This book had a surprising reception.
No one—not my publisher, my editor, my agent, my friends—believed that the public would buy a book so long, so full of footnotes, so expensive, and on such a subject. My lecture agent had told me there was no more interest in Hitler and the Third Reich and that I would have to talk about something else. My publisher printed only 12,500 copies in advance.
The fact that the book started at once to attract considerable readership was therefore a pleasant surprise to us all. I never kept track of the sales myself—either of the hardcover edition brought out by Simon and Schuster or the mass-market paperback edition brought out by Fawcett. I was surprised to hear two or three years ago that the Book-of-the-Month Club had sold more copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich than of any other book in its history. But how many copies, I have no idea. The book also did well abroad—in Britain, France, and Italy, though less well in Germany.
The reviews of the book, except in Germany, were much more perceptive than I had expected. And though the academic historians, on the whole, were cool to the book and to me (as if I were a usurper with no right to invade their field—to write good history, they said, you had to teach it), there were notable exceptions.
H. R. Trevor-Roper, for instance. I felt some trepidation when I first heard that the Sunday New York Times Book Review had given him the book to review. He was a prestigious historian at Oxford whom I much admired—I had found his book The Last Days of Hitler very valuable. But British book reviewers at that time had been rather hard on American authors, and besides, as an eminent academic, Trevor-Roper might share, I thought, the disdain of his American colleagues for journalists who try to write history. So I concluded I would probably be clobbered in the publication that was most important for American writers and their books.
But Trevor-Roper too surprised. The headline above his page-one review gave a hint as to what he would have to say:
LIGHT ON OUR CENTURY’S DARKEST NIGHT
The Awful Story of Hitler’s Germany
Is Movingly Told in Masterly Study
“In ordinary circumstances,” Trevor-Roper began, “it would be impossible, only half a generation after its end … to write its history. But with the Third Reich, nothing was ordinary, not even its end. In that total annihilation all the secrets of [Hitler’s] rule were broken open, all the archives captured….
“Now, as never before, the living witnesses can converge with the historical truth. All they need is a historian. In William L. Shirer they have found one….”
This was heady stuff, and at the very beginning of the review. It almost took my breath away. The concluding lines were almost as breathtaking. “This is a splendid work of scholarship, objective in method, sound in judgment, inescapable in its conclusions.”
I was brought down to earth by the front-page review in the rival New York Herald-Tribune Book Review. Its author, Gordon A. Craig, then a historian at Princeton, did not agree at all with his Oxford colleague that the Third Reich had found its historian in me. By no means! He thought the book was too long and “out of balance.” He regretted that I had not read the book of an obscure German historian. The fact that the book was based not on what other historians had written but on original sources—captured secret German documents—did not impress him, if he noticed it.
In Germany, to put it mildly, the book did not fare very well with the reviewers. The Germans simply could not face up to their past. Led by the chancellor of West Germany, Konrad Adenauer, the book was furiously attacked and the author maligned. “A German-hater!” Adenauer called me. Since the book dealt objectively with Nazi Germany and the crimes the Germans committed against the human spirit and against their neighbors and against the Jews of Europe, and since I allowed the documented facts to speak for themselves, I was somewhat taken back by the vehemence of the German reaction, but not entirely surprised.
And now, as the thirtieth-anniversary edition of The Rise and Fall goes to press, the world is suddenly confronted with a new reunification of Germany. Soon, united, Germany will be strong again economically and, if it wishes, militarily, as it was in the time of Wilhelm II and Adolf Hitler. And Europe will be faced again with the German problem. If the past is any guide, the outlook is not very promising for Germany’s neighbors, who twice in my lifetime have been invaded by the Teutonic armies. The last time, under Hitler, as the readers of this book are reminded, the German behavior was a horror in its barbarism.
People ask now: Have the Germans changed? Many in the West appear to believe so. I myself am not so sure, my view no doubt clouded by the personal experience of having lived and worked in Germany in the Nazi time. The truth is that no one really knows the answer to that crucial question. And quite understandably the nations that were former victims of German conquest do not want to take any chances again.
Is there a solution to the German problem? Perhaps. It lies in enmeshing reunited Germany in a European security system out of which it could never break loose to pursue its past policies of aggression.
In one fundamental sense, the situation has changed since the fall of the Third Reich. The development of the hydrogen bomb, as I mentioned at the end of my Foreword, written in 1959, has rendered an old-fashioned conqueror like Adolf Hitler obsolete. If ever a new adventurer such as Hitler tried to lead the Germans to new conquests, he would be repelled by a nuclear response. That would put a quick end to German aggression. But, unfortunately, it would put an end to the world too.
So maybe the H-bomb and the rockets and planes and submarines designed to deliver it, horrible threat though they are to the survival of the planet, will, ironically, help, at least, to solve the German problem. No more bloody conquests by the Germans, or by anyone else.
Perhaps it will help too if the erring governments and the wondering people of this world will remember the dark night of Nazi terror and genocide that almost engulfed our world and that is the subject of this book. Remembrance of the past helps us to understand the present.
William L. Shirer