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Shirer broadcasts from St. Peter's Square in Rome, circa 1940
William Shirer

1904 - 1993


One of the most recognized U.S. Americans to visit Nazi Germany, William Shirer perhaps shed more light on the events that led to Hitler’s ascendancy and German involvement in World War II than anyone else from the United States. Although closely watched in Germany, Shirer managed to convey much in his reporting by using subtle phrasing, suggestive tones of voice or U.S. slang unfamiliar to German censors trained only in formal British English. Having lived in Paris and familiar with Central Europe from his days with the Chicago Tribune, Shirer became one of the most respected U.S. journalists in wartime Europe. Selected as one of twelve foreign correspondents to accompany the German army in its 1940 western offensive, for example, he had a scoop on the French-German armistice in Compiegne by hearing over a German sound truck that France would surrender—three hours before even Berlin knew of the French defeat.

While as an adult he became intimately involved with the drama unfolding in Germany, Shirer came from a world quite removed from Europe. William Lawrence Shirer was born in Chicago in September 1904. His father Seward practiced law in the Windy City and later served as Assistant United States District Attorney. His mother, Bessie Tanner Shirer, took her son and his younger brother with her to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to live with her parents when their father died of peritonitis in 1913. There, Shirer later enrolled at Coe College, where he worked on the school newspaper staff and wrote for the sports page of the Cedar Rapids Republican.

Briefly enlisting as a teenager in the army and landing summer jobs with the traveling Chautauqua, Shirer left the Iowa prairies upon earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1925. He visited Chicago and New York City, then went to Montreal to work his way to Europe pitching hay on a cattle boat. Touring England, Belgium and France, he eventually found a job in the Paris office of the Chicago Tribune just before spending the last of the two-hundred dollars he had borrowed and having to return to the States.

Life in postwar Paris excited the curious young reporter. Besides working with James Thurber and Elliot Paul at the Tribune, he met some of his maverick compatriots who were setting the arts world on its head—among them Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds, Isadora Duncan, Ezra Pound and the imposing Gertrude Stein. Compensating for an isolated past, Shirer began studying European history at the College de France. At the age of twenty-three—more familiar with contemporary Europe and having successfully covered the local beat—he graduated from the Paris edition of the Tribune to the foreign staff of the home edition. This assignment led him to cover Lindbergh’s arrival in Paris and later to be sent to London, Rome, Geneva and Vienna; in 1928 he covered the IX Olympiad Games in Amsterdam. He also went to India to meet Gandhi and to Afghanistan in 1930 to attend Nadir Khan’s crowning.

In 1931 Shirer married Theresa Stiberitz in Vienna. By now the Tribune’s Central European Bureau chief, his bride became his assistant. Shirer lost the sight of one eye in a skiing accident in the Alps in 1932; that disability complicated his work at the Bureau, but it was the spreading effects of the Great Depression that later cost Shirer his job. Living on savings, the couple shared a villa on the coast of Spain for a year with the guitarist Andres Segovia. While there, Shirer wrote an unpublished novel and an early autobiography—which he later destroyed.

The New York Herald hired the anxious Shirer in 1934 to work for its Paris edition. In August of that year, he became a correspondent in Berlin for the Universal News Service, where he served until 1937, when William Randolph Hearst disbanded the service. Then, Edward R. Morrow—chief of the European staff of the Columbia Broadcasting System—placed Shirer in its new office in Vienna. The Anschluss (annexation) of Austria, however, forced him to relocate in Geneva—for, as he later said, he was never one “to argue with bayonets.” At the start of World War II, Shirer once again reported from Berlin—where he remained until his return to the United States in December 1940.

Upon his return to the United States in 1940, William Shirer launched an extensive lecture tour. During the summer of 1941 he served as a technical advisor for the Hollywood production of Passport from Bordeaux and edited his journal into the bestselling book Berlin Diary. From 1942 to 1948 Shirer wrote a column for the New York Herald Tribune syndicate. He also worked as a CBS commentator until 1947, when he resigned over an editorial disagreement with Edward R. Murrow.

As the war ended in Europe Shirer returned to Germany to cover the war crimes trial in Nuernberg and later attended the San Francisco conference that established the United Nations. Winning the George Foster Peabody Award for outstanding interpretation of the news in 1946, Shirer worked for the Mutual Broadcasting System from 1947 to 1949 as a commentator. He continued to lecture and he wrote articles for Life, Collier’s, the Atlantic Monthly and other major magazines. In 1950 Shirer published Traitor, a novel about a man who under extreme pressure betrays his country and works for its enemies.

Shirer went on to write other novels, too, but earned widespread public recognition mostly for his non-fiction writing. He wrote End of a Berlin Diary in 1947 as a sequel to his earlier book. He later wrote additional books based on his childhood in Chicago and Iowa, as well as his travels through Europe and Asia and his meetings with Gandhi and Hitler. It was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, however, which won Shirer the 1960 National Book Award and a special Sidney Hillman Foundation award in 1961; his intimate involvement with Hitler’s Germany made him a foremost U.S. authority on the Nazi era and his expertise led to several decades of writing and lecturing. Shirer ultimately divorced his wife Tess, who he had married while living in Europe.


First Impressions

Berlin, August 25, 1934—Tomorrow begins a new chapter for me...

So began William Shirer’s journal entry upon his arrival in the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich. Shirer had left a rather mediocre post with the New York Herald in Paris to become the Universal News Service’s Berlin correspondent. Returning to Berlin for the first time since its decadent Weimarer Republik days, he was struck by what seemed a complete transformation of the place. While he previously had sat up long nights with German friends in bars, cafes and their studios discussing politics, art and literature, sex, music, the meaning of existence and other provocative topics, he found many of the same people—most of whom had been liberals, artists, students, socialists or communists—now infected with Nazism.

Shirer’s former friends mostly praised the rebirth of the German Vaterland under National Socialism and the firm guidance of the Fuehrer. As good Germans they valued the return of respect for authority and the honoring of basic Teutonic traditions. Glad to see a recovery from the nation’s shameful humiliation at Versailles, they seemed for the most part to tolerate shortages of some consumer goods, censorship and the enforced lack of general freedom in exchange for a reinvigorated German spirit. Shirer found these people exceptionally depressing. Those who disapproved of the “New Germany,” however, distrustfully watched what they said out of fear of being silenced—like so many others already had been—and subsequently remained invisible.

After Shirer returned to Germany his first assignment took him to Nuernberg to cover the annual Nazi Party rally, which he found to be “the best possible introduction to the nightmarish world Adolf Hitler was beginning to create in his adopted land.” For a full week in September the amazed reporter watched as by day tens of thousands of uniformed party leaders and SA and SS troopers euphorically cheered Hitler while he screamed of a resurgent Germany which would assume its rightful place as the leader among nations. By night Shirer listened to the roar of jackboots marching through the narrow, medieval streets in torch lit processions. For the rally the Nazis scripted arousing speeches and staged impressive military displays and powerful rituals of an almost spiritual nature; they exploited fully the Gothic, archetypal-Germanic environment of Nuernberg to create an effective atmosphere of national might steeped in German history. They then sold this spectacle to the rest of the nation through Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda machine as proof of restored German strength and superiority.

Shirer saw Hitler for the first time on 4 September—only ten days after his arrival in Nazi Germany—as the Fuehrer arrived after dark at the Deutscher Hof, his favorite hotel in Nuernberg. Apparently saving his energy for what would be a long, tiring week of tantrums, tirades and endless processions, the expressionless Hitler offered the waiting hordes a weak Nazi salute and disappeared inside the hotel. The people—who had been chanting “We want our Fuehrer!”—became ecstatic when Hitler made a brief appearance on the balcony and waved. Women swooned and many people surged forward to get a closer glimpse of Hitler, trampling others in their way. The complete devotion of the crowds, the blind adoration of “this vulgar, uneducated, fanatically bigoted Austrian” dumbfounded Shirer—reminding him of Holy Rollers he had once seen in rural Arkansas and Louisiana with the same “crazed expression on their faces.”

