William L Shirer’s lengthy 1959 book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is still one of the most successful popular histories of Nazism, despite first coming out in 1959 at a time when an understanding of how the horrors of the 1930s and 1940s had happened was very different from what it is now.
The book certainly shows its age in parts, most notably with the regular homophobic descriptions of gay Nazis, described as perverts and worse not for being Nazis but for being gay.
Its story of how the Second World War came about was at the time the conventional wisdom but has been much challenged since, most notably by AJP Taylor. That all leaves some of the account of how war started looking very dated and simplistic, such as the account of the Hossbach memorandum. This is described as if self-evidently a clear and important master plan for a European war from Hitler. But in fact it has been the cause of much historical debate as – for such a supposedly important plan – it was treated with remarkably little care or attention at the time.
Dated too is the simple picture of German culture and history leading up almost inevitably to Hitler and mass horrors, again a line of argument much debated and refined in later decades.
Yet that all makes this is a book not to be taken on its own rather than a book to be avoided. For the rest of it is a still brilliant account of the rise and fall of Nazism seen through its senior ranks. Despite the book’s length and breadth of sources, it is very much a political history of senior figures. Topics such as economics and the lives of ordinary Germans get only a little attention.
Instead, we get a detailed account of party and then national politics. It often veers into highly detailed chronologies, adding a great sense of tragic drama to its accounts as individuals are described shuttling around taking small steps in desperate attempts to stop larger horrors. There were so many failed plots, manoeuvres and hoped for deals during Hitler’s rise and fall, all of which failed to stop him. Seeing how many only failed at the very last adds a huge foreboding sense of “if only” hanging over the book’s account.
The details use what prompted Shirer to write the work – gaining access to a huge cache of German documents, including many reliable and senior internal records of who was doing what in Nazi ranks.
Understandably given that Shirer lived through many of the events in Germany, his deep dislike of Nazis is repeatedly reflected in the text, even if it means many are airily dismissed as fat, shabby, daft and the like. When it comes to the evils of the Holocaust and other mass killings, Shirer’s accounts are relatively brief but very moving – making reading his words unpleasant at times. Yet so it should be given the events being described.
His deep dislike of the Nazis does not blind Shirer to their political skill, in particular the way Hitler used coalitions to rise to power. There was a deliberate tactic of allying with existing establishment sources of power to first push others aside before then using that strengthened position to turn on those establishment allies.
There is an implied warning there for future generations in the face of determined extremism and Shirer ends the work with a reminder that, “remembrance of the past helps us understand the present”.