80 pages 2 hours read

William L. Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1960

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Summary and Study Guide


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960) is a 1,140-page history of Nazi Germany from its inception through its final days. As a newspaper and radio reporter, author William L. Shirer lived and worked in the Third Reich during the 1930s and early 1940s. Throughout the book, Shirer draws partly on his own first-hand observations and experiences. His main sources, however, are the records of the German Foreign Office, the armed forces, the Nazi Party, and the secret police. Near the end of World War II, the Allies captured hundreds of thousands of German government documents. Shirer uses these documents together with the diaries of high Nazi officials and other key actors to reconstruct the history of the Third Reich, in some cases hour-by-hour, at its most crucial moments. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich won the 1961 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

Content Warning: The source material explores Nazi Germany’s history, referencing genocide, the Holocaust, racism and discrimination, war crimes, and suicide. The author further seems to display anti-gay bias at times.


The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich opens with a chapter devoted primarily to Adolf Hitler’s origins and concludes with a brief epilogue on the Nuremberg Trials and the fates of nearly two-dozen Nazi officials. The book features a total of 31 chapters divided into six parts. With a few exceptions, each chapter maintains a chronological narrative.

This narrative approach constitutes an important element of the book for two reasons. First, Shirer’s narrative approach allows him to reconstruct, in painstaking detail, some of the most crucial moments in the history of the Third Reich. Second, Shirer’s intense immersion in the documentary evidence contrasts with his most sweeping historical interpretations.

The narrative begins with Part 1: “The Rise of Adolf Hitler.” These first four chapters describe Hitler’s family background, adolescence, young adulthood, and political activities through the age of 35. They follow Hitler to Vienna, into the trenches of World War I, and after the war to Munich, where a premature attempt to launch a National Socialist revolution in 1923 nearly destroyed his Nazi Party and landed him in jail for nine months.

In Part 2: “Triumph and Consolidation,” Hitler recovers from the failed revolution, bides his time, emerges as a formidable force in German politics, leads the Nazi Party to a string of electoral victories, becomes Chancellor of Germany, and begins building his dictatorship by eliminating opposition and concentrating all power in his hands. This second book, which includes Chapters 5-8, demonstrates why Shirer regards Hitler as an evil genius. In short, Hitler learned from the failed revolution and never again attempted to seize political power by violence. Ironically, he despised the constitution of the Weimar Republic and was determined to eradicate democracy, but he and his Nazi Party ascended to power via the democratic process. Through a string of electoral victories in the early 1930s, the Nazis became the largest party in the Reichstag, the German parliament, which led to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor in 1933.

In Part 3: “The Road to War,” which consists of Chapters 9-17, Shirer begins his intense immersion in a vast documentary record that illuminates Hitler’s foreign policy in the years leading up to World War II. For perspective, the chapters covering the period between the Anschluss (annexation of Austria) in March 1938 and the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 are lengthier than the first two books combined. Here Shirer uses captured documents from the German Foreign Office and other primary materials to reconstruct diplomatic exchanges and military conferences that otherwise would have remained secret. From these pages, two emerging themes develop. The first is Hitler as An Evil Genius and a Demonic Dictator—lying, breaking promises, smothering dissent, publicly talking peace while privately plotting and yearning for war, and, even at this early stage, notwithstanding a string of successes, behaving irrationally and erratically. The second emerging theme is The Complicity of The German Generals and The Strange Docility of the German People. The documentary evidence shows that some of the highest-ranking officers in the German armed forces recognized the danger Hitler posed to Germany and wanted him gone, yet they did nothing. Likewise, the evidence shows that the German people had no enthusiasm for war, yet they did not, or could not, stop it.

Part 4: “War: Early Victories and the Turning Point” describes Nazi aggression against Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, and France, all of which resulted in military victories and ruthless occupation. This fourth book, Chapters 18-26, also highlights three developments in 1940-41 that spelled ultimate doom for the Third Reich: German failure in the air war known as the Battle of Britain, Hitler’s catastrophic decision to invade the Soviet Union, and the United States’ entry in the war. In 1942, for the first time since Hitler began his assault on Europe, German armies suffered reverses—at El Alamein in North Africa and, most critical of all, at Stalingrad on the Soviet front. Unlike Part 3, which documents Hitler’s diplomatic deceit, Part 4 focuses on the war that began when diplomacy ended. For this reason, Part 4 relies less on Foreign Office papers and more on Army and Navy records as well as various diaries and memoranda.

In Part 5: “The Beginning of the End,” which contains only three chapters, Shirer twice deviates from his narrative approach. Chapter 27: The New Order describes the Holocaust and other atrocities the people of the world have long associated with the Nazi reign of terror. From forced labor to mass murder to the gruesome “medical” experiments, the Nazis unleashed unprecedented horrors, particularly upon the Jewish and Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe. In Chapter 29: The Allied Invasion of Western Europe and the Attempt to Kill Hitler, Shirer devotes more than 60 pages to the years-long development of an anti-Hitler conspiracy inside Germany, the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, and the brutal reprisals carried out against the conspirators and others by the SS and Gestapo.

Finally, Part 6: “The Fall of the Third Reich” resumes the historical narrative. As Allied armies converged on Berlin from west and east, Hitler awaited his fate in a bunker below the Reich Chancellery. On April 30, 1945, the Fuehrer and his new wife, Eva Braun, died by suicide. Germany surrendered a week later, and the Third Reich “passed into history” (1140).

Shirer’s laser-focused narrative approach, which allows for an immersion in the captured documentary evidence, nonetheless contrasts with his sweeping assertion of Nazism as The Logical Continuation of German History. This argument holds that the German people since Martin Luther have shown a peculiar predisposition toward antisemitism and authoritarianism—an argument that predates The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and thus does not originate with Shirer. Whereas Shirer devotes hundreds of pages to reconstructing diplomatic exchanges from the Foreign Office papers, for instance, he spends only part of one chapter (Chapter 4: The Mind of Hitler and the Roots of the Third Reich) developing this major theme, to which he returns throughout the book, regarding four centuries of German history.

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