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

by Robert A. Parker

This 1960 work is magnificent history. I had expected Shirer to depict the German side of World War II through his own experiences, but this is Shirer portraying the German leadership’s experience as recorded in official records captured after the war, plus the transcripts of the Nuremberg trials, and the diaries and memoirs of German leaders. And what is remarkable is that Shirer was able to absorb these hundreds of sources, fix them in his memory, and then organize them into a fascinating narrative.

The effort required five years. Perhaps colleagues helped him find and organize such voluminous information, but it is a marvelous achievement nevertheless, and was produced in a world without computers, a world that make researching facts and organizing them so much easier today. And yet one also wonders, will such paper records ever be available again. Mainly, because the German culture seemed to make such record-keeping second nature, but also because computerized records are more susceptible to obsolescence.

As I recall, this work made a deep splash when it was published, and certainly deserved it. But it is rarely spoken of today. So much has happened, including three major wars that have supplanted our memories of the major war of the last century. But that war offers a lesson that confirms the old adage by Santayana that Shirer quotes at the start: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shirer begins by focusing his work on Hitler himself, portraying him as a modest hero in World War I, earning the Iron Cross twice, once first class. It is a wise decision, for it lays the groundwork for what is to come. Shirer thus follows Hitler through his early years without true friends, his abrasive personality, and his years of poverty in Vienna. But throughout these years his resentment of how Germany was treated after World War I fuels his ambition to somehow redress those wrongs.

After the failure of his Munich beer hall putsch, Hitler is imprisoned, and in prison he writes the first half of his Mein Kampf. In it, he reveals the strategy he will follow when he rises to power, and one senses a certain respect from Shirer for a man who so successfully follows his own roadmap. Hitler’s most important strategy is his determination that the German people will vote him into power. He will not overthrow the government. And he succeeds, of course—primarily because German society lost faith in a government that allowed high inflation and was unable to lift them from the poverty that followed the worldwide depression of 1929. The result is that with each election, until 1933, Hitler’s promises and his appeals to the nation’s past earn more and more votes.

What becomes fascinating is the step-by-step process by which Hitler undercut’s the judicial, political, economic, and military forces in contol, until his Nazi party completely control the lives of every German. Underlying this history, however, is that many of the professional army men, including generals, were reluctant to follow Hitler’s aggressive plans, primarily because they did not feel the German army was strong enough to face the French and the English. The plotting of these generals reached its peak just before Munich, but then they backed off when they saw that war was not coming.

When war did come in Septembe, 1939, the Nazi blitzkrieg overran Poland; but then hostilities paused, and the Allies tended to relax. Hitler, however, surprised them by invading Denmark and Norway in 1940. He wanted Norwegian airfields for bombing Britain and Norwegian ports for gaining control of the North Sea and ending the Allied blockade. He had quick success because the English were caught completely off-guard.

France also fell easily, because its army was no match for the new German armor. At this point, Hitler expected the British to admit defeat, and when they did not he began bombing London and other centers. But the British also had their own bombing strategy, which called for raiding the Channel ports where the Germans were amassing thousands of boats.

The invasion never happened, Shirer reports for two reasons. First, these raids destroyed the boats the Germans needed to cross the Channel. Second, the German army and navy could not agree on an invasion strategy. The army wanted to invade England all along the Channel coast, but the navy said there were not enough boats to do so. The navy wanted to assault a narrow area, for which they had enough boats, but the army feared the British could amass a large enough army in that small area to repel the invading Germans. So much time was lost in this debate that Hitler postponed the invasion until the spring.

Because Hitler really understood land warfare rather than sea warfare, he fixed his eyes on Russia in 1941. To protect his southern flank, however, he first invaded the Balkans. And there he made a disastrous error, Shirer says. Because when Yugoslav patriots resisted his assault, he became so enraged that he ordered their country destroyed. Which happened. But this temper tantrum delayed his attack on Russia for a month, which meant that his army had one month less to execute his war strategy before the Russian winter arrived. And this proved fatal to his initial invasion.

Another major mistake occurred when the Germans advanced hundreds of miles into Russia on three fronts, and then were faced with a decision. The generals wanted to focus their attack on Moscow, center of the government, transportation services, and industry, but Hitler had set his sights on the grain and oil in the Ukraine to the south. Hitler had his way, of course, and Shirer quotes his generals as saying that this decision might well have cost Germany total victory.

