In my last post on William L. Shirer and his famous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, I alluded to the critical reaction from historians when the book was first published in 1960. In The Coming of the Third Reich (the first volume of his three part series on Nazi Germany), Richard J. Evans gives us some history:
But the number of broad, general, large-scale histories of Nazi Germany that have been written for a general audience can be counted on one hand. The first of these, and by far the most successful, was William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, published in 1960. Shirer’s book has probably sold millions of copies in the four decades or more since its appearance. It has never gone out of print and remains the first port of call for many people who want a readable general history of Nazi Germany. There are good reasons for the book’s success. Shirer was an American journalist who reported from Nazi Germany until the United States entered the war in December, 1941, and he had a journalist’s eye for the telling detail and the illuminated incident. His book is full of human interest, with many arresting quotations from the actors in the drama, and it is written with all the flair and style of a seasoned reporter’s dispatches from the front. Yet it was universally panned by professional historians. The emigre German scholar Klaus Epstein spoke for many when he pointed out that Shirer’s book presented an ‘unbelievably crude’ account of German history, making it all seem to lead up inevitably to the Nazi seizure of power. It had ‘glaring gaps’ in its coverage. It concentrated far too much on high politics, foreign policy and military events, and even in 1960 it was ‘in no way abreast of current scholarship dealing with the Nazi period’. Getting on for half a century later, this comment is even more justified than it was in Epstein’s day. For all its virtues, therefore, Shirer’s book cannot really deliver a history of Nazi Germany that meets the demands of the early twenty-first-century reader. (Evans 2004: xvi – xvii)
To actually go through the voluminous reviews of Shirer’s book would be a tedious task, but Evans has already done some of the leg-work for us. In the passage above, he referenced Klaus Epstein’s review of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, written not long after the book was originally published, so I decided to take a look at it. What I found was an incredibly detailed 16 page onslaught. Despite the somewhat harsh tone, the review was a damning one, so I thought I would share its contents.
Epstein’s review is made up of three different sections, each going over what he perceived to be wrong with Shirer’s book. The first section criticized Shirer’s conception of German history, which was mostly laid out in Chapter 4, The Mind of Hitler and Roots of the Third Reich. Most readers of German history could probably point out many of these errors (including me) without the help of Epstein, but his analysis of the facts is quite eye-opening. This section was quite detailed, so I’ll give just a few examples:
- Shirer got basic facts about early Germany history wrong (i.e. from post 30 years war to Germany unification in 1871). For example, he referred to the Hohenzollerns as “little more than military adventurers” (Shirer 1960: 93), ignoring brilliant German leaders like Frederick the Great and Frederick William (The Great Elector).
- Shirer claimed that the middle class and working class valued security and material gain over political freedom. Bismarck’s social legislation apparently had “a profound influence on the working class in that it gradually made them value security over political freedom and caused them to see in the State, however conservative a, benefactor and a protector” (Shirer 1960: 96). Of course this ignores the German liberal newspaper Frankfurter Zeitung and other channels that socialists and liberals used to criticize militarism and authoritarianism in Germany. This also ignores incidents like the Daily Telegraph Affair of 1908 and Saverne Affair which brought much political unrest and criticism on the German government and military.
- Shirer’s intellectual history is pretty weak. It feels more like a random assortment of names (he briefly references Schlegel, J. Goerres, Novalis, Arndt, Jahn, Lagarde, List, Droysen, Ranke, Mommsen, Constantin Frantz, Stocker, Bernhardi, Klaus Wagner, Langbehn, Lange) than a serious analysis. His overview of Hegel and Nietzsche is also quite bad, and would no doubt cause anyone who has seriously studied these men to pull their hair out.
And these are only some of the problems. I could write a full post on just this section if I wanted too.
The second section focused on the narrative’s unbalanced nature. This is actually something I noticed about halfway through the book. Shirer wrote mostly about power politics, diplomacy, and military events. He devoted little time to domestic affairs, economic policies, and the political conflicts between Hitler’s top subordinates in the later years of the Third Reich. He also gave little account of Nazi rule over occupied territories.
The last section looked at Shirer’s failure to describe and apprehend the nature of a modern totalitarian state:
The reader hears nothing about the “revolt of the masses,” the pulverization of the European social structure since the French Revolution,the rootlessness of modern industrial society,the desire to “escape from freedom,”etc. His exclusive preoccupation with Nazi Germany prevents him from attempting any comparative analysis of modem totalitarian regimes. His favorite theory that Nazism is the natural culmination of a peculiar German historical tradition precludes him from drawing insights from other”totalitarian societies” such as Soviet Russia. Shirer never seeks to penetrate the “universalist significance” of Nazism – what it can teach us about the terrifying recesses of human nature and the precarious structure of modem civilization (Epstein 1961: 241)
This leads Shirer to make some questionable assertions, particularly about the guilt of the German people for “embracing” Nazism and the crimes of the Nazi government.
Despite my love and appreciation for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, there is much to agree with in this biting review. The main problem seems to be that Shirer bit off more than he could chew. It’s also obvious that many of the things he wrote about are also events he covered as a journalist. That’s ok as far as it goes, but as a general history of the Third Reich, it leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately for us, it’s been 50 years since The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was first published, and several wonderful general histories of the Third Reich, e.g. Evan’s 3 volume series, have been written for laymen to pick up the slack.
1. Epstein, Klaus. “Shirer’s History of Nazi Germany.” The Review of Politics ROP 23.02 (1961): 230-245.
2. Evans, Richard J. The Coming of the Third Reich. New York: Penguin, 2004. Print.
3. Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; a History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1960. Print.