When I was in high school it seemed like everyone’s dad had a copy of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich somewhere in the family bookshelves, and occasionally one of us would take a stab at reading it. In my own case, I made it all of about 100 pages in before the litany of early Nazi intrigues and unpronounceable German names had me stupefied. My own father considered the book to be a great accomplishment—both for its author, who won the National Book Award for it in 1961, and for himself, who never failed to recount with his trademark guffaw, whenever the book was mentioned in his presence, how he borrowed a paperback copy from a friend, tore it in half while reading due to its laborious length, and returned it in two pieces when he finished.
Perhaps as a self-inflicted rite of passage in my own life, I picked the book up again earlier this year, and have been wading through, thanks in part to the MP3 audiobook version. So for June, which is National Audiobook Month as well as home on the calendar to Father’s Day, I’d like to officially recommend it, along with an apology to my friend who recently asked why we often suggest books too lengthy for any mortal to complete within a 28-day loan period.
Shirer writes in an afterward to the 30th anniversary edition of Rise and Fall that he was surprised himself, along with his publisher, editor, agent and friends, at the success of a book “so long, so full of footnotes, so expensive, and on such a subject.” But exhaustive as it is, the book tells its story well. Shirer covered the war, its preceding decade, and its aftermath as a correspondent for American newspapers and radio, and witnessed many of the speeches, meetings, and battles he describes. The book has been criticized by purists as a journalist’s take on history, but in many ways that angle remains its strength, and while some of Shirer’s comments on the personal lives of his subjects now seem biased and outdated, the firsthand nature of his writing retains its power. For example, because Shirer was among the very few eyewitnesses present in the woods at Compiegne, where the Germans accepted the French surrender in June 1940, he is able to follow up his factual account of the German invasion with a fascinating description of Hitler’s behavior and body language as he strolled into that famous clearing. Non-historians like myself are sure to learn much about the era; in my own case, Shirer’s account of the German military’s plan to overthrow Hitler before the Munich accords was an eye-opener, as was the book’s take on English diplomatic incompetence in the years leading up to the war.
During the 1950s, William Shirer’s work as a liberal commentator earned him a spot on the blacklist as a suspected Communist, and he struggled to find work. When one takes into account that he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich during this period in hopes of supporting his wife and two children from its sales, the book’s 1249 pages begin to look as much like the product of a desperate father as that of a thorough historian. I’ll admit I haven’t finished it yet, but to celebrate passing the halfway point, I did return the library’s copy, bought myself a used paperback, and tore it in half. I may not be toning my arm muscles quite so much now as I read, but I also don’t have as many bruises from dropping the book on my head when I lapse into a catnap and pay homage to the great accomplishment I saw my dad achieve more often than any other.