In December 1941, CBS News Foreign Correspondent William L. Shirer (1904-1993) sailed from Europe for the final time as World War II claimed lives and destroyed cities. At the time of his departure, World War II was heading into its second year but several months ahead of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the conflict. The journalist said goodbye to a continent to which he had devoted fifteen years of his life. Upon his return, he assembled his diary, carefully hidden from the Gestapo and Nazi Germany officials and turned them into this account of what he witnessed as Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) embarked on a path of world domination and plunged the world into its deadliest conflict. And the result is an eye-opening account of life behind the carefully crafted world image that Nazis put forth to keep the prying eyes of powerful nations averted as the Wehrmacht plundered its way across western Europe.
Shirer may be recognized by readers for his other phenomenal work on the Nazi regime, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany‘, a masterpiece of writing that remains on my shelf and list of favorite books to this day. I strongly recommend it to readers in search of a thorough history of Nazi Germany. Here, the story is focused on life in Germany as the Nazis took hold of the country. At the start of the book, Hitler has already been made Chancellor, so there is little in the journal about the transfer of power from President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) or the Reichstag Fire. The focus is on daily life in Berlin and the sobering Nazi conditions placed on the Reich’s citizens. As an American journalist, Shirer was allowed close access to the notorious figures of the Reich from President and Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (1893-1946), Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and the notorious Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Shirer did cross paths with Hitler and witnessed his speeches, but there was no formal interview that Shirer would have referred to had it existed. Regardless of his location and situation within the Reich, he witnesses the truth behind the Reich that contrasted with what Hitler was saying to the German people.
Germany’s rearmament was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Hitler had no intentions on adhering to the sanctions and rules placed upon the Fatherland. Western powers were slow to react to the Germany build-up but on the ground, Shirer was able to see how popular Hitler was becoming and the preparations for conflict like no other. He makes notes about German life from the peculiar behavior on the streets and Germans he knows personally. There are bits of humor in the observations yet the dark cloud on the horizon continues to approach. And in the weeks before the Germany invasion of Poland on September 1,1939, the suspense continued to build as Shirer shows in the daily entries. But there are two incidents in the notes that require a comment. The appeasement at Munich, widely seen as the last chance to stop Hitler’s plan is discussed and Shirer’s disbelief at the British actions towards Hitler’s aggression was shared by the author of this post. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) once wrote about this in his classic ‘Why England Slept‘, a valuable book about the failure to confront the Austrian menace in Berlin. The other entry in the journal relates to the German advancement on the Rhineland in 1936. What he notes in his journal about the missed opportunity to stop Hitler is one of the war’s most puzzling events. The comments by German officers following the de-escalation on the Rhine highlight the ability of the Germans to bluff their way through as Hitler consolidated power and seized territory.
The journal entries pick up in intensity as the threat of war increases. And like a runaway train, we know that it is coming but nothing can stop it, and the shock felt by Shirer as a correspondent on the ground is captured by his words written after the Germany invasion of Poland. From this point on, the diary takes an entirely different course as the Nazi machine kicks into high gear and then plateaus. England is the “antagonist” in the story according to Hitler, and a sizeable portion of the entries are related to the off and on-again discussions with London about “peace”, though Hitler had no desire to let England survive. The showdown between England and Germany intensifies and soon the Royal Air Force began to hit targets within the Fatherland. Experienced German pilots were aware that England would not be easily defeated, and that Germany had its weaknesses which made winning a world war impossible. As a journalist, Shirer was intent on publishing all news about the German war front both good and bad. However, censorship was in full effect and throughout the story, there are countless battles between the author and German officials who inspected incoming and outgoing communications. The propaganda war waged by the Reich was nothing short of absurd. But it worked within Germany’s borders. Shirer takes note of this and gives insight into German mindset that explains why the people gave Hitler the power he desired. And these observations could have only come from a correspondent in the field watching the events as they happened.
There are occasions in the book where Shirer leaves Germany and travels to other European nations but most of the entries are from Berlin where the promise of a quick war rings hollow as England puts up more of a fight than expected. And the realization that Germany is not invincible begins to dawn on the German people who create crude jokes to describe Third Reich leadership. In the distance is the looming threat of American involvement, about which Shirer makes a premonitory statement that later came to fruition. Hitler also knew it would happen and pre-emptively signed agreements with Japan and Italy, realizing that America would never surrender to German domination. Nonetheless, Shirer accurately sizes up Germany’s sealed fate and the insanity of Adolf Hitler. The final entry in the book provides a fitting conclusion to an unbelievable story. As Shirer watches Europe fade in the distance aboard the vessel that will begin his journey back to America he remarks:
“For a time I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man’s hope and decency.”
A year after Shirer returned to the United States, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor Naval base bringing America into the deadliest war in history. For the next five years the world remained at war in a conflict between democracy and tyranny. In the end, a dictator lay dead and nations in ruins. The threat of dictatorship will never subside and to protect society from the dangers of tyranny, we must remember how it was done. This is the inside story of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s hold over Germany.
3 thoughts on “Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – William L. Shirer”
Wow, sounds like another great recommendation! The first person view of events in WWII Germany sounds fascinating.
Hi Rebecca! it’s a great book and underrated. History focuses so much on what the Reich did but more understand needs to go into why the people gave Hitler the powers he had.
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Yes, I completely agree so we can inoculate against future dictatorships!
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