William Shirer: Wikis


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William L. Shirer 1961

William Lawrence Shirer (February 23, 1904 – December 28, 1993) was an American journalist, war correspondent, and historian, who wrote "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" a groundbreaking history of Nazi Germany which has been widely read and cited in scholarly works for over fifty years. Originally a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, Shirer was the first reporter hired by Edward R. Murrow for what would become a storied team of journalists for CBS radio. Shirer became famous for his broadcasts from Berlin, from the rise of the Nazi dictatorship through the first year of World War II. With Murrow, Shirer organized the first broadcast world news roundup, a format still followed by major news broadcasts. Shirer's other books include Berlin Diary (published in 1941), The Collapse of the Third Republic which drew on his experience spent living and working in France from 1925 to 1933, and his three volume autobiography, "Twentieth Century Journey."


Early years

Born in Chicago in 1904, Shirer attended Washington High School and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He graduated from Coe in 1925. Working his way to Europe on a cattle boat, intending to spend the summer there, he remained in Europe for the next fifteen years.

He was European correspondent for the Chicago Tribune from 1925 to 1932, covering assignments in Europe, the Near East and India. In India he formed a close friendship with Mohandas K. Gandhi. Shirer lived and worked in France for several years beginning in 1925. He left in the early 1930s but returned frequently to Paris throughout the decade. He lived and worked in the Third Reich from 1934 to 1940.

In 1931, Shirer married Theresa Stiberitz, an Austrian photographer. The couple had two daughters, Inga and Linda. Shirer and his wife divorced in 1970, and he married Irina Lugovskaya, a long-time teacher of Russian at Simon's Rock College. Shirer and Irina had no children.

Pre-war years

As a print journalist first and later as a radio reporter for CBS, Shirer covered the strengthening of one-party rule in Nazi Germany beginning in 1934. Shirer reported on Adolf Hitler's peacetime triumphs like the return of the Saarland to Germany and the remilitarization of the Rhineland.

Shirer was hired in 1934 for the Berlin bureau of the Universal News Service, which was one of William Randolph Hearst's two wire services. In Berlin Diary, Shirer described this move, in a self-proclaimed bad pun, as going from “bad to Hearst”. When Universal Service folded in August 1937, Shirer was first taken on as second man by Hearst's other wire service, International News Service, and then laid off a few weeks later.

On the very day when Shirer received his two weeks' notice from INS, he also received what was to be a fateful wire from Edward R. Murrow, European manager of Columbia Broadcasting System, suggesting that the two men meet. At their meeting a few days later in Berlin, Murrow commented that he couldn't cover all of Europe from his London office and indicated that he was seeking an experienced correspondent to open a CBS office on the Continent. He offered Shirer the job on the spot, subject to an audition — a "trial broadcast" — to allow the CBS directors and vice presidents in New York to judge whether Shirer's voice was suitable for radio.

In spite of Shirer's fears that his reedy voice was unsuitable for radio, he was hired by CBS. As "European bureau chief" for CBS, Shirer set up headquarters in Vienna, a more central (and more neutral) spot than Berlin. Shirer's job was to arrange broadcasts and, early in his career with CBS, expressed his disappointment at having to hire newspaper correspondents to do the actual broadcasting; at the time, CBS correspondents were prohibited from speaking on the radio themselves.

Shirer was the first of the group that would be called "Murrow's Boys" — the groundbreaking broadcast journalists who provided outstanding news coverage during World War II and afterward.

CBS's prohibition on its correspondents talking on the radio — viewed by both Murrow and Shirer as "absurd" — ended in March 1938. Shirer was in Vienna on March 11, 1938 when the German annexation of Austria (Anschluss), took place after weeks of mounting pressure by Nazi Germany on the Austrian government.

As the only American broadcaster in the Austrian capital at the time — NBC rival Max Jordan was not in town — Shirer had a major scoop, but lacked the facilities to report the momentous events of the Anschluss to his CBS radio audience. He was not permitted to broadcast by occupying German troops controlling the Austrian state radio studio. At Murrow's suggestion, Shirer flew to London via Berlin — he recalled in Berlin Diary that the direct flight to London was filled with Jews frantically trying to escape German-occupied Austria. Once in London, Shirer broadcast the first uncensored eyewitness account of the annexation. Meanwhile, Murrow flew from London to Vienna to cover for Shirer.

The next day, CBS's New York headquarters asked Shirer and Murrow to arrange and produce a "European round-up" — a 30-minute broadcast featuring live reporting from five European capitals — Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Rome, and London. The broadcast, arranged in a mere eight hours using the primitive telephone and broadcasting facilities of the day, was a major feat of journalism. As the first-ever news roundup, this broadcast established a formula used in broadcast journalism to this day. It also turned out to be the genesis of what became the CBS World News Roundup, which still airs on that radio network each morning and evening, and is network broadcasting's oldest news series.