The 1934 Nuernberg rally seemed particularly tense because of Nazi purges Hitler had instigated earlier that summer to liquidate any possible opposition from within the party and to consolidate his power. Among his victims were his only close friend, Ernst Roehm and the former German chancellor, General Kurt von Schleicher. Effectively stripping the SA—the brown-shirted Sturmabteilung street heavies—of much of its power, Hitler installed into command the SS—his own black-coated Schutzstaffel, the elite guard that eventually would come to dominate the nation’s police forces. Also, an on-going conflict continued between professional German army generals—many of whom wished to reestablish a Hohenzollern throne and saw Hitler as a rowdy upstart—and Hitler’s own gang of uniformed hooligans and thugs. Some heads of the Nazi power elite feared a possible SA coup in Berlin aimed at restoring the monarchy while Hitler attended the Nuernberg rally: this made the Nazis particularly edgy. In that setting Shirer soon learned to play by Nazis rules. Having been so advised by the United States Ambassador William E. Dodd and others, he took to ducking into shops whenever SA or SS companies passed, as anyone not saluting their standards and flags or offering a hearty “Heil Hitler” risked being beaten.

Shirer found that Hitler’s speeches and the colorful pageantry performed that week closely reflected the pitch of the times in Germany. Accompanied by his primary advising ministers—Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess and Heinrich Himmler—Hitler marched with much ado into the rally’s opening meeting as some thirty thousand spectators watched. Luitpold Hall, the large auditorium where the Nazis gathered, boomed with the Badenweiler March and Hitler took his place on the officials’ platform. Then began a week-long performance in which Hitler denounced the betrayal of Germany at the end of the last war by Jews and socialists; he eulogized Nazi martyrs, called for the restoration of German sovereignty and power, warned of the need to counter the Bolshevik threat and feigned desires for world peace. Most striking of all, however, Hitler announced that “There will be no revolution in Germany for the next one thousand years”: the Third Reich would last a millennium! Shirer shook his head in disbelief at this, for Nazism seemed to him an aberration of the natural order.

After covering the Nuernberg Nazi Party rally, no big stories appeared on the news scene, leaving Shirer time to settle into his new post. Having most recently lived in Spain and France, he had to become reacquainted with German, shifting from the softer Austrian Deutsch he had learned as a reporter in Vienna to the more severe, exaggerated Prussian dialect and accent of Berlin. As soon as he could, he ferreted out contacts with Nazi officials, the few remaining German dissidents, foreign diplomats and other correspondents. Shirer attempted to forge friendships with German newspaper editors and reporters, but found that the best of them had fled the country. Not merely for journalistic interests, he took to walking the streets and riding public transportation to try to sense the mood of ordinary Germans.

More than anything else, Shirer’s most vivid first impressions of the citizens of the New Germany had to do with the unquestioning loyalty with which many of them supported the Nazis as Hitler rebuilt a formerly defeated, chaotic country. Shirer realized that while in the recesses of their minds lived the fear of the Gestapo and of the possibility of being sent to a concentration camp if they resisted the regime, it seemed that the Nazi terror affected the lives of relatively few Germans. After 1918 the Socialists and Communists had enjoyed considerable support, yet within a year of Nazi rule most of their followers happily kept their political sympathies to themselves—even as Hitler broke the once-strong unions and replaced them with a mock Labor Front. At first the nation’s churches heralded the rise of Hitler as the bringer of a restored moral order. By the time the Catholic archbishop of Munich and the Protestant Martin Niemoeller caught on to Nazi plans to replace Christianity with Teutonic paganism, however, it was too late. And, few Germans protested the savage disenfranchisement and killing of Jews.

Shirer concluded that most Germans did not sense that they were being duped or oppressed by a tyrannical leader. Hitler embodied their deepest hopes for regained national pride and prosperity. While they had known political turmoil for a decade and a half under the idealistic Weimarer democrats, under the Nazis they found an unshakeable stability. After fifteen years of recurrent, unbelievable inflation and unemployment, the Germans seemed willing to pay almost any price for a solid Reichsmark and the promise of full employment. Perhaps most importantly, Hitler offered the masses a break from an unwanted past. In exchange for hard work and the loss of personal freedom, the Nazis guided the nation toward a surrealistic dream of German cultural—if not political—dominance over what many saw as a mediocre world. Under Hitler, the German eagle soared once again.


Personal Encounters

William Shirer met many Germans and U.S. Americans with whom he made close friendships. As life in the Third Reich had become precariously dangerous for foreigners—not to mention the Germans themselves—people whom the Nazis distrusted naturally often supported and assisted each other as best they could. During crises family members of a person in trouble with the regime would turn to anyone who might be able to help secure the safe return of the apprehended person. It came as no surprise, then, that journalists and other foreigners sometimes would receive desperate requests for information or help in the case of a missing person.

On the first day of October 1939, the family of “Eleanor K.”—whom Shirer described as “a naturalized girl of German parentage who has been very helpful to me here for years”—contacted the well-known U.S. American reporter and asked him to locate Eleanor. She had left Amsterdam a few days earlier but never arrived at her waiting family in Berlin. Visiting the U.S. consulate on 2 October, Shirer learned from a well-placed “blitz call” to the German secret police posted at the Dutch border that Eleanor had been arrested in the Netherlands. Armed with such foreboding information, he asked pathetically “How shall I explain that to her family?”

Details surrounding Eleanor’s arrest and incarceration remained mostly unknown. Only in late January did Shirer learn “the story at last of what happened to Eleanor K.” In the bar at the Hotel Carlton he found “Tom R.,” a U.S. businessperson who had given Eleanor a number of letters “to certain parties in Germany” who he did not think were compromising, but which obviously were. Although by now he had become used to the brutality of the Nazis, Shirer shook his head. Noting that Eleanor hadn’t even looked at them, but simply tucked them into her bag, he reasoned “These were the letters which in the end almost led to her death.”

During a search at the German-Dutch border at Bentheim, the Gestapo discovered the letters. They arrested Eleanor immediately, but as they had no “suitable” jail, confined her in a local hotel. Shirer later reported that “Each day there were long hours of questioning, with the Gestapo inquisitioners trying to break her down and make her admit what she in truth refused to: that she knew the contents of her letters and was really a courier in the service of shady business interests inside and outside Germany. To make matters worse” he added, “one of the letters was to a Jew in Berlin.”

If not grim enough already, Eleanor’s story grew more tragic. Shirer repeated what “had told him, that “One night in the hotel Eleanor fell into a mood of deep depression. The Gestapo had questioned and threatened her all day. She saw herself receiving a long prison sentence. She had intended to return to America for good in a couple weeks. Now she would spend years in a Nazi concentration camp” he continued, “or a damp prison. She decided to make sure she wouldn’t. She decided to kill herself.”

Shirer claimed that with “The resolve made, [Eleanor] prepared for it coolly. She procured a rope” he explained, “tied one end to the radiator, the other end around her neck, opened the window, sat down on the window-ledge, and began to swallow strong sleeping-pills. She would soon be unconscious, she knew, would topple out of the window, and the rope would do the rest. Why it didn’t” he wondered, “she will never know.” Shirer speculated: “Probably the rope slipped off the radiator. All she knows is that some days later they told her in the hospital that the snow in the street below had broken her fall, that she had lain there for five hours until someone had stumbled across her half-frozen form in the first light of dawn, and that she had broken almost every bone in her body, but probably would recover.”

Miraculously, Eleanor somehow survived her aborted, dire attempt to escape Nazi captivity. Eventually, she was moved to a Berlin prison hospital, where according to Shirer “the American consulate, in great secrecy, procured her release and quietly got her out of the country.” As Tom had told him, Shirer concluded thankfully “She is now in America.”

Significantly, Shirer made many of his most provocative social contacts with individuals who were U.S. American by birth or naturalization, but who had German parents. Soon after discovering the fate of Eleanor K., he met “Percival W.,” a retired U.S. American businessperson of German parentage who Shirer assessed “sees something I’ve been trying to get straight. I had never met him before” Shirer acknowledged, “but he dropped up to my room this morning for a chat. We discussed the German conception of ethics, honour, conduct.”

