Shirer, William Lawrence

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Shirer, William Lawrence

(b. 23 February 1904 in Chicago, Illinois; d. 28 December 1993 in Boston, Massachusetts), journalist and radio commentator whose newspaper dispatches and pioneering radio broadcasts from Berlin, Germany, and other European capitals in the 1930s alerted the American public to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi menace, and whose postwar book detailing the history of the Third Reich was an international best-seller.

A child of the American Midwest when that region was at its most insular and parochial, Shirer became a cultivated man of the world, fluent in four languages, well-versed in food and drink, and the personification of the fabled foreign correspondent, who had been everywhere, known everyone, and covered the most important stories of his day. He was the middle child and first son born to Seward Smith Shirer, an assistant U.S. district attorney, and Bessie Josephine Tanner Shirer, a homemaker. He idolized his father both as a parent and as a lover of books, music, and the life of the mind. Tragically, Seward died in 1913 at the age of forty-one when a misdiagnosed case of appendicitis led to a rupture. His widow and her three children returned to her family home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where Shirer graduated from Washington High School in 1921. Financially strapped and forced to live at home, he entered nearby Coe College, where early on he resolved to become a writer. In the summers of his sophomore and junior years he took his first newspaper job as a sports reporter and feature writer for the Cedar Rapids Republican. By his senior year he was the outspoken and controversial editor of the college weekly. Elected to Phi Beta Kappa, he graduated with a B.A. degree in 1925. He worked his way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat, having set out for Europe to escape, in his words, the “fundamentalism, puritanism and … puerility” of the Coolidge era.

Following a summer of travel, Shirer was hired as a copy editor for the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune. He harbored the hope of becoming a novelist, but after several failed attempts at short fiction, he concluded that his writing talents lay elsewhere. Over the next two years he took history courses at the College de France in Paris and in 1927 became a European correspondent for the Tribune’s Chicago edition, reporting such stories as Charles Lindbergh’s landing at Le Bourget outside Paris that year, and the summer and winter Olympics in 1928. He spent the three years from 1929 to 1932 as the head of the Tribune’s Central European bureau headquartered in Vienna, Austria. During that time he traveled to India to cover Mahatma Gandhi, who became, he wrote, a major influence in his life and the subject of a later book, Gandhi: A Memoir (1980). He married Theresa Stiberitz, a Viennese-born editor for a London magazine, on 30 January 1931; they had two daughters and divorced in August 1970.

In 1932 Shirer lost both the sight in his right eye in a skiing accident and, weeks later, his job at the Tribune in a cost-cutting move. He made a brief stab at freelance writing in Spain, but returned to France in January 1934 to work briefly for the Paris edition of the New York Herald. In August 1934 he joined William Randolph Hearst’s ill-fated Universal News Service (UNS) in Berlin. Although his assignments for UNS took him through most of Europe, his primary focus was on events in Berlin, Vienna, and Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he observed Hitler’s rise to power and where his forthright reporting and dogged investigations tested the limits of Nazi censorship. Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, ordered Shirer publicly denounced for alleged anti-German sentiments in his accounts of the 1936 Olympics, and he threatened to have Shirer expelled from the country for his wire-service dispatches on anti-Semitism in the Third Reich.

By 1937 the UNS had folded and Shirer was hired by the CBS vice president Edward R. Murrow as a radio newsman based in Berlin, experimenting with transatlantic programming. Initially he and Murrow, who was in London, did no reporting; instead they introduced print journalists, who delivered their own stories over the air. But in March 1938, on the day of the Anschluss—the forced union or uniting of Germany and Austria engineered by the Nazis—the Nazi government prohibited radio broadcasts of any kind from Vienna. Shirer, who had been a firsthand observer of the German army’s entrance into the city, flew to London that evening for an impromptu, and historic, live broadcast to America. Murrow next organized a round-table of European correspondents, including Shirer, for a half-hour program describing the reaction of other European states to the German invasion. To the surprise of CBS executives, the innovative broadcasts gained a large audience nationwide. William S. Paley, the head of CBS, immediately assigned Murrow and Shirer to regular newscasts that brought live foreign news reports into American homes for the first time—a development that quickly made CBS the nation’s leading network for news.

Shirer, still based in Berlin, faced continuous Nazi interference and censorship but managed to score a personal triumph on 21 June 1940, when Hitler arrived at Com-piegne in France to arrange the French surrender. All journalists present were required to send their dispatches to Berlin for clearance. When it came time for Shirer to broadcast his account to Berlin, a German radio engineer opened the wrong switch, sending Shirer’s message to London by mistake. In minutes, his dramatic reportage was on the air, crossing the Atlantic to the United States and beating the competition (print and radio alike) by more than six hours.

