Considering the subject matter this was never going to be an easy book to read but would it be factual, objective and well-written?
Well, factual certainly: the great number of records and archives that became available after the war has made it possible for historians to have a much clearer picture of this period of history than they have had of possibly any other event previously.
Objective? Shirer was a correspondent living in Germany during the war and he openly admits that there are some aspects of the book that are more to do with subjective opinion than objective fact. Nonetheless, any recounting of an historical event is based on whatever documentation you can find (which may or may not be embellished, falsified, inaccurate), photographs, memorabilia and always, in some part, word of mouth accounts.
Well written? As a correspondent Shirer was a career wordsmith and he does write eloquently. When I initially began reading the book, it did seem to jump around a little but I quickly became accustomed to Shirer’s style. His sudden leaps ahead from, for example, pre-war events to conclusions drawn as a result of Nuremburg trials did have a logic. So many things were covered in this book that an entirely chronological record would have been extremely difficult to follow.
World War II is a period of history that all of us must have some knowledge about, no matter how perfunctory. As it happens, this is a period of history that I read extensively about a few years ago and I felt sure that The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich would simply retell facts I already knew, rather than add anything additional to my knowledge.
I was, of course, wrong. This book ran for 45 hours (I listened to the audio version) and a great many things were new to me. William Shirer’s first hand observations of Hitler and his formidable rages, the rumours Shirer picked up from correspondents, the events he was privy to as a member of the press: these are all things that are unique to his story. This is a factual chronicle of events that led to Hitler’s rise to power and the subsequent political events that led to the war but it also serves as a memoir of a foreign correspondent’s time living in and reporting from a country at war.
I found the political aspects of the story easier than the military aspects. Shirer does discuss military movements with some considerable detail, which I found difficult to follow at times and as a result I struggled to remain engaged. However, his telling of political events was utterly beyond reproach. He paints a conflicting picture of Hitler, which fits so completely with the fact that Hitler was a very conflicted man with a very conflicting persona. Charismatic one moment and raging blindly the next, he was beloved to his people, feared by his peers, abhorred by his enemies.
Shirer bravely states what many of us would feel unable to utter: Hitler was a remarkable politician and tactician. It was these traits that made him such a formidable opponent and made his regime so frightening. When you place someone utterly brilliant in such a position of power, it is the recipe for disaster and Shirer witnessed this first-hand.
There are some who have disagreed with Shirer’s assessment of events or the way in which he perceived things that were occurring around him but I have read few chronicles that can rival this for the sheer amount of detail. Any book about this period of history will be difficult to write and difficult to read but this is an excellent effort from Shirer to document a horrific period of history.