Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer was one of the bestselling accounts of Nazi Germany. It won the national book award for 1960, and is still in print.1 However, Shirer’s book was not well received by scholars. The harshest critic was Klaus Epstein who called it “unbelievably crude” with “glaring gaps.”2 Epstein’s review suggests that Shirer’s book should have no place in the historiography of the Third Reich, and the only reason Epstein reviewed the book was to save readers from themselves. Over fifty years later, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is still available, and must have some value. Shirer wrote an engaging synthetic history of Nazi Germany, which is a necessary starting point for any serious analysis of the Third Reich. He provided a fundamental understanding of—what happened when—based on original documents. The following article examines Epstein’s criticisms and illustrates that Shirer’s history of Nazi Germany is not as lacking as Epstein believed.
Epstein leveled four criticisms at Shirer’s book.3 They illustrated that Epstein missed Shirer’s point. Shirer detailed what he saw firsthand, and what happened during the Third Reich through primary sources, which explains the lack of contemporary scholarship.4 The fourth was the weakest of Epstein’s denunciations. The other three were not much stronger. He attempted to substantiate each of them in turn.
Epstein began his critique by assailing Shirer’s concept of German history as unsophisticated. Epstein argued that Shirer believed, “there is a specific logic which governs the course of German development, and that he possesses the key to that logic.”5 Epstein selected quotes that appeared to illustrate his point. Upon closer inspection of Shirer’s work, however, it became clear that the quotes were taken out of context. From page 90 Epstein lifted, “but a logical continuation of German history.”6 Shirer’s complete thought illustrated that he was explaining Hitler’s point of view.
For the mind and passion of Hitler—all the aberrations that possessed his feverish brain—had routes that lay deep in German experience and thought. Nazism and the Third Reich, in fact, were but a logical continuation of German history.7
In fact, the entire paragraph made that very clear. The following paragraph continued the theme. Shirer described a postcard that was handed out of Nazi rallies which depicted Frederick the Great, Bismarck, Hindenburg, and Hitler. “The inscription read: What the King conquered, the Prince formed, the Field Marshal defended, the Solder saved and unified.”8 Shirer ends the paragraph with the following, “Hitler's Germany then, was depicted as a logical development from all that had gone before—or at least of all that had been glorious.”9
Epstein went on to do the same from page 95, “German history from 1871 to 1945 runs in a straight line with utter logic.”10 In all three places, Shirer was explaining Hitler's distorted view of German history, and how Hitler used it to provide National Socialism legitimacy. Somehow Epstein failed to grasp that. Still, if Shirer’s approach was unsophisticated and meaningless, then others would not have reached the same conclusion. Some thirty years later, Herbert D. Andrews in, “Hitler, Bismarck, and History,” also argued that Hitler reconstructed the history of Bismarck to justify the present and to reshape the future.11
Epstein’s mischaracterization that Shirer believed German history ran in a straight line, and necessarily led to National Socialism has perpetuated the misconception that Shirer subscribed to the Sonderweg thesis.12 While Shirer did rely on A. J. P. Taylor in his discussion of German history before 1930, Taylor never accepted the part of the Sonderweg thesis which postulated a straight line connection from Luther to Hitler.13 Ronald J. Granieri in, “A. J. P. Taylor on the 'Greater' German Problem,” maintained that Taylor did not argue that Bismarck authoritarianism necessarily led to Nazism.14 Thus, Shirer never attempted to explain the course of German history as Epstein argued no matter how flawed Shirer’s perception of that history.15 Shirer’s background history made clear that Germany lacked a democratic tradition. Similarly Taylor argued, “...If German politicians had known more English history and less political theory, if they had worked together more and criticized less, Bismarck's constitution would have opened the way to cabinet government and ultimately parliamentary sovereignty.”16 That concept was echoed nearly 40 years later, Mark Mazower also maintained in, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century that European history demonstrated the lack of democratic tradition. “Today, it is hard to see the inter-war experiment with democracy for the novelty it was: yet we should certainly not assume that democracy is suited to Europe.” 17 For an “unbelievably crude” concept of German history, strands of Shirer’s work are still visible.
