It sat there on your parents’ shelf, or maybe your grandparents’, alongside the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s chronicle of World War II and the 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s “The Story of Civilization.” It had two distinctions. One was the menacing swastika on the spine of the book. The other was that it was the only one of those 18 volumes that anyone in your family ever actually opened.
It is William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and more than a million people did more than buy it or open it. They read it. It may be, aside from the Bible, the biggest book ever read by a big audience, and that audience devoured it, discussed it and was shaped by it. A generation of Americans formed their view of the horrors of Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945 from its pages or from elders or teachers who themselves read it and were molded by it.
No other book of history in the last century — not Charles Beard on the Constitution, not C. Vann Woodward on the South, not Doris Kearns Goodwin on Roosevelt and Lincoln, nor David McCullough on Harry Truman and John Adams — remotely approaches its reach, influence and significance.
That is a remarkable achievement, even more so because this work of history was undertaken by a journalist — one whose career flared and flamed out, one whose work was questioned if not pilloried, one who wrote the book because he needed the money, much as U.S. Grant wrote his remarkable personal memoirs to pay for his own funeral and assure the financial security of his wife and children.
The six volumes of Churchill on World War II are a great read, better than you expect — all the better, in fact, because they are so one-sided and self-serving. I have no idea whether the Durants’ civilization series is any good because I have never opened a single volume, even though it has rested on my shelf for more than three decades.
But Shirer’s volume is one of the great reading experiences, and now it has been reissued in a new edition commemorating the 50th anniversary of its selection for the National Book Award. Nowhere except between the covers of that book have so many read so much about, for example, the three Reichstag elections held within five months in 1932 — and much more.
So important a cultural force was “Rise and Fall” that Time magazine listed it as one of the eight best nonfiction books written since 1923, when the magazine was founded. It was, as Ron Rosenbaum writes in an introduction prepared for the commemorative edition, “a kind of a leap from eyewitness war correspondent to archival historian.”
Shirer was, as Dean Acheson would say in a different context, present at the creation (though not at the destruction), but he sought, as Mr. Rosenbaum put it, to write like “the kind of historian, who, like Thucydides, had firsthand experience of war and then sought to adopt the analytic distance of the historian.”
That almost never works for journalists; piles of campaign books, forgotten weeks after they are published, provide sad testimony to that. In fact, the only exceptions I can think of are Theodore H. White’s “Making of the President” volumes for 1960 and 1964 (but not 1968 or 1972) and maybe “Ten Days that Shook the World,” about the Russian Revolution, by John Reed, or “Scum of the Earth,” about the fall of France, by Arthur Koestler. (Drop me a line if you can think of another one.) Like no other book of the period, Shirer’s possesses the gravitas of the archives as well as the grit of the streets.
Shirer himself had a rise and fall — a rise from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to the world stage, where he intersected with Hitler and Gandhi, representatives of the two extremes of 20th century history, and then a fall from grace when, as the original of the fabled “Murrow Boys” at CBS, he fell afoul of Edward R. Murrow and William S. Paley and fell into near penury, in part as a result of his name appearing on a list of media leftists.
“To keep the family afloat, his only option was to dream up another book idea,” Steve Wick wrote in “The Long Night,” published earlier this year, a chronicle of Shirer’s life covering Germany. The plan: Use captured German documents as the basis for an authoritative account of Hitler’s ascent and decline. It won him a $10,000 advance from Simon and Schuster. No one thought Shirer would ever earn back that advance.
Including Shirer: “I began to see that soon I would be back to where I had been for the last dozen years: struggling to make ends meet and not quite making it,” he wrote in “A Native’s Return.”
I met Shirer on a morning 17 years after the publication of “Rise and Fall,” in a second-floor study of his New England farmhouse, where he wrote on a battered Royal typewriter. He was wearing a blue denim outfit with droopy back pockets and rolled-up cuffs, and had been reading Balzac and Stendhal, Pushkin and Chekhov, in front of a brick fireplace. He was bald on the front of his skull but two huge white earmuffs of hair rested on either side of his head. He had no patience for the book’s academic critics, who dismissed it as mere journalism. “I had more time to write than history teachers,” he said. “I had no classes to teach.”
Yet Shirer’s book still has lessons. Jonathan Steinberg, who teaches modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania, considers “Rise and Fall” a vital primary source. “He was there,” Mr. Steinberg says. “It has a direct vividness of the eyewitness that other books lack.”
The book was the first serious swipe at digesting 485 tons of confidential documents in the archives of the German government, and it shaped like no other force the way Nazism was remembered in the 1960s and the way it is interpreted in 2011. But that may not be its ultimate significance. William Shirer died 18 years ago. But his book — indeed, the book as an art form, even if it isn’t always in book form — is far from dead.