According to Percival for Germans “a thing is right, ethical, honour-able, if it squares with the tradition of what a German thinks a German should do; or, if it advances the interests of Germanism or Germany. But the Germans” he claimed, “have no abstract idea of ethics, or honour, or right conduct.” Percival offered as an example a German friend’s comment that “Isn’t it terrible what the Finns are doing, taking on Russia? It’s utterly wrong” the man had declared. Percival responded that the Finns “were only doing what you would expect all decent Germans to do if they got in the same fix—namely, defending their liberty and independence against wanton aggression.” Percival’s friend protested, in light of the Non-Aggression Pact signed by Hitler and Stalin, “But Russia is Germany’s friend.”

Shirer interpreted “In other words, for a German to defend his country’s liberty and independence is right. For a Finn to do the same is wrong, because it disturbs Germany’s relations with Russia. The abstract idea there is missing in the German mentality.” He continued: “That probably explains the Germans’ complete lack of regard or sympathy for the plight of the Poles or Czechs. What the Germans are doing to these people—murdering them, for one thing—is right” Shirer argued hypothetically, “because the Germans are doing it, and the victims, in the German view, are an inferior race who must think right whatever the Germans please to do to them.”

The recurrent, arrogant blindness of German superiority that Shirer implied existed as a cultural trait exhibited itself from the “common person” all the way up to government officials. He pointed out: “As Dr. Ley puts it: ‘Right is what the Fuehrer does.’ All this confirms” Shirer reasoned, “an idea I got years ago: that the German conception of ‘honour,’ about which Germans never cease to talk, is nonsense.”

After William Shirer had covered the newsworthy week-long Nazi Party rally in Nuernberg upon first arriving in Germany in the fall of 1934, he and his wife Tess were able to turn their attention to finding a suitable home in the German capital. They rented a studio apartment on Tauentzienstrasse, “a stone’s throw from the top of the Kurfuerstendamm.” A sculptor and a renowned art historian, the owners anxiously awaited a chance to leave for England. “Being Jewish” Shirer told, “she was now unemployed and his works could no longer be sold, at least to Aryans.” Although they did so in violation of recent Nazi currency laws, the sympathetic Shirers agreed to pay the couple the rent in British sterling, using an account in London.

Like most Jews fleeing the Nazis, the former occupants of the studio left the majority of their belongings in Berlin. While not insensitive to their situation, Shirer admitted “We felt lucky to get the place” for it was furnished in “a pleasant modern style” and contained an extensive library of German books which Shirer felt sure he could “make good use of.”

The Shirers had become accustomed to living in furnished accommodations in Vienna, Paris and the coast of Spain. “But the migrant life we led” the reporter acknowledged, “made it impossible to furnish a home of our own—even if we could afford it.” In the process of apartment-hunting in Berlin, the couple had seen many homes “furnished in atrocious style, littered with junk and knickknacks. The stodgy German middle-class apparently liked their homes that way” he concluded. On the other hand, Shirer noted, “The Jewish sculptor’s place was just what we had hoped for.”


Work Life

Almost immediately after he arrived, William Shirer began reporting what he found in the New Germany. Attending the 1934 Nuernberg Nazi Party rally, he discovered a frightening sinisterness on the part of the Nazi leaders and a frenzy among the German people which sobered him. While some foreigners may have returned from trips to the Third Reich full of laudations for Hitler and his National Socialists, Shirer and others who spent considerable time in Germany—mainly journalists and diplomats—grew increasingly suspicious of what Nazism would mean to world peace, not to mention the well-being of what had been a highly civilized country.

From the beginning of his service as the Universal News Service correspondent and later a CBS-radio broadcaster in Berlin, Shirer realized that in order to fully understand the diabolical changes taking place in Germany, he would have to familiarize himself with the men closest to Adolf Hitler, as well as with the Fuehrer himself. Over the next six years until his departure from Berlin in December 1940 (on the advice of a friend who knew he risked imprisonment), Shirer came to know whom he called “the men, mostly misfits” who surrounded Hitler. Although he found each of the men repulsive, he dutifully wrote later that he believed “A correspondent had to get to know them.”

Often attending the Bierabend, the “beer night” hosted by Alfred Rosenberg—the Nazi Foreign Affairs head whom he described as “a crack-brained, doughy-faced dolt”—Shirer used those interviews provided for the foreign press as his chance to meet, among others, Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop and Heinrich Himmler. These were the men closest to Hitler; they influenced him perhaps more than any other Nazi officials and in turn executed the commands Hitler dictated that determined every facet of life in the Third Reich. In coming to intimately know them, Shirer became able to report more fully on the reality of German Fascism.

At one of these Bierabende Shirer met Goering—a “fat, high-living, swashbuckling number-two man.” Considering him to be “perhaps the most sinister of the men around Hitler,” Shirer admitted that Goering was the most popular Nazi leader in Germany and “the most powerful.” Serving as the Prussian prime minister, as well as the head of the Gestapo, the president of the Reichstag and the commander-in-chief of the German airforce, Goering reveled in his autocratic position within the Nazi government. Taken with donning ostentatious clothes and throwing lavish parties, the portly Goering earned his place among the Nazi echelon as an early supporter; he had sustained considerable wounds while marching at Hitler’s side during the failed 1923 Beer Hall Putsch in Munich.

While Goering seemed a bizarre caricature of a man, Shirer conceded that “He got things done.” When Goering wasn’t masterminding the behind-the-scene mechanics of totalitarian rule, he played. As Shirer recounted, “He...loved luxury and opulence and [had acquired] several castles and [had begun to build] a fantastic showplace outside Berlin” which he named Karin Hall; the name was in honor of his dead, aristocratic Swedish wife, the former Baroness Fock—a “great Swedish beauty” whom Goering had married in 1923. Shirer also reported that Goering had become a morphine addict “though he would kick the habit for fairly long periods only to fall back into it when the strain of life got him down.”

It would be Goering, through his contacts with the rich and well known, who would assist Hitler in later years secure the backing the would-be dictator needed to take control of the former German republic. Claiming that “It is not necessary in a totalitarian dictatorship to be loved by the people,” during his contacts with Goering Shirer found that the Germans esteemed the man more than only the Fuehrer himself. He explained “They loved his down-to-earth saltiness, his jovialness, his crude sense of humor, his common touch. To them” he said, “he was a hail-fellow-well-met. It never seemed to concern them” Shirer commented, perplexed, “that he was also a brutal, ruthless, unscrupulous killer” .

Where Goering only too happily consented to meeting with the press and delighted in any attention afforded him, Shirer said “I never got much out of Hess,” the Nazi Party Deputy Leader, chief of the Nazi Central Political Commission and one of Hitler’s cabinet members. While Hess most often “remained silent,” Shirer thought he “did not speak badly in public, but he had nothing to say except to echo the Leader.” Although Hess apparently had learned “tolerably good English” from having lived in British-occupied Egypt as a boy, Shirer complained that when he addressed the reticent party deputy in English, Hess would reply in German “without batting an eye.”

In marked contrast to Hess, German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop had much to say—and a colorful personality to match. Regarding Hitler’s choice for the position, Shirer considered the “insufferable” Ribbentrop to be “an ignorant nincompoop.” Although the Foreign Minister spoke English and French well—having traveled as a youth around Switzerland, France, Britain and Canada—the critical Shirer thought Ribbentrop lacked “the slightest comprehension of France and the French, and of the British and the Americans and their countries. [He was] in short, the worst possible man to be picked as foreign minister.”

Ribbentrop, Shirer discovered, hid behind an impressive facade: “Everything about this simpleton” he claimed, “seemed phony.” After the fall of the Hohenzollerns and the end of the First World War, Ribbentrop had married the daughter of a prestigious German champagne manufacturer and helped “expand the lucrative business by grabbing the German market for imported French brandies and Scotch whiskies.” Establishing himself across Europe in trade and meeting “the rich and the well-born” through his wife, Ribbentrop even convinced an aunt whose dead husband had been knighted by the former Kaiser to adopt him, allowing him to add “von “ to his name.

