William Shirer was an American journalist who wrote and broadcast from Berlin from 1934 through 1940. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is a masterful chronicle of Hitler’s rise to power, and his ultimate demise. Because Shirer was in a unique position to document the events leading up to German’s march through Europe and the world war that unfolded, there is a wealth of information in this very large book.
For the most part, I found this book utterly fascinating. Some parts were less interesting to me than others, but when Shirer captured my interest, I was totally engrossed. Some areas of note:
The Beer Hall Putsch – As Hitler founded his Nazi party, he sought to control the German government through force. This began with an attempt to kidnap three Munich officials in an attempt to overthrow the government there. It failed, but it is amazing to me that this event, which happened in 1923, didn’t prevent Hitler from succeeding later.
Social Changes in Germany – The emphasis on indoctrinating the nation’s children was particularly successful. From the schools to children’s civic/athletic organizations, Hitler’s agenda was fulfilled because by the time Germany went to war, these children were now young adults who supported his ideology and filled out the military. Shirer commented that Germany’s young soldiers were fit and healthy due to the years these young men had spent in the Hitler Youth programs, whereas the first British POWs were pallid youths, having lacked exercise and good nutrition. It make you wonder what a drafted American force would look like today, given a youth culture of couch potatoes and fast food.
Religion – At first, there was a split among religious officials about Hitler’s ideology. Eventually, more and more of the religious spoke out against the Nazis and then Hitler sought to replace the various Christian sects with his own, state-run religion. Replacing the Bible with Mein Kampf seemed like something out of a fantasy novel, but it really did happen. I suppose at that point the Nazis were so powerful that most people didn’t dare speak out.
Political Power – When Hitler came to power, small business played as large a role as large business in the German economy. Hitler passed a law stating that all businesses needed a large cash reserve in order to have permission to operate, thus forcing nearly all small businesses to close. Shirer explained how this allowed large businesses to operate without competition and simultaneously gave Hitler concentrated power. I found this particularly interesting given the political climate in the United States today, where small businesses are being regulated out of the marketplace.
Invasion – Hitler’s methods of invading and annexing neighboring territories was truly imaginative. When he moved into the Rhineland and the Sudentenland (part of the Czech region), he claimed the areas were full of Germans who wanted to be part of their homeland. What was Britain and France’s response? They basically said, okay, but promise that Germany will stay out of the rest of Czechoslovakia. So Hitler annexed Austria and then he invaded Czechoslovakia. And still the rest of Europe thought they could stop Hitler through diplomacy. Then came the invasion of Poland. Hitler had German soldiers dress up as Polish military and stage an attack. Using the excuse that Poland attacked first, the German army conquered Poland in only 18 days. Hitler counted on the fact that the war-weary Europe wouldn’t lift a finger to stop him. And he was right. I have a feeling this still holds true today. Do the leaders of Iran or North Korea or Russia or China subscribe to this same view? Probably.
The Pact with Stalin – According to Shirer, Stalin never did trust Hitler. Stalin claimed to sign the non-aggression pact only to buy time for the Soviet Union to arm and prepare their western defenses. Of course that could just be bravado to excuse the agreement. It is clear that Stalin took advantage of the pact to assert territorial rights over the Baltic states, which angered Hitler. It makes one wonder if Hitler would have invaded the Soviet Union if Stalin hadn’t asserted his hegemony.
There were many more areas of interest in this book, but I think you get the idea. It’s well worth the read.
4 1/2 stars out of 5
Published in 1960