Jul 19, 2021
When I recommend Rise and Fall, the first thing I mention is that it was written by a journalist and not a historian — and that's precisely what makes it exceptional. Author William Shirer, an American, lived in Germany from 1934 to 1940, which allowed him to witness several pivotal moments in history.
Shirer was in Vienna on the night of the Anschluss. He was in Prague when Hitler threatened to retake the Sudetenland by force. He snuck into Compiègne to see the surrenderer of France. And thus, Rise and Fall is peppered with personal commentary from Shirer that gives the history a visceral reality, now 75 years removed from the end of World War II.
What follows, therefore, in the ensuing pages is based largely on the mass of factual evidence which has been accumulated since 1945. But it was perhaps helpful for a narrator of such a history as this to have been personally present at its main crises and turning points. Thus, it happened that I was in Vienna on the memorable night of March 11–12, 1938, when Austria ceased to exist.
This book has become popular once again in our current political climate. There's a certain fascination with the question of how a nation turns toward fascism. Shirer highlights the unique opportunity the collapse of Nazi Germany has given historians to answer this question. For the first time in modern history, the confidential archives of an entire state — hundreds of thousands of documents — were essentially made public.
From these documents, Shirer relies heavily on the personal diaries of generals and foreign statesmen, interweaving facts. While this may be less academic, it helps Rise and Fall stand out against other books in the genre.
Originally published in 1960, Rise and Fall draws criticism from modern historians when Shirer's lack of objectivity occasionally slips through. Having lived through the war, Shirer is writing as an opinionated journalist. He leaves gaps in places that may not fit well with the entertaining narrative (e.g. the successful economic recovery of pre-war Nazi Germany).
Despite this, I'd strongly recommend Rise and Fall as an introduction to the history of World War II — I’m not sure I’ve read a work of history more compelling than this.