Because shortly afterward came rain and mud, and then an early winter, with temperatures dropping below zero. The Russians were able to counter-attack because their soldiers had clothing and armaments that worked under these conditions, whereas the Germans did not. Equally significant was that Hitler lost faith in his generals, because their army had been stopped for the first time. As a result, he took over command of the army himself.

As the Russians made their winter advance, four major developments marked the first change in the war’s course. First, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the Germans were confronted with a new adversary that they grossly underestimated. Second, in Africa, Rommel advanced to El Alemein, where he asked for re-enforcements for a final drive to conquer Egypt; but Hitler refused, and Montgomery’s quick counter-attack pushed the Afrika Corps back into Libya. Third, the Allies landed a large force in the French colonies of Morocco and Algeria in November, their first step in conquering Southern Europe. And fourth, to replenish his army in 1942 after a loss of a million men in Russia in 1941, Hitler drafted soldiers from Hungary, Rumania, Italy, and other eastern nations, soldiers who were far inferior to the German, less well armed, and had no will to fight for Germany in Russia.

With these soldiers, the Germans did advance that summer deep into the south, toward Stalingrad and the Caucusus’ oil. But again Hitler made a poor decision. He split his forces rather than concentrating on one objective, resulting in their again being stopped. And when winter returned, the tide again turned. For Hitler refused to let his troops retreat, resulting in the complete destruction of his southern armies near Stalingrad. And this obsession never to retreat would decimate still more of his forces in many battles to come.

As the tide turns, Shirer pauses here to report the atrocities that were taking place in German-held territory. As his armies occupied neighboring countries, Hitler ordered that their citizens be used as slave labor in his military industries. He also began ordering the mass killing of Jews and, in Russia, of Bolsheviks. These were executed by gunfire, after the victims were ordered into large pits. While Shirer acknowledges that casualty figures are difficult to even estimate, he suggests that as many as one million died in this manner.

But the Final Solution called for Jews to be killed in far greater numbers. And so the concentration, or extermination, camps were created, where Jews, mainly, but gypsies and others, were gassed. This was more efficient, as Auschwitz records showed that as many as 6,000 could be executed in one day. Again, numbers are elusive, but Shirer says that of the 10 million Jews that lived in territories captured by the Germans, at least half of them were killed. Thousands of others, of course, and not just Jews, but women and children, were the victims of medical experiments.

As Allied forces captured northern Africa in May, 1943, and turned their eyes toward Sicily and Italy, Mussolini became despondent. So much so that his army rebelled, incarcerated him, and put the king of Italy back in power. But Hitler reacted quickly, and sent his armies to occupy all of Italy down to Salerno, where the Allies had landed. He also rescued Mussolini in a daring raid on a mountaintop hotel. Shirer cites Hitler’s affection for Il Duce, even with the Italian’s bravado and incompetence.

The tide had turned, in fact, by 1943, as the Russians began their first summer offensive, British and American bombers were devastating German cities, and German u-boats were driven from the Atlantic, enabling America to ship its military supplies to England in preparation for D-day.

In 1943, the army generals continue to plot against Hitler. I did not realize this. A time-bomb was put on a plane as Hitler is returning from the Russian front, but it did not explode. A suicide bomber concealed a bomb in his coat and attended a meeting with Hitler present, but the bomb’s timer needed ten minutes, and Hitler limited his visit to only eight minutes, so the bomber cancelled the attempt. Although these attempts failed, the rebels, including many generals, continued plotting. They were hampered, however, when many field marshals at first supported them and then backed out. But their plans came to a head when a severely wounded veteran, Count von Staffenberg, a young colonel who had lost an arm and an eye in the war, joined them.

The story of the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt is a remarkable one. Staffenberg was action-oriented, the type of leader the movement needed, for the older generals who had started it were too cautious, many fearful without the leadership of their superiors, others waiting for the coup to succeed before they joined. The Count finally realized only he could plant the time-bomb that was to be used. Called to a meeting with Hitler, he planted the armed bomb under a heavy oak table, then left. He was at the gate when the bomb exploded, and assumed Hitler had been killed. But an officer at the meeting had moved the bomb out of his way under the table, moving it from one side of a heavy oak table support to the other side, which shielded Hitler from the blast.

This is only a part of the story, however. With a successful assassination, the plotters had intended to take over Berlin, announce Hitler’s death, and seek from the Allies an end to the war. But they frustrated their own plans when they delayed acting until they knew Hitler was dead. And then failed even more when they did not cut phone communications, take over the local radio, arrest Goebbels and others, and convince the strong local troops to support them.

