Throughout much of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer maintains an authoritative and more-or-less-detached tone that reflects his position as a journalist and an historian. It's a tone that we tend to associate with academic writing, in which authors typically maintain a certain intellectual distance from their subject matter.
Having said that, Shirer's tone throughout TRFTR can become bitterly scathing. His words can be sharp, cutting, and full of obvious disdain. Given his subject matter, it's not surprising. Here's a taste of his characteristic tendency to give free rein to his disgust as he describes Julius Streicher:
This depraved sadist, who started life as an elementary-school teacher, was one of the most disreputable men around Hitler from 1922 until 1939, when his star finally faded. A famous fornicator, as he boasted, who blackmailed even the husbands of women who were his mistresses, he made his fame and fortune as a blindly fanatical anti-Semite. (1.2.85)
Our favorite example? How about the description of Walther Funk not as funky, but as "a greasy, shifty-eyed, paunchy little man whose face always reminded this writer of a frog." (2.5.133)
There are lots of passages like this. Shirer loves to ridicule the personal appearance of people he can't stand, and he doesn't pull any punches when he feels people are deluded, sadistic, ignorant, or just plain bad actors.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich isn't a biography in the traditional, literary sense of the word. Unlike most biographies, it doesn't focus exclusively on the history of one person's life. After all, although Shirer does tell us quite a lot about the life of Adolf Hitler, it isn't Hitler's name that appears in the title.
(Actually, Shirer wrote another book called The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, which some of you WWII enthusiasts may want to check out.)
Rather than recount the life and death of one person, what TRFTR does is give us the life and death of an empire. As a work of history, it has many biographical elements, but they exist to tell us something about Nazi Germany on the whole. So, we can think of it as a kind of biography, but only if we remember that its focus is on the Third Reich itself, and not Adolf Hitler alone.
We don't know about you, but we figure that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany is about as self-explanatory as it gets.
Just imagine if other book titles were so clear about their contents:
You get the idea.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has two endings. The first concludes the book's thirty-first chapter, which is named for the mythical "twilight of the gods." The second ends the book's "brief epilogue," where Shirer says a few final words about the deaths, by execution or suicide, of the men who had been Hitler's closest cronies.
Let's take a quick look at them both.
Shirer brings Chapter 31, Goetterdaemmerung: The Last Days of the Third Reich, to a close by drawing a striking comparison between the state of Germany in 1918, just after it had been defeated by the Allies in World War I, and the state of Germany in 1945, just after it had been defeated by the Allies and the Soviet Union. He writes:
In 1918, after the last defeat, the Kaiser had fled, the monarchy had tumbled, but the other traditional institutions supporting the State had remained, a government chosen by the people had continued to function, as did the nucleus of a German Army and a General Staff. But in the spring of 1945 the Third Reich simply ceased to exist. There was no longer any German authority on any level. (6.31.240)
"Such was the state to which the follies of Adolf Hitler—and their own folly in following him so blindly and with so much enthusiasm—had brought them," he continues (6.31.240).
The German people had not been destroyed, as Hitler, who had tried to destroy so many other peoples and, in the end, when the war was lost, themselves, had wished. But the Third Reich had passed into history. (6.31.241-42)
So, what's going on here?
Essentially, Shirer is using this conclusion to do two things:
First, he's drawing attention to the deep irony of the destruction that the Third Reich brought to Germany. As his narrative makes clear, Hitler's rise to power was helped in large part by his fanatical promises to compensate Germany for the "humiliation" that the country had suffered after its defeat in the First World War. What Shirer is pointing out is that Hitler not only failed to come through on his promise, but he actually left Germany in a MEGA worse state than the one he'd sworn to fix.
Secondly, he's getting in one last dig against Hitler's dream of a "Thousand Year" Reich. Hitler thought that Nazi Germany would last for a millennium. As Shirer's closing words remind us, it lasted for little more than a decade.
If you're feeling ending-ed out by now, just remember: TRFTR's got nothing on Peter Jackson's The Return of the King.
