William L. Shirer

William L. Shirer

William Shirer, the son of a lawyer, was born in Chicago in 1904. When he was a child his father died and the family moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He had to deliver newspapers and sell eggs to help the family finances. After leaving school he worked on the local newspaper.

In 1925 Shirer toured Europe and while in Paris found work with the Chicago Tribune. He started on the copy desk but after learning French, German, Italian and Spanish became a foreign correspondent. In 1933 Shirer married a Viennese photographer and the following year moved to Berlin to work for Universal Service.

The historian, Sally J. Taylor, has pointed out: "On the surface, he seemed a mild-mannered, ineffectual type who wore thick spectacles and puffed away blandly on his pipe, giving an appearance completely at odds with his complicated temperament and awesome intelligence. By the time he was thirty, he had worked his way up to the position of chief of the Central European bureau of the Chicago Tribune. In the following few years, he would report from practically every major capital on the Continent, as well as locations as far flung as India and Afghanistan. Quite simply, Bill Shirer knew everybody in the newspaper business in Europe."

Edward Murrow recruited Shirer to work for Columbia Broadcasting Service in 1937. As its Berlin representative, Shirer provided a regular commentary of the developments in Nazi Germany. However, the authorities kept a close watch on Shirer and most of his broadcasts were censored. It eventually became impossible for Shirer to report accurately on the situation in Germany and he left the country in December, 1940.

William L. Shirer
William L. Shirer

Shirer's book, Berlin Diary: 1933-41, was published in 1941. Other books by Shirer on Nazi Germany include End of a Berlin Diary (1947), The Rise and Fall of Nazi Germany (1959) and This Is Berlin: Reporting from Nazi Germany (1999).

William Shirer died in Berkshire Hills, Massachusetts, in 1993.

Primary Sources

(1) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

At eighteen, several thousand of the girls in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (they remained in it until 21) did a year's service on the farms - their so-called 'Land Jahr', which was equivalent to the Labour Service of the young men. Their task was to help both in the house and in the fields. The girls lived sometimes in the farmhouses and often in small camps in rural districts from which they were taken by truck early each morning to the farms.

Moral problems soon arose. Actually, the more sincere Nazis did not consider them moral problems at all. On more than one occasion I listened to women leaders of the Bund Deutscher Mädel lecture their young charges on the moral and patriotic duty of bearing children for Hitler's Reich - within wedlock if possible, but without it if necessary.

(2) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

Despite his harassed life, the businessman made good profits. The businessman was also cheered by the way the workers had been put in their place under Hitler. There were no more unreasonable wage demands. Actually, wages were reduced a little despite a 25 per cent rise in the cost of living. And above all, there were no costly strikes. In fact, there were no strikes at all. The Law Regulating National Labour of January 20, 1934, known as the Charter of Labour, had put the worker in his place and raised the employer to his old position of absolute master - subject, of course, to interference by the all-powerful State.

(3) William Shirer, CBS Broadcast from Berlin (26th September, 1938)

Well, at least on this fateful evening for Europe, we know where we stand.

Most of you, I take it, heard Chancellor Adolf Hitler's speech five hours ago at the Berlin Sport Palace.

If you did, you heard him say in a tone, and in words which left no doubt whatever, that he will not budge an inch from his position and that President Benes must hand over to him Sudetenland by Saturday night, or take the consequences.

Those consequences - in this critical hour you almost hesitate to use the word - are war.

It's true Herr Hitler did not use the word himself. At least amidst the fanatical yelling and cheering in the Sport Palace I did not hear it, and I sat but fifty or sixty feet from him.

But no one in that vast hall - or none of the millions upon millions of Germans who gathered tonight in every town and village of Germany to hear the speech broadcast through community loudspeakers, or who sat quietly in their homes listening - had any doubts, so far as one can find out.

This is what Herr Hitler said, as I jotted his words down as they were being spoken: "On the Sudeten problem, my patience is at an end. And on October 1, Herr Benes will hand us over this territory."

Those are the Chancellor's words, and they brought the house down with a burst of yelling and cheering the like of which I have never before heard at a Nazi meeting.

