One of Coe's best-known alumni, William L. Shirer '25, died
December 28 in Massachusetts. He was 89 and had just completed the
final proofing of his newest book, on Leo Tolstoy, due out in May.
"William Shirer told us what had really gone on in the Nazi's own
words," wrote columnist Tom Blackburn in the Palm Beach
the headline "WWII's Unimpeachable Witness." Blackburn noted that
Shirer had suffered from the curse of all foreign correspondents
writing before television, as he reported the early events leading
to World War II.
"They ride the buses, shop in the stores, eat in the restaurants,
and speak the language. Then they are told by compatriots in exalted
stations--who hear it in the shooting boxes of their local
counterparts--what's really going on..." But American know-it-alls
didn't escape Shirer, Blackburn continued. "He bombed them with
books." Shirer's 1941 book, Berlin Diary, became a best seller just
as Americans began to realize that Hitler was indeed a worldwide
Shirer was not only one of the foremost World War II journalists, a
pioneer radio broadcaster, and author of nearly 20 books, he also
actively championed writers' rights and was blacklisted in the 1950s
for his liberal views. It was during that time, when he was unable
to find an employer courageous enough to hire him, that he wrote the
1,200- page work for which he is best known--The Rise and Fall of
the Third Reich (1960). The book has become a classic source on the
history of Nazism.
Working his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, Shirer headed
for Paris immediately after his Coe graduation, armed with a $100
loan from Coe President Harry Morehouse Gage. For the next 12 years,
Shirer wrote for the Chicago Tribune, the International Herald
Tribune, and the Universal News Service, covering such events as
Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight and the League of Nations
meetings in Geneva. He traveled through India and Afghanistan in
1930 and 1931 and began a long association with Mohandas K. Gandhi,
about whom he wrote a book in 1980.
At the end of that book Shirer wrote, "I count the days with Gandhi
the most fruitful of my life. No other experience was as inspiring
and as meaningful and as lasting. No other shook me out of the rut
of banal existence and opened my ordinary mind and spirit to some
conception of the meaning of life on this perplexing Earth."
With the legendary Edward R.
Murrow, Shirer pioneered CBS radio
coverage of events in Europe, beginning in 1937. Their live
broadcasts of the sounds, the speeches, and the eye-witness accounts
of the war changed American public opinion. Shirer returned to New
York in late 1940, smuggling his diaries out of Germany in a stack
of old radio scripts. (These diaries are now part of the Coe library
collection, to which Shirer also bequeathed all of his manuscripts
and personal papers.)
Shirer's second massive work dealing with WWII,
The Collapse of the
Third Republic, gives his account of the fall of France in 1940,
which a radio transmission error allowed him to announce to the
world before Hitler could. And the second of his three books of
memoirs, The Nightmare Years 1930-1940, gives his personal account
of experiences as a foreign correspondent and broadcaster in the
midst of a developing world war. Following the war, Shirer reported
on the birth of the United Nations and returned to Germany to cover
the Nuremberg Trials.
At his death,
The Times of London wrote, "William Shirer belongs to
that select group of journalists who successfully made the
transition from the recording of news to the writing of history."
The New York Times noted, "Mr. Shirer personified the hard-boiled
Chicago style of journalism in the 1920s and '30s. But he was also a
scholar fluent in German, French, and Italian."
In 1976 Coe honored Shirer with the Founders' Medal, the highest
award given by the college. The last of his many visits to the
campus was in 1983.
Classmate Esther Youel Armstrong '25 remembers being a cub reporter
on the Coe Cosmos staff when Shirer was editor. "Robert and I also
visited him in Paris," she adds, "and at our 50th anniversary he
entertained us all." Roby Hickok Kesler '31 recalls that Shirer was
a prize student of her father, Prof. Charles Hickok. She says, "My
father was so proud of him."
Some of Shirer's books were the following:
Berlin Diary (1941)
End of a Berlin Diary (1947)
The Traitor (1950)
Mid-century Journey (1952)
Stranger Come Home (1954)
The Challenge of Scandinavia (1955)
The Consul's Wife (1956)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960)
The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1961)
The Sinking of the Bismarck (1962)
The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969)
20th Century Journey (1976)
Gandhi: A Memoir (1980)
The Nightmare Years (1984)
A Native's Return (1990)
William Shirer's personal papers and manuscripts will all be coming
to the Coe College library, as has his manuscript of The Rise and
Fall of the Third Reich.
President Emeritus Joseph E. McCabe, with whom some of these
arrangements were made years ago, says, "Shirer's materials will be
very important for anyone studying the Holocaust," noting that the
college is very pleased to have been selected to receive them.
In a 1977 letter to the chief of the manuscript division of
the Library of Congress, Shirer explained his rejection of that
library's offer to receive his papers: "Some years ago I decided to
give my papers to my college, Coe College, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I
feel a debt to this small college for helping to launch me on the
road I took."
Shirer is the third noted writer and former student of the late
Prof. Ethel Outland '09 that Coe has lost in three years. (Paul
Engle '31 died in March 1991, and Dora Jane Hamblin '41 in September
1993.) He is survived by his second wife, Irina Lugovskaya, Box 487,
Lenox, Massachusetts 01240; and two daughters.
Photos and text
used with the permission from the Coe College archives and
the "Coe College Courier"
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