As another ambitious member of Hitler’s inner circle and as Chief of the Secret Police as well as of the SS, Himmler had risen to a high rank from relative obscurity. A former Bavarian chicken farmer, he struck the curious Shirer as “rather small, with thick spectacles covering small but animated eyes.” When they met at one of Rosenberg’s Bierabende, Shirer concluded “He does not look like the head of a Cheka should,” but instead “he looks like a middling Beamter”—a civil-service official. Himmler seemed uncomfortable among foreigners and “too insignificant, too mediocre, to succeed for long as such a key man” in the Nazi machine, yet who was “already feeding victims into the brutal concentration camps.” Shirer later said of his initial impression of Himmler’s personal power, “I couldn’t have been more wrong, as it turned out.” He explained: “in this weird Nazi world there were a number of men of little competence and intelligence and no character—veritable thugs—who, to one’s astonishment, would be given posts of key importance, with power over the life and death of millions.”

One of those who seemed of little character was Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi chief of the Propaganda Ministry who out of his loathing for Rosenberg successfully avoid participating in the Bierabend programs. Describing him as “the wily, glib, clubfooted minister of propaganda,” Shirer met Goebbels during numerous press conferences and at the chic parties Goebbels loved to host. Saying that Goebbels seemed ‘”as insufferable as Ribbentrop” and that the two shared “a tremendous arrogance,” Shirer emphasized that unlike the foreign minister, the propaganda chief “was not unintelligent.” Goebbels’ personality seemed particularly abrasive, “but” Shirer noted, “a foreign correspondent had to see him...to find out what was going on in the country.” In the course of covering the news within the Third Reich, Shirer found “We learned to stomach more than I would have believed possible.”

During the course of their frequent meetings, Shirer found Goebbels to be “a swarthy, dwarfish, most un-Nordic looking German from the Rhineland, with a crippled foot, a nimble mind and a complicated and neurotic personality.” Despite the man’s faults, Goebbels had risen to occupy the position of third in power behind Hitler and Goering. Shirer explained that Goebbels’ success was due mostly “thanks to Hitler’s confidence in him and his own abilities as a rabble-rousing orator, a brilliant organizer and a ruthless character in dealing with both his enemies and colleagues.”

Goebbels’ nasty character did not endear him to those who encountered him. Shirer remarked “I personally could barely stand him. But then” he added, “neither could most of the men around Hitler. He was too devious even for them. They used to refer to him in private as ‘that rat.’ He seemed to have no friends in the party—or anywhere else. But Hitler” Shirer realized, “to whom [Goebbels] was utterly loyal, appreciated his devotion, his talents and his ability to get things done.” As the one man who controlled the German press and radio, theater, all art, publishing and most other forms of recorded thought and communication, Goebbels weilded incredible power. Shirer mused “That the culture of a great country was now being determined by the asinine ideology of Nazism was bad enough; but that it was subject to the dictates of this limited and neurotic man made it even worse.”

Although Goebbels had acquired what Shirer deemed “a solid university education”—which included philosophy, history, literature, art and the classical languages—the irreverent U.S. reporter chided “you would never have guessed it when you listened to his speeches and read his writings.” Shirer found Goebbels’ declarations “invariably banal, the product of a mind that though nimble was fundamentally mediocre.” Also, Goebbels seemed “unbelievably ignorant of the world outside Germany. He appeared to know absolutely nothing of the history, literature and the people of any foreign land. He understood no modern foreign language. His ideas of America” Shirer lamented, “were childish.” He explained: “Goebbels believed...that the United States was run by Jews and that it was being ‘racially’ poisoned not only by a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, but of whites and blacks. He believed” Shirer noted, “our level of culture was set by the gangsters.”

This unimpressive collection of men—Goering, Hess, Ribbentrop, Himmler and Goebbels—helped spread Nazism throughout Germany since the early days of the National Socialists; once in power, they and their Leader cemented their stranglehold over German thought, culture and politics through the cynical, uncompromising control of German daily life. To insure a lasting seedbed for Nazi Fascism, the Nazis turned to Germany’s children. Shirer came to see in the course of his investigations into life in the New Germany, that through the organization and direction of the Hitler Youth, the Fuehrer and his men would strive to create a Reich which truly would last for a thousand years.

As early as 1936 the Nazis decreed that all German youth “shall be educated physically, intellectually and morally in the spirit of National Socialism...through the Hitler Youth.” This edict required that children from the ages of six to eighteen join one of several divisions of the Hitler Youth. Over the years each child would “graduate” from one level to another—the most promising of whom eventually would become full-fledged Nazi underlings. Despite a facade of being focused on camaraderie, physical fitness and the “useful” development and application of personal skills, the Hitler Youth existed as a paramilitary organ from the start. In recognition of the true nature of the organization, Shirer later recalled “On many a week-end while tramping through the great stretches of woodland that surround Berlin, I would run into companies of Hitler Youth scrambling through the forest, rifles at the ready and heavy army packs on their backs.”

Of course the expedient Nazis did not overlook the possible political advantage of also manipulating German girls. Shirer noted “Sometimes you would run into the young ladies playing at soldiering too, for the Hitler Youth did not neglect the German maidens.” From age ten to fourteen they enrolled in the Jungemaedel—“Young Maidens”—“and their training was much like that of the boys, including long marches with heavy packs on weekends and the usual indoctrination in Nazi ideology.” Shirer explained that “great emphasis was put on their coming role as women in the Third Reich with strictures to be, above all, healthy mothers of healthy Nordic German children.” Such ideals were even more strongly touted as the girls underwent pubescence and at fourteen joined the Bund Deutscher Maedel—the “League of German Maidens.”

At age eighteen young German men served for a year in the Reichsarbeitsdienst—Imperial Labor Service—while the young women served as farm workers both in the fields and in the house. Shirer remembered humorously that “Inevitably, moral problems arose. The presence of a pretty young city girl sometimes disrupted a peasant’s household” he said, “and angry complaints from parents, about their daughters having been made pregnant on the farms, began to be heard.” Soon a “lively little song” about the plight of the young female “volunteers “ was circulated. It was a takeoff on Strength Through Joy, the Nazis’ slogan for its puppet German Labor Front. The song, which in German rhymed poetically, went:


In the fields and on the heath

I lose Strength Through Joy.


Apparently similar “moral problems” arose during the Household Year in which almost half a million female Hitler Youth served as domestics in urban homes. In reality, however, Shirer concluded “such problems did not cause much concern among the party faithful,” for he speculated they likely reasoned “the more healthy Aryan children born, the better.”

Despite the concerns of some parents and reluctance of some young people to join or serve, membership in the Hitler Youth remained compulsory throughout its existence. Shirer reported that “recalcitrant parents were warned that their children would be taken away from them and put into state orphanages unless they were enrolled.” In this way the Nazis endeavored to even more firmly tighten their grip over German society. Such heavy-handedness disturbed many, including Shirer, who wrote “It was a disheartening experience to watch Hitler take over the youth of Germany, poison their minds, and prepare them for the sinister ends he had in store for them. I had not believed it possible until I saw it with my own eyes.”

Besides German youth, the Nazis appealed to and coerced German laborers in a desperate push to widen support for the authoritarian regime. Under the directorship of Robert Ley, the leader of the official German Labor Front since Hitler’s ascendancy in 1933, the Labor Front “movement” orchestrated by the Nazis assured that independent labor organizations would not interfere with the smooth production of goods and services in the Third Reich. A known alcoholic, Ley had risen from poor peasant stock and according to Shirer “doggedly worked his way through high school and the university—a much more difficult feat in imperial Germany than in America—and gained a doctorate in chemistry.” The smart, albeit unhappy Ley only too readily assumed control over German labor and through its manipulation found an exhilarating sense of power.

