William L. Shirer

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William L. Shirer

An eyewitness to many of the critical events in Europe in the 1930s, William L. Shirer (1904-1993) reported the key developments leading to World War II and wrote widely on the history of Nazi Germany.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 23, 1904, William Lawrence Shirer was the son of Seward Smith, a lawyer, and Josephine (Tanner) Shirer. After graduating from Coe College in 1925, Shirer left his home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to set out for Paris on one last youthful fling before settling down to work in the United States. Crossing the Atlantic via a cattle boat, Shirer dreamed of becoming a poet and novelist. Hundreds of other American men and women with similar dreams were then coming to Paris, however, and Shirer could not find work with the major American newspapers with Paris editions.

On the morning of his last day in France, resigned to returning to what he called the land of "Prohibition, fundamentalism, puritanism, Coolidgeism, [and] Babbitry," the editor of the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune offered Shirer a job. The next day he was sitting at the Tribune copy desk next to a fellow expatriate-turned-copywriter, James Thurber.

For the next two years Shirer wrote sports and human interest stories for the Paris Tribune and studied European history at the College de France. Increasingly, he turned away from fiction and poetry toward "what was going on in the world. "History now seemed more interesting to me, especially contemporary history…." Vaguely the idea began to take root that there might be a great deal of history to write about from here for a daily newspaper back home." Shirer's Tribune editors agreed, and from 1927 to 1932 he served as a foreign correspondent for the home newspaper, roaming from one European capital to another.

Working subsequently for the Paris edition of the New York Herald, the Universal News Service, and the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), Shirer spent much of his time in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna, reporting on the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazis and on the coming of World War II. Shirer's dramatic radio reports won him the Headliners Club Award in 1938 and 1941. His observations of the tumultuous events in Europe in the 1930s formed the basis of his best known books: Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (1941); The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1960); and The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (1984), each one a blend of journalism and history.

Shirer returned to the United States in December 1940, continuing to work as a radio commentator for CBS until 1947 when he joined the Mutual Broadcasting System. His support for the Hollywood Ten during the postwar "Red Scare" caused him to be blacklisted from broadcasting, and in 1950 he turned to lecturing and writing to support his family during the McCarthy era. Shirer spent much of the next decade utilizing his own reports on the events of the 1930s, transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, and captured German documents to write his panoramic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which won the 1961 National Book Award and Sidney Hillman Foundation Award.

His major works after 1960 include a memoir of Gandhi, an analysis of the fall of the third French Republic in 1940, a book on Leo Tolstoy (the great Russian writer), and a memoir of his exciting life and times. Married in 1931 to Theresa Stiberitz and divorced in 1970, Shirer had two daughters, Eileen Inga and Linda Elizabeth. He lived in Lenox, Massachusetts and died in Boston in 1993, a few months prior to his 90th birthday.

Further Reading

Shirer's major writings include Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (1941); Midcentury Journey: The Western World Through Its Years of Conflict (1952); The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (1960); The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 (1969); Twentieth-Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and the Times, Vol. I: The Start, 1904-1930 (1976), and Vol. II: The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (1984); A Native's Return (1990); Gandhi: A Memoir (1980); and his last major work, Love and Hatred: the Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy (1994). For biographical and critical information on his life and writings see Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Writers in Paris, 1920-1939 (1980) and articles in the New Republic (November 14, 1960, and February 12, 1977); Atlantic (December 1960 and December 1969); Saturday Review (August 21, 1976, and January 19, 1980); and New York Times Book Review (October 10, 1976, and July 24, 1977). □

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