(4) William Shirer, CBS Broadcast from Berlin (2nd October, 1938)

Just as Hitler promised and Mussolini, Chamberlain and French Premier Daladier agreed, the German army marched into Czechoslovakia at two o'clock yesterday afternoon. I went with it.

It was a very peaceful occupation. Not a shot was fired. Only once did we run into the slightest danger - of which more later. The whole thing went off like a parade, even to the military bands and regimental flags and Sudeten girls tossing bouquets of flowers at the troops and throwing kisses at them.

And yet this was the German army which forty-eight hours ago was girded for war. Today it functioned with that clock-like precision which has given the Reichswehr its reputation. And it was ready for all eventualities. Only none of them occurred.

It's not true that Germans marched in a minute after midnight Friday night and with tremendous force.

I stood on the Czech-German frontier at Sarau, thirty-five miles east of Passau, general headquarters of the army occupying district number one on the south-west tip of Czechoslovakia, and from where we set out at noon. At exactly 2 p.m., by synchronized watches, the march began. And though the roads from Passau to the frontier were lined with troops, artillery and supply trains, only a handful took part in the occupation today.

It was truly a symbolic occupation. The Czech forces had withdrawn during the night, taking their arms and military supplies with them, but nothing else, and observing the conditions of withdrawal perfectly. There was no contact in my sector on the extreme right wing of the German army throughout the day. Even with field glasses we saw no Czech troops.

(5) William Shirer, CBS Broadcast from New York (14th July, 1939)

There is one reason which would seem to rule out the possibility of an alignment between German and Soviet Russia. It's this: Hitler's goal is the occupation and annexation of a vast part of Russia. How are you going to play ball with a man who covets your house and intends to settle in it if he can, even if he has to hit you over the head with his bat? And moreover says so.

Because he does in Mein Kampf, that Nazi bible which we all have to go to to divine what the Fuhrer may have in his mind next. Hitler in Mem Kampf says very plainly that Germany will only be a great nation when it acquires a much larger territory in Europe. From where is that territory to come? Hitler very obligingly gives us the answer. It is: From Russia.

A second reason is that if Hitler were to make a deal with Russia, the Japanese alliance, or whatever you call their present understanding, falls through automatically. Now the strange tie-up between Japan and Germany is not so strange as it seems, if we look into it for a moment. It's - valuable to Germany first as a part of a general threat to Britain and France - and to a lesser extent, the U.S. - in the East. Secondly, if and when Russia is to be conquered, it confronts Russia with a war on two greatly distant fronts, thus making Germany's job of conquering European Russia much easier. This second point is also the reason for Tokyo's friendship with Berlin - that is, if Japan is to get the Russian maritime provinces as well as Mongolia and a big slice of Siberia, Germany's military effort on the Western Front is absolutely necessary. Unless Japan ruins itself as a Great Power in China, and thus can no longer threaten the three Democracies in the Far East, there is little evidence that Hitler will ditch Tokyo. Along the path that he has apparently chosen, it is too valuable an ally.

(6) William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1959)

The Zyklon-B crystals that killed the victims in the first place were furnished by two German firms which had acquired the patent from I. G. Farben. These were Tesch and Stabenow of Hamburg, and Degesch of Dessau, the former supplying two tons of the cyanide crystals a month and the latter three quarters of a ton. The bills of lading for the deliveries showed up at Nuremberg.

The directors of both concerns contended that they had sold their product merely for fumigation purposes and were unaware that lethal use had been made/of it, but this defence did not hold up. Letters were found from Tesch and Stabenow offering not only to supply the gas crystals but also the ventilating and heating equipment for extermination chambers. Besides, the inimitable Hoess, who once he started 'to confess went the limit, testified that the directors of the Tesch company could not have helped knowing how their product was being used since they furnished enough to exterminate a couple of million people. A British military court was convinced of this at the trial of the two partners, Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher, who were sentenced to death in 1946 and hanged. The director of the second firm, Dr Gerhard Peters of Degesch of Dessau, got off more lightly. A German court sentenced him to five years' imprisonment.

