Book review History Politics

The Rise & Fall of the Third Reich (1969). William L. Shirer

This monumental tome doesn’t just document the rise of the Nazis and the lifespan of the Third Reich – it also traces the roots of Nazism deep in German history. With meticulous research and mostly able narrative, Shirer offers compelling portraits of Hitler and his closest associates – from the competent and passionate Goebbels, to the vain and bungling Ribbentrop. Notwithstanding frequent back-and-forths in time, a prejudice against German culture as exceptionally repressive, and pejoratives typical of the time but nonetheless distracting to a contemporary reader – this is an impressive work of scholarship, accessible to a lay audience, and a comprehensive introduction to the Third Reich.

In the Afterword to his Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Shirer expresses being pleasantly surprised that his massive big a book was not only bought and read, but appreciated – except in Germany. There, his tome was criticised. It’s easy to see why. Throughout this tome, Shirer scrutinises German history, culture, and institutions for the ideas and tools that fuelled the Nazis’ rise. He argues that, as far back as the seventeenth century, German history began building up to the Third Reich. While the Sonderweg is hardly a new idea, Shirer continues his scrutiny into modern times – turning a searchlight on the support Hitler gained from the masses, from inherited institutions, and from numerous influential individuals during his rise and reign. Decades after Rise and Fall appeared, this remains Shirer’s main contribution: widening the net of culpability for the atrocities of mid-century Germany. (His only error is in failing to draw the net beyond Germany.)

Shirer wastes no time getting to his thesis. Chapter One announces: “The man who founded the Third Reich, who ruled it ruthlessly and often with uncommon shrewdness… was a person of undoubted, if evil, genius. It is true that he found in the German people… a natural instrument he was able to shape to his own sinister ends. But without Adolf Hitler, who was possessed of a demonic personality, a granite will, uncanny instincts, a cold ruthlessness, a remarkable intellect, a soaring imagination, and – until towards the end, when, drunk with power and success, he overreached himself – an amazing capacity to size up people and situations – there almost certainly would never have been a Third Reich.”

In developing this thesis Shirer, Shirer jumps back and forth frequently: between chapters, and often within paragraphs. This makes for bumpy reading, especially early on. Shirer ably traces the genesis of what became key Nazi building blocks – militarism, belief in absolute authority, readiness to sacrifice civil liberties for material prosperity, collectivism over individualism – to the philosophy of Kant and Hegel, the religious-political views of Martin Luther, the poetry of Willibald Alexis, the hero-cult and amorality of Nietzsche, and the “lust for power and domination” inaugurated by Bismarck. Shirer also scrutinises the role of contemporary individuals and institutions: from the Weimar courts, which undermined the Republic by letting nationalists off lightly even on treason charges; to the army, which funded an underground arm (the “Black” Reichswehr) and often backed anti-republican coups; to the petitions signed by churches and educational institutes supporting Hitler’s early dictatorial measures; to the numerous industrialists who funded the Nazis: inspired as much by fear of a communist takeover, as by Hitler’s charisma and promises.

Of course, the wide net of culpability is only one thread running through the book. Rise and Fall is a history, and it works well as a history because it tells a fascinating story, and supports it with a mass of well-chosen details. Shirer’s primary sources are: (a) the massive archive of Third Reich documents made available to the Allies after the fall, and (b) his own experiences as a journalist living in interwar Berlin. His familiarity with other materials – including diaries and memoirs, and the writings of H. S. Chamberlain and other philosophers who influenced the Nazis – is also impressive. Shirer marshalls this wealth of material for the most part deftly.

Occasionally he stumbles, throwing too much detail at the lay reader: one paragraph, reporting the results of an election during the Weimar Republic, introduces the names, abbreviations, political affiliations, and number of votes gained, of a half-dozen parties not previously mentioned. Occasionally, too, we have convoluted sentences: “For there now burst upon the Third Reich a two-headed crisis in the Army which was precipitated by, of all things, sex, both abnormal and abnormal, and which played directly into the hands of Hitler, enabling him to deal a blow to the old aristocratic military hierarchy from which it never recovered, with dire consequences not only for the Army, which thereby lost the last vestiges of independence which it had guarded so zealously during the Hohenzollern Empire and the Weimar Republic, but eventually for Germany & the world.” Yes: this is all one sentence. And, on this note, two other distractions from the narrative occur via the epithets Shirer casually and frequently tosses at homosexuals (“perverts”); and his dismissing, without illustration, numerous characters as “dull-witted” — from Ribbentrop (“vain and dull-witted,” to Rosenberg (“crackpot philosopher”) to Feder (“crackpot economist”) to, in the final pages, Hanna Reitsch (“emotionally unbalanced”). Shirer’s prejudices are of his time; as for his other judgments, perhaps it’s unavoidable that a work of this scope should ask the reader to take many of his character assessments as given: there’s no room to ‘show’ everything. Ironically, he does in fact delve into the incompetencies and actions of many of these characters (e.g. Rosenberg’s truly bizarre Hitler cult): but, coming as they generally do many chapters after Shirer’s initial dismissive diagnosis, these late-in-the-day substantiations may not adequately compensate for the derisive labels with which Shirer introduces many historical figures.

