Obituary: William Shirer
Thursday 30 December 1993
WILLIAM SHIRER was a broadcaster and writer who attained fame, and very considerable fortune, not only for the quality of his journalism but also for doing what few journalists ever find the time or make the effort to do - keeping a diary. Since his diary covered the years from 1934 to 1940, years during which he had a close-up view of Hitler and the Nazi regime, it provided an immediate and vivid record of a period when history was indeed in the making.
These diary notes were published first in 1941 in a best-selling book, Berlin Diary. They formed an essential element in Shirer's later wider study of Hitlerism, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960), which became a hugely successful best- seller, selling one and a half million copies through the Book of the Month Club alone. And Shirer drew on them again for another best-seller, The Nightmare Years (1984), part of his three-volume autobiography.
Shirer's detailed, sharply observed diary notes are more than footnotes to history. They convey the feel of those times, at first ominous and then terrible, in a way more formal histories cannot do. An example of it comes in his entry for 22 September 1938. Hitler and Chamberlain were holding their second critical conference at Godesberg on the Rhine:
I was having breakfast in the garden of the Dreesen Hotel, where Hitler is stopping, when the great man suddenly appeared, strode past me, and went down to the edge of the Rhine to inspect his river yacht. X, one of Germany's leading editors, who secretly despises the regime, nudged me: 'Look at his walk]' On inspection it was a very curious walk indeed. In the first place, it was very ladylike. Dainty little steps. In the second place, every few steps he cocked his right shoulder nervously, his left leg snapping up as he did so. I watched him closely as he came back past us. The same nervous tic. He had ugly black patches under his eyes.
I think the man is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
Bill Shirer came, as did so many other American correspondents of the time, from the Middle West. He was born in Chicago in 1904, and in 1925 graduated from Coe College, Iowa. He set his eyes on journalism in Europe, worked his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, and secured a job on the Chicago Tribune in Paris, where one of his colleagues was James Thurber. For the next 12 years Shirer covered events for the Tribune and then for the Universal News Service in Europe with trips to Afghanistan and India. He interviewed Gandhi, which was not only a scoop but won the Mahatma's confidence to the point that it was to Shirer that Gandhi later cabled from Poona Prison explaining why he was 'fasting unto death'.
In 1937 Edward R. Murrow, then the representative in London of the American network CBS, appointed Shirer as the CBS man in Vienna, the first CBS correspondent on the Continent. Shirer found the work at first disappointing because his role, like that of Murrow at the time, was not to broadcast himself reports of events but to act as a producer for talks by newspaper correspondents. I recall one day in the autumn of 1937, when we were both on assignment in Italy, pacing up and down the Galleria in Rome with Shirer as he unfolded to me his exasperation at this limitation and his worry that he might have been wrong to leave written journalism. But within six months events had changed all that. When Hitler seized Austria, in the Anschluss of March 1938, Shirer was called upon to broadcast his own account of the events, and the great era of CBS radio news got under way.
Based first in Vienna, then in Geneva, and finally in Berlin, Shirer covered in calmly spoken, admirably worded reports the tale of Hitler's onward march, through the Munich crisis, the seizure of the rump of Czechoslovakia, and then in 1939 the drift to war. He covered the Blitzkrieg against Poland and the campaign in the west. He detested Nazism, and in particular its maltreatment of the Jews, but he stuck to his task as the true professional he was. Ironically, the high point of Hitler's triumphs, the signing of the Armistice in June 1940 in the historic railway coach in the forest of Compiegne, brought Shirer his greatest scoop. An error by a German engineer put Shirer's report of the signing directly on to a shortwave transmitter, and so on to the air in the United States before Hitler himself had announced it. Six months later Shirer, exhausted by his constant battling with Nazi censorship, returned to New York. He managed to smuggle out the diaries which he had kept over those years.
After the war Shirer returned to Germany to cover the Nuremberg trials, but his career from then on was within the United States. In 1947 he quarrelled with Murrow, and moved to become a commentator for the Mutual Broadcasting Service. But he was blacklisted by McCarthy, lost his sponsors, and turned to college lecturing and writing.
'It was the best thing that happened to me,' he later said, for it led to his setting his own experiences in their historical context in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Timing is an integral element in publishing, and the timing of this book was just right. The American public, the first shock of the war over, were ready to look back on what happened. The book became and still is one of the highest ranking best-sellers in the United States for a contemporary non-fiction book.
Shirer went on to write a number of other books, including The Sinking of the Bismarck (1962), three novels, and a memoir of Gandhi, and at his death was working on a study of Tolstoy.
A neat, bespectacled, prematurely bald man, often smoking a pipe, Shirer in his heyday was far removed in appearance and in manner from the traditionally roistering, extrovert image of the foreign correspondent of the time. His first wife, Tess, a Viennese whom he married in 1931 and whose first daughter was born during the Anschluss, was herself a skilled observer of the European scene, and an important help to him, particularly with his first book, Berlin Diary.
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