"I observed his face. . . . It is afire with scorn, anger, hate, revenge, triumph. . . ." Hitler "slowly glances around the clearing, and now, as his eyes meet ours, you grasp the depth of his hatred. . . ."
So wrote 36-year-old CBS newsman William L. Shirer from the forest of Compiegne, France, in the midst of the biggest scoop of his life: the signing of the armistice signifying Nazi Germany's conquest of France, on June 22, 1940. Always at the center of events during Nazi Germany's formative and war-starting years, the indefatigable Shirer became the 20th century's chief eyewitness chronicler of that dark period.
Later in his career, and relying upon his same keen sense of historical description, he went on to publish, among other works, Berlin Diary (1941), End of a Berlin Diary (1947) and his monumental, bestselling, National Book Award-winning The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).
Steve Wick, senior editor at Newsday, author of Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder (1990) and sharer in two Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting, has set out to chronicle the life and varied accomplishments of Shirer in The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Mainly using letters, diary entries, cables and telegrams (1925-1940) from the Stewart Memorial Library Collection at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Wick starts tracing Shirer's career as the would-be reporter confidently travels to Europe on a freighter in 1925, at age 21, to work at the copy desk of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune.
Always with an eye cocked toward the big scoop, Shirer, Wick informs us, managed — against formidable odds — to be right in front of Charles E. Lindbergh's plane as it came to a stop at Paris' Le Bourget airstrip, becoming one of the first eyewitness reporters to cable the story to an anxious world. In 1930 he traveled to Afghanistan's fabled Khyber Pass to cover a bloody civil war. And in 1931, after marrying his beautiful Austrian girlfriend, Theresa (Tess) Stiberitz, Shirer journeyed to Delhi, India, to interview the charismatic leader Mahatma Gandhi during his great civil disobedience movement.
As if his journalistic life couldn't be placed more squarely at the center of world events, Shirer, after being fired abruptly from the Tribune in October 1932, landed a position with the Berlin bureau of Universal Service Inc. in August 1934 — just weeks after Chancellor Adolf Hitler ordered the executions of SA leader Ernst Rohm and hundreds of his brownshirts.
Wick writes that Shirer immediately learned that in such a state-controlled society he was severely limited as to what news could be reported, or how. He could easily be expelled from Germany, so Shirer had to walk a delicate journalistic line. When he was not allowed by the censors to write a complete story — a fully truthful one — he wrote it in his personal diary along with his thoughts.
In September 1934, Shirer witnessed the mesmerizing spectacle of the gargantuan Nuremberg Rally with its highlighted idolatrous worship of the Fuhrer. As searchlights splashed over hundreds of thousands of goose-stepping Nazi soldiers, more than 200,000 party officers held "twenty-one thousand flags unfurled in the searchlights like a forest of weird trees," Shirer wrote.
He certainly would have been expelled from Germany if the Gestapo saw what he wrote in his personal diary: "For the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he" — Hitler — "undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob which was greeting him so wildly."
In August 1937, Universal Service fired Shirer without explanation. (The journalism profession has always been a precarious calling.) But Edward R. Murrow, director of European operations for the Columbia Broadcasting System, offered Shirer a position as a broadcaster. And, in March 1938, when Hitler dramatically annexed Austria in the Anschluss, Shirer fled from Vienna to London, managing to become the first overseas broadcast journalist, with Murrow, to do the first live world news roundup.
As Hitler's war aims came to ugly fruition, Shirer, Wicks tells us, found himself with German troops in the September 1939 blitzkrieg of Poland ("Polish cavalry . . . slaughtered . . . abandoned") and then with Hitler's panzer divisions as they zipped through the towns and villages of Holland and Belgium toward France, unimpeded by the Allies, in the spring of 1940: "Real devastation . . . The town is destroyed. Smashed to pieces . . . women sobbing . . . their men folk? Where? . . . Refugees streaming back . . . Hollow feeling in my stomach," Shirer wrote.
Throughout this illuminating work, Wick makes it very clear that Shirer's reports were always assiduously censored by Nazi officials. So much so that by December 1940, Shirer, disgusted with their constant harassment and tampering with his stories (and ever fearful of the frequent Allied bombardment), fled Germany. He smuggled with him numerous documents and his precious diaries, which, along with the postwar Nuremberg trial testimonies, would become the primary sources for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Shirer was born on Feb. 23, 1904, and died on Dec. 28, 1993, at the age of 89. Wick has done an excellent job in bringing together the man's life and work in this detailed and probing biography.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military subjects for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle.