The Men Who Made the Third Reich

Rule by Fear

A new one-volume book offers an updated history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.


In 1960, when the American journalist William L. Shirer published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, the first major survey of the history of Nazi Germany, he did not anticipate that it would become the most widely read book on the subject, nor that it would become so for many years afterward. The hardcover edition sold 1 million copies within a year of its appearance, the paperback edition another million, and serialization in Reader’s Digest brought it a further 12 million readers.

There were good reasons for the book’s stunning success. Shirer was a brilliant writer, his prose honed by years of experience as a newspaper and radio journalist. He had lived in Germany as a foreign correspondent for many of the years covered in the book and could bring that personal experience to bear on his historical account. He trawled diligently through the Nazi documents seized for use by the prosecution in the Nuremberg war-crimes tribunals, as well as the testimony and evidence presented at the trials themselves, and he worked his way through such contemporary documents as were available at the time, including fragments of the diaries of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler’s “table talk.”

Yet despite the book’s success, it was already deeply flawed at the time of its publication. Shirer did not account for the historical scholarship on the Nazis that was beginning to appear in German in the late 1950s. He left a good deal out of his coverage and focused overwhelmingly on the Nazis’ foreign policy and the Second World War. His account was also Hitler-centric and ignored the wider factors—political, economic, and cultural—that played a crucial part in the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. Most of all, his own experience attending party rallies in Nuremberg, along with his ingestion of Anglo-American wartime propaganda, had convinced him that Hitler and the Nazis were enormously popular with the great majority of Germans, and that such popularity demonstrated that Nazism had deep roots in German history. “Blind obedience to temporal rulers,” Shirer asserted, had been instilled in Germans since the time of Martin Luther. Such a crude view of German history ignored the currents of opposition represented, for example, by the Social Democrats, Germany’s largest political party before the rise of the Nazis, and it was not widely shared by historians even at the time when Shirer wrote.

Dislodging The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich from its place at the top of the best-seller list of popular histories of Nazism, however, has proved extremely difficult. There have been plenty of brief histories, and large-scale, one-volume surveys of the topic have also appeared from time to time, the best of them being Karl Dietrich Bracher’s The German Dictatorship, which was published in 1970, roughly a decade after Shirer’s work. But so far, nobody has come close to matching Shirer in sheer readability. Moreover, the astounding mass of new source material released since 1960, the enormous quantity of books and articles on Nazi Germany—thousands upon thousands of them—and the broadening-out of the scope of historical scholarship to include local studies, cultural monographs, economic and social-structural analyses, biographies, and much more besides has made the task of cramming it all between the covers of a single book almost impossible to fulfill. I tried it myself a decade or so ago, intending initially to write it all down in one volume; I ended up with three instead, totaling some 2,500 pages.

With The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, Thomas Childers becomes the latest historian to attempt to dethrone Shirer and present a one-volume survey of this complicated subject. A senior academic at the University of Pennsylvania, Childers has many of the qualities needed for the job. He stays on top of the latest research, without neglecting the older work. He reads German, understands German history, and has been working in the field for over three decades. Most important of all, he is a master of English prose, writing with clarity, elegance, and wit; his account of Nazi Germany is every bit as readable as Shirer’s and deserves a wide audience, including high-school and college students. Childers has aimed squarely here at the general reader, and he hits his target with unerring accuracy.

Inevitably, there are points of intersection between Childers’s narrative and Shirer’s, and perhaps the most pronounced is the absolute centrality of Hitler to their stories. The Third Reich begins with Hitler’s birth on April 20, 1889, and follows him, to the exclusion of everyone else, through his early life as a struggling would-be artist in Linz, Vienna, and Munich; as an enthusiastic volunteer in the German Army during World War I; and as a novice orator and politician in the immediate postwar months. Only from about page 50 does the narrative broaden out, when we encounter the conditions in postwar Bavaria that allowed Hitler to emerge onto the political scene. Charged with investigating the myriad ultra-right-wing groups that proliferated in the aftermath of an abortive attempt to stage a communist revolution in Munich in early 1919, Hitler found his way into the tiny German Workers’ Party, which, as Childers remarks, “had no program, no plans, no advertising, no mimeograph machine, not even a rubber stamp (a vital necessity for any German organization).”

