The man; the myth; the fanatical, megalomaniacal, and genocidal Fuehrer.
The man whose name is a code word for evil.
…Make that Evil with a capital "E."
We're willing to bet that you know a fair bit about Hitler already. Having been analyzed in countless books, studied in countless classes, and portrayed in a probably-countable number of films, Adolf Hitler's the kind of infamous figure who provokes everyone to offer their own opinions on his narcissism, his hatred, his violence, and, depending on your point of view, his insanity.
So, rather than rehashing the details of his life or the violent racism that led him to bring about the deaths of millions, in this section we're going to focus on the characteristics and personality traits that capture Shirer's attention throughout The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Don't think of this as the definitive characterization of Adolf Hitler, then: think of it as a portrait of Hitler as Shirer saw him.
Prior to becoming the evil genius of the Nazi empire, Adolf Hitler was a "pale, sickly, lanky, youth who, though unusually shy and reticent, was capable of sudden bursts of hysterical anger at those who disagreed with him" (1.1.68). He'd dropped out of high school, an artist wannabe with limited talent and less ambition, who hated most of his teachers.
Shirer takes us through his family history to paint a picture of a boy with a stern, distant father who insisted he become a civil servant like himself. Hitler had no intention of doing so, and Shirer thinks this contributed to his lifelong ability to persevere in the face of opposition. He could never see himself as having to actually work for someone else.
His teen years were pretty unimpressive. Wandering along the river dreaming of becoming an artist, he lived the happiest days of his life—supported financially by his mother and not having to work or go to school. He couldn't get accepted to art school during a visit to Vienna, and eventually headed back home to take care of his mother who was dying of breast cancer.
After her death, he was broke and totally unequipped to live in the world—no job, limited education, no friends. He moved to the glittering city of Vienna, but wasn't interested in learning a trade or getting a regular job. He lived in hostels and flophouses, eating at soup kitchens and dressing in ratty hand-me-down clothes. He described his years in Vienna as the worst of his life, but as Shirer says, he wasn't miserable enough to get a real job.
Who would've thought that this young man was destined to play a major role on the world stage?
By the age of sixteen, Shirer tells us, young Adolf was deeply interested in politics.
By then he had developed a violent hatred for the Hapsburg monarchy and all the non-German races in the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire over which it ruled, and an equally violent love for everything German. At sixteen he had become what he was to remain till his dying breath: a fanatic German nationalist.
To him, the Empire was sinking into a "foul morass." It could be saved only if the master race, the Germans, reasserted their old absolute authority. (1.1.69-70)
While living in Vienna, Hitler read voraciously. He considered this self-education the foundation of everything he ever needed to know in life. While Hitler prided himself on reading the most essential literature from which he took important ideas, Shirer describes these ideas as "shallow and shabby, often grotesque and preposterous, and poisoned by outlandish prejudices […] (1.1.110). Hitler developed a keen eye for those political parties that supported his views and studied their tactics to pick up ideas that he'd later put to work in building his own National Socialist party.
Another thing that Vienna provided was an endless stream of anti-Semitic literature. Hitler hadn't known many Jews growing up, but when he went out into the streets of Vienna, he was shocked by what he saw:
"Wherever I went," he says, "I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity…Later, I often grew sick to the stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers." (1.1.142)
It gets worse.
Hitler came to believe that the Jews carried the stain of immorality. Writing in Mein Kampf about his epiphany, he says,
Was there any form of filth or profligacy, particularly in cultural life, without at least one Jew involved in it? If you cut even cautiously into such an abscess, you found, like a maggot in a rotting body, often dazzled by the sudden light—a kike! (1.1.143)
Hitler was convinced that Jews were obsessed with sexually violating innocent Christian women and watering down their pure blood.