In these finally-final three pages, Shirer discusses the deaths of the German officers and Nazi henchmen who were captured and put on trial after the end of the war. He pays particular attention to the deaths of Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering, both of whom killed themselves with poison before they could be hanged for their crimes.
Shirer ends the "brief epilogue" by describing Goering's death, and writes:
Like his Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, and his rival for the succession, Heinrich Himmler, he had succeeded at the last hour in choosing the way in which he would depart this earth, on which he, like the other two, had made such a murderous impact. (Epilogue.10)
Why does this matter? Although Shirer doesn't say so explicitly, what he's pointing out is that Hitler, Goering, and Himmler—the three most powerful men in Nazi Germany—were responsible for the deaths of countless millions of people. Whereas very few of those countless millions had any choice in how they were able to "depart this earth," Hitler, Goering, and Himmler each spared themselves from the fate of having their lives and deaths determined by someone else.
As Shirer implies, even in their deaths these men assumed that they had a God-given right to exercise the same self-determination and control that they had denied to so many millions throughout their abominable lives.
If Hitler had gotten his way, the "Third Reich" would have stretched far beyond the traditional borders of Germany itself, swallowing up vast stretches of other European territories. For a time, it was exactly that. We follow the Germans into Austria, the Slavic nations, Poland, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Russia.
Even so, Shirer's focus is on Nazi Germany itself—the place where Hitler's attempted "Nazification" of Europe began, and the center point from which all of the Fuehrer's invasions, incursions, occupations, and assaults radiated outwards to the world beyond.
For more info on the setting, just…read the rest of the guide. The historical context is mixed in with every single piece of content, so you have everything you want at your fingertips.
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich has four—count 'em, four—epigraphs. Let's take them one by one.
I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality...
Here, Shirer draws on Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to signal the fact that TRFTR isn't going to go easy on the millions of Germans who supported Hitler's leadership. Throughout the book, Shirer repeatedly depicts the German public of Hitler's day as being like a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle. Although the term "groupthink" wasn't current when either Goethe or Shirer was writing, this epigraph points to the mob mentality that Goethe sees as common in the German people.
Hitler was the fate of Germany and this fate could not be stayed. —Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, Commander in Chief of the German Army, 1938-41
Shirer's second epigraph could be read in one of two ways.
On the one hand, Shirer himself argues in TRFTR that "without Adolf Hitler […] there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich" (1.1.14), and he goes to some lengths to prove that the Fuehrer was an inevitable product of German history and German culture. In this sense, Field Marshal Brauchitsch's declaration that Hitler was "the fate of Germany" seems to support Shirer's own perspective.
On the other hand, throughout TRFTR Shirer also lambasts the German Army officer corps for its defeatism and fatalism, and he frequently takes the officers to task for doing so little to oppose Hitler when they had the chance. In this sense, Shirer seems to be using Field Marshal Brauchitsch's comment as a reminder of the indecision, inaction, and defeatism of the German Army officers who went along with Hitler's plans.
A thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will not be erased. —Hans Frank, Governor General of Poland, before he was hanged at Nuremberg
Shirer tells us in his "Brief Epilogue" that Hans Frank, the Nazi Governor General of occupied Poland, was "contrite" in the end, and begged God's forgiveness for the atrocities in which he had taken part (Epilogue.6). That said, this epigraph has little to do with Frank himself. Shirer isn't trying to remind us that Frank eventually felt bad about participating in the deaths of millions: instead, he's simply offering Frank's words as a statement of basic, indisputable fact.
Those who do not remember the past are condemned to relive it. —George Santayana
As Ron Rosenbaum writes in his Introduction to the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by 1960—when Shirer's book was first published—there seemed to be "a wave of amnesia" regarding the Second World War and all that it had entailed. Rosenbaum even describes "a kind of willed forgetfulness of the horror of those years" (Introduction).
