"Nazis. I hate these guys."
So says Indiana Jones.
…And so says William L. Shirer.
Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is the Harry Potter of historical writing. It may not have wizards, hippogriffs, and time-turners, but in the 50+ years since its first publication in 1960, the book has won America's National Book Award, sold millions of copies, been translated into many different languages, appeared in multiple editions (including the shiny new Fiftieth Anniversary Edition that we refer to here), and been adapted into a documentary film.
The book dominated the bestseller lists for a year, and the New York Times declared it "one of the most important works of history of our time." A condensed, serialized version appearing in the Reader's Digest magazine made the book accessible to another 12 million Americans who either couldn't afford the then sky-high $10 cost or didn't want to plow through the whole thing.
(We forgive those people, btw: it was 1245 pages in its original printing.)
Shirer was an American print and broadcast journalist who reported from Germany from 1934 –1940, much of that time spent under the watchful eyes of the German censors. On his first trip to Berlin after Hitler's rise to power, he was shocked by what he saw: the "nightmarish world Adolf Hitler was beginning to create in his adopted land" (source). He was appalled by the mass worship of a man he saw as a vulgar, uneducated megalomaniac. He saw up close the rise of the SS, the gradual destruction of Jewish life, and the murderous purges of political opponents.
Still, he knew that to be an effective reporter, he needed access to the inside story. So he made it his business to get to know the men close to Hitler: Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Heinrich Himmler, and other officials.
Shirer had to watch his step about what he wrote. He couldn't really write about the worst of what he saw: the murders of political opponents, the growing threat to the Jews, or Hitler's worst military aggressions. He'd seen what happened to people the Nazis didn't like, but he was committed to writing what he could safely report. Even so, in 1940 he learned from a colleague that he was about to be arrested on suspicion of being a spy. He fled Germany, smuggled out his reporter's diaries under the nose of the S.S., and returned to the U.S.
Shirer returned to Germany in 1945 to cover the Nuremberg war crimes trials, where he saw the powerful men he'd known now on trial for their lives. After the war, he plowed through tens of thousands of pages of documents that the Allies had captured. (Nazis were obsessive record-keepers and had hidden hundreds of tons of documents in mines and castles throughout Germany.) He had access to official records, transcripts of phone calls, diaries and letters, speeches given in secret, even business proposals from German companies bidding for contracts to supply lethal gas and build crematoria for the concentration camps. Combined with his diaries from 1934–1940, he had a treasure trove of information to create his masterpiece.
Well, make that millions and millions.
In historian Gavriel D. Rosenfeld's view, there are at least two possible reasons why TRFTR made such a big splash when it was first published in 1960.
First, he says that no one before Shirer had tried to trace the whole history of Nazi Germany in one fell swoop, from the very earliest days of young Adolf Hitler's political education up to the destruction of the Nazi Reich in May 1945. It could be the case that the plain ambition of Shirer's project gave the massive book an appeal that it might not have had otherwise.
Rosenfeld prefers another explanation, though. TRFTR hit the shelves at a time when global politics pretty much guaranteed that people would sit up and take notice of the book. Cold War tensions were sky-high in 1960, and, as Rosenfeld explains, a lot of other international crises and newsworthy events had been turning the eyes of the world to West Germany.
Because TRFTR stirred a pot that was already being rocked by tense international relations, Rosenfeld argues, it became a must-read. It also put an end to the world's collective amnesia about the Holocaust and the rise of the deranged Fuehrer. Just fifteen years after the end of WWII, the sordid history of Germany's role WWII had begun to fade from memory for many people. Shirer's book jogged the world's memory.
Whatever the reasons for its success, it isn't just the best known book published about the Nazi era, but it's also the bestselling modern historical work ever written. It covers the most horrific and world-shattering events of the 20th century, written in a clear, compelling narrative that the non-historian reader could understand and appreciate.
Most of what you've been taught about the Third Reich was probably from the perspective of the U.S. You know about Eisenhower and FDR and Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt; you've learned about D-Day and the invasion of Normandy.
But this book is not our story.
It's written from the POV of the Third Reich. You find yourself asking, "What about Roosevelt? Where's Eisenhower and Patton? What were the Americans thinking about while Hitler was overrunning Europe?" These guys get minimal mention because they're on the periphery of Shirer's story. We hear about them mostly when Hitler thought about them, and Hitler didn't think about them very much. He believed that the U.S.'s military strength was a joke, and believed they'd never lift a finger while he overran the rest of Europe. (Big mistake, btw.)
