I am currently reading William L. Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I find it an interesting take on Nazi Germany, particularly with its emphasis on the viewpoints afforded by the Foreign Office and other papers captured by the allies.

On the other hand, there are some parts which bug me slightly, such as Shirer's evident dislike for Ribbentrop (among other characters), which feels like it does lead him to dismiss him as a serious character from time to time. In addition, I'm aware that it is over fifty years old and not very removed from the time it is relating.

I don't think this is a reason to throw the book out with the bathwater, but I do want to ask what to watch out for:

  • Are there specific or general points in which the historical consensus has moved away from Shirer's presentation?
  • Are there specific aspects of the narration which have been directly challenged in the intervening years?
  • More generally, is there anything to watch out for while reading it?
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    Spoiler : Germany loses ;) – user2597 Oct 14 '15 at 10:23
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    I would not be put off by any author dismissing Ribbentrop as a serious character. While I am not an expert on the Third Reich, I have read many accounts and can't recall one trying to correct the conventional wisdom that Ribbentrop was a wine merchant selected for his knowledge of languages, distinguished appearance and not at all for his intellect. If I disregarded every book characterizing Ribbentrop poorly, I am afraid I would know nothing at all. – user15284 Nov 14 '15 at 20:21

Haha... the Suetonius of the third reich. Oh dear.

It's a history book by a journalist, who had a talent for writing, but no particular ability as a historian. In particular:

  • It's misnamed, because it's really a biography of Hitler and not a history of Nazi Germany. This is serious, because Shirer ignored things that had little to do with Hitler, and blew minor details of his life out of proportion. Everything 'Hitlery' was given a general significance for Nazi Germany, which it often didn't have.

  • It's shot through with the cultural assumptions of postwar America. For example, Shirer made some very nasty comments about homosexual members of the SA and NSDAP... not fully Shirer's fault I suppose as homophobia was sadly mainstream then, but one would think the fact they were nazis was more important than them being gay. No, it seems to Shirer being gay was as bad or worse.

  • Most importantly, Shirer tried to draw a straight line between Bismarck, Wilhelm and Hitler; he said that the Nazi regime was 'nothing but a logical continuation of Germany's history'. Deterministic history is always rubbish, read Karl Popper.

Edit: I feel if I'm trashing Shirer's book as history, I should recommend something else. Hitler is probably the most biographed man of all time, but if you want an early one go for A Study in Tyranny by Alan Bullock. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that's the first.

I wouldn't even say don't read Shirer. His first hand account as a journalist from 1933 to 1940 is very interesting. It's good as a primary source, but not as a secondary one.

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    +1 for pointing out that Shirer was a journalist rather than a historian. Lord Bullock was certainly a very distinguished historian, and Vice Chancellor of Oxford University. However his Hitler: A Study in Tyranny was written as early as 1952. I like the work particularly for the interesting insights he provides of his subject's young life as an artist and the Hitler family. However there are far more recent treatments of Hitler, most notably by the historian Sir Iain Kershaw which are certainly worth considering. – WS2 Nov 15 '15 at 17:10
  • Agreed. As I said, there are any number of biographies about Hitler by reputable historians. Although it's out of date, there's something to be said for historical works by people who lived through the era they're writing about, like Bullock. – Ne Mo Nov 15 '15 at 22:30
  • What I would find interesting would be to read a German historian on Hitler. There are biographies though I don't know of one in English - do you? Two years ago I visited the Dokumentionzentrum Obersalzburg which is on the site of the old Berghof at Berchtesgaden. It is a repository of German material on the Nazi period. It certainly doesn't pull any punches, with extensive film of the death camps etc. – WS2 Nov 15 '15 at 22:53
  • In that case, I'd recommend Konrad Heiden. He was a contemporary of Hitler and wrote a few books about him. He was a journalist too, not a professional historian, but it depends on what you want. There were lots of German historians who wrote about Hitler when he was long dead, though. – Ne Mo Nov 15 '15 at 23:03
  • I read the book about 40 years ago. Your answer and my experience with that book don't match. (In terms of useful books covering that period, I prefer Speer's book, though it is from one man's point of view and is in some ways self serving ... and it's a different kind of book than Shirer's). – KorvinStarmast Oct 14 '16 at 14:22

Shirer's book remains by far the best book on the subject and at this point it appears it will never be eclipsed; he is the Suetonius of the Third Reich.

