The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: William Shirer’s magisterial work has generally aged well

Swastikas on display in Berlin - CC0 Public Domain

William L Shirer Rise and Fall of the Third Reich - book coverWilliam 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”.

You can buy The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer from Amazon here.

2 responses to “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: William Shirer’s magisterial work has generally aged well”

  1. His 'Berlin Diary' is also an excellent and vivid account of the build up of Nazi power in Germany and Europe.

  2. I’ve studied history for over thirty years and have always wanted to read this well known book. While I recognize the time and circumstances surrounding its author and its publication, the homophobia has struck me as very off-putting. I’m not so much alarmed at the accusation but more so the immediate connection to perversion. The sadistic nature of numerous key figures in the party and later in the development of the death camps has been explored by other historians. Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the documentary series Einsatzgruppen are two that come to mind. What is surprising, in at least the edition I’m reading (1989, revised for electronic publication in 2011) is there is no reference by publisher or Shire’s estate (if they still own the rights) to address it. I’m in no way saying to edit or try to “explain away” the author’s work or intent, but to provide context. I am infuriated with the notion of changing Huckleberry Finn. To deny the character’s name is to deny his humanity and existence; especially as to his critical importance to the narrative and his relationship with Huck. I see that this post is from 2019, my renewed interest in Shire’s book is 100% attributed to my sincere fear for our nation. It began with the nightmare of the Trump administration and reading Madeline Albright’s book on fascism. All Americans from all points of view (left, right and center) have too much at stake from complacency. Thank you for posting your article.

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