Study Guide

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Themes

By William L. Shirer

  • Hate

    Lieutenant Cable was right: You've got to be taught to hate and fear.

    It'll come as no surprise to most readers of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that Adolf Hitler had a burning hatred for peoples whom he thought of as racially inferior to Germans. He turned that hate into the anti-Jewish laws that were quickly passed in Germany and German-occupied countries once he rose to power, and in the horrors of the Holocaust.

    Under Hitler's rule, six million Jews were murdered, along with millions more Slavs, Gypsies, gays, blacks, and disabled persons whom the Nazis considered to be untermenschen—subhuman. In Shirer's words, such hatred was like a catastrophic infection, and that left a permanent scar on human civilization.

    Sample scar: at Shmoop's press time, a white supremacist named Andrew Auernheimer had just hacked into printer networks at colleges all over the U.S. and made them print flyers with a message blaming Jews for destroying the country "through mass immigration and degeneracy" and asking people to "join us in the struggle for global white supremacy."

    'Nuff said.

    Questions About Hate

    1. What reasons does Shirer provide for the anti-Semitism that Hitler came to feel so early in life?
    2. Apart from Hitler, who else does Shirer name as being responsible for supplying the Nazi Party with its notions of racial purity and racial superiority?
    3. Going by the information that Shirer provides, how common was anti-Semitism in the Europe of Hitler's day? To what extent were Hitler's ideas shared by the broader culture in which he lived?

    Chew on This

    The hate Hitler picked up in his adolescence resulted in the exterminations of millions during WWII.

    Everyday Germans were just as much to blame as Hitler and the S.S. officers who carried out the massacres and managed the extermination camps. They were filled with hate, too.

  • Warfare

    War! What is it good for?

    According to Shirer, it's good for glory, for culling the weak from the strong, and for keeping a nation fit and on its toes. No, wait... those weren't Shirer's ideas about war: they were Adolf Hitler's.

    Hitler's ideas led Germany into a war that tore Europe apart less than thirty years after it had self-destructed in WWI, and resulted in a global conflict that resulted in the deaths of 3% of the world's population.

    In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer doesn't just tell us what happened during the long and terrible years of the Second World War; he also attempts to tell us why the war unfolded as it did. The reason that he offers is a controversial one, because it implies that the German lust for martial glory would put a Klingon to shame.

    Questions About Warfare

    1. What motivated Hitler to invade Poland? What motivated him to keep conquering the European continent?
    2. What losses—loss of life, loss of land, loss of raw materials and goods—does Shirer draw the most attention to as he describes the death and destruction that were brought by the Second World War?
    3. In Shirer's view, what spiritual value did Hitler place on war?

    Chew on This

    Hitler, for all his demented views, was a brilliant military strategist. He himself would agree.

    Hitler's megalomania caused him to make colossal military misjudgments that ended up destroying the Reich.

  • Education

    Remember that scene in Footloose when a group of fanatic community members starts burning books? One of the reasons why the Reverend reacts with horror is because book burnings in a post-WWII era immediately bring to mind images of Nazi Germany, where giant bonfires of books became emblematic of the Nazi desire to control every aspect of German thought and culture.

    In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer shows us that the Nazi grip on German education went even further than the burning of books. As Hitler made clear, his goal was to ensure that every German youth grew up soaked in Nazi ideology, and that every German adult was equally indoctrinated.

    For all the "inferior" species—Slavs, Jews, etc.—education was to be discouraged. All they'd be doing is slave labor, and education would just make them more troublesome. Jewish kids were thrown out of schools in Germany with the Nürnberg Laws and Jewish professors kicked out of the universities. The Nazis recognized the power of education and controlled it like they did everything else.

    Questions About Education

    1. What was the reasoning behind the Nazi book burnings?
    2. In Shirer's view, why did German universities become hotbeds of Nazi ideology, rather than places of intellectual resistance?
    3. In Shirer's account, what options did average Germans have if they wanted to see the world without the distorting lens of Nazi propaganda?