Once Hitler’s forces took back control, they shot Stauffenberg and others immediately, and arrested and tortured still more to learn who was involved. In all, more than 5,000 plotters were executed, many hung by wire from a meat hook. When Rommel, recovering from a bomb explosion, was betrayed as a collaborator, he was given the opportunity to take poison, and then given a promised state funeral. Meanwhile, all Germans, both military and civilian, condemned the plotters as traitors, and rallied behind Hitler. Shirer asks how this could happen when everyone could see the destruction that Hitler had brought upon this nation. He concludes that the German culture made “a blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man, and put a premium on servility.”

Meanwhile, the D-Day invasion forces had landed, completely fooling the Germans by choosing Normandy and using inclement weather. Now their armies were advancing into France. These final days in the history of Nazi Germany and the life of Hitler are both calamitous and sad. The calamity follows continually from Hitler’s refusal to allow his soldiers to retreat. He calls it dishonorable, whereas the generals see it enabling their troops to fight another day. This debate reached its climax in the West with the Battle of the Bulge. It was Hitler’s last gamble to stop the Allies, and it required a great Allied effort to defeat his desperate army. Also, because Hitler withdrew soldiers from the East to execute it, he left the Eastern front vulnerable to the Russian latest winter advance.

The sad element was Hitler’s physical and mental condition. By then, he was a sick man. The toll of continued defeats, life underground in bunkers, poisonous drugs prescribed by his doctor, and continued temper tantrums left him nearly unrecognizable to friends. His left arm hung loosely, his entire body trembled, he limped, he suffered dizziness as a result of the July 20 explosion, and his face revealed complete exhaustion. “All his movements were those of a senile man,” wrote a young captain. The dictator had also lost all touch of reality, ordering attacks from his Berlin bunker by armies that no longer existed, and accusing those who recognized this reality of treason.

Shirer details the final hours of Hitler, as he shot himself, Eva Braun poisoned herself, the Goebbels killed their six children and themselves, and a few escaped from the Bunker, although not Martin Bormann. The war had lasted five years, eight months, and seven days; and the thousand-year Nazi Germany had lasted twelve years, four months, and eight days. And in this work of about 1,250 pages, William Shirer has written what the esteemed Hugh Trevor-Roper once called, “a splendid work of scholarship, objective in method, sound in judgment, inescapable in its conclusions.”

This work justly received rave reviews on its publication, and racked up tremendous sales. But it is not often referred to today, which is a commentary on a current society interested only in today’s headlines. Granted that there is much to concern us today, and it is usually not centered in Europe, but there are still cruel, unjust killings geared, as there were in Germany, to eliminate different peoples. And, indeed, one of those people is the same, the Jews.

To sum up, this work of history should never be forgotten and never be unavailable. It contains lessons for all world leaders. That the earlier you are aware of and act against unscrupulous men or women who would take over their corner of the world, the more effective you will be in defeating their efforts. And that any delay in your response will allow immeasurable harm to you, your enemy, and your neighbors.

This work also offers a lesson to historians. That history is based on facts, on original sources, and that a journalist has different tools to discover and interpret those sources than does a historian who prefers to consult the work of other historians from his ivory tower. Not that bias is not in the journalist’s repertoire. Shirer wrote this book, I would suggest, because he despised what Nazi Germany imposed on the people of Europe, especially the Jews. But his bias also included the thinking of his time when he negatively characterized homosexuals.

One wonders how the world of historians will change in today’s era of technological change and ephemeral social media. How will today’s historical records survive? Will contemporaneous thinking be preserved, rather than refined later in a leader’s memoirs?

For this work carries the reader into the inner sanctums of Nazi Germany. Here is what their leaders were thinking at each step of the war. We witness their daring assumption of power in Germany, their diplomatic challenges to the nations around them, their sense of inevitable success as they expand their empire, their refusal to acknowledge their mistakes as the war advances, the infighting as their armies are halted and turned back, their refusal to acknowledge the tide has turned, their desperation as their fate becomes certain, and the final madness of their leader.

This is remarkable history. Without the inherent evil of Nazi Germany, its rise and fall verges on tragedy. For there is an inevitability to its fate, a fate that is inherent in its culture and in the character of its people. And yet…how different is the Germany of today, a representative democracy and an economic bulwark of the continent.

It is the only error Shirer made. Probably because he got too close to the evil of the 1930s and 1940s. He could not see what Germany was to become. He could not see the possibility of change in these people so renowned for their philosophy and their music. Just as Americans could not see back then the economic powerhouse that Japan would become and the source of stability it would represent in the Pacific. How the world changes. How it stays the same. (October, 2015)