Posts tagged William L. Shirer

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich turns 60

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In his book, End of a Berlin Diary, William L. Shirer includes an entry for November 14, 1945, describing the meticulous records kept by the Nazis, which were then being used as evidence against them in the Nuremburg trials.  “Students of the war will want to pore over these papers and examine them in detail,” he noted.

What seemed like an invitation to others was in fact a subliminal message to Shirer’s future self.

Fired by CBS in 1947 despite his exemplary work as one of “Murrow’s Boys” during World War II, Shirer found himself in the wilderness for years.  Unemployed and blacklisted during the McCarthy era for his left-leaning views, Shirer struggled to support his family by writing books and lecturing.  The books did not sell well, and the speaking opportunities, dealing with his experiences in Nazi Germany, began to dry up.

William L. Shirer

On January 24, 1954, Shirer wrote in his diary, “To Do: A book to be called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.’”  Shirer certainly had advantages very few journalists or historians possessed.  He had lived in Nazi Germany for years, until he was expelled in December 1940.  He could speak and read German.  He had even returned home from Nuremburg with a duffel bag stuffed with copies of the Nazi papers introduced during the trial as evidence. As he confessed in his memoir, A Native’s Return, 1945—1988, “I had been tossing around in my mind the idea of doing such a book ever since covering the Nuremberg trial . . . nearly nine years before, in the late fall of 1945.”

Shirer’s big problem: money.  His years in the wilderness had exhausted his savings; he had no ongoing income.  A secondary concern of Shirer’s was that he was primarily a broadcast journalist, not a historian.  Even his previous publishing successes had been his diaries. Could Shirer devote years to research and writing with no financial support, and could he apply “the discipline and know-how to write a historical work whose subject and the materials to support it were so vast?”  Shirer hesitated, and waited for academic historians to undertake the “unique opportunity” to delve into the “avalanche of new material.”

No one did.

“Nine years after the end of the war and the fall of Hitler, I decided to take the plunge—since no one else would.  I would not write around the subject.  I would tackle it head-on.  I would try to write for the first time a fully documented and complete history of the rise and fall of the Third Reich.  Somehow I would find the time to do it and still support my family.”

Most publishers turned Shirer down flat, and those who were interested gagged at the $10,000 advance Shirer calculated he needed to cover his expenses for the two years he figured it would take to bring the book to completion. Finally, a close friend at Simon & Schuster convinced the right people to take a flyer on Shirer’s brainchild.  Shirer was shocked to find how little attention had been paid to the vast treasure of captured Nazi documents held in U.S. archives.  “[The librarians at the Library of Congress] trundled out a whole hand-truck full of Hitler’s personal papers.  I was astonished that they had not been opened since being catalogued.  We took to untying the ribbons that bound them.  Out fell what were to me priceless objects: among others, scores of paintings Hitler had done in his vagabond youth in Vienna.”

So Shirer labored on—500 pages by the fall of 1957; 805 pages by the spring of 1958.  By then the $10,000 advance was long gone, and Simon & Schuster had no interest in advancing more.  Foundations and magazines turned him down.  The prospect of laying the book aside and getting a job loomed.  Finally, at the eleventh hour, a small foundation stepped in with just enough funds to get Shirer over the finish line.  “This saved my life and my book.  We quickly paid what we owed on our grocery bills, assured the girls that they could remain in school . . . and I settled back to fourteen hours a day writing.”

Shirer finally completed the book—all 1,795 typed pages—on August 24, 1959.  He felt good about the result: “it was the best I had ever written.”

But would anyone want to read it?  “I had no illusions that it would sell.  Everyone connected with it—my publisher, my editor, my agent, my close friends . . . had assured me that it would not.  And I had no reason to doubt them.”  Shirer was not unmindful that his lecturing on Hitler and Nazi Germany had fallen off precisely because, as his agent explained, “there was no longer any interest in America in either.” Moreover, not only was Rise and Fall a massive book to read, it’s $10 price tag all but guaranteed a small sale.  “No book that price, I was told, had ever done well.”

The initial U.S. print run of 12,500 copies was released on October 17, 1960.

The book attracted mostly favorable reviews, and was chosen to be the featured  November 1960 selection by Book of the Month Club.  It soon climbed on to the bestseller lists.  Thereafter Simon & Schuster could barely keep up with demand; sales exceeded everyone’s wildest expectations.

According to Ken Cuthbertson, Shirer’s biographer, “American readers have bought an estimated ten million copies of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and it has been translated into German, French, Chinese and Russian.  According to another academic, the book “has become more than just another work of history.  A singular literary institution, it has achieved a reputation as ‘the best-selling historical work ever written in modern times.’”