"Gradually," Hitler relates, "I began to hate them…For me this was the time of greatest spiritual upheaval I have ever had to go through. I had ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and become an anti-Semite." (1.1.145)
Shirer notes that Hitler was to remain a rabid anti-Semite to his last breath. Just as he blamed the Jews for the Germany's defeat in WWI, he blamed them for the downfall of the Third Reich. Throughout his reign, his goal was always the absolute destruction of the Jewish people of Europe and the total annihilation of their culture. Shirer concludes:
This burning hatred, which was to infect so many Germans in that empire, would lead ultimately to a massacre so horrible and on such a scale as to leave an ugly scar on civilization that will surely last as long as man on earth. (1.1.147)
Two out of every three Jews in Europe had been killed by 1945.
Hitler learned early on how to use lies and propaganda to manipulate people for his own purposes. As a young man observing the political station in Vienna, he saw how quickly people could be swayed by a convincing story.
This became his M.O. in building the Third Reich. Foreign leaders were given assurance of peace and territorial integrity while German troops were massing on their borders preparing for their destruction; Jews were blamed for all of Germany's political and economic problems; the free press was destroyed; the German people were left in the dark when defeat after defeat drove the Reich towards ultimate disaster.
As the Allies closed in, even Hitler's General Staff realized that Hitler's worldview had little relationship to reality. His General Staff Chief of the Army, Heinz Guderian, recalled:
In his case, what had been hardness became cruelty, while a tendency to bluff had become plain dishonesty. He often lied without hesitation and assumed that others lied to him, He believed no one any more. (5.29.374)
After the failed July plot, Hitler even began to lie to himself. Did he think, "Man, even my General Staff wants to kill me"? Nope. He saw his survival as a sign that he was protected by divine providence to lead the nation to further victory.
Many Germans believed Hitler to the bitter end. Guderian later wrote, referring to the failed July Plot:
At that time—the fact seems beyond dispute—the great proportion of the German people still believed in Adolf Hitler and would have been convinced that with his death the assassin had removed the only man who might still have been able to bring the war to a favorable conclusion. (5.29.377)
After being cut off for so long from reality, hearing only what Hitler intended them to hear and being fed a steady diet of lies and distortions, most of the the German people couldn't comprehend the truth of what was happening.
And that's just how Hitler wanted it.
Shirer admits from the get-go that Hitler was a twisted genius:
The man who founded the Third Reich, who ruled it ruthlessly and often with uncommon shrewdness, who led it to such dizzy heights and to such a sorry end, was a person of undoubted, if evil, genius. (1.1.14)
Throughout TRFTR, Shirer paints a complex portrait of Hitler. Although he totally agrees that Hitler was a vicious, calculating, and evil man, Shirer's job isn't to remind us that Hitler was a monster; instead, it's to explain how this "fanatical young German-Austrian nationalist" (1.1.13) convinced millions of willing Germans to flock to his cause and submit to his dictatorship.
In moments when Shirer wants to emphasize the absurdity of Hitler's appeal, the would-be Fuehrer becomes the "man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache" (1.1.7). In moments when he wants to draw attention to the seemingly spell-binding sway that Hitler seemed to hold over his followers, the Nazi Leader becomes a man "possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect, a soaring imagination," and "an amazing capacity to size up people and situations" (1.1.14).
When Shirer explains how Hitler came to design the Nazi iconography that the world soon came to know so well, he characterizes the red, white, and black Nazi banner as "a stroke of genius" by a "master propagandist." (1.2.60) In his view, there were other manifestations of demonic "genius" too. Over and over again throughout the early chapters of TRFTR, Shirer explains how Hitler managed—yet and yet again—to outwit and control the men who stood in his way.
For Shirer, Hitler's most consequential defining quality was his oratorical skill. Hitler learned the importance of oratory from observing Karl Lueger, the burgomaster (mayor) of Vienna when young Hitler lived there. In Mein Kampf, he wrote:
The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history rolling has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word, and that alone.
The broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech. (1.1.135-136)
Hitler had a voice that seemed to be capable of bending masses of people to his will. As he describes the first public speaking engagement where Hitler had an opportunity to test his skills, Shirer puts things this way:
This was the beginning of a talent that was to make him easily the most effective orator in Germany, with a magic power, after he took to radio, to sway millions by his voice. (1.2.26)
Remember that scene in The King's Speech when Colin Firth, playing King George VI, watches a film of a Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg? "What's he saying?" asks young Princess Elizabeth as Hitler's voice blasts over the cheering crowd. "I don't know," King George replies, "but he seems to be saying it well."
