Notes on The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer

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William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich had been on my list of books to read for years. After reading The Rising Sun by John Toland, I decided that it was finally time for me to read Shirer’s book. I thought it was an excellent journalistic narrative history of Germany’s Third Reich. What is perhaps most notable about it to me was the clear picture it paints of a nation’s descent from democracy to a fascist dictatorship without much of an outcry from citizens within or without.

When Hitler came to power in Germany, Shirer noted:

To some Germans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charalatan had come to power in Berlin. To the majority of Germans Hitler had–or would shortly assume–the aura of a truly charismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgment, for the next twelve tempestuous years.

Such a statement, set out early in the book, connected the past and present for me. As I wrote in an earlier post, it seemed to me that this passage could be modernized by changing three proper nouns and a number:

To some Americans and, no doubt, to most foreigners it appeared that a charlatan had come to power in Washington. To the majority of Americans Trump had–or would shortly assume–the aura of a truly charismatic leader. They were to follow him blindly, as if he possessed a divine judgment, for the next four tepestuous years.

The comparison in situations here is striking, at least to me, for it captures much the way I felt in 2015-2016 and through the four years that followed. And yet at the time, I hadn’t read Shirer’s history and couldn’t see how history seemed to be repeating itself despite all of the effort since the end of the Second World War to “never forget.”

The education I received during junior high school and high school regarding the Second World War, the rise of fascism in Germany, and its eventual destruction was extremely limited. Hitler was the bad guy who did and encouraged others to do horrible things. The Americans came to the rescue, first through Lend-Lease, and then, after Pearl Harbor, through arms and warfare. That was it, and I’m not convinced that this 100,000 foot approach to such an important moment in modern history captures the spirit of “never forget.”

I’ve written how I think biographies can be extremely useful tools in education. History, in my mind, is biography in plural. Shrier’s book, despite its length, seems almost the perfect instrument for the teaching of history and the lessons from history to junior and senior level high school students. There are several reasons for this:

First, the book is well-written. A hundred pages into the book I scribble a marginal note that Shrier’s style is reminiscent of another favorite writer of history of mine, Will Durant. It is a clear, easily understandable narrative history written from the point of view of an experienced American foreign correspondent living in Berlin at the time of the unfolding events. It is, in fact, a gripping story. Shirer starts by tracing the rise of Hitler from his earliest beginnings, and through him, the rise of the Nazi party and fascism.

Second, the book can be seen as a step-by-step guide for how to turn a democracy into a fascist dictatorship. We see this happen not just in Germany but in Italy as well with the rise of Mussolini. And while this may seem like dangerous instruction manual to put in front of the public, I think that part of Shirer’s intention was to highlight all of the points where Hitler and the Nazi’s could have been stopped before things got out of hand. And there were many of these points, during Hitler’s rise to power, and even after he was the sole power in Germany. It is as much a lesson in how to prevent a fascist dictatorship as it is a history of how such a dictatorship came about.

Third, it exposes the ugly truth of the Nazi attrocities committed against Jews, and many others, and it exposes the excuses given for such behavior for those Nazi leaders that survived the war. It exposes the ugly truth about the appeasment by other nations, and the selling out of countries wholesale to the Nazi regime.

Fourth, it provides context to be able to see parallels today. The book has the information required to allow people to see the canary fall dead in the mine. The passage I quoted above is one such parallel. But there are many others. When Italy began invading neighboring countries, the League of Nations could have laid down sanctions against Italy depriving it of desperately needed oil. Such sanctions were part of the League’s covenant, but it failed to do so. Today, the U.S. and many other NATO countries are using severe sanctions as a tool against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and having some effect.

Indeed, one side effect of these sanctions is that Russia is demanding payment for oil in Rubels, which crashed after the sanctions were initially imposed. The demand for payment in Rubels seems to me to be a lesson right out of Germany in the 1920s:

From then on, goaded by the big industrialists and landlords, who stood to gain though the masses of the people were financially ruined, the [German] government deliberately let the mark tumble in order to free the State of its public debts, to escape from paying reparations, and to sabatage the French in the Ruhr. Moreoever, the destruction of the currency enabled German heavy industry to wipe out its indebtedness by refunding its obligation in worthless marks.

The source of much of the information in Shrier’s book comes from captured German documents that came to light during the Nuremberg trials. Reading the propaganda from the time, and the secret documents that were coterminus with the propaganda paints a picture of deceit across the board. Once again, it helps to put into perspective modern parallels. Reading about this, I though of the January 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, with the propoganda showing one set of intentions and the various documents, call logs and other evidence coming to light showing a second set of intentions–in this case, a protest versus a deliberate attempt to call into question free election.

Of course, there is a lot more for high schoolers to learn from Shirer’s book. Shirer’s book is a kind of history of Europe from the 1930s through the Second World War. We see leaders across many nations, including the United States. It is a history of the European fronts during the Second World War. It is a history of oppressors and oppressed.

Whenever I read a magnum opus like Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I always want to know more about the author–the person who invested so much of their life and time into putting the pieces together. Immediately after finishing Shirer’s book, I turned to his 3-volume memoir, Twentieth Century Journey, the first volume of which I finished on the very day I am writing this essay. I’m already looking forward to the two remaining volumes.

Written on March 30, 2022.

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2 comments

  1. I have read all of Shirer’s books. Also proud to say he wrote most of “The Rise and Fall… “ at his farm house – a retreat from his NYC residence – in my hometown of Torrington, CT. Shirer, incidentally, was removed from his CBS radio program, when Ed Murrow and William Paley caved to sponsorship pressure. Shirer writes extensively about this in his memoirs.

    1. Dan, since I finished The Rise and Fall I have subsequently read all 3 volumes of his memoirs, which I thought were great. (I must admit, however, that having read The Rise and Fall right before, the second volume, The Nightmare Years, seemed repetitive.) I was envious of his farmhouse retreat every time he mentioned it. It reminded me of E. B. White’s saltwater farm in Brooklin, Maine, where he did a lot of his writing as well.

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