Modern Non-fiction: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L Shirer

William L Shirer observed Hitler’s rise at first hand, living in and reporting from Berlin first as a newspaperman and then, for CBS, as one of the world’s first radio correspondents. His Berlin Diary, which he kept secretly from 1934 until he left Berlin at the end of 1940, is one of the most important books of the 20th century.

Rise and Fall is the complete history, to which Shirer devoted more than a decade of research. He lived through many of the events and knew many of the personalities – and he could read the captured archives and diaries in German, Italian and French. He saw Hitler at various party rallies and, once, on the street (walking by with a tic-riddled shambling shuffle on his way to the docks to inspect his yacht).

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. On February 27, the Reichstag was burned – by the Nazis, to justify emergency government powers. These were granted to Hitler on March 23, and he was thereafter absolute dictator. One of his first acts was a nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses. The next year he murdered nearly everyone who had known him in his younger days. In 1935, he disenfranchised the Jews. In 1936, he sent his troops into the Rhineland. (The German army had been ordered to beat a hasty retreat if opposed in any way – and France was authorized to oppose it, under the Locarno Pact, but she did nothing.)

In 1937, Hitler renounced the Versailles treaty. In March 1938, he annexed Austria. In September, the Munich Agreement destroyed the last chance the world had to bring down Hitler without a general war. In October, Germans marched into Sudeten Czechoslovakia; in early 1939, into Bohemia and Moravia. In September, Hitler invaded Poland and the war began.

By this time, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and French Prime Minister Daladier and his execrable Foreign Minister Bonnet, collectively, through their arrogant ignorance, had bargained away the freedom of millions of people in other lands and succeeded not in preventing the war, but in making its final arrival so terrible that it destroyed them all, and very nearly destroyed the entire free world.

So a principal lesson is that men with basically good intentions but no understanding are extraordinarily dangerous. Churchill suggested calling the Second World War “The Unnecessary War” – because without the foolishness of these well-meaning men, and the others who watched Hitler metastasize during the 30s, the war need never have happened.

Engagingness: 9/10

Prose: 8/10

Importance: 9.5/10

Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.5/10

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L Shirer.  Simon and Schuster, 1960.  1245 pages.