Study Guide

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Summary

By William L. Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Summary

Book 1

You can think of Book One of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich as laying the intellectual groundwork for the pages that follow.

In these chapters, Shirer charts the early years of Adolf Hitler's life, and shows us how the young would-be Fuehrer went from being an Austrian "vagabond" to the discredited schemer of the infamous Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, his failed coup to take over the state of Bavaria.

Even more than that, Shirer uses Book One of TRFTR to explore the intellectual and political climate that made it possible for a man like Hitler to rise to power in post-WWI Germany. Like his readers, Shirer wants to know: How was the fanatical young Austrian ever allowed to rise to such great heights? What did he offer the German people, and why did they tolerate—even revere—his dictatorship? He examines Hitler's early life for clues about how he developed his anti-Semitism and his belief in German destiny.

Book 2

Book Two charts the years between the Beer Hall Putsch and the beginning of Hitler's first international aggressions in 1938. Those fifteen years were busy ones for Hitler: he built up the Nazi Party, secured an appointment as Chancellor of the German Reich, and used his position as Chancellor to seize more and more power until he became the uncontested Fuehrer who haunts history.

Throughout Book Two, Shirer gives us a clear sense of the kinds of schemes, intrigues, manipulations, and full-on violence that Hitler used to secure power, and he also charts the slow but steady "Nazification" of German life. He wraps things up in 1937, the year that Hitler announced to his top Army and Navy brass that he intended to wage war against Austria and Czechoslovakia.

Book 3

In Book Three, Shirer traces the "road to war" that Hitler paved for Germany and the world. Beginning with the German Army's armed occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, Shirer gives us detailed accounts of Hitler's aggressions in Austria and Czechoslovakia. He then turns to the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the invasion that finally ignited the Second World War.

Despite Shirer's obvious interest in Hitler's warmongering, Book Three of TRFTR doesn't focus on military matters exclusively. Throughout these chapters, Shirer lavishes huge amounts of attention on the high-stakes international diplomacy and foreign relations work that went on before and after Germany's invasions of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

To get a sense of the scheming, manipulating, hedging, debating, waffling, double-timing, delaying, and posturing that Shirer describes, imagine Germany's foreign relations between 1936 and 1939 as a drawn-out, high-stakes poker scene in Casino Royale. Replace Mads Mikkelsen's devious "Le Chiffre" with the fanatical Adolf Hitler, and you'll get the idea.

Book 4

Book Four chronicles the first two-and-a-half years of the Second World War, beginning with the Nazi occupation of Poland, and continuing until the German Army's staggering losses at Stalingrad, Russia and El Alamein, Egypt in the winter of 1942–1943.

Step by step, Shirer traces the early victories that the Nazis won in Europe—including the rapid seizures of Poland, France, Denmark, and Norway—as well as their thwarted hopes in the long months of naval and air battles against Britain. By the end of Book Four, Shirer has brought us up to the final "turning point" of the war. From that point on, he argues, the Nazis had nowhere to go but down.

Book 5

As Shirer himself admits, Book Five is probably the most gruesome section in TRFTR. That's because it's the one in which Shirer takes his first hard look at the barbarities the Reich imposed on it conquered countries and the atrocities that we now refer to as the Holocaust.

After recording the murder and destruction of Jewish life in Europe—from restrictions to ghettoes to the horrors of the extermination camps—Shirer uses the second half of Book Five to explain how the Reich began to crumble. After describing the Allied invasion of Italy, he shifts back and forth between accounts of the anti-Nazi resistance movement within Germany and the ongoing Allied and Soviet invasions of Europe. He wraps things up with Nazi Germany on the brink of total ruin.

Book 6

Finally, in Book Six, Shirer brings the final curtain down on the long sequence of events that he's recounted throughout the past 1000+ pages. He describes the swift and steady victories of the Allies in the West and the Soviets in the East, until finally the enemies of Nazi Germany meet in the middle, forcing Adolf Hitler to meet his end and his Maker.


In the Epilogue that follows, Shirer offers just a few final words about the historic Nuremberg trials that followed the Second World War, and lists the fates of the many German officers and Nazi henchmen and collaborators who were punished for their crimes.

Unfortunately, Hitler couldn't be punished. He shot himself in his underground Bunker as the Soviet Army advanced on Berlin.

The Nazi nightmare had finally ended.