From the start of their rule, the Nazis came to control completely the German workforce. Within three months of claiming power in 1933 Hitler decreed May Day the “Day of National Labor.” Whereas before it had been a celebration for German workers, under the Nazis May Day became a day to tout the virtues of work on behalf of the Third Reich and of the advancement of National Socialism. Hitler admonished an audience of over a hundred thousand workers gathered at the Tempelhof airfield near Berlin “Honor work and respect the worker.” Typical of Nazi trickery, Shirer watched as on the next morning the German police, the SS and the SA occupied trade union offices through the country, confiscated their funds, dissolved them and arrested, beat and shipped to concentration camps the unions’ leaders.

Within three weeks of the 2 May 1933 dissolution of German unions, Hitler decreed an end to collective bargaining and outlawed strikes. That fall Ley announced the creation of the so-called “Labor Front,” but Shirer reported “Like so much in Nazi Land, the ‘Labor Front’ was a swindle. It did not represent the workers” he protested: “It took in not only wage and salary earners, but also the employers and members of the professions. All had to join. It was” he concluded, “in reality a vast propaganda organization and, as the worker soon found out, a gigantic fraud.”

Ley made sure that German labor remained submissive to the needs of business and the government. “Workers, like everyone else under Nazism” Shirer remarked, “did what they were told. As in the early days of industrialism, they took what the employers offered them. Worse than that” he continued, “they were bound by the state to their place of labor, like medieval serfs.” All workers had to keep an Arbeitsbuch, a “work book” which verified her or his skills and employment record. Without such a book a person could not be hired. Also, an employer could impound the book, thereby forcing a worker to stay at a job. And by 1938 the Berlin government instituted labor conscription—obliging every German worker to work wherever the state made an assignment.

Comparing them to the Roman proletariat, Shirer noted that German workers “were provided by the enterprising Dr. Ley with circuses to divert their attention from the lack of freedom and the scarcity of bread.” Ley coined the slogan Kraft durch Freude—“Strength Through Joy”—and offered the German laborer “fun and games for his leisure at bargain rates.” Workers could enjoy vacations, for example, at incredibly subsidized prices: a cruise to Madeira for ten days cost twenty-five dollars; summer beach excursions and winter skiing in the Alps cost eleven dollars a week. Shirer reported “Hundreds of beach and lake resorts were taken over for the exclusive use of these worker vacations.”

As an influential reporter, Ley invited Shirer to personally experience one of these vacations. Joining a KDF cruise, Shirer testified “I found life at the resorts and especially on the cruise ships excruciatingly organized. But the German workers and their families” he conceded, “seemed to be having a fine time.” In meeting the vacationing workers, Shirer came to hear their praise of the “benefits” of the closely directed German Labor Front. “Individuals I talked to expressed pride” he recounted, “that for the first time ever a laboring man and his family could afford to take an ocean cruise or loll on the beaches for a week or go skiing in the mountains. Maybe in America” one coal miner had remarked to him, “a worker made enough to afford such vacations, but never in Europe, never in Germany.”

Despite having crushed the unions, depressed wages and made employers “the complete master of [their] enterprise,” Shirer reasoned that after “the weary, dreary years of unemployment” after the World War, Hitler easily had won the full cooperation of German labor. He qualified, however, that the German worker “had been taken in less by Nazi propaganda than any other segment of German society” .The hypothetical laborer was “less Nazi” than most other Germans, yet coalesced with the new order anyway; as Shirer realized, despite class or ideological differences with the regime: He was thankful for a steady job” and “He enjoyed the new opportunities for leisure provided by KDF.”

Although it cost the Berlin government vast amounts of money and bureaucratic resources, without the costly support of mollified laborers, Hitler could not have rearmed Germany. Shirer acknowledged that “Without his steady contribution as a skilled and dedicated worker, the great war machine...would never have reached the awesome proportions it did.”


Confronting Censorship

Psychological manipulation became the centerpiece of Hitler’s grip over German society. A key to complete thought control, censorship of the press determined what the German people normally thought and talked about regarding the country’s political and cultural life. The Nazi machine quickly rolled over any semblance of freedom of speech long before Hitler took power in 1933; after his ascent, the oppression of individual speech and popular assembly became even harsher. As newspapers still provided the primary source of news and public information in Germany at that time, control of print-media remained a priority for the Nazis throughout the existence of the Third Reich; it was through the press that they strove to bolster images fundamental to the establishment of a Nazified social order in the New Germany.

Curiously, while William Shirer found upon his arrival in Berlin in 1934 that “though the German press was heavily censored and rigidly controlled there was no censorship of [foreign journalists’] dispatches.” A colleague warned Shirer that “while you did not have to submit your copy for approval by the authorities before cabling it, you had to weigh carefully what you reported about Hitler and the Nazi regime. If he or his aides, especially Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the fanatical Nazi minister of propaganda and the watchdog of the foreign correspondents, found it unacceptable—out you went,” as had happened to Dorothy Thompson the day the Shirers had arrived in Berlin and to numerous others in the preceding months.

On the day in early September when Shirer reached Nuernberg, Nazi foreign press agent Hanfstaengl warned the foreign journalists covering the Nuernberg Nazi Party Rally against editorializing or sensationalizing the event. He ordered them to “report on affairs in Germany without attempting to interpret them. History alone” he had said, “can evaluate the events now taking place here under Hitler.” In this heavy-handed way, the Nazis attempted to intimidate the foreign press in hopes of stylizing an image of the Third Reich they wished to export around the world.

           Noting that the “tall, gangling, eccentric, incoherent, high-strung” Hanfstaengl was a classmate of President Franklin Roosevelt at Harvard and through his mother a descendent of the Sedgwicks—a patrician New England family—Shirer claimed that “None of the foreign correspondents had taken him very seriously.” Saying that though he thought “Putzi” to be “rather a clown,” Shirer held that “the foreign correspondents, especially the Americans, had taken quite a liking to him.” Instead of the typical fear and dread most Nazi officials projected, Hanfstaengl conveyed a gentle sympathy which made it hard for U.S. Americans to dismiss easily.

Referring to Hanfstaengl’s admonition that the foreign press leave history to interpret events in Hitler’s Germany, Shirer conceded “I was not willing to wait that long. But I soon learned” he added, “to watch my step. All through my years in Berlin I was conscious of walking a real, if ill-defined, line. If you strayed too far off it you risked expulsion. One soon got the feeling” he recalled years later, “of how far one could go. I made up my own mind from the beginning that as long as I could tell the essential story of Hitler’s Germany, fully, truthfully and accurately, I would stay, if I were allowed to. Once that became impossible” he vowed, “I would go.”

Shirer was not the only foreign journalist determined to circumvent Nazi censorship and intimidation as best one could under the circumstances. He found that over the following years many of his colleagues—“and they were usually the brightest, and the best”— would “get the axe.” Threatened with expulsion himself, Shirer realized after the beginning of the Second World War in September 1939 that “the Nazi censors would no longer allow me to report what I thought a foreign correspondent was obligated to report, even in wartime.” Subsequently, he left. “To be sure” he said in retrospect, “my departure [was] hasted by the knowledge that the authorities had begun to suspect that I was a spy, slipping military secrets by code words in my CBS broadcasts,” which the U.S. government passed to the British—“the only enemy Hitler had not conquered up to then.”

Not long before Shirer finally fled the Third Reich, a “well-placed” German friend warned him that he might soon be arrested and charged with espionage. “Innocent though I was of such an absurd accusation” Shirer protested, “I had no faith that the dreaded Nazi People’s Court would acquit me. If it did not—and this kangaroo tribunal rarely acquitted anyone, no matter what the lack of evidence—I might get the axe, literally. Convicted spies” he grimly recounted, “had their heads chopped off in Germany in those days.”

