In The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, William L. Shirer presents a precisely focused political and military biography of the individual who determined the direction of European history during the second quarter of the twentieth century. Hitler’s personality, ambitions, actions, achievements, and defeats dominate this work to the exclusion of even such closely related subjects as the war in the Pacific, the United States’ role in the fighting, and such major figures as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hirohito. Instead, this biography attempts to identify those factors that shaped Hitler, the circumstances that enabled him to rise to power, his skill in manipulating people, and his ability to exploit opportunities in order to expand his political control. The book chronicles his increasing importance in German life, his insatiable desire for military victories, his campaigns to overrun Europe, his dream of world conquest, the defeat of his armies, his consequent despair, and, finally, his suicide.
Shirer describes the historical context that made possible Hitler’s appeal: the anger and despair felt by many Germans at their country’s defeat in World War I, which were exacerbated by terrible economic conditions that included massive unemployment and uncontrolled inflation. These factors, combined with a pervasive nationalism and a powerful authoritarian tradition, offered fertile conditions for an extremist response. Yet Shirer sees Hitler not as the product of these circumstances but as the individual capable of exploiting them to his own ends.
The four major sections of this biography, organized chronologically, are subdivided into seventeen chapters that examine Hitler’s childhood, his dissolute youth, his artistic pretensions, the emergence of his political ambitions, his rise to power, the major German military campaigns, the ultimate Allied victory, and Hitler’s death. Shirer, a journalist in Germany during much of the Third Reich, was a firsthand witness to many of the events that he describes. He supplements his observations with quotations from Hitler’s writings and speeches, the diaries of contemporaries, secret Nazi files captured by the Allied armies, and official documents and transcripts.
More than two dozen black-and-white photographs illustrate important people, events, and circumstances in Hitler’s life. Pictures of major German political figures, military encounters, and scenes of the war’s devastation are provided. The most powerful images are scenes of the massive rallies and parades that show the passion of his followers and the machinelike regimentation that was a hallmark of Germany during this time.
Shirer is hardly neutral in his attitude toward the subject of this work. He describes Hitler as “an evil genius, one of the cruelest, most bloodthirsty and barbarous tyrants who ever lived.” At the heart of this narrative is the impact of this individual on world events—how his personality and character developed and how circumstances allowed him to become a major player on the world stage. Because Shirer claims that Hitler directed events and was not their product, he believes that it is critical to understand who this person was.
Shirer explores Hitler’s early years—his relationship with his parents, his school failures, and his...
(The entire section is 1363 words.)