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One of Coe's Giants: "WWII's Unimpeachable Witness"

William L. Shirer  '25 - Dies at 85

           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 Post, under 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 threat.
           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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