Rita Thalmann was born in Nuremberg to a religious German Jewish family. Her father Nathan Thalmann, a prosperous textile dealer, had been awarded the Iron Cross for his service in World War I. After the rise of the Nazi regime, the family fled to Dijon, France. Her father was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he was killed, and her mother Helene was interned at the Chartreuse de Dijon psychiatric hospital, where she died. Rita survived the war by escaping to Switzerland, and afterwards worked in Jewish orphanages while completing her secondary education. She became a secondary teacher in Paris and enrolled at the Sorbonne, where she specialized in German studies. She continued to teach until the publication of her PhD thesis, Protestantisme et nationalisme en Allemagne, 1900-1945, (Protestantism and Nationalism in Germany, 1900-1945) in 1976. She later was a professor of history and German civilization at the University of Tours and the University Paris VII-Denis Diderot. She also was interested in the place of women in society and wrote Être femme sous le IIIe Reich (Being a Woman under the Third Reich) in 1982. Among her other major works were La Nuit de cristal (Kristallnacht, 1972) and La Mise au pas: idéologie et stratégie sécuritaire dans la France occupée 1940-1944 (Asserting Control: Ideology and Security Strategy in Occupied France 1940-1944, 1991). Her autobiography, entitled Tout commença à Nuremberg (It All Started at Nuremberg), was published in 2004.