Shirer also reported on the Munich Agreement and Hitler's march into Czechoslovakia before going on to report on the growing tensions between Germany and Poland in 1939 and the German invasion of Poland that launched World War II on September 1, 1939. During much of the pre-war period, Shirer was based in Berlin and attended most of Hitler's major public speeches and other political or propaganda events like several of the massive Nazi party rallies (Reichsparteitage) in Nuremberg.

Reporting the war from Berlin

Shirer, at right, at Compiègne reporting on the French surrender

When active warfare broke out on the Western Front in 1940, Shirer moved forward with the German troops, providing reporting that still gives crucial first hand information on the operation of the German "Blitzkrieg." Shirer reported on the invasion of Denmark and Norway in April from Berlin, and then in person on the invasion of the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France in May. As German armies closed in on Paris, he traveled to France with the German forces.

In one of the biggest journalistic triumphs of the war, Shirer reported the signing of the German armistice with France on June 22, 1940 to the American people before the news had even been announced by the Germans. His commentary from Compiègne was widely hailed as a masterpiece of reporting. On the day before the armistice was to be signed Hitler personally ordered all of the foreign correspondents covering the German Army from Paris back to Berlin. It was Hitler's intention that the news of the Armistice should be reported to the world solely by Nazi sources. Shirer avoided being returned to Berlin by leaving the press hotel early in the morning and hitching a ride to Compiegne with a German officer who despised Hitler. Once on site, Shirer was able to following the proceedings inside the famous railway car, by listening in to the transmission being relayed to Berlin through a German army communications truck. After the Armistice was signed Shirer was allowed to transmit his own broadcast to Berlin, but only for recording and release after the official Nazi version had been disseminated. However, with a broadcast journalist's instincts, Shirer spent five minutes before he went on calling CBS radio in New York, hoping that the broadcast would somehow get through. In fact it did get through. When the German engineers in Berlin heard Shirer calling New York, they assumed he was authorized to broadcast. Instead of sending his report to a recording machine as they had been ordered to do, they put it on the shortwave transmitter. When CBS heard Shirer's call he was put on the network live. For six hours Shirer's report was the only news the world had of the Compiegne Armistice. [1]

In peacetime, Shirer's reporting was subject only to "self-censorship". He and other reporters in Germany knew that if Nazi officials in Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry objected to their reporting, they could withdraw the reporters' access to the state-owned broadcasting facilities or expel them from Germany. Still, Shirer's early reporting was permitted more freedom than were German reporters writing or broadcasting for domestic audiences. At the beginning of the war, German officials established censorship; Shirer recalled that the restrictions were similar to wartime censorship elsewhere, and were concerned primarily with restricting information that could be used to Germany's military disadvantage by its enemies.

However, as the war continued and as Britain not only rebuffed Hitler's peace overtures to end the war, but began to bomb German cities (including Berlin), the tightening Nazi censorship became more onerous to Shirer and his colleagues. In contrast to Ed Murrow's live broadcasts of the German bombing of London in the Blitz, foreign correspondents in Germany were not allowed to report British air raids on German cities. Furthermore, reporters were not permitted to cast doubt upon statements made by the Propaganda Ministry and Military High Command. Reporters were discouraged by the Propaganda Ministry from reporting news or from using terms like Nazi that were liable to "create an unfavorable impression." For a time, Shirer resorted to subtler ways of attempting to convey his message until the censors caught on.

As the summer of 1940 progressed, the Nazi government put increasing pressure on Shirer to broadcast the official accounts which he knew were incomplete or false. As his frustration grew, he wrote to his bosses in New York that the tightening censorship was undermining his ability to report objectively in Germany and mused that he had outlived his usefulness reporting from Berlin. Shirer was subsequently tipped off by an acquaintance that the Gestapo was building a case against him, and began making arrangements to leave Germany, which he did in December 1940.

Shirer managed to smuggle his diaries and notes out of Germany and used them as the basis for his Berlin Diary, which provides a first-hand, day-by-day account of events inside the Third Reich during five years of peacetime and one year of war. It was published in 1941.

He returned to Europe to report the Nuremberg trials in 1945.

Post-war years

William L. Shirer and Edward R. Murrow, early 1950s.

The close friendship between Shirer and Murrow ended in 1947, in one of the great confrontations of American broadcast journalism, that culminated in Shirer leaving CBS.