Epstein’s next salvo was aimed at the book’s lack of balance. He argued that “… Shirer does not really attempt to write a well-rounded history of all the important aspects of the Third Reich.”18 As some reviewers have pointed out, Shirer's focused on Hitler. Furthermore, some also concede the impossibility of writing a completely balanced history of Nazi Germany. Since Shirer's focus was on Hitler, it was natural that Shirer would center on political, diplomatic, and military events more than or to the exclusion of social and economic factors that affected the daily life of the average German. Additionally, Epstein was amazed by the scant interpretive analysis Shirer provided. Epstein pointed to Chamberlain's surrender at Munich, “...one of the most explore topics of modern history, one on which the historian of the Third Reich might be expected to have a definite opinion.”19 Shirer did express his opinion on the topic. Shirer maintained that most historians subscribed to the view that Mussolini's intervention led to the Munich conference. Shirer disagreed; he argued that Chamberlain made Munich possible.20 He also made clear that Germany was in no position to go to war in 1938 against Czechoslovakia, England, or France.21 Additionally, Shirer was conscious of the fact that his prejudices, opinions, and interpretations would be disputed by many, which was, perhaps, the reason there was little interpretive analysis. Shirer stated:
...In this book I have tried to be severely objective, letting the facts speak for themselves and noting the source for each. No incidents, scenes or quotations stem from the imagination; all are based on documents, the testimony of eyewitnesses or my own personal observation. In the half-dozen or so occasions in which there is some speculation, where facts are missing, this is plainly labeled as such.22
H.R. Trevor-Roper maintained that Shirer left his conclusions to be deduced.23 Furthermore, an historian may have an opinion on an event, but when primary sources, testimony of eyewitnesses, and personal observation are available; it is better to let them speak for themselves. Shirer did not attempt to place his history within the historiography of the Third Reich, which would be where interpretive analysis would be the most useful.
Epstein found equal disappointment in Shirer's diplomatic narrative, which was “almost purely European in scope.”24 Epstein's examples of the Auslandsdeutsche in South America and the attempted alliance with Arab nationalism as areas that needed exposition would have cluttered up Shirer's narrative. Shirer's focus was Hitler's foreign policy and Hitler's primary focus was Europe. While Epstein found the sections on German-Japanese diplomacy “among the most superficial in the book.”25 Thirty two years after Shirer's publication, Hitler and Nazi Germany used as a primary text in undergraduate history courses did not mention German-Japanese diplomacy any more than Shirer.26 In fact, Jackson J. Spielvogel's analysis of German-Japanese diplomacy, while essentially drawling the same conclusions as Shirer was less detailed. Shirer gave a comprehensive account Japan's importance to Hitler's effort to keep the United States out of the war in Europe until Germany was ready to deal with it, and Hitler's failure to induce Japan to attack the Soviet Union, and once Japan had attacked the United States Hitler's reasons for declaring war on America.27 What more was needed in a book about Nazi Germany?
Epstein's third criticism was that Shirer lacked an understanding of the modern totalitarian state even though he lived in it. Epstein suggested a comparative analysis.28 Any comparative analysis of other totalitarian regimes in the context of Shirer's narrative would have been confusing. After all, it is a book about Nazi Germany. Upon closer inspection, Shirer's understanding of totalitarianism was appropriate. In Chapter 8, “Life in the Third Reich 1933—37,” Shirer described the life of Germans under Hitler's rule.29 Shirer lived in Nazi Germany from 1934—1940. To assess the validity of Epstein's criticism and Shirer's understanding, totalitarianism must be defined. According to Zbigniew Brzezinski in “Totalitarianism and Rationality,” totalitarianism is:
[A] system where technologically advanced instruments of political power are wielded without restraint by centralized leadership of an elite movement, for the purpose of effecting a total social revolution, including the conditioning of man on the basis of certain arbitrary ideological assumptions proclaimed by the leadership, in an atmosphere of coerced unanimity of the entire population.30
Compared to the above definition Shirer's understanding of the modern totalitarian state seemed sound.