    Chew on This

    The Nazis figured that if you can reach kids at an impressionable age, they'll believe whatever you teach them. The children are our future, so get them early and you'll have a thousand-year Reich.

    Hitler focused on controlling education because was one of those impressionable kids. He read racist propaganda as a young man and turned into a rabid bigot.

  • Foolishness and Folly

    You could think of the whole Nazi enterprise as a national folly where an entire country lost its mind and allowed itself to be fooled into believing that a raving lunatic could restore their lost glory. The Nazi leaders, with their rigid, stereotyped behaviors and attitudes and their silly salutes, are easy targets for parody exactly because they seem so foolish underneath all their murderous ways. Think about the "Soup Nazi" or Dr. Strangelove, or the countless internet Hitler parodies, and you'll know what we mean. Monty Python made their livings parodying Nazis. Then there's The Producers.

    In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer emphasizes the countless times when people were fooled by Hitler, when they missed crucial opportunities to act against him, and when they were inexplicably oblivious to the short- and long-term consequences of the Fuehrer's schemes and plans. Although he recognizes that he writes with the benefit of hindsight, Shirer reveals his frustration with the ineptitude and obliviousness foolishness of those who might have stopped the madman if they'd been been more attentive to what was going on.

    Questions About Foolishness and Folly

    1. How would you characterize Shirer's view of the British government between 1936 and 1940?
    2. According to Shirer, which international statesmen had the most accurate impressions of Hitler?
    3. In TRFTR, Shire describes Hitler himself as having many "follies." In Shirer's view, which of Hitler's "follies" were the most significant to the rise and fall of the Third Reich?

    Chew on This

    Shirer thinks that the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was the biggest fool of all.

    Hitler's follies nearly brought down Western civilization.

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    Among the controversial elements of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is Shirer's obvious revulsion for homosexuality. Gay men in particular are characterized as "perverts," "abnormals," and "criminals." Although it's true that homosexual acts were considered criminal in Germany during the years that Shirer is describing—as they were in a number of other Western nations, including the U.S.A—Shirer seems to have more than the legal sense of the word "criminal" in mind.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Does Shirer discuss same-sex activities or relationships among any men who aren't Nazis?
    2. Does Shirer mention any differences between public perceptions of homosexuality in the Weimar Republic and public perceptions of homosexuality in Nazi Germany?
    3. What does Shirer say about the systematic persecution of gay men during the Holocaust? Hint: zero.

    Chew on This

    Other than the admitted fact that he didn't want to exterminate them, Shirer shares some unfortunate opinions with the Nazis about homosexuals. 

    The author's beliefs about homosexuality lead him to totally ignore the persecution of gay men during the Holocaust.

  • Lies and Deceit

    You can't read two pages of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich without running across lies, lies, and more lies. Pants-On-Fire lies. Hitler and his propaganda minister Goebbels were experts of what came to be called "The Big Lie," a lie so huge that the people just couldn't believe it wasn't the truth. Shirer knew that Hitler considered lies a potent weapon of war, and the Ministry of Propaganda was probably the most important in the Reich.

    Hitler was shameless in lying not only to the German people (not to mention the people he was planning to exterminate), but to the leaders of all the European countries he was planning to occupy. While troops were amassing on their borders, he was reassuring them that he meant no harm. The Prime Minister of Britain looked at Hitler and saw a man who could be relied on if he gave his word.

    How'd they get away with all this? Was Hitler the most convincing sociopath ever? Were the German people so gullible? Were the other leaders of Europe just scared of the Fuehrer? Hitler's "Big Lies" weren't just big—he supersized them.

    Questions About Lies and Deceit

    1. Do you think that leaders of European countries believed Hitler's fake peace overtures?
    2. What means did the Propaganda Ministry manage to deceive the German people?
    3. What was the extent of Hitler's self-deceit?

    Chew on This

    Goebbels was right that people would believe any lie if it was big enough and repeated often enough.

    Even Hitler's and military staff who knew he was lying were too afraid of him to confront him.