Shirer felt concerned not only for his own safety, but also for the safety of his informants, for the merciless Nazis simply would not tolerate a “betrayal” of the Vaterland by anyone. He remembered “I soon learned how important it was to be careful to protect my sources, the men and women who at great risk furnished me with news the government tried to suppress. The slightest bit of carelessness” he recalled, “might result in your informant being arrested and charged with treason, which meant almost invariably a death sentence. This possibility” Shirer admitted, “kept weighing on my mind and sinking my spirits, and when sometimes one of my sources did get nabbed and, in two cases, sentenced to death, I would walk the streets of the capital, dazed and despairing, searching my conscience and my memory to try to discover if anything I had done, any slip I might have made, could possibly have implicated him.”

The Gestapo periodically visited all foreign correspondents in their homes or offices and questioned them about suspected informants. “My relations with the secret police, which had been established the first moment of my arrival in Berlin when they questioned me at the railroad station, turned out to be continuous” Shirer griped. Nonetheless he maintained “I never gave Himmler’s agents any information whatsoever at these interrogations, and I’m sure my colleagues, with very few exceptions, did not either. After all” he said. “I had nothing to lose if I was found out; all they could do was expel me. My German informants” he emphasized. “risked their lives.”

The risk of execution for discovered informants was real. Shirer would never forget the stories of several such unfortunate individuals. One of them, “a fearless young Protestant pastor” who disregarded many of the usual precautions foreign journalists and their informants took “such as clandestine meetings after dark in a wooded area of the Tiergarten or in a busy street in a slum or in a crowded railroad station,” often visited Shirer in his office or home and “spilled out his heart and soul.”

Another man, an editor at the Boersen Zeitung—a “conservative morning newspaper in Berlin”—also caught the notice of the Gestapo. With much relief Shirer learned that the editor was not to be executed after all and instead received life imprisonment. “His offence” Shirer noted resentfully, was “he occasionally saw that some [foreign correspondents] received copies of Goebbel’s secret daily orders to the press. They made rich reading” he said, “ordering daily suppression of this truth and the substitution of that lie.” The editor had been exposed by a Polish diplomat, Shirer learned, “a fellow I never trusted.”

Grateful that the death sentences of both the young pastor and the editor had been commuted to life imprisonment, Shirer commented that his gratitude was not boundless. “I was glad they would live” he explained, “but horrified that they faced spending the rest of their lives behind bars—for acts that in any civilized society were not crimes at all.” He continued: “It was difficult for me to live with the savagery the Nazi regime inflicted on those it regarded as its enemies. I was not” he said, “at least in the early years in Berlin, tough enough to take the death sentences meted out, especially if I had known, however slightly, the recipients.”

Despite a history of centuries of shining accomplishments in literature, art, science and philosophy, under the Nazis Germany became a barbaric and tragic country. As he eventually discovered, Shirer would experience often the brutal reality of life in the Third Reich on a personal level—at the least expected moments. One morning as he read the newspaper over breakfast, Shirer saw on the front page that two young German women he had met at embassy receptions and cocktail parties had been beheaded at dawn the previous day. Daughters of aristocratic families, Shirer had thought both women to be “attractive, highly cultivated and intelligent.” At the same time, however, “they had not been backward in giving vent to their loathing of the Nazis. Probably” he speculated, “this was what got them into trouble in the first place, though”—according to the newspaper account—“they had been found guilty...of espionage for Poland.” The news stunned Shirer; he was “numbed at the thought of their heads...being chopped off,” for both of them had “silken dark hair and lovely, refined faces.” That morning’s breakfast, he added, “was a meal that was never finished.”

The Polish diplomat whom Shirer suspected of betraying the editor of the Boersen Zeitung and both of the German women who had been executed, was not the only traitor working for the Nazis. The generally discriminating Shirer “took quite a liking to a young German in the Foreign Office, who fed me scraps of information and gossip, let me get by with murder sometimes when he was assigned as one of the censors of my broadcasts after the war came, and was outspoken in his criticism of everyone from Hitler on down, especially of his boss, Ribbentrop.” The young official earned Shirer’s trust—until one night he confessed while drinking that he was a member of the secret police and had been assigned to spy on Shirer.

“And then there was Fatty” Shirer continued, listing double agents who stood out in his mind. “He was a tipster for a number of us American correspondents. Barred by Goebbels from employment by the German press because he refused to become a Nazi party member, or so he said” Shirer explained, “he eked out a miserable living furnishing tips and information to us.” Describing Fatty as “a rather courtly, warm and amiable fellow,” Shirer admitted that as did other foreign reporters, he liked and trusted the man. Occasionally Fatty supplied Shirer with valuable tips, yet as a seasoned journalist Shirer always confirmed his information, “feeling that sometimes it might be a plant. We suspected him” he said, “because Goebbels allowed him to operate as an informant of the foreign press. He did us many a favor, tipped us off occasionally to an important story, but we had to assume that his principal job was to keep the propaganda minister au courant of what we foreign correspondents were up to— whom we were seeing, what we were reporting.” Subsequently, the reporters watched what they told him and “took him with more than a grain of salt.”

In that climate of distrust, spying, betrayal and general intrigue, one slowly learned whom to trust and whom to avoid. And, one discovered, surface appearances could seldom be assumed to be “reality.” Shirer met one young German woman who served in an important position in the German Broadcasting Company. She had fallen in love with a Jewish sculptor who had fled abroad and “covered her anti-Nazi activities by sporting a Nazi party button on her bosom and in public by mouthing the Nazi gibberish.” The two became close friends, leading Shirer to state “I grew to trust her completely. She was able to feed me a good deal of inside information about what was going on in the government and party circles.” On numerous occasions Shirer’s friend warned him when he was in trouble with German officials because of something he had written or said in one of his reports or because of whom the Gestapo had seen him contacting. He disclosed that “It was mainly she who warned me during the second winter of the war that the Gestapo was building up a case against me as a spy and that I should leave the country before it closed in on me.”

In addition to his friend in the German Broadcasting Company, after the war had begun Shirer met two officers of the German High Command who—“at the risk of their hides”—became “trusted and valuable” informants. He described one as “a scion of an old, aristocratic family, which for generations had furnished officers to the army.” The other, Shirer said “was a former Austrian naval officer, recalled to duty when the war began. Both loathed the Nazis. More than that, they opposed the war because they believed it was unnecessary and in the end would be lost. Most of all” he related, “they were sickened and revolted at Hitler’s barbarous treatment of the conquered lands.” Out of their conviction that the Nazis were without merit, they informed Shirer on developments within the military command. Admittedly, though, he could not use much of what they revealed to him because “to have done so would have cost me my head.” At least, however, their tips assisted him in providing better coverage of the war.


Jewish Persecution

The harassment of the Jews remained blatant and officially sanctioned throughout the Third Reich. As soon as he arrived in Germany, William Shirer witnessed the effects of the Nazi effort to extinguish all Jewish presence in the New Germany. Further, he reported that because as early as the fall of 1934 the Nazis would beat anyone—even foreigners—who did not offer the obligatory stiff-armed salute, he took to dodging into shops whenever he saw SS, SA or other Nazi groups marching toward him. Some of the shops were Jewish and remained open, but “to a dwindling business.” Storm troopers had painted “crude signs in yellow paint” on their windows proclaiming “Not for Aryans,” so the owners often were uncomfortable with the U.S. American journalist’s presence. “I might be followed by the storm troopers” he explained, “who would rough them up and perhaps smash their windows and close their shops.” Shirer added “As far as the Jews were concerned, the Brownshirts were a law unto themselves. Few Jewish store-keepers dared to call on the police for protection” he noted. “If, exceptionally, in desperation, they did, no policeman dared give it.”

The tribulations cast upon the Jews in Nazi Germany especially upset Shirer. He acknowledged that “It weighed on an American correspondent in Berlin more than any other aspect of Hitler’s primitive rule, provoking in me a constant depression of spirits and often sickness of heart.” He recounted “From the moment of his takeover as chancellor, Hitler had lost no time in turning against the Jews.” In the Fuehrer’s first year he barred them from public office and civil service, journalism, broadcasting, farming, teaching, the theater and cinema. In 1934 Hitler went further: “He weeded the Jews out of the stock exchanges, the banks and the ownership of businesses, especially of the department stores, newspapers and magazines, and began to eliminate them from the practice of law and medicine. And all along” Shirer added, “there were the constant brutal beatings and the murders of Jews in the S.A. barracks, in the jails, prisons and concentration camps, where they were incarcerated merely because they were Jews.”