Before the postwar trials in Germany it had been generally believed that the mass killings were exclusively the work of a relatively few fanatical S.S. leaders. But the records of the courts leave no doubt of the complicity of a number of German businessmen, not only the Krupps and the directors of the I. G. Farben chemical trust but smaller entrepreneurs who outwardly must have seemed to be the most prosaic and decent of men, pillars - like good business men everywhere - of their communities.

How many hapless innocent people - mostly Jews but including a fairly large number of others, especially Russian prisoners of war - were slaughtered at the one camp of Auschwitz? The exact number will never be known. Hoess himself in his affidavit gave an estimate of 2,500,000 victims executed and exterminated by gassing and burning, and at least another half million who succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total of about 3,000,000. Later at his own trial in Warsaw he reduced the figure to 1,135,000. The Soviet government, which investigated the camp after it was overrun by the Red Army in January 1945, put the figure at four million.

(7) Sally J. Taylor, Stalin's Apologist: Walter Duranty (1990)

William Shirer, born in Chicago, raised in Cedar Rapids, streetwise and country-boy shrewd, was one of a new breed who had turned up in Paris in the mid-1920s to take their chances. On the surface, he seemed a mild-mannered, ineffectual type who wore thick spectacles and puffed away blandly on his pipe, giving an appearance completely at odds with his complicated temperament and awesome intelligence. By the time he was thirty, he had worked his way up to the position of chief of the Central European bureau of the Chicago Tribune. In the following few years, he would report from practically every major capital on the Continent, as well as locations as far flung as India and Afghanistan. Quite simply, Bill Shirer knew everybody in the newspaper business in Europe.

On the same day his wire service gave him notice that his position had been cut back, Shirer received a telegram from Edward R. Murrow of Columbia Broadcasting suggesting the two of them have a talk over dinner. Until then, radio had been viewed mainly in terms of its entertainment potential, with an emphasis on oompah concerts and "You-Are-There" travelogues. Now, Murrow told Shirer, the medium was about to change its role dramatically. He and a handful of other men were trying to put together a series of linkages between the major capitals of Europe in a hurry; in time, they hoped, to cover a war that was rapidly approaching. With the built-in prejudices of any hard-boiled newspaper man, Shirer might not even have taken the trouble to listen to Murrow's spiel if he hadn't been out of a job.

That was in August 1937. By December, Shirer had become an old hand at arranging broadcasts out of Berlin, and sometimes Vienna.

Shirer had known Walter Duranty for years, an acquaintanceship that grew into friendship through their mutual regard for John Gunther. Shirer was also close to John and Irena Wiley, Duranty's frequent companions and traveling partners. Then too there was the Knickerbocker connection. As a wire-service man stationed in Berlin, Shirer had worked side by side with Knick, bumping into Duranty frequently at bars and restaurants.

Now deeply involved in what would become a legendary team of war-time broadcasters, Shirer was shuttling between cities, learning everything he could about transmitters, time zones, and telephone lines, taking on stringers, and generally familiarizing himself with the bumpy ride of transatlantic broadcasting.

Christmas of 1937 found him in Vienna, at the Wileys' house for the traditional feast. John Wiley was serving a term there as the U. S. Charge d'Affaires, and Duranty, "as always," was also present. Many years later Shirer seemed to have the hazy recollection, maybe it was only something overheard, of a lengthy discussion regarding Walter Duranty's Russian son. Duranty was apparently trying to get his boy out of Russia, and the Wileys had agreed to help, maybe even to adopt Michael, to try to facilitate the matter. But there had been resistance from unexpected quarters, Shirer remembered. The boy's mother didn't want to leave the Soviet Union, and she was resisting letting her son go without her. Michael was turning out to be extraordinarily bright, and maybe that was why Duranty had begun to think about his future. The boy, not quite four years old, had already begun reading in Russian, and had picked up some English along the way. Otherwise, after dinner, Shirer and Duranty holed up for a time to discuss the political situation in Moscow.