Revisiting The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Recently reissued, William L. Shirer’s seminal 1960 history of Nazi Germany is still important reading

William L. Shirer, who witnessed a 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg, would link the criminality of individuals to communal frenzy. (Corbis)
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“We are strong and will get stronger,” Hitler shouted at them through the microphone, his words echoing across the hushed field from the loudspeakers. And there in the flood-lit night, massed together like sardines in one mass formation, the little men of Germany who have made Nazism possible achieved the highest state of being the Germanic man knows: the shedding of their individual souls and minds—with the personal responsibilities and doubts and problems—until under the mystic lights and at the sound of the magic words of the Austrian they were merged completely in the Germanic herd.

Shirer’s contempt here is palpable, physical, immediate and personal. His contempt is not for Hitler so much as for the “little men of Germany”—for the culture that acceded to Hitler and Nazism so readily. In Shirer one can see an evolution: If in Berlin Diary his emphasis on the Germanic character is visceral, in The Rise and Fall his critique is ideological. Other authors have sought to chronicle the war or to explain Hitler, but Shirer made it his mission to take on the entire might and scope of the Reich, the fusion of people and state that Hitler forged. In The Rise and Fall he searches for a deeper “why”: Was the Third Reich a unique, one-time phenomenon, or do humans possess some ever-present receptivity to the appeal of primal, herd-like hatred?

Writing The Rise and Fall was an extraordinary act of daring, one might almost say an act of literary-historical generalship—to conquer a veritable con­­tinent of information. It remains an awe-inspiring achievement that he could capture that terrain of horror in a mere 1,250 pages.

If Shirer was present at the rise, he was also distant from the fall—and he turned both circumstances to his advantage. Like Thucydides, he had firsthand experience of war and then sought to adopt the analytic distance of the historian. Unlike Thucydides, Shirer had access to the kind of treasure previous historians always sought but mostly failed to find. After the German defeat, the Allies made available warehouses full of captured German military and diplomatic documents—the Pentagon Papers/WikiLeaks of their time—which enabled Shirer to see the war from the other side. He also had access to the remarkably candid interviews with German generals conducted after the surrender by B.H. Liddell-Hart, the British strategic thinker who has been credited with developing the concept of lightning offensive warfare (which the Germans adopted and called “blitzkrieg”).

And by 1960, Shirer also had those 15 years of distance—15 years to think about what he’d seen, 15 years to distance himself and then to return from that distance. He doesn’t pretend to have all the answers; indeed, one of the most admirable attributes of his work is his willingness to admit to mystery and inexplicability when he finds it. Later historians had access—as Shirer did not—to knowledge of the Enigma machine, the British code-breaking apparatus that gave the Allies the advantage of anticipating the movements of German forces—an advantage that changed the course of the war.

Rereading the book, one sees how subtle Shirer is in shifting between telescope and microscope—even, one might say, stethoscope. Within the grand sweep of his gaze, which reached from the Irish Sea to the steppes beyond the Urals, he gives us Tolstoyan vistas of battle, and yet his intimate close-ups of the key players lay bare the minds and hearts behind the mayhem. Shirer had a remarkable eye for the singular, revealing detail. For example, consider the one Eichmann quote he included in the book, in a footnote written before Eichmann was captured.

In Chapter 27, “The New Order” (whose title was intended as an ironic echo of Hitler’s original grandiose phrase), Shirer takes up the question of the actual number of Jews murdered in what was not yet widely called the Holocaust and tells us: “According to two S.S. witnesses at Nuremberg the total was put at between five and six millions by one of the great Nazi experts on the subject, Karl Eichmann, chief of the Jewish office of the Gestapo, who carried out the ‘final solution.’” (He uses Eichmann’s first name, not the middle name that would soon become inseparable from him: Adolf.)

And here is the footnote that corresponds with that passage:

“Eichmann, according to one of his henchmen, said just before the German collapse that ‘he would leap laughing into his grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.’”

Clearly this footnote, mined from mountains of postwar testimony, was intended not merely to substantiate the number of five million dead, but also to illustrate Eichmann’s attitude toward the mass murder he was administering. Shirer had a sense that this question would become important, although he could not have imagined the worldwide controversy it would stir. For Shirer, Eichmann was no bloodless paper pusher, a middle manager just following orders, as Eichmann and his defense lawyer sought to convince the world. He was not an emblem of “the banality of evil,” as the political theorist Hannah Arendt portrayed him. He was an eager, bloodthirsty killer. Shirer will not countenance the exculpation of individual moral responsibility in the “just following orders” defense.


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