Shirer continued to report from Germany throughout the summer and fall of 1940 but following rumors of his imminent arrest, he and his family returned to America by ship in December. He edited his daily journals into a best-selling book, Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 (1941), which was eventually translated into seven languages, with sales in the United States alone exceeding 500,000 copies. Ignoring Murrow’s request that he return to London—a move that would cost him Murrow’s friendship—Shirer spent most of the war years in New York City as a Sunday-night radio commentator for CBS (1941-1947) and a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune (1942-1948). He returned to Europe in the waning days of the war to cover the Nuremberg trials and gather material for his second book, End of a Berlin Diary (1947).

In 1946 Shirer won the George Foster Peabody Award for his radio commentary, but a year later he resigned from CBS in a bitter conflict with Paley and Murrow, claiming they were trying to muzzle him. He joined the Mutual Broadcasting System, where he worked from 1947 to 1949, but was blacklisted in 1950 during the McCarthy era, when his name appeared in “Red Channels,” an anonymously-authored booklet that listed the names of alleged communists and sympathizers in the movies, radio, and television. Despite his denial that he had ever been a party member, he was unable to get on-the-air work or to sell his freelance articles to national magazines like Life, Collier’s, Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s that had bought from him in the past.

Shirer now entered the lowest period of his life, surviving through lecture tours on college campuses—the only places, he said, that he was welcome—and the publication of five books. Three were fiction: Traitor (1950), loosely based on the life of “Axis Sally,” a British turncoat; Stranger Come Home (1954) a roman a clef concerning free speech on radio; and The Consul’s Wife (1956), a thriller set in a fictitious British colony. Each received a tepid critical reception, reviewers generally agreeing that the novels were closer to journalism than to literature. His nonfiction fared much better. Mid-Century Journey: The Western World Through Its Years of Conflict (1952), which examined events in Austria, Germany, France, and Great Britain, was a Literary Guild selection. The Challenge of Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland in Our Time (1955) attracted a smaller but respectable audience.

In 1960 Shirer published his blockbuster: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (reprinted with the author’s afterword in 1990). Despite its 1,245 pages and $10 price tag, it was an instant best-seller, winning the National Book Award and other literary prizes as well as near unanimous praise from nonacademic reviewers who called it a readable and definitive history. A number of academics acknowledged its literary quality but faulted Shirer’s emphasis on the more lurid details of Nazism and his oversimplification of complex events. Published in paperback in 1961, it was frequently reprinted and had sold nearly 20 million copies worldwide by the time Shirer died.

Shirer also wrote two children’s books, The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler (1961) and The Sinking of the Bismarck (1962). He devoted seven years of research to the three-volume Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 (1969), another history popular with readers but dismissed by academics as indiscriminate and unbalanced in its sources and its emphases.

Shirer spent the 1970s and 1980s writing a massive three-volume autobiography, collectively titled Twentieth Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and the Times. Volume one, The Start, 1904-1930 (1976), reached a wide audience and was generally well received. Volume two, The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940 (1984), and volume three, A Native’s Return, 1945-1988 (1990), were less successful. His last book, Love and Hatred: The Troubled Marriage of Leo and Sony a Tolstoy, was published posthumously in 1994 and dedicated to his second wife, Irina Lugovskaya, whom he married in 1988 (they had no children); and his cardiologist, who had helped him through the cardiac problems that plagued him in his last years.

Shirer died of heart failure during a brief confinement in Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. He is buried in Lenox, Massachusetts.

When he joined Edward Murrow’s CBS news staff in 1937, Shirer was a widely respected foreign correspondent with very limited radio experience. He had previously made only one transatlantic broadcast, a report from Berlin on the German people’s reaction to the Hindenburg disaster that May. Burdened with a high, thin, reedy voice, he nonetheless became a popular on-air reporter because of his intelligent commentary and his superior news-gathering skills. Along with the rest of “Murrow’s boys” he revolutionized broadcast journalism and established CBS news as the industry leader in the years before and after World War II. His vividly written, often controversial radio reports from Germany and central Europe helped develop an international awareness among American listeners. Mysteriously blacklisted and barred from broadcasting during the first years of the cold war, Shirer’s focus on writing led to his most successful book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Professional historians deemed his books readable, but simplistic and historically unbalanced; Shirer’s readers believed otherwise and his work continued to sell well until his death.

Shirer’s papers are divided between the Coe College Library, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and his family in New York and Massachusetts. Volume one of his autobiography, Twentieth Century Journey: A Memoir of a Life and the Times: The Start: 1904-1930 (1976), is the most useful—and in many ways, the most revealing—of the three volumes. Shirer also published a brief memoir in a limited edition that did not circulate to the public: An August to Remember: A Historian Remembers the Last Days of World War II and the End of the World that Was (1986). See also the posthumous publication, William Shirer, This is Berlin: Radio Broadcasts from Nazi Germany (1999). There is no biography. Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, The Murrow Boys (1996), describe Shirer’s years with Edward R. Murrow and CBS. Recordings of World War II radio broadcasts by CBS correspondents, including Shirer, are in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. A transcript of his historic broadcast of the surrender of France in 1940 is reprinted in Louis L. Snyder and Richard B. Morris, eds., A Treasury of Great Reporting (1949). An obituary is in the New York(Times (30 Dec. 1993).

Allan L. Damon