The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany by William L. Shirer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this book is an ordeal. It is very long and very depressing. Charting the Third Reich from the birth of Hitler to the collapse of Germany, Shirer tells the whole story with the sweep of a novelist and the detail of an accountant. He wrote the book after having access to huge stores of documents captured by the Allies after the war. Diaries, schedules, testimonies from the Nuremberg trials, the minutes of meetings, and much more were the raw material marshalled to create this tome.

As is often noted, Shirer was a journalist, not a historian, a fact that helps to explain much about this book. He lived in Berlin as a foreign correspondent from 1933 to the end of 1940, reporting on the rise of Hitler and the beginnings of the war, until the threat of the Gestapo forced him to return home. This firsthand experience lent color to his narrative, but also focused his attention on readily observable events. Rather than talk of larger trends—social shifts, economic pressures, cultural developments—Shirer focuses almost exclusively on the doings of individuals in power, such as he had been reporting on.

This focus makes the narrative vivid and pleasingly concrete, but also results in a superficial analysis. A historian would naturally spend more time on the rampant inflation of the times, the institutional weakness of the Weimar Republic, the wider political trends in Europe, the mechanics of a totalitarian state, and so on. Further, Shirer’s explanation of why Germany embarked on such a destructive enterprise boils down to: because it is peopled by Germans. That is, he locates a kind of cultural essence in the German people, an essence stemming from the Reformation and especially Martin Luther, added to by Hegel and then by Nietzsche, which came to full fruition in National Socialism. But this sort of cultural essentialism is, for me, just intellectual laziness. It can be used to explain anything or everything, since these posited cultural qualities are vague and unobservable.

In any case wider historical analysis plays a very small part in this book, which is mainly a record of the decisions and actions of the leading men of the Nazi regime. That is to say that this book is a political and not a military history. The Second World War is discussed, of course, but only insofar as its developments affected or were caused by the Nazi leaders. Shirer is mainly concerned with charting the rise to power of these ruthless men: how they outsmarted the Weimar Republic leaders, fooled the international community, bullied and threatened their way to conquests, and finally instigated a war that resulted in their own ruin.

The balance of the book is tilted heavily towards the rise of the Third Reich. This can make for some dreary reading. In retrospect it is stupefying to witness how blind, inept, and spineless were Hitler’s opponents, first within Germany and then beyond its borders, until the final crisis spurred the world into action against him. Though Shirer’s sturdy prose is normally quite plain and unadorned, he has a steady instinct for the dramatic and writes several unforgettable scenes. Nevertheless the scale of detail Shirer saw fit to include sometimes weighs down the narrative into benumbing dullness. The endless, petty diplomatic maneuvers that preceded the beginning of the War—negotiations, ambassadors, threats, ultimatums, calculations, second thoughts, and so on—made it a relief when the soldiers finally started shooting.

These political dealings of the Nazis constitute the vast bulk of this book. It is a masterclass in how far a little cunning, shameless lying, and absolute ruthlessness can get you. It is also a lesson in the need to cooperate to take decisive action against common threats. In the years since Vietnam, many have concluded that the main lesson to be drawn from America’s foreign policy is the folly of interventionist wars. After the First World War, the Western powers were understantly ever more chary of violence. And yet, at least in Shirer’s telling of the history, a timely show of force could have nipped Hitler’s rise in the bud. If England and France had upheld their treaties and defended their territories and their allies, Hitler could not have amassed so much power at a time when the German military was still small. (Though it must be said that Shirer’s intellectual weakness appears here, too, since he attributes this inaction to pure cowardice.)

In any case, this does bring out an interesting dilemma in foreign policy concerning the benefits and risks of violent intervention. In the case of Hitler, timely action could have prevented a disastrous conflict. And yet in many other historical cases, such as with Saddam Hussein, the threat of non-intervention was vastly overestimated, while the cost of intervention vastly underestimated. The word “estimate” is key here, since these decisions must necessarily be based on guesses of future threats and costs—guesses which may easily be wrong. Since it is impossible to know with certainty the scale of a threat that a situation may pose if left unchecked, there is no surefire way out of this dilemma. This, of course, is just a part of a wider dilemma in life, since so many of our everyday decisions must necessarily be made based on guesses of what the future holds.

You can see that this book, though a popular account, is not lightweight in its details or its implications. Yet it does show its age. Published in 1960, it was written before many valuable sources of information became available, such as the French archives. It also shows its age in its occasional references to homosexuality, which Shirer treats as a perverted vice. This is, of course, morbidly ironic, considering the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (something that Shirer fails to mention). But all in all The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich remains a gripping popular overview of this nightmarish time.

(Cover attributed to Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-16196; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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