Attracting growing numbers of adherents with his spellbinding oratory, Hitler took over the party, reorganized it, and led it into a disastrous attempt to seize power in Munich on November 9, 1923, in the notorious beer-hall putsch, which he launched in imitation of Mussolini’s successful March on Rome the previous year.

Learning the lesson of his failure—which also earned him a spell in prison—Hitler focused on winning votes for his party, part of a larger strategy of working within the political system in order to undermine it. Childers is absolutely clear that this tactic was combined at all times with intense and pervasive violence on the streets, particularly from the brown-shirted stormtroopers, the strong-arm wing of the movement. Childers’s view of the ill-fated liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic is correspondingly gloomy, stressing the continuity of political murders (376 from 1918 to 1922 alone), the economic disasters of hyperinflation and depression, and the radical dynamism and increasingly effective organization of the Nazis, who by the early 1930s were reaching saturation levels in their electoral campaigns, as well as engaging in extreme and brutal assaults on their opponents.

Childers provides illuminating character sketches of the leading players both in the party and in German politics overall, drawing a clear contrast between the youthful activism of men like Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler himself and the tired, colorless figures who led the other political parties. What comes through far more clearly in his narrative than in many other accounts of the Nazi movement is the key role played by Hermann Göring, a World War I flying ace and man of action, who more than once pushed a hesitant Hitler to resolve the various crises into which he was plunged over the years.

Childers’s book offers its readers a wealth of detail that captures how the most serious of these crises threatened to overwhelm the Nazi organization toward the end of 1932, as the economy began to recover and the party lost substantial numbers of votes in the November election. But it was also because the party seemed to be weakening that the conservative clique around Reich President Paul von Hindenburg and former chancellor Franz von Papen felt they might be able to co-opt the Nazis, still the largest party in the German Legislature, into their plans to bring an end to Weimar democracy by putting Hitler into the Reich Chancellery as head of a new government on January 30, 1933, and then keeping him in check by surrounding him with their own nominees.

Childers convincingly depicts the rapid series of moves through which Hitler outmaneuvered them, using a ruthless combination of legislative decrees and street violence to create a one-party state by the summer of 1933. Over 100,000 socialists and communists were thrown into improvised concentration camps and subjected to horrifying brutality before being released as a warning to anyone else who dared to oppose the Hitler government. Childers is indeed particularly good on the violent nature of the Nazi seizure of power between January and July 1933. He comprehensively demolishes the once-fashionable view that Hitler achieved supreme power by the general consent of the German people and with only a minimal use of force, exercised mainly against despised minorities and marginal groups. Hitler’s rise during this period was based on terror in its rawest, most radical form.

As a leading specialist on the politics of the Weimar Republic, however—and particularly on the history of its elections—Childers devotes an inordinate amount of space to these events. In a book of 672 pages titled The Third Reich, we don’t get to the Third Reich itself until page 226. This isn’t actually a history of the Third Reich, then, or even of Nazi Germany; it’s a history of Hitler and the Nazi movement, and it’s hard not to think that its coverage is seriously unbalanced, with far too much on the origins, early history, and electoral triumphs of the party, and not enough on its exercise of power once the dictatorship was established.

