“The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” (Palgrave Macmillan), by Steve Wick: “You are reduced to re-broadcasting the official communiqués, which are lies, and which any automaton can do.”
Journalist William L. Shirer penciled those words into his diary in December 1940. Shirer had clearly had enough. Driving through bombed-out cities and dodging twisted metal falling from the air did not convince him to abandon his reportorial duties for CBS, as dangerous as his everyday existence in Berlin was during the early days of World War II.
What finally ended Shirer’s stories and broadcasts from Europe’s capitals was his extreme frustration with censorship and his constant struggle to walk an ethical thin line between speaking the truth and telling what his Nazi censors demanded.
It’s a central theme in Newsday journalist Steve Wick’s new book, “The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.”
Shirer went to Europe in 1925 after graduating from Iowa’s Coe College with the intention of becoming a novelist. But a series of jobs in journalism gave him an up-close view of some of the most significant events of his time. He was standing in the airfield near Paris when Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis right in front of him.
Largely based on Shirer’s diary entries and correspondence, collected in the archives at Coe College’s Stewart Memorial Library, Wick’s book achieves a real sense of immediacy.
Shortly before the birth of their first daughter, Shirer and his wife Tess, an Austrian, were desperate for funds, as they were for many of their years together. Shirer had lost his job with the Universal Service, a news wire company owned by William Randolph Hearst.
But Shirer received a wire from Salzburg, Austria, that would change his life and the future of news reporting: “Can you have dinner with me Friday nite? Murrow. CBS.”
Shirer had no idea that Edward R. Murrow was about to offer him a job. He was simply excited about the prospect of a free meal and wired back to Murrow: “Delighted to dine with you anytime anywhere.”
Wick describes the logistical difficulties Shirer had to overcome to get news on the air, beginning with his initial voice check, which he had to pass in order to get the CBS job Murrow offered. The studio microphone had been mounted to accommodate “a man at least eight feet tall,” Shirer wrote. He tilted his head toward the ceiling, but his voice was nothing but a squeak. Seconds before airtime, Shirer climbed onto a stack of packing crates, read his story, and secured the job.
Shirer would go on to share with the world first-hand accounts of such events as the Anschluss (“annexation”) of Austria by Nazi Germany in 1938; the Munich Accord later that year when Germany was allowed to take over the Sudetenland (the German-speaking sections of Czechoslovakia); and the German occupation of Poland in 1939.
All of this reporting took place as Shirer was required to submit his work to three censors: the German military, the Foreign Office, and the Propaganda Ministry.
In May of 1940, reporting on the German advances into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg, Shirer attempted to include the word “invasion.” He lost his temper when censors marked it out and demanded he say “march in.” He learned to use voice inflection and pauses to signal to his listeners more than his censored words could tell.
Shirer documented most everything he witnessed, but knowing that he was being watched and that his diaries could be confiscated at any time, he was careful to use the letter X instead of individuals’ names.
As he prepared to leave Germany in late 1940, Shirer placed his diaries, notes, letters, and calendars in the bottom of two trunks. On top of them he positioned his Nazi-approved radio scripts. Before departing for America, he asked the Gestapo to approve the trunks for shipment. Fortunately for posterity, the Gestapo official did not dig to the bottom.
The contents of those trunks, as well as documents from the Nuremberg trials Shirer covered in 1945, formed the basis for several books, including the 1,245-page “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” published in 1960 and still in print.
At a time when journalistic standards and ethics are making worldwide headlines, Wick’s book presents a valuable portrait of a man who struggled against great odds to tell the truth.
Fred Sauceman holds a B.A. in English and history and an M.A. in English from East Tennessee State University.