While, Hitler and the Nazi party cannot be described as an elite movement, Shirer illustrated that “the overwhelming majority of Germans did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their culture had been destroyed and replaced with mindless barbarism, or that their life and work had become regimented to a degree never before experienced even by people for generations accustomed to a great deal of regimentation.”31 Additionally, he pointed out that Hitler was shrewd enough to give the German people much of what they wanted. So, they did not feel as if they were under the heel of a brutal totalitarian dictatorship. Hitler swept away the “shackles of Versailles,” made the German military strong again, and almost every German had a job even though they had been deprived of the right to collectively bargain. Leading many people to quip over their full dinner pails that, “at least under Hitler there was no freedom to starve.”32
Furthermore, Shirer illustrated that some Germans did not like the Nuremberg Laws of September 15, 1935, and did help many individual Jews. But, those acts did nothing to stem the overall persecution. He was often met with the question: “What could they do?” Shirer admitted it was not an easy question to answer.33 Because of German propaganda many visitors especially Americans and English were impressed with what they saw. “A happy, healthy friendly people united under Hitler.”35 A far different picture than the one Shirer and other correspondents were sending from Berlin. Yet Shirer saw what was overlooked by most Germans, at least from his point of view, “a degrading transformation of German life.”35
The most important instrument of political power was media. Shirer made clear that the Nazis used the media without restraint. Nazi control of the press was absolute and meticulous. Each morning every editor throughout Germany was told by the propaganda ministry what news to print or suppress and what headlines to write. In Berlin editors met with Josef Goebbels or one of his aides. In addition to these oral instructions a written directive was prepared to avoid any misunderstanding. There was a further check on freedom of the press. “To be an editor in the Third Reich one had to be politically and racially clean.” The Reich Press Law of October 4, 1933 stated editors had to have German citizenship, be of Aryan descent and not married to a Jew. If you were an editor, you were Nazi and the news was what the state said it was. If you were not a Nazi; you were forced to sell your business to a Nazi at a financial loss, if you were lucky; if you were not the Nazis just took it.36
Radio and motion pictures also served the propaganda of the Third Reich. Shirer argued that Goebbels viewed radio as an essential instrument of propaganda in modern society. Since German radio was already state-controlled, Goebbels wasted no time taking advantage of it. Although production of motion pictures remained in private hands, every aspect of the industry was controlled by Goebbels and the Propaganda Ministry. Having to deal with such incessant propaganda, the German people were easily taken in by the lies of the Nazi regime. Shirer himself found it difficult to deal with the propaganda; even though, he had access to foreign press and radio sources such as the BBC and newspapers from Paris, London, and Zurich.37 Shirer was dismayed that “a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one's mind and often misled it.”38 No matter how educated people are, Shirer illustrated, that propaganda warps their minds to the point that facts are whatever a totalitarian government tells its people they are.