By paraphrasing philosopher George Santayana's well-known warning about the dangers of forgetting the past, Shirer uses the final epigraph to characterize TRFTR as an antidote to the kind of "willed forgetfulness" that Rosenbaum described. By educating ourselves about the past, he seems to suggest, we can help to make sure that historical horrors never happen again. (See our "Why Should I Care?" Section for more on that.)
We won't lie to you: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is an intimidating book to drag off the shelf. The problem isn't that Shirer's writing is dense or hard to understand, because actually, it's pretty zippy. The problem is that there's just so much of it.
Weighing in at roughly 1150 pages of journalistic and historical prose, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is about as long as J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and about as complex as The Silmarillion. This isn't the kind of book that you can polish off in an afternoon... or two... or four... or even twenty. Just like our trusty hobbit bros Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, you've got to be in it for the long haul. It's a commitment.
But what's the reward? Unlike the stalwart Frodo and Sam, you won't put an end to the fearsome reign of an evil lord when you turn the final page of TRFTR. What you will do is gain new insight into the way that Hitler and his legacy were understood in the first decades after the Second World War.
Shirer's perspective is frank, no-holds-barred, and often provocative—sometimes you may even find it offensive. But we're willing to bet that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich will get you thinking about WWII in ways that no encyclopedia pages ever could.
Although Shirer takes his journalistic integrity and his role as an amateur historian very seriously in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the book has none of the academic jargon or highly technical terms that we might expect if it was written primarily for other historians to read.
After all, not only is Shirer trying to answer crucial political and philosophical questions about the rise and fall of the Third Reich, he's also trying to tell us a story (and sell books, too). To that end, he works to make his writing as accessible as possible, and even includes a number of literary elements and rhetorical devices that help to hold his readers' interest as they move through the 1000+ pages of the book.
That's a little more drama and engaging narrative than you'd find in your U.S. History textbook.
It's safe to say that most contemporary readers of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich will be just as familiar with the Nazi swastika as Shirer's earliest readers would have been. Even seventy years after the fall of Nazi Germany, the symbol remains just as infamous and—for those of us who don't belong to neo-Nazi hate groups—just as blood-curdling.
In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer himself doesn't employ the swastika as a symbol. Instead, he attempts to explain what the Nazi iconography symbolized for Hitler and for the thousands like him who rallied under the Nazi banners.
As Shirer tells us, the hakenkreuz ("hooked cross") existed long before the Nazis appropriated it. Shirer posits that Hitler might have seen it used as an emblem of anti-republican forces in Germany, but that he would have "undoubtedly seen it in Austria in the emblems of one or the other anti-Semitic parties" (1.2.61).
As for the specific setting that Hitler gave it—the black cross on a white circle, superimposed on a larger band of red—Shirer explains that the shades of red, white, and black were meant to call to mind Germany's imperial flag. In other words, they represented the version of Germany that Hitler fought for as a soldier in the First World War. The addition of the swastika emphasized the nationalist significance of the new Nazi flag, and also symbolized the Nazi intolerance for non-Aryan peoples in the nation.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler had this to say about the infamous symbol: "In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalist idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of the Aryan man" (1.2.63).
In Shirer's account, Hitler's design was "a stroke of genius" by a "master propagandist" who was determined to "appeal to the imagination of the masses," and to give them "some striking banner to follow and to fight under" (1.2.60).
For those who were seduced by Hitler's vision, the swastika certainly succeeded in doing those things. As Shirer writes, the swastika took on an almost mystical power over the people who flocked to Hitler under its banner.
Speaking of "flocking" under the Nazi banner...
Throughout TRFTR, Shirer uses "flock" and "herd" imagery to describe the German people. As he tries to explain the unprecedented degree of power that Hitler was allowed to seize for himself, Shirer implies that the German people were little more than sheep being led by the whims of a mad, megalomaniacal shepherd.