That's the kind of power that Shirer is talking about. Here's a sample of one of those impassioned speeches that hypnotized his listeners.
Hitler's oratorical skills kept Germans standing behind him even as the rest of the world was closing in:
When they declare," Hitler continued, "that they will increase their attacks on their cities, then we will raze their cities to the ground!" At this, I noted, the young ladies were quite besides themselves and applauded phrenetically. When they had recovered he added, "We will stop the handiwork of these night air pirates, so help us God!"
On hearing this, I also noted, "the young German women hopped to their feat and, their breasts heaving, screamed their approval!" (4.22.154-155)
Because those speeches were the worst kind of hateful and bizarre diatribes, they've been parodied all over the internet, in which a raging Hitler lashes out about late pizza delivery, getting a Wii instead of an X-box for Christmas, or Himmler leaving the windows open and running up the electric bill. Even Monty Python got into the act.
But Hitler's ability to rouse his listeners to hysteria was no laughing matter.
Because Hitler's racism and its horrific consequences were matters of public knowledge well before Shirer wrote TRFTR, Shirer focuses his characterizations on traits that might not have been so well known to the public at large. Drawing on his own first-hand experience of the man, as well as on the hundreds of tons of captured documents, Shirer is able to share up-close-and-personal observations that fill out his descriptions of the Fuehrer. Many of those records illustrate characteristics that he tends to refer to as Hitler's "hysteria."
Shirer says early on in TRFTR that Hitler had an "excitable" nature, "which often led to outbursts of hysteria" (2.5.1), and he builds on that description as he shows us scene after scene of Hitler cracking under pressure.
Here's a particularly vivid one. In it, Shirer describes Hitler's growing agitation as he pursued his plan of using international diplomacy in order to wipe Czechoslovakia off the map:
Hitler was in a highly nervous state. […] I was having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Dreesen, where the talks were to take place, when Hitler strode past on his way down to the riverbank to inspect his yacht. He seemed to have a peculiar tic. Every few steps he cocked his right shoulder nervously, his left leg snapping up as he did so. He had ugly, black patches under his eyes. He seemed to be, as I noted in my diary that evening, on the edge of a nervous breakdown. (3.12.183)
Shirer doesn't stop there:
"Teppichfresser!" muttered my German companion, an editor who secretly despised the Nazis. And he explained that Hitler had been in such a maniacal mood over the Czechs the last few days that on more than one occasion he had lost control of himself completely, hurling himself to the floor and chewing on the edge of the carpet. Hence the term "carpet eater." The evening before, while talking with some of the party hacks at Dreesen, I had heard the expression applied to the Fuehrer—in whispers, of course. (3.12.183)
We're willing to bet that this didn't make it into any of the history textbooks that you read in school.
Hitler's last days, holed up in his underground bunker, provide yet another memorable passage, and we'll close with it here. Quoting from the testimony of a German Army captain, Shirer writes:
His head was slightly wobbling. His left arm hung slackly and his hand trembled a good deal. There was an indescribable flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect. His face and the parts around his eyes gave the impression of total exhaustion. All his movements were those of a senile man. (6.31.6)
In descriptions like these, Hitler almost seems to become a literary villain—a Faustian man on his way to Mephistopheles, or a Bond villain with an unusual physical handicap—more so than an historical man. But don't make the mistake of assuming that Shirer is exaggerating for literary effect: Hitler was stranger, and say more terrible, than fiction.
Because Hitler was an impulsive and excitable man, given to bouts of rage, his decisions were often made on the basis of emotions and megalomania, starting with the failed Beer Hall Putsch. Shirer shows us Hitler making many military decisions that his generals believed to be colossal mistakes—either because they were strategically wrong or because they were the result of rage or a desire for revenge or Hitler's belief that he was incapable of being wrong or being defeated.
