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.