The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns 60


In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, William L. Shirer includes an entry for November 14, 1945, describing the meticulous records kept by the Nazis, which were then being used as evidence against them in the Nuremburg trials.  “Students of the war will want to pore over these papers and examine them in detail,” he noted.

What seemed like an invitation to others was in fact a subliminal message to Shirer’s future self.

Fired by CBS in 1947 despite his exemplary work as one of “Murrow’s Boys” during World War II, Shirer found himself in the wilderness for years.  Unemployed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-leaning views, Shirer struggled to support his family by writing books and lecturing.  The books did not sell well, and the speaking opportunities, dealing with his experiences in Nazi Germany, began to dry up.

William L. Shirer

On January 24, 1954, Shirer wrote in his diary, “To Do: A book to be called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’”  Shirer certainly had advantages very few journalists or historians possessed.  He had lived in Nazi Germany for years, until he was expelled in December 1940.  He could speak and read German.  He had even returned home from Nuremburg with a duffel bag stuffed with copies of the Nazi papers introduced during the trial as evidence. As he confessed in his memoir, A Native’s Return, 1945—1988, “I had been tossing around in my mind the idea of doing such a book ever since covering the Nuremberg trial . . . nearly nine years before, in the late fall of 1945.”

Shirer’s big problem: money.  His years in the wilderness had exhausted his savings; he had no ongoing income.  A secondary concern of Shirer’s was that he was primarily a broadcast journalist, not a historian.  Even his previous publishing successes had been his diaries. Could Shirer devote years to research and writing with no financial support, and could he apply “the discipline and know-how to write a historical work whose subject and the materials to support it were so vast?”  Shirer hesitated, and waited for academic historians to undertake the “unique opportunity” to delve into the “avalanche of new material.”

No one did.

“Nine years after the end of the war and the fall of Hitler, I decided to take the plunge—since no one else would.  I would not write around the subject.  I would tackle it head-on.  I would try to write for the first time a fully documented and complete history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.  Somehow I would find the time to do it and still support my family.”

Most publishers turned Shirer down flat, and those who were interested gagged at the $10,000 advance Shirer calculated he needed to cover his expenses for the two years he figured it would take to bring the book to completion. Finally, a close friend at Simon & Schuster convinced the right people to take a flyer on Shirer’s brainchild.  Shirer was shocked to find how little attention had been paid to the vast treasure of captured Nazi documents held in U.S. archives.  “[The librarians at the Library of Congress] trundled out a whole hand-truck full of Hitler’s personal papers.  I was astonished that they had not been opened since being catalogued.  We took to untying the ribbons that bound them.  Out fell what were to me priceless objects: among others, scores of paintings Hitler had done in his vagabond youth in Vienna.”

So Shirer labored on—500 pages by the fall of 1957; 805 pages by the spring of 1958.  By then the $10,000 advance was long gone, and Simon & Schuster had no interest in advancing more.  Foundations and magazines turned him down.  The prospect of laying the book aside and getting a job loomed.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, a small foundation stepped in with just enough funds to get Shirer over the finish line.  “This saved my life and my book.  We quickly paid what we owed on our grocery bills, assured the girls that they could remain in school . . . and I settled back to fourteen hours a day writing.”

Shirer finally completed the book—all 1,795 typed pages—on August 24, 1959.  He felt good about the result: “it was the best I had ever written.”

But would anyone want to read it?  “I had no illusions that it would sell.  Everyone connected with it—my publisher, my editor, my agent, my close friends . . . had assured me that it would not.  And I had no reason to doubt them.”  Shirer was not unmindful that his lecturing on Hitler and Nazi Germany had fallen off precisely because, as his agent explained, “there was no longer any interest in America in either.” Moreover, not only was Rise and Fall a massive book to read, it’s $10 price tag all but guaranteed a small sale.  “No book that price, I was told, had ever done well.”

The initial U.S. print run of 12,500 copies was released on October 17, 1960.

The book attracted mostly favorable reviews, and was chosen to be the featured  November 1960 selection by Book of the Month Club.  It soon climbed on to the bestseller lists.  Thereafter Simon & Schuster could barely keep up with demand; sales exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

According to Ken Cuthbertson, Shirer’s biographer, “American readers have bought an estimated ten million copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and it has been translated into German, French, Chinese and Russian.  According to another academic, the book “has become more than just another work of history.  A singular literary institution, it has achieved a reputation as ‘the best-selling historical work ever written in modern times.’”

A much younger me in front of Shirer’s home, Lennox, MA (Feb. 1990)

I have had a soft spot for William L. Shirer ever since I spent practically the entire summer of 1970, at the tender age of 15, reading Rise and Fall.  Much of it went over my head, but it did hit home as a cautionary tale about the dangers of following an unprincipled demagogue. What is more, it was Shirer, in his 1949 review of From Day to Day for the New York Herald Tribune, who called Odd Nansen “one of the noble and heroic spirits” whose diary “reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

So today is the 60th anniversary of the appearance of Shirer’s “singular literary institution.” Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine if, in spite of the many positive reviews, Rise and Fall had quickly slipped into oblivion in 1960, and was only rescued today, and republished by a family member, or an academic, or by a journalist.  Generations would have missed out on Shirer’s monumental work.  Of course, that is exactly what happened to Odd Nansen’s diary, where the gap was even longer—67 years between publications.  That time can never be recaptured, but we can commit to ensuring that Nansen’s singular, monumental, work is never forgotten again.

Happy 60th Birthday to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

My autographed copy of Rise and Fall. That’s another story for another day.

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