A much younger me in front of Shirer’s home, Lennox, MA (Feb. 1990)

I have had a soft spot for William L. Shirer ever since I spent practically the entire summer of 1970, at the tender age of 15, reading Rise and Fall.  Much of it went over my head, but it did hit home as a cautionary tale about the dangers of following an unprincipled demagogue. What is more, it was Shirer, in his 1949 review of From Day to Day for the New York Herald Tribune, who called Odd Nansen “one of the noble and heroic spirits” whose diary “reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

So today is the 60th anniversary of the appearance of Shirer’s “singular literary institution.” Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine if, in spite of the many positive reviews, Rise and Fall had quickly slipped into oblivion in 1960, and was only rescued today, and republished by a family member, or an academic, or by a journalist.  Generations would have missed out on Shirer’s monumental work.  Of course, that is exactly what happened to Odd Nansen’s diary, where the gap was even longer—67 years between publications.  That time can never be recaptured, but we can commit to ensuring that Nansen’s singular, monumental, work is never forgotten again.

Happy 60th Birthday to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

My autographed copy of Rise and Fall. That’s another story for another day.

August 14, 1945: World War II Ends

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Seventy-five years ago today, World War II ended with the surrender of Imperial Japan.  The following day, the Japanese Emperor’s voice, heard by the country’s inhabitants for the first time, concluded that “the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage.”  Therefore, “we have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all the generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable.”  The formal surrender occurred on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri.

Thus did the deadliest conflict in human history finally conclude.  Over 70 million dead, countless millions more injured, damaged, haunted.

With the hindsight of 75 years, it all seems somewhat predictable.  After all, how did Germany, Japan, Italy and their lesser allies ever think they could defeat the combined might of the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain?

And, in a very real sense, every history book written since August 1945 (and there have been many—more ink has been spilled about World War II than probably any other subject) is predictable. Of the trillions of facts to sift, and the billions of causal events to examine, even the best historian, knowing how the final chapter ends, consciously or unconsciously chooses those facts and events that point to and support the inevitable conclusion.  Thus we get narratives such as: “Although the Allies went down to defeat in the Battle of XXXX, they learned valuable lessons that would help turn the tables in their next encounter.”  Or: “Although it looked as if the Nazi war machine would triumph, a closer look at these five factors reveals that they were in fact ultimately doomed.”

The only way to really experience the war as it occurred is to study the words of its participants as it occurred.  This is why diaries—of Odd Nansen, Anne Frank, William L. Shirer, and many others, are so critical.  They didn’t, and couldn’t, know how or when or in what way the war would end.  [Another great resource is the Library of America’s two-volume Reporting World War II, which chronologically arranges reports by journalists such as Pyle, Morrow, Hersey, Shirer, et al, as the war unfolds.]

So, I will now let William L. Shirer have the last words on August 14, 1945, drawn from his book End of a Berlin Diary.  The eloquence, uncertainty, hope (there’s that word again), and poignancy of his thoughts written on that day are particularly compelling:

“World War II is over!

In the excitement of our victory tonight, in the joy and relief, it was difficult to remember the dark days when defeat stared us in the face and catastrophe was staved off by only the narrowest of margins.  It was utterly impossible for more than a handful this night to recall, as I had done a time or two in Germany when the triumph of the Nazi barbarians seemed so certain, what the awful consequences would have been for us had victory not come in the end. . . .

Now the desperate and the heroic days are over.  Peace will be sweet, yes; but the adjustment to it will take some time, and no doubt it will bring much disillusionment as imperfect little men try to repair the unspeakable damage—physical, moral, spiritual.  There will have to be adjustment too for those of us who have lived little else the last ten years but the tense fight against the barbarism of the Nazi and Fascist world.  The tensions of that epic struggle have been in my blood for so long, conditioning whatever I did or thought or was, that it will take time and effort and great relaxation to get them out of my system so I can begin anew. . . .

We kept on broadcasting until about two thirty a.m., weary and exhausted and yet, deep down, exhilarated by this immense day.  Afterward there were drinks and food in the back room of the little pub below with those who had toiled both here and in the war’s midst to bring to our fellow men the facts and the background and the smell and the sound and the fury of this gruesome holocaust which had come to its bloody end this night.  God, how long and wretched and inhuman it has been!

When I stumbled down Fifty-first Street toward home, the summer’s sun was coming up beyond the East River, rising on this first day of peace.”