In 1600 pages, Shirer takes us from the Great War to the Nuremberg Trials. He traces in exhaustive details the continually shifting dynamics behind the scenes. We learn of young Goebbels’s numerous changes of heart before he finally abandoned Strasser to commit to Hitler. We learn of Schleicher’s numerous betrayals in the course of his own grasping at power. We learn, also, of the enormous vacillations behind the scenes at momentous events. We read of the weekslong hesitations and postponements before France and Britain declared war on Germany. We read of Hitler’s numerous postponements before almost every one of his major military operations. We read of the yearslong hesitation of the anti-Nazi plotters: who repeatedly demanded assurances of support from the western Allies, tried to recruit generals to their cause, hesitated about what was to be done and how, and experienced numerous episodes of technical failures and paralysis of the will.

Particularly interesting are portions of the narrative where Shirer was present in his capacity as a journalist. He excerpts, with commentary, Hitler’s key Reichstag speeches. Of the speech Hitler made in April 1939, ironically reassuring Roosevelt that Germany wanted only peace, Shirer writes: “it was long and brilliant, certainly the most brilliant that I ever heard from him. For sheer eloquence, craftiness, irony, sarcasm, and hypocrisy, it reached a new level that he was never to approach again… This was Hitler’s last great peacetime speech. He had come as far as was possible in this world by the genius of his oratory. From now on he was to try to make his niche in history as a warrior.” It’s in chronicling events at which he was present that Shirer’s writing becomes most inspired and lucid.

I particularly enjoyed Chapter Eight, “Life in the Third Reich.” Shirer narrates how the churches, for the most part, accepted without a fight the Nazis’ attempts to subjugate religion to the state – even as ant-Semitic pogroms and measures grew: “It is difficult to understand the behaviour of most German Protestants unless one understands… the influence of Martin Luther… a passionate anti-Semite, and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority.” Chapter Eight goes on to describe the Nazification of all social and cultural institutions, the centralising and streamlining of the media, and the rural and industrial economy under National Socialism. This chapter offers a comprehensive, statistics-backed overview of what it was like to live and work as an ordinary German during those momentous years. And then the narrative marches on.

Shirer’s descriptions of WW2 are also painstakingly detailed, though best enjoyed with maps (not included in the book). While often getting bogged down in the details, he does manage to keep the reader in touch with the evolving strategic situation. His analysis of the causes of Hitler’s failure to appreciate the importance of capturing Egypt is particularly acute. Conversely, he gets to the bottom of many of Hitler’s tactical decisions that have puzzled historians: e.g. his decisions to split his forces during Barbarossa, and his orders to stand to the last man at Stalingrad. (This latter decision was in fact defended by several German generals, who argued that, had Hitler authorised a total retreat, the whole front would have collapsed, producing casualties even higher than were in fact observed.) Similarly edifying are Shirer’s analyses of the difficulties involved in Operation Sea-Lion (lack of naval equipment, British bombing of the assembled German motley fleet of transport vessels), and of Mussolini’s continual back-and-forth regarding his participation in the war: caught between his thirst for Caesar-like conquest, and his pragmatic recognition of Italy’s vulnerability, and goaded by an increasingly anti-German Ciano.

Rise and Fall is not for the casual reader. You will read about numerous minor characters and incidents that a more standard history would omit. Nor is this an easy book to dip in and out of. But, if you want a comprehensive narrative of the events leading up to and during the Third Reich – this book is for you.

Read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my books more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Try switching to soft copy today.

I’ve been reading a fair bit about Hitler and the Third Reich for a novel: which began as a fictionalised account of interwar Germany from a person on the fringes of the inner circle, but which has now become a more generalised analysis of the role of popular support, and dire material circumstances, in creating and maintaining dictatorships. I’ll be posting reviews of a few more books on this topic that I’ve read recently. Then I’ll close the Third Reich chapter of this blog and switch back to regular programming, i.e. mostly novels.


PORTFOLIO of published and upcoming works

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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