Berlin Diary
The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent

by William L. Shirer

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Knopf: New York, 1941
605 pages

March 2012

The calamity in the making — up close

It is perhaps hard for us to reconstruct the young maturity of radio in the 1930s, when radio was being taken seriously as a disseminator of news but broadcast journalism was a new and uncertain idea; a period when the global span of radio was beginning to be accepted, but Czechoslovakia and Poland could reach the Western democracies with radio broadcasts only via re-transmitting stations inside Nazi Germany. This era suffered successive international crises following the Nazi Party's accession to power in Germany in January 1933, culminating in World War II in September 1939.

William L. Shirer saw many of these European developments first-hand, reporting to America as a newspaper journalist; and later as one of the pioneer radio correspondents, hired by Edward R. Murrow (London based for CBS) to provide the Continental viewpoint from Vienna and then from Berlin. Shirer left Germany at the end of 1940 as official censorship and other risks closed in. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 is his diary of the period, covering Nazi leaders and politics, crises from the remilitarization of the Rhineland on to Danzig, the annexation of Austria and the Sudetenland, and the war in Poland and France.

Berlin Diary was written with an eye toward eventual publication as a document of the times. Shirer does include personal material, but even most of this has to do with his profession as he evolved into a broadcast journalist. Typically he would broadcast in the middle of the night in Germany to reach his audience in America — presuming the German censors hadn't suppressed his talk entirely, and presuming that, after the war began, he could navigate through the blacked-out streets and falling anti-aircraft shrapnel to reach the studio. We may imagine the mixed feelings that Shirer (as an American and hence still "neutral") in Berlin felt for the British bombers overhead in the dark sky.

These details of actually getting the news out, or occasionally failing to, help keep us focused on seeing events through Shirer's viewpoint during these years. This is a historical diary by a current observer, not a history. In his later monumental history, Shirer discusses the difference:

It is quite remarkable how little those of us who were stationed in Germany during the Nazi time, journalists and diplomats, really knew of what was going on behind the facade of the Third Reich. A totalitarian dictatorship, by its very nature, works in great secrecy and knows how to preserve that secrecy from the prying eyes of outsiders. It was easy enough to record and describe the bare, exciting, and often revolting events in the Third Reich: Hitler's accession to power, the Reichstag fire, the Roehm Blood Purge, the Anschluss with Austria, the surrender of Chamberlain at Munich, the occupation of Czechoslovakia, the attacks on Poland, Scandinavia, the West, the Balkans and Russia, the horrors of the Nazi occupation and of the concentration camps and the liquidation of the Jews. But the fateful decisions secretly made, the intrigues, the treachery, the motives and the aberrations which led up to them, the parts played by the principal actors behind the scenes, the extent of the terror they exercised and their technique of organizing it — all this and much more remained largely hidden from us until the secret German papers turned up.
William L. Shirer
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
A History of Nazi Germany

In appreciating Berlin Diary, it surely helps to know the general outline of events in the 1930s, and the more the better. If you have read some histories, such as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich itself, you already will know the generality of what is reported here. But therein lies the rub: we know what happened. This fine hindsight makes it harder, in some ways, entirely to answer how it happened. How could the Western democracies possibly have let the Nazi power grow and grow from triumph to triumph? Could not they sense the looming calamity and the millions upon millions of dead?

The answer is that no one could foresee it all, but there were indeed observers who could judge the trajectory of Nazi ambition from its earliest peacetime moves and recurring "peaceable" pronouncements. Shirer saw the danger and reported the facts to American readers and listeners as he learned them, as far as the censorship would allow. Winston S. Churchill in Britain stood essentially alone as a political figure warning of the Nazi danger from very early on, and was vilified for his efforts.

So Berlin Diary may serve as a corrective for our knowledge-in-hindsight: this is what events looked like at the time, to a sharp and thoughtful observer who was there.

Here's a sample, Shirer following the German army into Belgium on 20 May 1940:

7.45. Tongres. — Here for the first time we suddenly came across real devastation. A good part of the town through which we drove was smashed to pieces. Stuka dive-bombers and artillery, an officer explained. The railroad station was a shambles; obviously hit by Stukas. The railroad tracks all around torn and twisted; cars and locomotives derailed. One could — or could one? — imagine the consternation of the inhabitants. When they had gone to bed that Thursday night (May 9), Belgium had been at peace with the world, including Germany. At dawn on Friday the German bombers were levelling the station and town — the houses in which they had gone to bed so peacefully — to a charred mass of ruins. The town itself was absolutely deserted. Two or three hungry dogs nosed sadly about the ruins, apparently searching for water, food, and their masters.

And yet Shirer is able to keep his perspective rather well: Berlin, 1 May 1940:

Judging from the looks of the good burghers who thronged the Tiergarten today, the one wish in their hearts is for peace, and to hell with the victories. Still, I suppose this triumph in Norway will buck up morale, after the terrible winter. S., a veteran correspondent here, thinks every man, woman, and child in this country is a natural-born killer. Perhaps so. But today I noticed in the Tiergarten many of them feeding the squirrels and ducks — with their rationed bread.

Perhaps Shirer's neatest reportorial coup was being an eyewitness at the French surrender on 21 June 1940, when Hitler used the same railroad car in which Imperial Germany had signed the Armistice on 11 November 1918. Shirer's report scooped the official German announcement by hours.

William L. Shirer's Berlin Diary is a thoughtful account of momentous events, clearly told. Herein are events, and the attitudes that made them possible, which we should remember.


© 2012 Robert Wilfred Franson

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