Peace!

[Like Shirer and his contemporaries during the war, we don’t yet know when or how our current battle with a deadly and mysterious virus will end.  Let’s hope we can soon feel the way Shirer did on that bright new morning 75 years ago.]

VE Day in Europe: May 8, 1945

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VE Day

Seventy-five years ago today World War II ended in Europe.  Hitler was dead, and a devastated Germany surrendered unconditionally.

In his diary for that day William L. Shirer wrote: “All day I have had to rub my eyes to believe it; to realize that this is really the end of the nightmare that began for me . . . five and a half years ago.  It seems a long time—ages—and some twenty-five million human beings who were alive on that day and relatively happy have perished, slaughtered on the battlefield, wiped out by bombs, tortured to death in the Nazi horror camps.”

Although the end of the war in Europe is quite clear, when did it all actually begin?

Most conventional answers focus on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. But would Hitler have invaded Poland without securing his southern flank, which he accomplished on March 15, 1939 when he marched into Czechoslovakia? Would he have marched on Czechoslovakia if he hadn’t already seized Austria in March 1938?  Does the date go back even further—to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, in contravention of the Versailles Treaty?

I would submit that the date may in fact be even earlier than all that: to January 30, 1933, when Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany.  After all, Hitler had laid out his plans for all the world to see (and read) in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.  It’s all there: Germany’s need for Lebensraum in the East; his hatred of the Jews.  Hitler made no secret of his ultimate plans when and if he achieved a position of power.

And while much attention is focused on every conceivable aspect of the “hot” war (1939—1945), far less is paid to its crucial antecedents.

Peter Fritzsche, one of my favorite historians, has just written an in-depth study of Hitler’s start in 1939 in Hitler’s First Hundred Days: When Germans Embraced the Third Reich, Basic Books (2020).  As Fritzsche is quick to point out early on, “[In 1933] Europe suddenly slipped from the firm footing of a postwar era into the anxious vertigo of a prewar one.”

In his latest book, Professor Fritzsche attempts to answer a conundrum that lies at the heart of one of the strangest socio-political developments of the Twentieth Century. Namely, how were Hitler and the Nazis able, in a bitterly polarized country; in a country where opposition parties consistently outpolled them; in a country where the Nazis were in fact losing popular support—how did Hitler, within a mere 100 days, so solidify his hold on the nation that all dissent was effectively eliminated and the country stood almost wholeheartedly behind his program?

As Fritzsche explains, it’s complicated, and this blog can hardly do justice to his deep analysis.

Fritzsche first makes clear that Hitler’s ascension to the Chancellorship on January 30 was by no means preordained.  Just two months earlier, in the November 1932 national elections, the left-leaning Social Democrat Party, and the Communist Party, together received more votes than the Nazis, whose share of the national total actually slipped, from 37% to 33%.  But the right-wing, anti-Weimar parties were united, whereas the anti-fascist parties were not.

Even so, it was only on the morning of January 30 that the leaders of the nationalist, right wing factions each concluded that the appointment of Hitler was the only way to establish authoritarian rule, and destroy the hated Weimar Republic.  This desire outweighed even their fear that they would be unable to tame him.

Once in power, the Nazis used a combination of consent and coercion—push and pull—to meld German society into a united whole.  Many Germans, tired of the political and economic uncertainly which had characterized Germany since 1919, were beguiled by Hitler’s program, and the vision of a new Germany he offered.

In End of a Berlin Diary, Shirer relates an interrogation by US Forces of Hanna Reitsch conducted shortly after Germany’s surrender.  Reitsch had achieved notoriety during the war as a female test pilot and aeronautical expert.  Even in retrospect Reitsch continued to believe Hitler’s initial aims were worthy.  “Hitler ended his life as a criminal against the world,” she confessed, but quickly added, “he did not begin that way.  At first his thoughts were only of how to make Germany healthy again.”

Where consent failed, there was always the threat of coercion.  Armed with near dictatorial powers following the February 1933 Reichstag fire, the Nazis soon forced the independent press to toe the party line.  At the same time the compliant nationalist press pursued its goal of the destroying the republic, “which meant the destruction of fact, morality and law.” Any underground movement soon fell afoul of impromptu concentration camps, where the violence meted out was not primarily to extract information but to break the spirit of the resisters, and to cause suffering rather than death.

