The Nightmare Years: 1930–1940, by William L. Shirer, Boston: Little Brown, 654 pp., $22.50
William L. Shirer is one of the grand old names of American journalism. His monumental work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, assures him a place in history. Those of us of an older vintage also recall his bestselling Berlin Diary, published during World War II, and the mellow voice and penetrating words that marked his radio broadcasts as a foreign correspondent from Europe and a commentator in America. Now, in The Nightmare Years: 1930–1940, Shirer presents a more personalized reprise of his experiences and observations during that fateful period of history.
The 1930s are more than history, however. They were a searing revelation about Western civilization—its pathetic wishful thinking, its failures of will and courage. Whatever sheds light on that era, half a century ago, sheds light on today.
The Nightmare Years sheds a piercing light on the people and policies of the decade that led up to World War II. Shirer is at his best as a reporter. It is by no means clear that he himself draws the deeper implications that reach beyond the particular cast of characters that held the stage in those years. Yet you cannot find a clearer account or more readable analysis of how the Western democracies stumbled into World War II—and almost lost it.
Shirer's personal portraits of the Nazis show them as social garbage—not "just" mass murderers and fanatics but cheap thugs and shallow "losers." How, then, did they win politically—first in Germany and then in a spectacular series of international political victories, culminating in the Munich agreement of 1938 that gave them strategically crucial portions of Czechoslovakia, without firing a shot?
A shrewd understanding of the weaknesses of other people seems to have been their key advantage. Hitler used that advantage time and again, in a meteoric rise from fringe-movement fanatic to master of Europe. In the process, he inadvertently provided a road map of the vulnerabilities of democratic Western society. That is the lasting significance of his career.
Shirer points out how utterly weak and insignificant the Nazis were politically, just three years before Hitler became chancellor of Germany. As of the middle of 1930, the Nazis had only 12 seats in the Reichstag, which numbered more than 600 members. This was where the Nazis stood after a decade of agitation, which had brought them more ridicule than respect. But elections in the autumn of 1930 suddenly increased the Nazi seats in the Reichstag almost tenfold. Two years later, the Nazis won 230 seats out of 608. It was the high-water mark of their political support in a free society. Early in 1933, Hitler became chancellor, and in March 1934, dictator.
How did he do it? His success was the mirror image of the failures of others who held power—and, supposedly, responsibility—in a democratic society. The economic woes of the Weimar Republic and the faltering and indecisive leadership of its senile President Paul von Hindenburg set the stage for a man who was anything but indecisive. Hitler had all the answers (even if they were wrong), and no one doubted his will to enforce them. More than that, he struck a deep resonance when he voiced the wounded pride of a Germany beaten in World War I and humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles that ended it. Few things are more politically potent than a damaged ego and a cry of victimhood, mobilized for revenge.
At the height of his electoral strength in a free Germany, Hitler was still outnumbered by his political enemies. The same would be true militarily of Nazi Germany right on up to the eve of World War II. United and decisive action by democratic leaders could have doomed Hitler in German politics or on the international stage. But there was nothing resembling united or decisive action against Hitler in either situation. The genius of Hitler was that he understood fully just how incapable the democratic leadership was of united or decisive action. The tragedy of the democratic world is that they have never understood this dangerous flaw in themselves—not even half a century after Hitler.
Shirer points out again and again the military superiority of the West against Germany as Hitler moved systematically from open violations of the Treaty of Versailles to the seizure of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Nor is this simply Shirer's opinion. The German generals at the time were shocked and shaken by the international confrontations Hitler provoked with nations who were quite capable of destroying Germany. Hitler's trump card, however, was his sharp insight into the spinelessness of the West and their will to believe anything that would spare them the costs of maintaining a military defense force, much less initiating military action.
In a formula so simple as to be laughable, Hitler simply talked peace and negotiated finely worded peace agreements, while building up the most crushing war machine the world had ever seen. Though some of this was done clandestinely in the early years, to stay within the Treaty of Versailles until he was strong enough to openly repudiate it, even this clandestine military buildup was well-known to Western intelligence agencies. There was no way to conceal it from Western leaders—only from the Western public. That left it up to Western leaders to be the ones to tell the public the bad news.
Hitler knew that—then as now—political leaders who warn of other countries' military buildups are themselves labeled "warmongers" or even front men for the munitions industry. In modern democratic politics, it is still the custom to kill the messenger who brings bad news. Hitler knew that very few Western politicians would want to be that messenger. He made their task doubly difficult by constantly speaking of "peace," by offering to negotiate all issues at the conference table, by making token and meaningless "concessions." Shirer quotes some of Hitler's "peace" speeches, which are absolute gems of hypocrisy—and very much like "peace" speeches we hear today from totalitarian leaders and those who echo them in the West.
What is truly frightening about Hitler's simple strategy was that it worked. He assembled a gigantic war machine in plain view, and his obvious victims felt no need to counter it. There was no "arms race." Massive and militant peace movements in the West during the 1930s succeeded in preventing any arms race.
Isolated individuals who urged that Hitler's military force be offset by developing a Western counterforce got nowhere. Charles de Gaulle was ignored in France. Winston Churchill was denounced and ridiculed in Britain. But politicians who gave the public what they wanted—negotiated agreements—were cheered by huge throngs. This was especially true of French Premier Edouard Daladier and British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, when they returned from Munich in 1938 with an agreement that supposedly guaranteed "peace in our time." Within a year, the most catastrophic war in the history of mankind was under way.
The Nightmare Years tells this story and tells it well. Its many accounts of the blindness, pettiness, vanity, and plain stupidity that marked the road to tragedy should be a welcome antidote to those who attribute everything to ultra-rational scheming by a malign and faceless "establishment." As narrative, this book is unsurpassed, especially with such complex material that could so easily have degenerated into academic "scholarship." However, there are no grand lessons drawn at the end, though the materials for many lessons are here.
Indeed, there are some disquieting signs at the end that Shirer himself may have forgotten what he had just shown us. In the epilogue, the United States and the Soviet Union are even-handedly referred to as "two superpowers" whose problems are apparently psychological—"hostility" and "lack of trust." President Truman is said to have made a "fiery statement" and issued "dire threats" when he announced that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, in an attempt to end World War II. Japan's defeat was "inevitable," according to Shirer, "one way or another," so we are left wondering why Truman was so bellicose and used nuclear weapons. The human cost of that "inevitable" victory over Japan by invasion is ignored by Shirer, though others have estimated it as many times larger than the number of people killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
It is almost as if the author regards the story he has just told as being uniquely about Hitler and Germans and an assortment of other actors who have since passed from the scene. But the story is much larger and more enduring than that. What Hitler revealed about the weaknesses and susceptibilities of the West has not been lost on others and should not be forgotten by the West.
Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is the author of numerous works, including Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality, and his latest work, Marxism.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "A Nightmare Relived".