Let's take a look at one of the most striking passages where herd imagery comes into play in TRFTR:
By a hypnotism that defies explanation—at least by a non-German—Hitler held the allegiance and trust of this remarkable people to the last. It was inevitable that they would follow him blindly, like dumb cattle but also with a touching faith and even an enthusiasm that raised them above the animal herd, over the precipice to the destruction of the nation. (5.29.379)
Hitler himself used herd imagery on occasion. Even the title that he chose for himself calls up certain associations: The German word Fuehrer means "Leader," after all. Shirer quotes from Mein Kampf: "If the German people had possessed that herd unity which other peoples enjoyed, the German Reich today would doubtless be mistress of the globe" (1.4.51).
Hitler's own use of herd imagery can help us to understand Shirer's better, because Hitler and Shirer are engaging with this rhetoric in two very different ways. Hitler's words on "herd unity" in Mein Kampf appear in a long passage on the "folkish" state—that is, the Aryan master nation that he envisioned as his ideal. Hitler's concept of "herd unity" went hand-in-hand with his desire to keep the German race "simon-pure"—that is, untainted by what Hitler considered to be interracial mixing (1.4.51).
Shirer's own use of "flock" and "herd" imagery is totally different. Unlike Hitler, he uses it the same way that our parents do when they gripe: If all of your friends jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?
For millions of Germans, Shirer suggests, the answer seems to have been yes.
In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer speaks to us as both a journalist and an historian, which means that he occasionally speaks to us in a first-person narrative voice (as he relates events that he witnessed in person), and often speaks to us in a scholarly, more-or-less-objective tone.
For example, we see his first-person point of view come through in passages like these, where Shirer situates himself as an active participant in and observer of the narrative he's unfolding:
Often in the book, the reader is bouncing along (well, maybe slogging is more like it) when passages like these jump out to remind us that this guy was there. He heard the speeches and the radio broadcasts, went to the rallies, traveled with Hitler to meetings as part of the press corps—and sent back to America reports, in print and on the radio, of what he'd seen.
By positioning himself as a living, involved observer of the rise and fall of the Third Reich, Shirer makes it easy for readers to identify with his journalistic perspective. Just as he watches, witnesses, and records what he sees, so too do readers "see" what life in Germany was like in those days—though we should remember, of course, that we're seeing it it through Shirer's eyes in particular.
We also see a more detached, traditionally academic point of view throughout much of TRFTR. For example, Shirer writes in one passage:
The so-called Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, deprived the Jews of German citizenship, confining them to the status of "subjects." It also forbade marriage between Jews and Aryans as well as extramarital relations between them, and it prohibited Jews from employing female Aryan servants under thirty-five years of age. In the next few years some thirteen decrees supplementing the Nuremberg Laws would outlaw the Jew completely. (2.8.8)
Here, Shirer refrains from adding his own personal opinion as a supplement to the information he provides. Although he makes his feelings about anti-Semitism clearer in other passages throughout the book, in this one he limits himself to just the facts, ma'am.
Given the fact that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich isn't actually a novel, it's a little unorthodox to think about it in terms of Booker's Seven Basic Plots. With that said, Adolf Hitler's life from 1889 to... oh, say, 1933, was a rags-to-riches story if we've ever heard one. There was just one teensy little twist at the end. Ultimately, Hitler went from riches right back to rags again. Plus, those "riches" were pretty twisted.
As Shirer makes clear, the "initial wretchedness" that Hitler experienced as a young man didn't happen at home; instead, it happened once he moved to Vienna. There, the young would-be Fuehrer spent his late teens and early twenties living rough in Vienna's city streets: staying in hostels, eating in soup kitchens, and doing odd jobs to earn a few schillings. When the Great War suddenly broke out in July 1914, young Adolf heard the "call" and enlisted in the army.
After serving his beloved Germany in the First World War, young Hitler decided to make a go of it in politics. Over the next few years, his star seemed to be on the rise. He built the National Socialist German Workers' Party on the foundations of the German Workers' Party; he took over the whole organization and bested the haters who tried to oust him; and he began to make a name for himself as one of the young, Bavarian, right-wing fanatics to watch.