The Nazis also promoted solidarity within its growing ranks, ironically, by artfully engaging in the politics of division, of exclusion and inclusion.  The Jews were the first to be excluded, via boycotts, etc., and no one could be neutral.  To help a Jew was to be anti-German. Next came the Social Democrats.  To associate with a Social Democrat was to be a traitor, and a traitor could not be a friend.  Better then to accept the inevitable, and even embrace it, than to object, and thus stand out in the crowd.  In fact, it was not enough to keep quiet—one had to denounce the enemy.  When Hitler belittled Weimar, and those associated with it, in his speeches, his audiences cried out “Hang them.”

And so, in an exceptionally rapid and comprehensive way, German society became fascist.  As Hanna Reitsch’s comments above show, the country was soon convinced that the coming of Hitler promised a brighter future for Germany.

But as Professor Fritzsche makes clear, the conservative grandees who coalesced behind Hitler on that fateful morning of January 30, 1933, in their eager ambition to destroy Weimar by any means possible, made one fatal mistake, a mistake that they would only come to fully realize when Germany lay in utter ruin on May 8, 1945:

“they had made a pact with the devil.”

April 28: Odd Nansen’s Diary Ends

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“So completely has our world been turned upside down.  Is it strange that one should be confused and still unable to fit oneself into reality.”

Thus ends Odd Nansen’s final diary entry, on April 28, 1945.  Nansen was in Horsens, Denmark at the time, and, while technically not yet “free”—there were still German guards about—it was clear that the end was near, and Nansen was safe.

But the unreality of the war’s sudden end had stopped him in his tracks.  Nansen, a man who had assiduously filled the pages of his secret diary for almost 40 months in the most challenging environment possible, was now rendered speechless.

“Only it seems so hopelessly impossible to describe.   Where am I to begin, where am I to stop, what am I to write?”

Another famous diarist, William L. Shirer, writing shortly after Nansen, agreed: “It was the week, of all our lives, we’ve been waiting for.  When it came, and unfolded, one breathless hour after another, it was too much for our poor human minds really to grasp.  You could not find words—or at least I couldn’t—to express it.”

Odd Nansen can be forgiven if anticipating the object of his longing—home and family—precluded any further attention to his diary in those whirlwind days.  Selfishly, I would have preferred the diary to continue a bit longer, if only to read his thoughts and observations on the world-shaking events that continued to unfold:

  • April 28, 1945: Mussolini executed
  • April 29, 1945: Dachau liberated
  • April 30, 1945: Hitler suicide
  • May 1, 1945: Goebbels suicide
  • May 2, 1945: Berlin surrenders to Soviets
  • May 8, 1945: Germany surrenders
  • May 9, 1945: Quisling arrested

But it was not to be.  Interestingly, Nansen, who had maintained a diary almost continuously since his teens, would never again over the course of his life take up a pen for a diary.  Perhaps he felt that nothing could compare with the experiences he—at such great personal risk—had memorialized.

And perhaps he was correct.  When you’ve written what some critics later called “a masterpiece,” “never-to-be-forgotten words, “and “among the most compelling documents to come out of the [war],” it’s best not to attempt a second act.

Nevertheless, we shall always be grateful for what we have: a first-hand account, in Shirer’s words, of “how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”

The Lost Diaries of War

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My readers already know that I have a thing about diaries. I’ve written about Anne Frank’s diary (here), and a recently discovered Holocaust diary (here).

Some of you may have seen in the April 15 issue of the New York Times a fascinating piece about World War II diaries—more than 2,000—kept by Dutch civilians.  Apparently, they were collected by the government after the war, but, apart from cataloguing, they were never shared with the wider public.  Now, 75 years after the war’s end, they are finally seeing the light of day.

Now the Dutch are for the first time transcribing and digitizing these artifacts, and the Times article contains snippets of the diaries, along with representative images of the actual pages.  The reading is compelling.   Here’s the link.

Coincidentally, I was recently reading a classic by a favorite author of mine, William L. Shirer, called End of the Berlin Diary.  I’ve written about Shirer before (here).  The book covers Shirer’s return to Berlin in 1945, five years after he was expelled by the Nazis for writing unfavorably about the regime.  The book is a mixture of diary impressions and materials Shirer unearthed about the German war machine.  In this sense he is anticipating the work he would undertake in the 1950s when he compiled his magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Some of Shirer’s research and observations are startlingly relevant to some of the diary entries in the Times piece, so I decided to juxtapose certain diary entries with quotes from Shirer’s reporting, which provides a useful counterpoint.

Here goes:

“I’d always assumed they [the Germans] would leave us alone.  We had been neutral until the end,* and good to the Germans.”  Elisabeth Jacoba van Lohuizen-van Wielink [May 10, 1940].

