William L. Shirer at the Conference on Research on the Second World War, June 1971

I was texting someone earlier today about William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” to ask if he had ever read that large tome. Shirer published his classic history of Nazi Germany in 1960, fifteen short years after the war’s end. The scholarship on the Second World War has inevitably moved on in the six decades since the book’s publication. That’s how it works. You could make a strong case—I would—that the history of the war has not truly been written yet; so much of what we know, or think we know, about the conflict has been filtered through the prism of the events came afterward. Governments and individuals have been using and misusing the history and memory of the war for three quarters of a century now. As I was telling my friend though, despite the inevitable changes in historiography over the past six decades Shirer brought an immediacy to his narrative that cannot be replicated by today’s scholars. Born in 1904, the American journalist moved to Europe in the 1920s to work as a correspondent and to write in the romantic vein of contemporaries like Fitzgerald and Hemingway. It is telling that all three writers were from the American Midwest. In the 1930s Shirer found himself in Germany, where he witnessed, well, the rise of the Third Reich. Among other things Shirer attended one of Hitler’s mass rallies at Nuremberg in 1934 and was in Berlin for the 1936 Olympics. He worked in other European and world capitals as well. It helped that Shirer spoke German, Italian, and French. After the texting back-and-forth with my friend, I ordered a copy of the book online.

I am determined to learn the history and memory of both the war and the Holocaust over the next two years as some colleagues and I move forward on the project I mentioned the other day. I know a fair amount about the 1930s-40s but am working now in a more methodical manner. Shirer’s work began a new phase in Americans’ understanding of the war. In the decade and a half since Hitler’s suicide Europe was rebuilding itself and Americans in their postwar prosperity were in a period of willful forgetting. Essentially everyone was trying to move on and forget. Shirer’s book and the contemporaneous capture, trial, and execution of Otto Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s began to refocus people’s attention on the terrible events of just two decades ago. “Rise and Fall” won the National Book Award and was a Book of the Month Club selections at a time when that meant more than it does today. In other popular culture of the time the Twilight Zone episode “Deaths-Head Revisited,” about a camp commandant returning to Dachau years after the liberation, premiered on November 10, 1961.

Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin with their staffs at the Yalta Conference, February 1945

I mention all this because today is the 76th anniversary of the start of the Yalta Conference, the gathering of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin in the Crimea where the three made plans for what the postwar world might look like. Needless to say the three had contrasting visions. I have always been struck at how poor Roosevelt looks; he was failing quickly and would be dead less than ten weeks later. The conference ran from February 4-11, 1945. By the time of V-E Day that spring Truman would be in the White House.

(images/top, National Archives; bottom, Library of Congress)