In 1923, Hitler met the first of his "central crises": the failure of his infamous Beer Hall Putsch. The thwarted coup landed the young would-be Fuehrer in prison for the next ten months of his life (nine months after the trial), and it caused the formal dissolution of the Nazi Party too. At least he got to write Mein Kampf while he was in jail.
As Shirer tells us, Hitler was crafty enough to turn both his trial for treason and his nine-month prison sentence to his own advantage. By the time he emerged from prison, he was nearly ready to publish the first volume of Mein Kampf, and he had gained an international audience to boot. Although he still faced hurdles and setbacks from the democratic powers-that-were—who for some reason didn't want to give this raging megalomaniac too much power—Hitler was about to triumph over them all.
Hitler's appointment as Chancellor of the German Reich in January 1933 was the beginning of the end for the Weimar Republic and for the millions of human beings who would perish during Hitler's twelve-year reign of terror.
But for Adolf Hitler himself, it was the culmination of the rags-to-riches story that he had been living since his youth—a story that he'd later spin for himself as he attempted to convince the German public, and the world, that he was nothing but a hard-working, passionate, up-by-the-bootstraps kind of guy who'd restore the lost honor of the German people.
The exposition that Shirer gives us in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich tries to explain two basic things: (1) the ideologies and ambitions that made Adolf Hitler the man he was, and (2) the reasons why the German public and powers-that-were allowed the Nazi Fuehrer to rise as high as he did. The initial situation Shirer presents is the eve of the end of the democratic Weimar Republic of Germany. Adolf Hitler is anxiously waiting to hear if he will be appointed Chancellor. When the old Chancellor caves to pressure to appoint him, the stage is set for the rise of the Nazi party and the birth of the Third Reich.
In Shirer's account, the Third Reich's rising action began in January 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of the German Reich. From that point on, the way was clear for the would-be Fuehrer to seize more and more power until, finally, every German institution and all aspects of bit of German life were firmly under his control. Hitler was able to begin his quest for world dominance and the subjugation of "inferior" races under the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy.
Given that Shirer's narrative is focused on the rise and fall of the Third Reich itself, the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 marks the fatal turning point of the Nazi Empire. Although Hitler would lead his troops to a number of early victories, eventually the war would take a devastating turn for Germany. Until that happened, Hitler occupied a large part of Europe, replaced their governments, and instituted brutal Nazi policies.
Staggering German losses in Russia and Egypt in 1942 marked the turning point of the Second World War. From that point on, his narrative moves more and more quickly as Shirer describes the Third Reich's waning control over Europe. Britain and Russia attacked them on western and eastern fronts, and when the U.S. landed in Normandy, the outlook for the Reich was grim. USA! USA!
The Third Reich managed to hold on to life a little longer than its founder—but only by one week. In the final pages of TRFTR, Shirer describes the state of Germany after the war, and recounts the arrests, trials, and executions of the men who had helped Hitler to build the Third Reich, and bring it, and much of Europe, crashing down.
In the first two books of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer describes Adolf Hitler's life from his birth in 1889 up to the first four years of his term as Germany's Nazi Fuehrer. By the end of Book Two, Shirer has brought us up to Nazi Germany's "point of no return." By 1937, Hitler had decided to take the Third Reich to war.
Throughout the third, fourth, and fifth books of TRFTR, Shirer explains how Hitler's warmongering steadily pushed the Third Reich towards its final destruction while Germany was brutally subjugating and exterminating the peoples of Europe. Despite a series of initial victories that made it seem as though Hitler's vision of a Thousand-Year Reich would become a reality, by 1942 it was clear that Nazi Germany had nowhere to go but down. By the end of Book Five, Shirer's brought us up to the final moments before the Allied invasion of Nazi Germany.
In Book Six, there's little left for Shirer to do but describe the Allied invasion of Nazi Germany and the Third Reich's inevitable fall. Within a short 50+ pages, he shows us how all of Hitler's aspirations crumbled around him. #literally #undergroundbunker #AlliedandSovietbombs