While the media conditioned adults, the Nazi education system indoctrinated German youth with Nazi ideology. From kindergarten to University, and in the classroom and outside of it; Nazi ideology was injected into the life of every German youth. Shirer demonstrated how Nazi ideology was inculcated at each stage of the educational system. Textbooks were rewritten and curricula changed. Teachers who were not Nazi or at least Nazi in sympathy were replaced. To strengthen their belief teachers “were dispatched to special schools for intensive training in National Socialist principles,” emphasizing Hitler's racial doctrines.39 Every person in the teaching profession was compelled to join the National Socialist Teachers' League “which, by law, was held responsible for the execution of the ideological and political co-ordination of all teachers in accordance with National Socialist doctrine.”40 A similar structure was used for university professors. Shirer argued that “the result of so much Nazification was a catastrophe for German education….”41 In the new textbooks and in the lectures of teachers, history was distorted to conform to Nazi ideology. By the mid-1930s, at the University of Berlin there were twenty-five new courses in the 'racial sciences'. These courses hammered home the Nazi point of view that “Germans [were] the master race and the Jews [were] breeders of almost all the evil in the world….”42
That view was brought into the other disciplines such as German mathematics, German physics, and German chemistry. Many university professors believed that “… Science like any other human product, is racial and conditioned by blood.”43 The cost of such an ideology was that Germany lost its leadership in chemistry and other fields. Additionally, the national economy was threatened, as well as national defense itself. Not only was there a shortage of scientists, but the ones that were available were mediocre in caliber due to the poor quality of the technical colleges.44
Outside the classroom the Hitler Youth continued the indoctrination. Before the Nazi party came to power, Germany had a variety of youth organizations with a membership numbering some ten million youths.45 They were centralized under The Reich Committee of German Youth Associations. In June 1933, the Nazis simply took control of the committee. By December 1936, Hitler had outlawed all non-Nazi organizations for young people. Every German child from the age 6 to 18 was part of the Hitler Youth. Shirer pointed out that their participation was compulsory. “Parents trying to keep their children from joining the organization were subject to heavy prison sentences….”46 Additionally, he described in detail the various groups within the Hitler Youth.47 Furthermore, Shirer illustrated the training of the children the Nazis considered elite. The most promising children at the age of twelve were selected for the Adolf Hitler Schools. There they received six years of specialized training in the "racial sciences" and other aspects of Nazi ideology, athletics including mountain climbing and parachute jumping, and political and military instruction, which centered on the Eastern question and Germany's right to expand eastward in the search for Lebensraum.48 Shirer made clear that the Nazis indoctrinated German youth from the cradle, and used media without restraint to spread propaganda conditioning adults.
Those Germans who could not be indoctrinated were left to the Nazi justice system. Shirer argued that Germany under Nazi rule ceased to be a society based on law.”49 Shirer clearly illustrated that from 1933 on the judiciary was no longer independent. In addition to “the massive and arbitrary arrests, beatings and murders,” the Nazis set forth their main principle of jurisprudence “Hitler is the law!” The Civil Service law of April 7, 1933 applied to judges. It purged the judiciary of anyone who was Jewish, and anyone who deemed National Socialism questionable, or “who indicated that he was no longer prepared to intercede at all times for the… State.”50
Nevertheless, Shirer maintained that some judges did display “some spirit of independence and even devotion to the law.”51 In those cases when the court verdict was not what Nazi State wanted the Secret State Police or Gestapo stepped in; it would snatch the offending person as he was leaving the courtroom and send him to a concentration camp.52 Gestapo was a name “the very mention of which was to inspire terror first within Germany and then without.”53 Allied with the Gestapo was the Security Service or SD. It also inspired fear in people. The SD employed nearly 10,000 people who were “directed to spy on every citizen and report the slightest remark or activity which deemed inimical Nazi rule.”54 Shirer illustrated that if one was wise one did not do or say anything that could be misconstrued as “anti-Nazi,” for one's son, daughter, wife, father, best friend, boss, or secretary could have been an SD agent. There was no way to know for sure, and nothing was taken for granted. Epstein’s criticism was invalid. The above comparison illustrated Shirer’s ability to describe and comprehend a modern totalitarian state. Not only did his description equate with the given definition of totalitarianism; it was a clear and concise explanation of how Hitler maintained control over Germany.
