Study Guide

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich What's Up With the Ending?

By William L. Shirer

What's Up With the Ending?

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's First Stab at an Ending

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.

Ending Number Two: "A Brief Epilogue"

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.