In 1935 Hitler decreed the Nuernberg Laws, which denied Jews of their German citizenship, reducing them to the status of “subjects.” The new decrees also forbad Jews from marrying or having extramarital relations with gentiles and from hiring female Aryan servants under the age of thirty-five. Shirer claimed that Hitler was “obsessed by the myth, as he made clear in Mein Kampf, that Jews continually raped, and therefore despoiled with their poisonous blood, young Gentle German maidens in their employ.”

Over the next few years, Shirer said, “it would be my sad duty to report on thirteen more decrees, supplementing the Nuremberg laws, that would outlaw the Jews completely, confining them to the ghetto and robbing them of the chance to earn a livelihood. The oppression of the Jews” he emphasized, “which at first to a considerable extent had been carried on outside the law by the bully boys of the S.A. and S.S., now became legitimized by so-called German law. Hitler” he concluded, “as his party hacks never ceased to proclaim, had become the law. There was no other in the Third Reich.”

Shirer and his wife did as much as they considered possible to alleviate the suffering of even a few Jews. “We foreign correspondents tried to help the Jews the best we could” Shirer assessed. “Tess and I sheltered some we knew, who had gone into hiding, until they could escape abroad. We used our contacts at the embassies and consulates of the U.S.A., Britain, France and Switzerland to facilitate their getting visas” he retold. “We rounded up a little foreign currency, though this was against the law, to tide them over when they got out.”

He continued: “Sometimes Tess and I would put up a Jewish friend, or a friend of a friend, who had come out of jail badly beaten, caring for him until he had recovered enough to return to his family without shocking them too much. One of these” he recalled, “had been a well-known Berlin lawyer, a much-decorated veteran of the war, in which he had lost an arm and a leg for the Fatherland. The head of the Jewish War Veterans Bund, he had been incarcerated without any formal charges and given the usual treatment.” He said when the man came to them “he was so battered in body and spirit he did not dare to face his family. We hid him in one of the rooms of our spacious studio-apartment until he was healed enough to go home.” Within a few weeks they were able to “spirit him out” to London. “These efforts” said the concerned journalist from safe, faraway Cedar Rapids, Iowa, “we had to face it, were but a drop in the bucket. For most Jews” Shirer lamented, “there was no help.”

It confounded Shirer how so many Jews ignored or minimized the threat the National Socialist regime posed to them. He remembered that “There were some Jews in those early years of the Nazi dictatorship who did not seem to realize the predicament they were in and that it was bound to get worse. A rather surprising number” he thought, “especially among the more affluent, believed that somehow things would get better for them. They had their roots and their stake in Germany, felt that they were good Germans, and were loath to leave.” Shirer reported “the virulent anti-Semitism, they thought, would pass. They did not take kindly our counsel that they ought to leave while they could. They begged us” he reflected, “to mind our own business.”

As an example of some Jews’ unshakeable belief that all would turn out fine, Shirer told of visiting Bad Saarow—a popular resort near Berlin—on Easter Sunday, 21 April 1935. He noted in his diary later that day:


Taking the Easter weekend off. The hotel mainly filled with Jews and we are a little surprised to see so many of them still prospering and apparently unafraid. I think they are unduly optimistic.


Indeed, the optimism that Shirer detected among the vacationing Jews in spring 1935 would prove ill-placed—and for many, fatal.


Parting Glances

By the fall of 1940, the Second World War had intensified and British bombs fell on Berlin like explosive rain. William Shirer realized his days in the German capital were numbered, yet the dedicated reported wished to stay as long as possible. Amidst the increasingly rigid censorship the Nazis exercised over all press reports, he strove to provide as much truthful news about developments inside Germany as possible. Desperate to slip reporting of value past German censors, he took to indicating “a truth or an official lie by the tone and inflection of the voice, by a pause held longer than is natural, by the use of an Americanism which most Germans, who learned their English in England, will not fully grasp.” Despite his clever deception, however, Shirer realized in late September “the Nazis are on to me.” The perceptive Germans assigned two new censors to Shirer: a professor who had taught in the United States and a financier who had worked on Wall Street.

While he struggled to broadcast reports of at least some worth to audiences back in the United States, Shirer watched as attacks on Berlin grew more frequent and severe. As evidence of the increasing dangers of life in the largest city in Hitler’s Third Reich, on 29 September he recorded in his journal that “The British really went to work last night. They bombed heavily and with excellent aim for four hours.” When it at last seemed destruction was destined to consume Berlin, he decided that although he would stay, his wife Tess and baby daughter Eileen must leave for fear of their lives. On 23 October Shirer saw his family off on a bus in Geneva that headed across unoccupied France to Barcelona, where they would board a train for Lisbon and there a ship for New York. He later recalled the setting in which he and his wife prepared for their departure: “Tess and I had been too busy closing up the rented apartment to become very depressed at another separation, another house-closing, though I felt low and drained after they had gone.”

           As Shirer explained, however, they “were lucky enough as it was, because there were more than a thousand refugees clamoring to get out on the two buses that set off once a week for Spain. The American Express would not allow its bus to leave that week because of reports of floods in the Pyrenees that had washed out the roads between France and Spain” he related, “but the people in charge of the Swiss bus on which we had booked decided to chance it. Most of Tess’ baggage” he noted, “consisted of food and water sufficient for two days, as there were no provisions en route in France.”

Shirer’s “bubbling” daughter “helped lighten our farewells, and I felt grateful that she was much too young to notice or feel the tragedy in that busload of human beings. Most of them” he listed, “were German Jews trying to distance themselves still further from Hitler. As they crowded into the bus they were nervous and jittery to a point of hysteria” he remembered, “and I did not blame them. Almost every day in Geneva” Shirer’s wife had told him, “there were reports of the French turning over German Jews to the Gestapo, and I had overheard several of them waiting for the bus to express their fears that the French might take them off it and hand them over to Himmler’s torturers, or that Franco’s pro-German Spaniards would hold them up at the frontier.”

Once his wife and daughter were on their way back to the United States, Shirer experienced unsettling doubts and isolation. He later recalled: “It was all I could do to get myself off to return to Germany the next day. I remember on the train up to Bern gazing with leaden heart through the window of my compartment at the Swiss, Lake Geneva, the mountains, Mont Blanc in the distance, the hills and pastures still green, the marble palace of the defunct League of Nations. I kept wishing” he admitted, “I had taken that bus with Tess and Eileen.”

Shirer had considered his “chances in Nazi Germany” spent before he took his family to safety in Switzerland. Upon his return after their departure, however, he felt even more sure that now he risked his own safety. “I could no longer get by reporting the truth from [Germany]” he explained. “But that was not all. I had had the feeling in the past few weeks that the German authorities were closing in on me. This was not paranoid reaction” he protested. “I was not imagining it.” A close German friend who worked at the German Broadcasting House had access to cables about Shirer from the German embassy in Washington. “Even before my trip to Geneva” he said, “she had warned me that I was in deeper water than I realized.”

When he returned to Berlin his friend tipped Shirer that the Gestapo, the Propaganda Ministry, the Foreign Office and “even the military” were compiling charges of espionage against him. “For the first time” he reported, “she suggested I ought to consider leaving, soon, while there was still time.” The woman told him the German embassy and the military “were convinced I was a spy and that I was getting out secret intelligence by use of code words in my broadcasts.” She also warned the Gestapo had increased its surveillance of him and that “I should be careful whom I saw, including her.” As one of the few Germans Shirer trusted, he took her warning seriously and made plans should he have to leave suddenly. Because he did not want to expose his informant friend, he did not even tell the CBS office in New York that he had become a Nazi suspect. Even if he had, he likely would have gotten little support to leave, as “Ordinarily...you do not desert your post, especially in wartime. But” Shirer countered, “I had no intention of letting the Nazis frame me as a spy.”