  • Society and Class

    What separates a human society from a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle? According to Shirer, not a whole lot—at least, not if the human society in question is the one that flourished in Nazi Germany. The German people don't come off too well in Shirer's book. He repeatedly characterizes the German public as being all too eager to give up its independence to their mesmerizing Fuehrer. As he tries to explain how a man like Hitler could come to wield so much power over a nation, Shirer concludes that the German people must have willingly given it to him.

    In making his argument in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer turns to German history as well as Nazi ideas about racial purity and social structure. He can't understand how one of the great cultured nations of western civilization turned into a society that went along with the brutal destruction of non-Aryans, and lot their identity in the mass hysteria of Nazism.

    Personally, we'd say it's more lemmings than anything else.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Hitler chose the title Fuehrer—leader—for himself as he built Nazi Germany. What does that imply about Hitler's own view of the German people?
    2. According to the historical records that Shirer refers to throughout The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, what percentage of German people actually supported the Nazi Party as it rose to power?
    3. In Shirer's view, what could the Germans themselves have done to oust Hitler from power once he'd seized control?

    Chew on This

    By dehumanizing the German people by comparing them to sheep and cattle, Shirer uses rhetoric that's pretty similar that used by the Nazis themselves.

    The Germans went along with the Nazi program because they saw what happened to people who didn't.

  • Ambition

    It's an inspiring, up-by-the-bootstraps tale of a young Austrian "vagabond" whose dreams and ambition brought him higher than anyone around him could've have imagined. It might have been a feel-good, Oprah-worthy tear-jerker except that the young dreamer in question was Adolf Hitler. Instead, what we're given is the strange yet familiar tale of a man who viewed himself as the messianic savior of his people, and who was willing to do whatever it took to realize his vision of leading them to glory.

    Hitler's ambition was fueled by a godlike sense of destiny. Even the unsuccessful attempts on his life made him think he was under some kind of divine protection. Hitler had no problem squelching the ambition of other men who might be rivals for power. Between Hitler and Stalin, WWI saw some of the most brutally disastrous results of personal ambition in history.

    Definitely not Oprah material.

    Questions About Ambition

    1. When did Hitler first decide to pursue a career in politics? What prompted the decision?
    2. What were Hitler's youthful ambitions? Did he abandon them entirely once he turned to politics?
    3. According to Shirer, why was Hitler determined to seize complete control over Germany's political institutions? Aside from becoming a dictatorial overlord, what did he have to gain?

    Chew on This

    Shirer believes that ambition in a person with a sadistic nature and warped mind can—and almost did—destroy the world.

    Though Hitler claimed that he was destined to lead the German people to greatness, his actions proved that his real ambition was to achieve personal power rather than to create a new and glorious Germany.

  • Transformation

    Check out Bernie Sanders' campaign rally playlist. It's all about the revolution. The transformation of society. All politicians talk revolution at some point. After all, if nothing needs changing, what's the point of campaigning?

    Unfortunately, promises of revolution can be used by the bad guys as well. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer explores a very different kind of social transformation: the kind that comes about through the complete manipulation of the society and culture by a fascist tyrant. Shirer explains how the Nazi Party promised to revolutionize and revitalize Germany, and restore the power and glory that it had enjoyed before the First World War. But the "New Order" that Hitler imagined stretched far beyond the borders of Germany itself and involved unspeakable brutality. Ultimately, Shirer argues, Hitler's goal was to transform the very face of Europe by savagely asserting total German superiority.

    He did, at least for a while. Fortunately, that New Order was upended, but not before it led to the deaths of 11,000,000 people. What kind of revolution is that?

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What were the specific goals of the Nazi "revolution," as the Nazis themselves understood them?
    2. How would you characterize Shirer's perspective on social revolutions? What gives birth to them? What enables them to thrive?
    3. From Shirer's perspective, what were the most significant transformations that the Nazi Party made to German life throughout the rapid "Nazification" of Germany?

    Chew on This

    Hitler never believed in the "Socialist" part of the National Socialist party. The people themselves would have no say in their own transformation.

    By attempting to create a Nazi revolution throughout Europe, Hitler destroyed Germany.