Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer

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Book Reviews
Berlin Diary: the Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941
Berlin Diary: the Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

William Shirer opened the foreword to his published diary as follows: "Most diaries…are written with no thought of publication. They have no reader's eye in view. They are personal, intimate, confidential, a part of oneself that is better hidden from the crass outside world. This journal makes no pretense to being of that kind."

Shirer was already a well-regarded journalist when he took a job as a correspondent in Berlin for the Universal News Service, one of the wire services of the Hearst press empire. In his diary entry where he reports on this move, he notes he is going “from bad to Hearst.” In going to Berlin in 1934 he knew he'd have a story to tell, so from the very beginning, he was writing not just for the immediate news audience in America, but also keeping notes with a view to publishing some account later. The book he eventually wrote, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, is an excellent general history of Nazi Germany.

Inasmuch as he was a journalist, Shirer was a trained observer, constantly gathering information and attempting to make sense of the social and political trends of the day, and so this work does have an historic significance. This diary was published almost immediately upon Shirer’s return to the States (in early 1941), months before Japanese bombers hit Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. And in reading these observations jotted down at the time, even if somewhat modified in the writing or in the later move to publication—Shirer admits that not all of his notes made it out of Germany, and that revisions were made before publication—one gets a contemporary view (from an American perspective) of the Third Reich prior to the US’ entry into the war.

Such a view, as one might expect, will not reflect knowledge of the extent of Nazi atrocity – Shirer is aware of harsh actions taken against the Jews, but he did not have knowledge of the Holocaust at the time, nor is it reflected in this. Even so, there are strange omissions – e.g. there is a total absence in this work of an account of the awful evening of Kristallnacht ("the Night of Broken Glass" – Nov. 9-10, 1938), in which Nazi thugs ravaged Jewish businesses, homes and synagogues.

Shirer is clearly amazed at what he sees as a German tendency to kowtow to authority, and he clearly believes that in other countries (the US, Britain, and Holland, for example) Hitler's lies would have been exposed before he could take power and do so much damage. As an American myself, I'd like to think so too, but in my own life I've seen plenty of examples here of people drinking the Kool-Aid pushed by those in power.

Shirer also glosses over the Berlin Olympics and the Winter Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, both of which he attended. He tells us little more than that he attended the events and was so worn out by the crowds that he begged off attending the 1936 Nurmberg Party Rally—he had attended previous years' rallies.

There are some striking moments, as when Shirer talks about tricks he used to get material on the air and past the censors – most of the censors had learned English in England, and so did not pick up on some of Shirer's significant use of American slang. Here too, he seems to think that he'd have a freer hand in reporting war time activity in the US or in Britain, but the Allies were also quite careful about what made it on the air.

One story he told that I found especially striking was at some event in Goering's honor. He dishes dirt about the hostile relationship of Goering and Goebbels, and how Goebbels dared the press to print various unflattering remarks about Goering, but none did (even Shirer did not take the bait here). At another event, he shares how Goering, who had a pretty good relationship with the press—he came across as an affable guy—is stung when the press laughs when Goering talks of how the Nazis treated their enemies humanely. Goering sputtered that it was no laughing matter and that he, at least, was humane.

There is no clear sense in the book that America will enter the war – remember the book was published before Pearl Harbor. Though it is clear that Roosevelt and his allies are clearly sympathetic to the British and hostile to the Nazis, Shirer is constantly amazed at the isolationist camp in the US, led by Charles Lindbergh, and people like Hamilton Fish and William Borah in the US Senate, and at the number of American businessmen who feel the press has been too hard on Herr Hitler.

Shirer had the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time. He was also fortunate in being tagged by Edward R. Murrow to be part of CBS’ European team, the best American news team in Europe. He is quite frank in his reporting, even noting that foreign correspondents (himself included) in Germany practiced a pretty vigorous self-censorship prior to the outbreak of war (when the government in Berlin was much stricter in its censorship of the press). Still, he had remarkable access – witnessing the Anschluss first-hand, and seeing Paris after France surrendered to Germany.

This is not an unexpurgated document of Shirer’s experience in Germany, but it still remains a remarkable reflection of what many well-informed American observers saw and believed at the time regarding Hitler and his government. And, as such, it is a fascinating document.

About the Author

Bernard Norcott-Mahany, a library technical assistant at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch, is our resident connoisseur of classic literature. He is also the leader of the Black Classics and In the Heat of the Night book groups.

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