The portions involving the history prior to 1941 are more in-depth and accurate than the chapters involving 1941-1945, which tend to just follow American newspaper reports. This is because he lived in Germany and had many contacts there until he left in December of 1940. The main shortcoming of the text from a historical point of view is that being fundamentally an American he was completely unsympathetic to German attitudes and philosophies, tone deaf to sturm and drang, you might say. Therefore, any events or happenings that might reflect favorably on Nazism are ignored by him. Thus, the book tends to be a litany of faults rather than an objective assessment. Another drawback of the book is that, as mentioned, it is written from a purely American perspective, so some Germanic cultural phenomena of the times, such as the Joy Through Sex movement, are ignored not because Shirer censored them, but just because he was not aware of what was going on.

A worthy counterpoise to the RAFTR is Shirer's "Berlin Diary" which records his personal experiences in Nazi Germany and gives an idea of the daily life there.

Concerning things to "watch out for," the main issue is that Shirer was a left-wing journalist who was dismayed that the Communists in Germany had been defeated by the Nazis, so he was especially thorough in completely avoiding any mention of the socialist programs of the Nazis because that would have made them look good in comparison to the Communists. This particular aspect of RAFTR is very distorted because at the time the Germans were extremely proud of their socialist accomplishments and they had like 20 different programs all of which are completely ignored by Shirer as though they did not even exist. For example, he never once mentions the building of the Autobahn, a huge public works program that employed hundreds of thousands. Todt, the public works minister, a very important person in the Nazi administration is mentioned only a single time in the whole 1000-page book, and then just in passing.

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    um, what exactly did he miss out that might have 'reflected favourably' on the Third Reich? Were there some really great japes Shirer missed out? What a load of poppycock. – Ne Mo Oct 13 '15 at 23:25
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    @NeMo Just as a single example, Shirer barely mentions the Olympics games of 1936 and completely omits any mentions of the German successes there such as completely dominating the medal counts (89 to second-place US's 56) and the first practical demonstration of television, invented by the Germans, at the games. This is just two examples of many things which Shirer omits, even though they made huge headlines in both Germany and around the world at the time. – Tyler Durden Oct 14 '15 at 0:21
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    As another example, around 6 Nobel prizes were awarded to various German scientists during the 1930s. Also the Nobel Peace Prize was won by an anti-Nazi activist, who was imprisoned, yet Shirer mentions none of these awards. – Tyler Durden Oct 14 '15 at 0:31
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    How is Shirer's diary a balance to Shirer's book? – Schwern Oct 14 '15 at 22:56
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    @NeMo A comment like that shows no understanding of the situation--either that you are just interested in creating disinformation. Guderian, who was not even a Nazi, and a very clinical man emphasized the huge importance and impact of the social programs on the average German in his own post-war assessments and commentary. And his book is only one of many in which similar assessments can be found. Even allied intelligence analyses discuss the importance of Nazi social programs extensively. Of course, maybe you are just like Shirer and want to pretend those social programs did not exist? – Tyler Durden Mar 7 '16 at 12:52

As a World War II buff, I was "weaned" on Shirer. But there is one glaring limitation to his book, and that is, it is "Eurocentric." And specifically "Germanocentric." There are barely references to Italian campaigns in North Africa, never mind Japanese campaigns in the Far East.

It seems like the book was written through German eyes (Shirer was based in Berlin). So there is a lot of material about the war from the German point of view, and little from anyone else's.

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    It is titled the rise and the fall of the third reich so it does seem appropriate that it would be written through German eyes – Cicero Nov 15 '15 at 1:16
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    @Cicero: Not denying the above, just answering the OP's question about "what to watch out for." – Tom Au Nov 15 '15 at 22:08

Antony Beevor launched a book which covers the whole war. It is interesting not only because he has good writing skills, but also because he had access to British secret documents that were not available during 20th century.


As others note, it's a creditable effort from a journalist who actually lived for a time in the Third Reich, but is far from a historian's masterwork.

Shirer was limited especially in his primary sources, I think. Many leading Nazis such as Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Bohrmann, Hitler himself, and others, didn't survive the war, or at least not for long (Goering died in 1946).

However, many important figures did, and they proved invaluable sources for historians, though one must always take caution about taking their utterances at face value. A great example of that is Canaris, the biography of the head of one of the Third Reich's secret intelligence services, by Heinz Hoehne. Hoehne had great access to several important figures (although he also seemed to have been seduced by them into judging Canaris as harshly as the people he interviewed did).

As time has gone by, those historical figures have died or become harder to interview, but at the same time, what other documentary sources there are have become more available. A really magisterial work is Cambridge Professor Richard Evans' trilogy of books (The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War). He gives you a ton of detail on the whole regime, with a great balance between person-on-the-street diaries, internal Nazi hierarchy machinations, and the regime's interaction with other nations, during both war- and peacetime. He lacks a little of Shirer's natural talent for dramatization, but not too much; I was happy to read each of these large-ish books from cover to cover. Happy studying!

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