“Breach of the neutrality of Belgium and Holland is meaningless.  No one will question that when we have won.”  Secret speech by Adolf Hitler to top military commanders, November 23, 1939.

“[T]he Queen . . . has fled the country because she feared for her life. . . .   The Germans wouldn’t have harmed her; they are much too honorable for that.”  Unnamed pro-Nazi Dutch woman [May 15, 1940].

“Have no pity.  Brutal attitude.  Eighty million people shall get what is their right.  Their existence has to be secured.  The strongest has the right.  Greatest severity.”**  Adolf Hitler speech, August 22, 1939, to military commanders set to lead assault on Poland.

“This is no life, but hell on earth.  My hands are trembling so much I can barely write.  This is all getting too much.  This is more than anyone can bear.”  Mirjam Bolle [February 23, 1943] [Later sent to Bergen-Belsen]

“[Reading about how few Jews are still alive in Germany] reminds me of another news item in the local press.  It tells of the testimony of a fifteen-year-old German lad, the son of the former SS commander of the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Questioned about his father, the boy said: ‘For my birthday, my father put forty inmates at my disposal to teach me how to shoot.  I took shots at them until they were all lying around dead. Otherwise I have nothing else to report about my father,’”

Finally, a comparison between Odd Nansen’s diary and one of the Dutch diaries, each entry written within months of the other:

“Sometimes I fear that I won’t be believed, because later generations simply won’t wish to accept what’s described in these pages, yet I swear on everything I hold dear to me that none of the events are untrue.”  Anton Frans Koenraads [May 6, 1945].

“It occurs to me that no one will believe this when we come to describe it.  You exaggerate, they’ll say.  It’s impossible.”  Odd Nansen [January 25, 1945].

As the Times article provides wonderful images of various original diary covers and  pages, I thought I’d end this blog with a page from Nansen’s diary that is particularly close to my heart.  On one of my visits to Norway, my dear friend (and Nansen’s daughter) Marit Greve took me to Norway’s national library, where the originals of Nansen’s diary are kept.  I was hoping to capture an image of a representative page.  When I snapped the picture I had no idea of its contents. It was not until I developed the photo later that I realized, to my surprise, that the page in question dealt with Tom Buergenthal.

A handwritten page from Odd Nansen’s diary.

If you look closely in the middle of the image, you will see “Tommy, Rafaelengelen” in Nansen’s handwriting.  The entry is for February 26, 1945, and reads in part: “Yesterday, as usual on Sunday, I was in the Revier.  First I went to see my youngest friend Tommy, the Raphael angel. He was smiling. . . .”

Of all the pages in the diary I might have photographed, I can’t think of one I could possibly have preferred more.

_______________________________

*Recall the words of Netherlands’s Herr Snouck Hurgronje in my previous post, regarding the country’s strict neutrality vis a vis England and France.

** Once Norway’s King Håkon VII refused to capitulate in 1940, the German’s tried to kill him through aerial bombing.

Upcoming Events

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Book Signings

  • October 25, 2020: Moderator, Jewish Film Festival, Milwaukee JCC, Milwaukee, WI (Virtual)
  • October 27, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 9, 2020: Kristallnacht Observance, Chapman University, Orange, CA (Virtual)
  • November 10, 2020: Osher Life Long Learning, Clemson University, Clemson, SC (Virtual)
  • November 15, 2020: Kristallnacht Commemoration, Congregation Or Shalom, Orange, CT (Virtual)
  • November 18, 2020: The Adult School, New Jersey (Virtual)
  • December 1, 2020: JCC of Central New Jersey, Scotch Plains, NJ (Virtual)
  • December 2, 2020: Shorewood Glen, Shorewood, IL (Virtual)
  • February 12, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • February 15, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • February 22, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, NC State, Raleigh, NC
  • April 9, 2021: Osher Life Long Learning, Furman University, Greenville, SC
  • May 6, 2021: Notre Dame H.S. Alumni Club of DC, Washington, DC
  • May 13, 2021: Sons of Norway, Grand Forks, ND
  • May 14, 2021: Norwegian Heritage Week, Thief River Falls, MN
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, Fargo, ND (Kringen Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Sons of Norway, St. Cloud, MN (Trollheim Lodge)
  • SPRING 2021: Tuesday Open House, Mindekirken, Minneapolis, MN
  • SPRING 2021:  Georgetown University Bookstore, Washington, DC
  • June 9, 2021: Bet Shalom Hadassah, Jackson, NJ
  • October 19, 2021: Shalom Club, Great Notch, NJ

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