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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 921


This is the grave of William Shirer.

Born in Chicago in 1904, Shirer grew up the son of a lawyer. But his father died when he was a boy and so the family lost their money. His mother moved to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I think her parents lived, and that’s where Shirer went to high school. He then attended Coe College in that town. He graduated in 1925, but had to work the whole time, in part to support the family, in addition to paying his tuition.

Shirer had one goal in graduating from college: getting the hell out of Iowa. He hated Iowa. He wanted nothing to do with it. He told his own mother this. He was not the first and most certainly not the last to feel that way. He kind of hated the United States of the 20s generally. He despised Coolidge and everything he represented. He hated how uptight Americans were. He was staunchly anti-religion, especially anti-Protestant. He needed to be in a fun place. Iowa was not that place.

Shirer was also travel hungry. He wanted to go to Europe. So he did–by working on a cattle boat. But once he got there, he set himself up to be a reporter and proved quite good at it. He would stay in Europe until World War II forced him out. He became the Chicago Tribune’s top reporter in Europe. Mostly he was based in France but he began traveling as well to the Middle East and India, where he got to know Gandhi and they became friendly traveling around India. He was quite the bohemian during his European years. He married a glamorous woman from Vienna and they shared a house in Spain with the great guitarist Andres Segovia. He lost an eye in a skiing accident in the Alps, which I guess wasn’t so bohemian but it probably made a good story.

By 1933, few knew Europe better than Shirer, despite still being a young man. He was very well-placed to write about the rise of the Nazis and he became perhaps the nation’s top correspondent for understanding Nazi Germany. In 1934, he left the Tribune to work for the Hearst papers to cover the Nazis specifically. He based himself in Germany for the next 6 years, witnessing the horror personally. By 1936, Joseph Goebbels was condemning him by name for reporting on anti-Semitism at the Berlin Olympics.

In 1937, Hearst dumped him (maybe old Bill was feeling that Shirer’s criticism of the Third Reich was hitting a bit too close for comfort) but Edward R. Murrow had CBS pick him up the next day. Although Shirer hated the sound of his own voice (I feel you my friend), he agreed to be the CBS radio correspondent based out of Vienna beginning the next year. When the Germans started invading everyone, Shirer was there with the Nazis on the Western Front. Hitler did not like Shirer or other American floating around the front so he ordered all correspondents from Paris to Berlin to serve as reporters for Nazi propaganda. Shirer wasn’t having this. He knew that many leading German officers despised Hitler and he convinced one to give him a ride to get out of there. This made him the first reporter to report on the conquest of France in 1940, then going back to Berlin. Eventually, the Gestapo decided to kill him for espionage and he got out of Germany at the end of that year.

Early on, Shirer had not been particularly anti-Hitler. His diaries make that clear enough. Of course, Shirer was not alone on this–lots of Americans thought a guy like that was just what we needed, even if he was a bit extreme on the rhetoric. Shirer later turned on him and published a book back in the U.S. in 1941 on living in Germany that was a best-seller.

Shirer stayed in the U.S. mostly until 1945, when he went back to Germany for the Nuremberg Trials. By this time, he felt Germany should be destroyed for good. But Shirer was also a good liberal. This led to him criticizing the Truman Doctrine on air for CBS. That led Murrow and Bill Paley to force him out. Shirer never forgave Murrow for this, even when the latter reached out to reconcile when he was dying of lung cancer in the mid 60s.

Shirer may have been a legend of journalism. But he was effectively blacklisted after this. In 1950, the extremist right journal Counterattack published something called Red Channels, attacking left-wing journalists by name, or who they thought were left-wing. That included Shirer. With the McCarthyist era setting in, Shirer couldn’t get real journalism jobs. He was still a big enough deal that he could make a living on the lecture circuit, which is what he did, but these were hard years for people with a conscious. He also wrote a few novels in the 50s that I don’t think did much.

In 1960, Shirer’s life changed with the publication of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, quite possibly the most important book on the Nazis ever published. It was a gigantic sensation, selling over 1 million copies in the first year alone. He won the 1961 National Book Award for non-fiction. Many scholars have certainly rejected some of the simplistic analysis, where he attempted to connect problems with German culture from Luther to Hitler, which does sound pretty shallow to me (I admit that I have never read the book; in fact, I think I last read a book on the Nazis sometime in the late 90s or so). In any case though, flawed as it may well have been, it went very far in shaping a generation’s view of the Nazis and remains highly influential today. I am sure commenters can have it below.

Shirer became rich. The nation was moving back to the left anyway. He sought to cash in with more books. The next year came The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler and the following year The Sinking of the Bismarck. Now really rich, he wrote somewhat less frequently after that, publishing The Collapse of the Third Republic in 1969 and a memoir about his time with Gandhi in 1980. He also was very active in The Author’s Guild, a quasi-union of authors.

Shirer died in 1993, at the age of 89 of heart failure.

William Shirer is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, Lenox, Massachusetts.

In the Library of America’s Reporting World War II box set, the very first piece is by Shirer, one of many in the collection. It’s his 1938 story about the Munich conference. If you would like this series to cover the writers of the next pieces in the collection, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Dorothy Thompson is in Barnard, Vermont and A.J. Liebling is in East Hampton, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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