Study Guide

The Americans in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

The Americans

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Although Eisenhower would be elected President in 1952,his position in our story is only as the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces.

No big deal.

Throughout most of TRFTR, Eisenhower exists as little more than a name. Very rarely do we get an opportunity to learn anything substantial about his personality. Finally, in Chapter 30: The Conquest of Germany, Shirer gives us something to chew on.

As he describes the sweeping Allied invasions of Europe and Germany itself, Shirer notes that in April 1945, Eisenhower's command center became obsessed with a propaganda piece that had been created by Goebbels. The Propaganda Minister had put forth a rumor that "the Nazis were planning to make an impregnable fortress in the mountains and that Hitler himself would command its defenses from his retreat at Berchtesgaden" (6.30.131).

"It would almost seem as though the Allied Supreme Commander's intelligence staff had been infiltrated by British and American mystery writers," Shirer quips. "At any rate, this fantastic appreciation was taken seriously at SHAEF" (6.30.133).

Eisenhower managed to command the forces that ended the war, so we'll forgive him this little lapse in judgment.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the few Americans who gets a decent, if limited, amount of ink The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. As the wartime president, he deserves it.

Even so, FDR remains on the periphery throughout most of the book, and Shirer doesn't tell us much about him. In fact, the most striking descriptions of Roosevelt in TRFTR come from the speeches of Hitler himself. Hint: he doesn't much like him.

Permit me to define my attitude to that other world, which has its representative in that man who, while our soldiers are fighting in the snow and ice, very tactfully likes to make his chats from the fireside, the man who is the main culprit of this war […] I cannot be insulted by Roosevelt, for I consider him mad, just as Wilson was... First he incites war, then falsifies the causes, then odiously wraps himself in a cloak of Christian hypocrisy and slowly but surely leads mankind to war, not without calling God to witness the honesty of his attack. (4.25.139-40)

Hitler's characterizations of his American counterpart tend to tell us more about Hitler than FDR himself. Hitler repeatedly pins the blame for the world war on FDR, who of course he believed was controlled by the Jews. The American President was definitely raised as one of the 1%, and Hitler loved to contrast that with his own impoverished, up-by-his-bootstraps history.

Roosevelt doesn't do much while Hitler is overrunning Europe between 1939 and 1941. Churchill keeps begging him to send supplies to buck up the battered British armed forces. He eventually does, but there were powerful people hoping to keep the country out of the European war. Once the U.S. is attacked at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt declares war on Japan and later Germany.

William L. Shirer

Our cast of characters wouldn't be complete if it didn't include William L. Shirer himself. After all, not only has he written The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich with a historian's analytical eye, he's also built his arguments with his first-hand experiences and personal observations of a journalist. Those two perspectives paired together make for some fascinating reading.

Shirer was sent to Germany in 1934 to cover the political situation there, and he was repulsed by what had happened to this civilized, educated, cultured country. He never wavered from his disgust at the warped Nazi ideology and its brutal consequences for Europe. He never ceased being shocked at how the German people got caught up in the national psychosis that was Nazism.

It might be said that Shirer appears in TRFTR in two basic—but very different—ways. The first way in which his presence is felt is in passages like this one, where he uses the first-person pronoun "I" and speaks of his personal impressions and experiences explicitly:

In the delirious days of the annual rallies of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg at the beginning of September, I used to be accosted by a swarm of hawkers selling a picture postcard on which were shown the portraits of Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Hindenburg and Hitler. The inscription read: "What the King conquered, the Prince formed, the Field Marshal defended, the Soldier saved and unified." Thus Hitler, the soldier, was portrayed not only as the savior and unifier of Germany but as the great successor of these celebrated figures who had made the country great. (1.4.56)

The second way we feel Shirer's presence is in the personal biases that occasionally emerge in his writing. The most obvious example of these is his clear revulsion for homosexuality, which makes itself apparent in passages like this one:

But the brown-shirted S.A. never became much more than a motley mob of brawlers. Many of its top leaders, beginning with its chief, Roehm, were notorious homosexual perverts. Lieutenant Edmund Heines, who led the Munich S.A., was not only a homosexual but a convicted murderer. These two and dozens of others quarreled and feuded as only men of unnatural sexual inclinations, with their peculiar jealousies, can. (2.5.15)

Here, as in many other examples throughout the book, Shirer abandons the kind of professional objectivity that we might expect from a more scholarly writer—or, for that matter, a journalist with less personal investment in his subject matter.

Although The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is definitely not about Shirer in any substantial way, for better or for worse, his authorial presence is certainly felt throughout.

Sumner Wells

Sumner Wells is one of the minor American players in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and honestly, half the reason we're even mentioning him here is because his name is so totally cool. Who names their kid "Sumner" anymore?

Wells enters Shirer's narrative in 1939 as the U.S. Undersecretary of State but he distinguishes himself most impressively in Chapter 20: The Conquest of Denmark and Norway, when Shirer describes how he met with both Hitler and Mussolini in the late winter of 1940 in order to get a read on the Axis intentions regarding the war. As Shirer describes it, "the American diplomat, a somewhat taciturn and cynical man, must have got the impression that he had landed in a lunatic asylum" (4.20.74).