The copy in my library is much younger, but it looks roughly the same as the original, a copy I believe my sister still has. There, emblazoned on a fat black spine is a swastika that obviously drew me to the book, years ago, when I was just a kid in sixth or seventh grade.
Shirer's massive study had pictures too, and when I think about them now, I swear I still see them, even though I doubt my memory's accuracy--shots of multitudes of German people, stadiums full of them, saluting in that awful, phallic way to their demented high priest, Hitler, the demonic clown in a mutant mustache no one has grown ever since. Then there were photos of Auschwitz and Dachau, naked bodies like cord wood aboard flatcars, tortured limbs falling shamelessly from the layers of rotting flesh.
In high school I pulled my sister's copy of Rise and Fall from the library more than once, maybe to read things for some history class, maybe just to be reminded of what I'd missed, born as I was in 1948. A huge book, a book full of sin.
I know people whose Jewish parents simply would not talk about the Holocaust, some of them because they honestly didn't want their children to know they had Jewish blood lest some other fiend come along with an agenda of similar madness. And there were others--lots of them, Jew and Gentile--who determined that the only way to live with the legacy of horror and death was to bury it, never to speak of it again.
It's quite amazing that Shirer's huge and thoughtful study of Nazi Germany appeared as quickly as it did--only fifteen years later. That book simply wouldn't let humanity forget, which is in itself a hard and terrible lesson about what it means to be human.
I haven't looked at Shirer in years, and in the great winnowing that will happen in the next few months as we plan to leave this old house, I'll likely try to sell it or give it away. You want it? It's been on a shelf around me since I was 12 years old, I guess, but this copy has sat, untouched, in our main floor library for a quarter century at least.
But Shirer--bless his soul!--has been with me long enough, and even though that thoughtful history, that treasured history, is now being reissued a half-century later, when the time comes to cull my library, I'm guessing he'll go.
In 1995, I taught a course titled "The Literature of the Holocaust." It was then, of course, 50 years since the liberation of the camps, and I thought such a course was fitting. I've always been fascinated by Holocaust studies, and I'd even contributed a book to the library myself--Things We Couldn't Say.
But eight or ten weeks into that course, I hit some kind of odd emotional barrier that made it almost impossible to read anything more from that era, especially from the camps--I mean to really read, to take it in. I could not pour any more horror into my soul, if that makes any sense. I couldn't. We'd read a book a week, and I hope I finished the semester strong; but my ability to read anything about "the Final Solution"--even Shirer, I suppose--had simply disappeared. Emotionally, I couldn't.
That may well be part of the reason I'll sell Shirer or give him away. I don't need that book. I'm no longer fascinated. I've seen more and read more than my share. I will forever be taken by stories that feature commitment to moral action in the middle of sheer bloody madness--that's why I loved Of Gods and Men.
But I think maybe I know enough about the Holocaust, maybe even more than I should. It'll be hard, but I don't think I need Mr. Shirer anymore.
That too is a kind of blessing.