As early on as the invasion of Czechoslovakia, many of the Generals believed that Hitler was making decisions without thinking clearly about the consequences:
The Chief of the German Army General Staff was now aroused as he had never been before in his lifetime. The scales were falling from his eyes. What was at stake for the German nation, he now saw, was more than just the thwarting of a hysterical head of state bent, out of pique, on attacking a small neighboring nation at the risk of a big war. (3.12.371)
Another example: after the Yugoslav military overthrew its government in March 1941 for making a deal with Hitler, Hitler decided to put down the coup with "unmerciful harshness" (4.23.193). A week or so later, Belgrade was razed to the ground, with 17,000 civilians killed in "Operation Punishment." This move proved to be Hitler's biggest mistake of the war, because it delayed Operation Barbarossa—the invasion of Russia—for four months. The German officers knew it was a huge miscalculation, especially that winter when they were knee-deep in snow in sub-zero temps in Russia.
Forever afterwards they and their fellow generals would blame that hasty, ill-advised decision of a vain and infuriated man for all the disasters that ensued. (4.23.195)
Hitler thought he was a military genius, and as the war progressed, he became less and less willing to take any tactical advice from his officer staff. Many of the thought that their Fuehrer had little grasp of how to execute an international war, but they also knew that there was no dissuading him once he'd made a decision.
As the Allies closed in and the Reich was on the brink of collapse, the officers of the armed forces continued to warn Hitler against what would be a suicidal continuation of the war.
To the protests of the generals that they lacked sufficient forces either to continue the offensive in the Ardennes or to attack in Alsace he remained deaf.
"Gentlemen, I have been in this business for eleven years and …I have never heard anybody report that everything was completely ready…You are never entirely ready. That is plain."
He talked on and on. It must have been obvious to the generals that their Commander in Chief had become blinded to reality and lost himself in the clouds. (6.30.51-53)
When the Russians were within 100 miles of Berlin, Hitler went into a rage with his General Staff Chief, who recalled:
His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling […]. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed to pop out of his head and the veins stood out on his temples.
It was in this state of mind that the German Fuehrer made one of the last momentous decisions of his life. On March 19, he issued a general order that all military, industrial, transportation and communication installations as well as all stores in Germany must be destroyed in order to keep them from falling intact into the hands of the enemy. (6.30.135-136)
As Shirer writes, Germany would be turned into an empty wasteland.
Albert Speer tried to dissuade Hitler. After all, the nation needed a basis for rebuilding after their inevitable defeat. "We have no right at this stage of the war to carry out demolitions which might affect the life of the people," he wrote in a memorandum he personally delivered to the Fuehrer (6.30.138). But Hitler wouldn't be denied. He even went along with Bormann's crackpot idea that all Germans should trek on foot to the center of the Reich, with no provisions made for shelter or food for them.
The speed of the Allied invasion prevented these irrational orders from being carried out. Speer and some other officers disobeyed the orders and dashed around Germany to make sure that vital facilities weren't blown up by blindly obedient officers and party members.
Even as the Russians reached Berlin, Hitler vowed to defend the city. He ordered General Felix Steiner to carry out an all-out attack against the Russian Army in Berlin. Steiner never even attempted it.
That was too much for the Supreme Warlord. All the surviving witnesses testify that he completely lost control of himself. He flew into the greatest rage of his life. This was the end, he shrieked. […] He would personally take over the defense of the Capital of the Third Reich. (6.31.48)
Although Hitler's warped judgment was obvious in 1945 as he was in the throes of his last desperate days, his decisions in 1939 to annex Czechoslovakia and invade Poland were irrational, suicidal moves for Germany from the beginning. His belief that he was divinely destined to lead Germany to greatness blinded him to the fact that these moves would eventually lead the Allies to join the war against Germany—a war they likely couldn't win.
So that's the legacy of Adolf Hitler: a toxic brew of sadism, depravity, and delusions of grandeur that led to a World War that killed 11 million people and ruined the lives of millions more. Until the day he died, he blamed the Jews and the treachery of others for the war; he even ultimately decided that since Germany lost the war it didn't deserve to continue to exist. Unable to deal with the idea of defeat, he killed himself along with destroying his own nation. His thousand-year Reich lasted just over a dozen years.