Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Birthday: William L. Shirer, on-the-scene chronicler of the Nazis

William Lawrence Shirer (1904-1993)
Journalist, historian

He always said it was a lucky break that made him the pioneer in radio news, but William Shirer was smart and imaginative enough to make something out of that break, and himself a household name in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Shirer graduated from Coe College in Iowa in 1925 and hoboed his way to Europe on a cattle boat with $100 the college’s president lent him. He got a job in The Chicago Tribune’s Paris office and soon was its correspondent for all of Europe, the Middle East, and India. The world was a more manageable assignment in those days.

He traveled widely, spending a year in India and becoming a close friend of Gandhi’s. He covered the work of the League of Nations, Lindbergh’s Paris landing, and everything that was anything in those days.

In 1932, Shirer, unhappy with the paper, went- as he later joked- “from bad to Hearst” as a writer for the American publisher’s two wire services, Universal and International. Just as he was being laid off by the latter in 1937, he got a wire from CBS News’ Edward R. Murrow, asking for a lunch meeting in Berlin. Murrow hired Shirer to set up the network's European office. Shirer took office space in Vienna, which he felt more neutral than Berlin, where the news was plentiful and usually bad. “Have we not reached a stage in history where no small nation is safe any longer, where they all must live on sufferance from the dictators? Gone are those pleasant nineteenth-century days when a country could remain neutral and at peace just by saying it wanted to,” he wrote.

Under an edict of William Paley, CBS’s chairman, Shirer couldn’t speak on CBS radio programs. Paley thought it would compromise his objectivity. But by March 1938, technology and news reached a crossroads. The Nazis annexed Austria before Shirer’s eyes. In control of the state broadcasting service, they blocked his programming, so Shirer flew to Berlin, then London, where there wasn’t time to write what he had seen down for a broadcaster to read.

Shirer’s scoop was electrifying for American listeners. With eight hours’ notice, he put together a triumph of technology for the time: a live radio broadcast on the developing crisis, from five European capitals at once time. He covered the Czech and Polish invasions live. Under increasing censorship from Berlin, managed to get out a live report from the French surrender in 1940, calling CBS by phone and reading the story in the guise of a conference over his about-to-be recorded version that would go to Berlin for review.

Displeased, the Germans began building a spy case against Shirer. Tipped off, he packed his bags and left Berlin in December 1940, and turned his notes and papers into a 1941 bestseller, Berlin Diary.

The first of “Murrow’s Boys,” the legendary CBS News wartime team that included Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, Winston Burdett, Bill Downs and Richard C. Hottelet, Shirer won a Peabody Award in 1946 for his war broadcasts. For reasons that remain obscure, Murrow and William Paley rounded on him a year later, and he left CBS in a bitter break that lasted nearly twenty years.

A McCarthyite rag labeled Shirer a Communist sympathizer in 1950 and the airwaves were closed to him. He hit the road as a lecturer on college campuses and worked on what became his best book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960). It went through twenty printings in the first year, selling 600,000 copies; the paperback edition sold over a million copies at the unheard-of price of $1.65.

The book, which is still a standard reference as well as an accessible popular history, won Shirer the National Book Award. His financial worries solved, Shirer became a historian and biographer, writing well-regarded lives of Gandhi and Tolstoy, three volumes of memoirs, and an eyewitness account of the collapse of the French Republic in 1940. Full of years and honors, he died at 89 and left his archive to Coe College, where his odyssey began sixty-eight years earlier.

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #WilliamLShirer

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