During the next few months the British bombing of Berlin continued. “The damage was never very great” Shirer found, “but the attacks killed a few people each time, damaged factories, rail yards, streets, buildings, houses, and robbed the populace of its night’s sleep, cutting down war production and keeping everyone’s nerves on edge.” At least, the war-weary Shirer discovered, “Sometimes, thank God, there was a humorous side to it all,” such as when Soviet Premier Vyacheslav Molotov visited Hitler in Berlin. At that time Hitler still maintained that Britain was virtually beaten, leaving Germany and the Soviet Union to make plans to divide what had been the British empire. Although Molotov had already alluded to Germany’s “life-and-death struggle” with Britain—“that Germany was fighting ‘for life’ and England ‘for death’”—when British bombs came unsettlingly close to the official Soviet delegation and sent them scurrying for cover, he replied to the German insistence that Britain was losing, “If that is so, why are we in this shelter, and whose are the bombs which fall?”

While enemy bombs fell from the sky, official objections to Shirer’s reporting rose from the German command. By late November Shirer realized that he had stayed as long as he safely could and began making arrangements to leave. On 2 December he wrote merely four words in his journal: “Ony three more days!” On the next day he checked on the status of his request to leave and found the Foreign Office was “still holding up my passport and exit visa, which worries me.” Also on that day he made his final broadcast from Nazi-ruled Germany. Finally, on 4 December he could report with delight “Got my passport and official permission to leave tomorrow. Nothing to do now but pack.”

The approval of his request to leave came as a welcome relief, yet leaving the Third Reich posed another sort of problem for Shirer: how to get his diaries out of Germany. Realizing their dangerous content, he recalled later “At some moments I had thought I ought to destroy them before leaving. There was enough in them to get me hanged—if the Gestapo ever discovered them.” He had slipped a couple pages out of the country with diplomatic friends in the Swedish and U.S. American embassies, but the bulk of them presented a problem unremedied by small leaks of them through those two channels. Shirer later recounted: “The morning I got my passport and exit visa I realized I had less than twenty-four hours to figure out a way of getting the bulk of my Berlin diaries out. I again thought of destroying them” he admitted, “but I wanted very much to preserve them, if I could. Suddenly, later that morning” he explained, “the solution became clear. It was risky, but life in the Third Reich had always been risky. It was worth a try.”

The ever-coy Shirer thought of a rather ingenious trick. He laid the dairies in two large steel suitcases. Over them he laid a number of broadcast scripts, “each page of which had been stamped by the military and civilian censors as passed for broadcast.” On the top he placed a number of General Staff maps he had obtained from friends in the High Command. Then calling Gestapo headquarters on Alexanderplatz he explained that he wanted to take a couple suitcases with broadcasts and dispatches with him when he left Germany the next day, but as his plane left at dawn “there would be no time for Gestapo officials at the airfield to go over the contents. Could they take a look now” he asked, “if I brought them over; and if they approved, put a Gestapo seal on the suitcases so I wouldn’t have to be held up at the airport?” The officials readily agreed.

Even though he succeeded in getting the Gestapo to swallow his bait, Shirer wondered “Wasn’t I tempting fate? How could these hard-nosed Nazi sleuths help but sniff out the diaries beneath my broadcasts? That” he realized, “would be the end of me. Maybe” he pondered, “I had just better begin to flush them down the can.” What kept him from destroying his journals was Shirer’s assumption that the secret police would seize the General Staff maps: “You couldn’t take out such maps, especially in wartime. That’s why I put them there on top” he explained. “Customs officials always feel better if they found something in your bags to seize, and so would these Gestapo characters” he reasoned. “Then they would look at the layers of my broadcast scripts and I would ostentatiously point to the censors’ stamps of approval on each page. Nothing impressed German cops more” Shirer maintained, “than official stamps, especially by the military.”

Shirer thought the “feared Gestapo...was really not very efficient”; that impression, it turned out, seemed right. The scenario at Gestapo headquarters unfolded as he had hoped: “The two officials who handled me seized at once my General Staff maps” he remembered. “I apologized. I had forgotten” he lied, “that I had put them in at the last moment. They had been very valuable to me in reporting the Wehrmacht’s great victories in the field” he fabricated to the inspectors, then explained he realized “I shouldn’t take out General Staff maps.”

When one of the men asked “What else you got here?” Shirer replied “The texts of my broadcasts...every page, as you can see, stamped for approval by the High Command and two ministries.” He said “they were impressed. They poked a little deeper, each man now working a suitcase. Soon they would reach the diaries” he recounted. “I now wished I had not come. I felt myself beginning to perspire. I had deliberately got myself into this jam. What a fool!”

When one of the agents asked if he had reported on German army, Shirer responded with gusto “All the way to Paris, and to the armistice at Compiegne.” He added convincingly “A great army it was, and a great story for me. It will go down in history!” Nervously watching the outcome of this drama, Shirer soon could sigh, “That apparently clinched it.” Probably proud of his one English word, the guard answered “Okay.” The Gestapo then tied Shirer’s two metal suitcases shut with metal tape and affixed several Gestapo seals to them. “I tried” Shirer said later, “not to be too effusive in my thanks. Outside” he continued, “I hailed a taxi, drove to Tempelhof, and checked the suitcases in the luggage room. I had not yet got my papers out of Germany” he conceded, “but so far, so good.”

The next morning—5 December—a heavy snow fell over Berlin. As his taxi slid down the streets of the German capital toward the Nazis’ showcase airport, Shirer worried that his plane would be delayed in such weather. “If the flight was canceled” he fretted, “it might mean I would be stuck [in Nazi Germany] for weeks. The plane to Madrid and Lisbon was booked for weeks ahead.” To his relief, however, the flight was not canceled.

Except for “a few clothes and a dozen German books,” Shirer had no luggage besides the two metal suitcases. He feared, though, that he would not slip his precious notes through inspection. “At the customs” he recalled, “there was literally a herd of officials. I opened the two bags with my personal belongings, and after pawing through them two officials chalked a sign of approval on them. I noticed from their insignia” he said, “they were from the Gestapo.” Next, they pointed to the two suitcases. “Open them up!” an agent barked. “I can’t” Shirer acted. “They’re sealed—by the Gestapo.”

The two officials briefly whispered to each other, then asked where the suitcases had been sealed. When the anxious U.S. reporter answered “At Gestapo Headquarters at the Alexanderplatz,” the central office, they returned and “without a word chalked the two bags. I was free at last to get to the ticket counter to check my luggage “ Shirer rejoiced.

When he reached the Lufthansa desk and the porter asked where the bags were to be sent, Shirer replied joyfully “To Lisbon.” Shirer recalled that as the man processed them “The thought of the German airline delivering my diaries to me safely in Portugal, beyond the reach of the last German official who could seize them, bucked me up.”

Although he had miraculously passed German customs, Shirer continued to wait for his flight, as the airport’s control tower repeatedly postponed takeoff, as visibility remained zero. He went to the restaurant and had a second breakfast. “I really was not hungry” he confessed, but had to do something to relieve the tension. I started to glance at the morning papers I had bought automatically on arriving at the airport” he explained. “I usually picked up first Hitler’s own paper, the Voelkischer Beobachter, full of propaganda though devoid of news. It gave the Nazi line, as the Fuehrer himself probably determined it.” Shirer remembered “I glanced at the front page. The usual bullshit” he scoffed and tossed the paper onto the table. “I don’t have to read it” he thought, then declared defiantly “I don’t have to read any of this trash anymore!”

            Knowing that later that day he would reach Barcelona, Shirer realized “I wouldn’t have to put up with anything anymore in the great Third Reich. The sense of relief I felt was tremendous” he said. “I had only to hold out this one more day, and the whole nightmare for me would be over, though” he realized, “it would go on and on for millions of others.”

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