Last year I read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Eleven hundred pages and not one blog post! But what could I really say? I haven’t read widely enough on WWII to evaluate Shirer’s work, his accuracy, his objectivity, and so forth. I guess I can say that I was glad to have put the time in with such a book, if only for the sake of putting some sustained thought into the matter. Just how did such a disaster happen? Shirer doesn’t try to provide an easy answer.
Now I’m reading Shirer’s Berlin Diary. This work claims to be the diary that he kept, beginning 1934 when he was again taking up his work as a foreign correspondent after a year’s sabbatical. It’s hard to put down. Shirer was in the middle of everything: He covered Nazi rallies and got close enough to Hitler that he reflected on how easy it would have been to assassinate him. He was in Vienna at the time of the annexation and in Prague just before the Munich conference, wondering how he might come by a gas mask.
It was the right place to be for someone in his line of work, though. After getting downsized by his wire service (there seem to have been quite a few then) he happened to fall in with Edward R. Murrow and CBS, seemingly just as regular trans-Atlantic news broadcasts were beginning. There’s an amazing description of them being given a couple of hours to try to pull together a roundup from all over Europe. Shirer had to place phone calls to his journalist friends in Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and at the same time to engineers to figure out who had access to short wave transmitters. Then his bosses in New York told him when to start each piece, and he told them what wavelength to listen on.
Of course this invites comparison between the news in Shirer’s day and in our own, when by all accounts this kind of journalism is disappearing. I don’t know. At one point, Shirer questions whether his reporting is making any difference at all. It must have been particularly disheartening to find that, after moving the heavens to bring the news to England and America, visitors from abroad to Germany never seemed to want to see what Shirer saw. His work issues a tremendous challenge never to be complacent about the information at our disposal.