Epstein's final criticism that Shirer's book was “in no way abreast of current scholarship dealing with the Nazi period”55 failed to take into account that the book was based on Shirer's personal observations and an enormous amount of primary source material. While Epstein chose to overlook that fact, other reviewers did not. Elizabeth Wiskemann observed that Shirer had “compiled a manual of National Socialism which will certainly prove useful.”56 Additionally, John K. Zeender stated “his use of the more valuable primary and secondary materials though certainly not complete reflects a responsible approach to a serious subject.”57 Furthermore, John C. Cairns pointed out that while historians have seen Shirer’s evidence before, they have “not seen so much of it brought together so usefully and so brilliantly anywhere else….”58 Making the book in Cairns’ view “… the finest general treatment of the subject existing….”59
Epstein certainly did not agree with Cairns. Epstein’s review was negative in the extreme, and as this analysis has demonstrated not as comprehensive as it has been perceived. General treatment was the best description of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. A general treatment was what Shirer intended to write. While Shirer's history of Nazi Germany shows its age in a few areas, it is a necessary starting point for any serious analysis of the Third Reich.
1 William L. Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1960); Kennett Love, “3 Receive National Book Awards for 1960: Jarrell, Richter and Shirer Get $1,000 Annual Prizes,” New York Times (New York, NY), March 15, 1961.
2 Klaus Epstein, “Shirer's History of Nazi Germany,” The Review of Politics, 23.2 (1961): 230.
3 “(1) Its overall concept of German history is unbelievably crude, and precludes the author from asking many of the most important questions that need to be answered about the Nazi period. (2) The book is completely lacking in overall balance; it is marred by glaring gaps in precisely those areas of the Nazi record where new research is most urgently needed. (3) Many of Shirer's interpretations show a curious inability to understand the nature of a modern totalitarian regime. (4) The book is in no way abreast of current scholarship dealing with the Nazi period” (Epstein, 230).
4 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, ix; See also William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941).
5 Epstein, 231.
6 Epstein, 231; “Nazism is ‘but a logical continuation of German history’ (90).”
7 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 90.
9 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 91.
10 Epstein, 231; “German history from 1871 to 1945 runs ‘in a straight line with utter logic’ (95).”
11 Herbert D. Andrews, "Hitler, Bismarck, and History," German Studies Review 14.3 (1991): 525.
12 Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, "The Reception of William L. Shirer's the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in the United States and West Germany, 1960-62," Journal of Contemporary History 29.1(1994): 102.
13 William Montgomery McGovern, From Luther to Hitler: The History of Fascist-Nazi Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1941) is the best example of the Luther to Hitler (Sonderweg) thesis published in the United States.
14 Ronald J. Granieri, "A. J. P. Taylor on the 'Greater' German Problem," The International History Review 23.1 (2001):39.
15 Epstein, 231.
16 Quoted in Granieri, 39.
17 Mark Mazower, Dark Continent: Europe's Twentieth Century (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 5.
18 Epstein, 235.
19 Epstein, 236.
20 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 410-411
21 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 426.
22 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, xii.
23 H.R. Trevor-Roper, “Light on Our Century's Darkest Night,” New York Times, October 16, 1960.
24 Epstein, 236.
26 Jackson J. Spielvogel, Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History (New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1992), 220-221.The book was the primary text in “Hitler and Nazism” at Millersville University in the spring of 1994.
27 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 871-878, 883-902.
28 Epstein, 241.
29 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 231-276.
30 Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Totalitarianism and Rationality,” American Political Science Review 50.3 (1956): 754. Epstein cited Brzezinski in (footnote 18, 241) as a source from which a fuller understanding of totalitarianism could be gained.
31 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 231.
32 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 231-232.
33 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 232.
34 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 233.
36 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 244-245.
37 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 247.
38 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 247-248.
39 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 249.
41 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 249-250.
42 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 250.
43 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 250.
44 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 252.
46 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 253.
47 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 253-254.
48 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 255-256.
49 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 268.
51 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 270.
54 Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 273.
55 Epstein, 230.
56 Elizabeth Wiskemann, review of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer, International Affairs 37.2 (April 1961): 234.
57 John K. Zeender, review of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer, Catholic Historical Review 48.4 (January 1963): 548.
58 John C. Cairns, review of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, by William L. Shirer, International Journal 16.2 (Spring 1961): 188-189.
59 Cairns, 188.