This doesn’t stop Childers from devoting some excellent pages to an account of the social and cultural policies of the Third Reich in its early years. He judiciously balances the achievements of the Nazi propaganda and welfare apparatuses in winning over large segments of the population with repeated reminders that this was, in the last analysis, a regime that deprived people of their basic freedoms and ruled by fear. Childers rightly points out that, while the camps had more or less been emptied of inmates by the mid-1930s, the state prisons were overflowing with political prisoners, put there by a raft of draconian new treason laws that made any kind of opposition to the regime subject to the severest of punishments. “Here was a nation,” he quotes the novelist Thomas Wolfe observing when he visited Germany in the mid-1930s, “infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear.”

There are also some excellent passages on Nazi cultural policy, though Childers tends to overstress its effectiveness. He describes in graphic detail the infamous “degenerate art” exhibition held in 1937, but he underestimates the extent to which the exhibition’s popularity was a mirage created by bussing in large numbers of diehard Nazis from the countryside. He also examines the Strength Through Joy organization, with its cultural events for workers and its tourist trips to Italy and elsewhere, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the more attractive holidays were notorious for being monopolized by party officials.

Childers is very good on the regime’s policies toward women and young people, which undermined its much-vaunted promise to restore the integrity of the German family after the supposed immorality and disintegration of the Weimar years. He quotes a widely repeated joke in which one girl explains to a friend: “My father is in the SA, my oldest brother in the SS, my little brother in the Hitler Youth, my mother is part of the NS [National Socialist] women’s organization, and I’m in the League of German Girls.” “Do you ever get to see each other?” asks the girl’s friend. “Oh yes,” she replies, “we meet every year at the party rally in Nuremberg!”

Like Shirer, Childers sees Nazi Germany as a totalitarian society, at least in the sense that the regime aimed to subordinate everyone totally to its will. Goebbels boasted that Hitler and his government had made “a total revolution” that “encompasses every aspect of public life from the bottom up” and erases “any realms in which the individual belongs to himself.” Yet it is on this subject that Childers arguably underestimates the degree to which people did manage to preserve some privacy and autonomy for themselves. More generally, he says far too little about German resistance and dissent, which has become the subject of a great deal of research over the past few decades, or about the limits of Hitler’s power.

Even so, Childers avoids falling into the same trap as Shirer: He doesn’t argue that the Nazi dictatorship and its policies were welcomed by the great mass of Germans. For example, the anti-Semitic violence in which the regime engaged from the start, in an attempt to drive Germany’s tiny Jewish population into emigration, was far from universally embraced. The economic recovery was much more popular, though Childers doesn’t really say how it was achieved, and he seriously underestimates the extent to which rearmament provided its motor—indeed, the economy in general gets rather short shrift in the book.

Childers also offers an excellent account of Hitler’s radicalization of the regime as he sacked his more moderate generals and ministers in 1937–38 and replaced them with men more willing to do his bidding. Here again, he makes it clear that war was the last thing the great mass of ordinary Germans wanted, despite all the regime’s efforts to prepare them for it. He also pays due attention, as Shirer did not, to the morale of ordinary Germans during the war. Hitler’s popularity reached its height after the defeat of France in 1940, before plummeting into the depths with the reversals on the Eastern front from Stalingrad onward, the devastating aerial bombings of German cities, and the Allied landings in Normandy in 1944.

This book, therefore, offers a series of important correctives to Shirer’s narrative, based on a comprehensive knowledge of the research carried out in the half-century and more since The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was first published. Yet, in the end, it doesn’t provide a satisfactory substitute. Perhaps this is the fate of any book that tries to compress such a momentous period into one volume: Its coverage will inevitably be uneven—in this case, with too much on the Nazis’ rise to power and Hitler’s early life and career, at the expense of more general historical developments and features of the Third Reich itself. Childers has provided his readers with a smooth, readable, and reliable narrative that deserves to be widely read. But it should not be the only book that people read on this topic, as Shirer’s Rise and Fall too often is. And we are still waiting for a one-volume account that pays equal attention to Nazi Germany and the Hitler dictatorship in all their aspects.


Editor’s note: This article has been updated to correct the year that Hitler became Chancellor. It was 1933, not 1932. 

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