A word of encouragement from Shmoop: a journey of a thousand pages starts with a single sentence. So get yourself in the mood by watching Schindler's List or Inglourious Basterds—or even Raiders of the Lost Ark—and you'll be ready to take the first bite of this three-and-a-quarter-pounder.
There are lots of reasons to read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It might help you to devise strategies for your next game of Risk. It might help you to understand what Brad Pitt's character is talking about the next time he makes another WWII movie.
It might prevent you from doing this.
You probably know a lot already about World War II, Adolf Hitler, and the Holocaust from history class. You might have read The Diary of Anne Frank, or seen Schindler's List or The Pianist. Works like those have the power to give us focused, vivid accounts of what life in the Third Reich was like for those who endured its horrors firsthand, and that kind of knowledge and understanding is absolutely necessary.
But that might still leave us wondering why the German public ever chose to elect Nazi Party representatives to Parliament in the first place. Why did the President of the Weimar Republic appoint Adolf Hitler Chancellor of the German Reich? How could one of the most educated and civilized societies on earth commit some of the most barbaric acts and atrocities in history? How could individuals lose themselves in a hysterical mass movement started by a hateful, raging leader?
TRFTR tries to answer that question.
Shirer's controversial thesis is that the Reich was the result of a national delusion, that the citizens of Germany were "intoxicated" by Hitler's promise of a return to national greatness. He believed the Germans accepted, even invited, the tyranny of the Reich because of centuries of nationalistic fervor and anti-Semitism.
It's a "Luther-to-Hitler" theory that sees the events of the 1930s and 1940s as a result of Germans just being Germans. As Shirer wrote: "[T]he course of German history ... made blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man, and put a premium on servility" (5.29.364). He thinks that the Holocaust and other German aggressions were national atrocities, not just the work of one deranged leader.
Not everyone agreed with Shirer's perspective. Historians in particular thought he overlooked the international power dynamics in play that led to the rise of totalitarian regimes in German, Italy, and the Soviet Union; that he had a skewed perspective in emphasizing the cooperation of the ordinary Germans with the destructive policies of the Reich. They argued that anti-Semitism wasn't unique to Germany; it was rampant in much of Europe since the Middle Ages.
Whether or not you agree with Shirer's thesis, it makes this piece of history intensely personal. It makes us confront our own complicity when our government takes positions we see as unjust or just plain wrong and we do nothing about it. Or when, under the guise of national pride, we demonize people of other races, religions, or nationalities. Lutheran minister Martin Niemöller, an early Hitler supporter who later became an opponent of the Nazis (and spent seven years in concentration camps for it), wrote this famous poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me. (Source)
Think about it.
William L. Shirer's Biography in the Encyclopedia Britannica Online
Short and to the point, this little bio will give you the basics you ought to know.
William L. Shirer's Alumni Page on the Coe College Website
Wouldn't you just love to be memorialized by your alma mater like this?
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Want a hard and fast overview of the Third Reich? Something that's roughly 1000 times shorter than William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich? If so, why not check out the "Third Reich: Overview" page on the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum?
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
A television adaptation of William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, produced for television in 1968.
William L. Shirer's Obituary in The New York Times
The New York Times obituary for William L. Shirer, published in December 1993.
Ron Rosenbaum Reflects on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich
In this article in the Smithsonian Magazine, Ron Rosenbaum offers an adapted version of his Introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
William L. Shirer Reports on the Franco-German Armistice
Shmoop knows you've been dying to listen to William L. Shirer report on the signing of the Franco-German Armistice at Compiegne? Steve Wick, the author of The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, has uploaded this historic broadcast to Soundcloud.
William L. Shirer in Radio Days
On this website devoted to education about Old-Time Radio, you can read about William L. Shirer as you listen to clips of his historic broadcasts from 1939 and 1940.
William L. Shirer on CBS Book Beat
An audio interview with William L. Shirer, originally broadcast on the CBS radio show Book Beat in 1984.
Ready to broadcast . . .
A dapper-looking William L. Shirer in front of his CBS microphone.
Is that you, Sigmund Freud?
A portrait of William L. Shirer in his later life, looking a whole lot like a certain Austrian psychoanalyst.
Don't judge a book by its cover...
Just because The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has a swastika emblazoned on its cover, that doesn't mean its contents are pro-Nazi. Even so, Shmoop was a little self-conscious carrying it out of the library.
Adolf Hitler Fan Club
Hitler among his adoring public.
This Banner No Longer Waves
Hitler at a rally in front of his Nazi flags.
"Final Solution" for War Criminals
Nazi leaders, along with their sentences, at the Nuremberg trials. Missing: almost 100 prominent Nazis who killed themselves, including Hitler, Rommel, Himmler, Bormann, and Goebbels