous. Books I’ve read since, by, say, Beevor and Wachsman, or Kershaw and Rees, gave me different views and insights into the subject, and helped me question or challenge certain things, and in a small way to appreciate the suffering involved; but Shirer’s book opened the doors to the journey to those questions, and for that I’ll always remember it.
And reading those other books led me to understand something else – that if you are prepared to step through that first door, in my case Shirer’s book, then you’ll find yourself in an almost infinitesimal room with many other doors. And as you open one door, you step into another such room, also with many doors, and you’re invited to open any you wish, to take a look inside, and if you like what you see, spend time in that room, before selecting another door. Books give you the opportunity to explore all those rooms, to not only satisfy your curiosity but to be granted even more, much more. Because if we don’t have curiosity about how we came to be who we are, what we are, and what we as a species are capable of for good and ill, then we must be content to live in ignorance of some of the best journeys we can make.”