Shirer, William L. (1904-1993)

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Shirer, William L. (1904-1993)

A globe-trotting newspaperman and author of 15 major works of fiction and history, William L. Shirer is best known for his pioneering work as a radio newscaster during Europe's march toward World War II. From Germany's forcible union with Austria and the Czech Crisisof 1938 to the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in 1945, Shirer spanned the Atlantic and kept Americans informed of the aggressive intentions of Hitler and the dynamics of Nazism in his memorable European News Round-Up broadcasts. By the time he left CBS radio in 1947, he had helped lay the foundation for modern international news broadcasting and achieved, with his "Fall of France" report, one of the biggest on-air scoops in history.

Shirer began his career as a foreign correspondent in 1925 when he joined the Paris office of the Chicago Tribune. Before moving to the newspaper's Central European Bureau (Vienna) in 1929, he had the opportunity to cover Charles Lindbergh's famous oceanic flight and the sessions of the League of Nations. Shirer regarded 1930-31 his "most interesting years," when he traveled the breadth of India with Gandhi and reported on the activities of his civil disobedience movement. Shirer returned to Paris in January 1934 after a skiing accident robbed him of part of his eyesight, and he secured a position with the New York Herald. He was Universal News Service's Berlin correspondent from August 1934 until the organization was disbanded by William Randolph Hearst in 1937.

Shirer did not remain unemployed for long. Recognizing his vast experience covering European affairs and his facility with German and French, Edward R. Murrow (chief of CBS's European staff) asked him to open the network's office in Vienna and arrange for the broadcasts of its correspondents there. At first Shirer was to act only in an administrative capacity, and because his voice was considered inadequate for extensive broadcasts, as an announcer for other speakers. But when the German army moved into Austria on March 12, 1938, in an effort to achieve Anschluss (union) between the two states, Shirer was given a rare opportunity. As soldiers swarmed through the streets of Vienna, Shirer managed to locate a microphone, but when he tried to deliver his account, he was forced out of the studio at bayonet-point. Undeterred, Shirer hopped the first flight to London and made his uncensored broadcast there over the network's 117-station hookup. The next day, March 13, CBS news director Paul White charged him with making the arrangements for the first international multiple pickup broadcast, in which a succession of correspondents at various strategic points across the continent would go on the air and provide their own perspective on the crisis. Because this type of direct broadcast had never been done before, Shirer was compelled to improvise. In the few hours before airtime, he located the relevant personnel and ensured their access to short-wave facilities. In order that all scheduled sources could be heard within the fifteen-minute period allotted for the broadcast, and in the absence of any cueing system or feedback device, Shirer instructed his correspondents to time their words precisely and to go on the air "blind." The success achieved with this first European News Round-Up guaranteed it a regular spot in the nightly newscasts of the war period. In many ways, it established the pattern for international coverage later found on television.

As a result of his Anschluss performance, CBS made Shirer one of its regular newscasters. In September 1938, he was the man-on-the-scene during the Czech Crisis. As Hitler's conflict with the Czech government over the fate of the Sudetenland threatened to precipitate a major European war, millions of Americans anxiously tuned in to Shirer's nightly five-minute broadcasts from Prague. When the Fuehrer set his sights on Poland in September 1939, Shirer covered the impending crisis from the main vantage point of Berlin itself. On the first day of war, September 1, Shirer captivated listeners with his report of an air raid alarm while it was in progress.

Reporting from the Nazi capital offered distinct opportunities but also had significant drawbacks. Shirer's accounts of German life and strategy during wartime had to pass three rigorous censors prior to airtime, and the approved script could only be read in the presence of official observers from the propaganda office. Shirer used his ingenuity to mitigate the effects of such adulteration. Listeners became sensitive to the way he expressed his true feelings by his "ironic sense of humor," sarcastic tone, and use of peculiarly American phrasing and slang that academically trained German censors could not comprehend. In May 1940 Shirer became one of a handful of correspondents allowed to accompany the German army during its conquest of France and one of the few to beam reports from occupied Paris. The Wehrmacht's (armed forces') advance was so swift that, by the end of the campaign, CBS had lost all contact with Shirer. When he finally reached a transmitter on June 22, he achieved one of the greatest scoops in the history of American broadcasting. Most correspondents had believed the Franco-German armistice would be signed in Berlin, and they took up positions there. Shirer, learning the actual location would be a railroad car in the Compiegne Forest (where the Germans had been forced to capitulate to the French in 1918), was able to arrive there in time to witness the spectacle and relay his account several hours before any other reporter.

In December 1940, the burden of German censorship became intolerable, and Shirer ceased his "This Is Berlin" broadcasts. He returned to the United States, embarked upon a vigorous lecture tour, and became technical advisor for the wartime film Passport to Bordeaux. While continuing to analyze the news for CBS, he published an uncensored account of the story behind his on-the-spot broadcast from Germany in Berlin Diary: Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41. In 1941 his book became a best-seller, and the Headliner's Club honored him with an award for "excellence in radio reporting." In 1945, he returned to Germany as CBS's chief European correspondent to cover the Nuremberg War Crimes trials and made it back in time to cover the opening of the United Nations in San Francisco. In 1946, Shirer received the Peabody Award for his "outstanding interpretation of the news." The following year, he resigned from CBS after an "objectivity" dispute with Murrow.

Shirer served briefly as a commentator for the Mutual Broadcasting System in 1947-49 but was blacklisted and forced to retire from broadcasting in the early 1950s because of his links with the Hollywood Ten. Thereafter, Shirer sustained himself through his lectures and prolific writings. He wrote substantial articles for Life, Harper's, and Collier's, and the fictionalized biographies Traitor (1950) and Stranger Go Home (1954). He produced End of a Berlin Diary (1947) as a sequel to his earlier historical work and authored five additional books based on his experience as a correspondent: Midcentury Journey (1952), The Collapse of the Third Republic (1969), Twentieth-Century Journey (1976), The Nightmare Years (1984), and A Native's Return (1990). His most well-known literary achievement, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, was published in 1959, after five years of scrutinizing rare Nazi state documents and private memoirs. The work received the National Book Award in 1961. Shirer died in December 1993 in his home state of Massachusetts.

—Robert J. Brown

Further Reading:

Brown, Robert J. Manipulating the Ether: The Power of Broadcast Radio in Thirties America. Jefferson City, McFarland & Company, 1998.

Cloud, Stanley. Murrow's Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. Jefferson City, McFarland & Company, 1996.

Hohenberg, John. Foreign Correspondence: The Great Reporters and Their Times. New York, Columbia University Press, 1964.

Shirer, William L. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-41. New York, Knopf, 1941.

——. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1959.