The dispute started when J. B. Williams, maker of shaving soap, withdrew his sponsorship of Shirer's Sunday news show. CBS, through Murrow, who was then vice president for public affairs, and CBS head William S. Paley, decided not to seek another sponsor, moved Shirer's sponsorless program to an undesirable Sunday midday time slot, and decided to stop producing it, all within a month. CBS maintained that Shirer resigned based on a comment that he made in the heat of the moment in an impromptu interview, but Shirer said he was fired [2]

Shirer contended that the root of his troubles was the network and sponsor not standing by him because of his on-air comments, such as those critical of the Truman Doctrine, and what he viewed as an emphasis on placating sponsors instead of on journalism. Shirer blamed Murrow for his departure from CBS, at one time bitterly referring to Murrow as "Paley's toady."

The episode hastened Murrow's own desire to give up his network vice presidency and return to newscasting, and foreshadowed his own later misgivings about the future of broadcast journalism and his own difficulties with CBS founder and chief executive William S. Paley.

Shirer himself briefly provided analysis for the Mutual Broadcasting System, then found himself unable to find regular radio work. His appearance in Red Channels blacklisted him, effectively barring him from broadcasting or print journalism, and he was forced into the lecture circuit for income. Times remained tough for Shirer, his wife Tess and daughters Eileen, Inga, and Linda until Simon & Schuster published his book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich in 1960. A best seller for many years, the book went through twenty printings in the first year after publication.

The friendship between Shirer and Murrow never recovered. In her preface to This is Berlin, a compilation of Shirer's Berlin broadcasts published after his death, Shirer's daughter Inga describes how Murrow, suffering from lung cancer that he knew could be terminal, tried to heal the breach with Shirer before his death by inviting the Shirers to his farm in 1964. During this visit, Murrow tried to discuss the breach so as to heal it. Though the two men chatted in a superficially pleasant manner, Shirer stubbornly steered the conversation away from the contentious issues between the two men, and the men never had another opportunity to air their grievances before Murrow died in 1965. Shirer's daughter also writes that, shortly before her father's own death in 1993, he rebuffed her attempts to learn the source of the breach that opened between the two journalists 45 years earlier.

Some strong clues are possibly given in The Nightmare Years (1984), the second volume in Shirer's three-volume memoir, Twentieth Century Journey. In a number of places, Shirer describes the birth and growth of an exceptionally warm and intimate relationship with Murrow in the 1930s. Although his personal reminiscences are wound together with his version of their professional relationship, he emphasizes that he and Murrow were very close friends, as well as colleagues. He does not mention their break at all in this volume. A number of very touching recollections are included. Thus it is somewhat easy to understand that their eventual break in 1947, which was based strictly upon business disagreements, was made especially bitter by the close personal relationship they once had.

Another important aspect of The Nightmare Years is Shirer's description of his and Murrow's three-way relationship with William S. Paley. Shirer says that, in private, he and Murrow were often contemptuous of Paley, and they almost always sided together against him in the 1930s. Thus, when Paley and Murrow ganged up on Shirer in 1947, this was probably another very big shock, although Shirer does not say so explicitly in any of his written work.

Death and legacy

Shirer died in 1993 in Boston. He was 89. [3]

In 2001 a compilation of Shirer's CBS broadcasts from Europe, called This Is Berlin: Reporting from Nazi Germany, 1938-40 (ISBN 1-58567-279-3) was published.




* These 3 books form the 3 volumes of Shirer's autobiography.


  • The Traitor (1950)
  • Stranger Come Home (1954)
  • The Consul's Wife (1956)

Fictionalized versions of Shirer

  • In the 1982 movie Gandhi the composite American Journalist character played by Martin Sheen is said to represent Shirer.[citation needed]
  • William Dreiser, the American reporter who appears in the first part of S. M. Stirling's alternate history WWII novel Marching Through Georgia (1988), is clearly based on Shirer.[citation needed]
  • In the 1989 movie Nightmare Years Shirer is played by Sam Waterston. The TV movie is based on Shirer's bestselling book, "The Nightmare Years" and covers the period from Shirer's arrival in Germany in 1934 until Shirer's fleeing from Berlin in 1940.

See also


  1. ^ Shirer, William L.; The Nightmare Years; Little, Brown, Boston; 1984; pp537-41
  2. ^ William L. Shirer (1990). 20th Century Journey: A Native's Return. Little Brown. 
  3. ^ "William L. Shirer, Author, Is Dead at 89". New York Times. December 29, 1993. "William L. Shirer, the author of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" and a foreign correspondent whose pioneering live trans-Atlantic radio broadcasts on the eve of World War II helped inform Americans about Nazi Germany, died yesterday at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. He was 89 years old and lived in Lenox, Mass. His daughter Inga Dean of Lenox said he had been hospitalized since Dec. 5 with heart ailments, The Associated Press reported." 
  4. ^ reprinted by Francis US, New York, 2002. 10-ISBN 0-801-87056-9; 13-ISBN 978-0-801-87056-9

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