In the course of his long career as a journalist, William L. Shirer was an eyewitness to the history of our times. His best-selling books, among them Berlin Diary, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and a trilogy of memoirs, have given readers a front-seat view of major events. In this program with Bill Moyers, Shirer discusses his experiences as a journalist in Europe, his firsthand impressions of Hitler, and expresses his concerns about the reunified Germany.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] For most of his adult life, William L. Shirer has been an eyewitness to history. Fresh out of college, he arrived in Paris in 1925 to become a newspaper reporter. During the ’20s and ’30s, he covered stories throughout Europe and spent two years in India, reporting on Mahatma Gandhi. In 1937, Shirer was hired by Edward R. Murrow to open the European bureau of CBS News. As a pioneer in broadcast journalism, he was in Rome for the death of a pope, in Berlin for the rise of Hitler, on the front lines for the fall of France. When Nazi censorship made honest reporting impossible, Shirer returned to the United States, broadcasting a weekly news analysis on CBS and publishing his first best-seller, Berlin Diary.
His career in broadcasting ended in 1947, when CBS canceled his program. But Shirer created a new career as an author, drawing on his years in Nazi Germany. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich became one of the biggest sellers in publishing history. He has since written about his years with Gandhi and has published a trilogy of his memoirs, Twentieth Century Journey, The Nightmare Years and A Native’s Return.
Now at age 86, William L. Shirer is at work on yet another book, this one about the final years in the life of Tolstoy. We talked at his home in Lenox, Massachusetts.
[interviewing] If you were living in Europe today, would you fear a strong and reunited Germany?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: I’m sure I would. If I were a Frenchman, or a member of any of the nations which were victims of the Nazi Germans, I would fear it, yes. The question is, have the Germans changed since the end of the war? And I’ve come to the conclusion that we really don’t know. Nobody can answer that question. I’m a little bit skeptical, perhaps because of my experience in Nazi Germany.
BILL MOYERS: When you consider how many people have suffered at the hands of the Germans, you can understand why there’s no quick inclination to trust them.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Well, I think in this country, we don’t realize that. But when you go to the Soviet Union, for example, you’re struck by that, what Nazi Germans did to that country. I mean, the 20 million dead, the destruction of their cities and towns and museums. They even tried to burn down Tolstoy’s house at Geznaya Pogama. No conquering country probably behaves very well, we know that, but I think if you ask a Frenchman about the Occupation, he would say it was very tough. I was running across some figures the other day. I think something like 29,000 French civilians were shot as hostages, for example. I think the French remember that. But we’ve never been invaded. We never had that experience. And we forget it very quickly.
BILL MOYERS: Just in the papers this morning, there are stories of sporadic outbursts of anti-Semitism in eastern Germany. And I’m wondering how strongly you think those pro-Nazi roots are in that soil.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: I had hoped that anti-Semitism was dead in Germany. You know, it didn’t start with Hitler; it’s been there a long time. But when I went back in ’85, during the Bitburg, the ill-fated Bitburg venture of President Reagan, one thing that did surprise me and depress me was the feeling of anti-Semitism, that was far from dead. The language which the papers used, and the radio and television used, to denounce, in particular, American Jews, for complaining that the president of the United States was coming to Bitburg cemetery, where something like 49 SS, Waffen SS men were buried. And you talk to the government, they said: ‘We don’t make any difference. A dead German soldier is a dead German soldier. If he was in the Waffen SS or the regular army it doesn’t make a difference.” To me, it does make a difference. The Waffen SS was the one which organized the slaughter not only of hundreds of thousands of Jews, but of hundreds of thousands of Russians and Poles. So it does make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: What did you think when President Reagan looked at those graves and said that these men, the Gestapo themselves, were the victims of the evil of one man?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Well, it was a horror. But you know, what he really said was that all the poor German soldiers there, buried at Bitburg, or the German soldiers anyplace who were killed in the war, were victims of the Nazis just as the Jews were. That’s a violation of history. The
BILL MOYERS: How so?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: I followed the German army, the famous sixth German army, through Holland, Belgium and France in 1940. I mention the name because that was the sixth army that was destroyed at Stalin grad. These German soldiers were-they loved it. I never met one -possibly one, an Austrian, one night when they were looking around during the campaign in France -who felt that they were done in by Hitler. To equate the Jews that were done to death in the extermination camps with four or five million German soldiers-all German soldiers were drafted, was a terrible abortion of history.
BILL MOYERS: But we forget how eagerly so many of the Germans greeted Hitler. I just was looking last night through The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940, at some of the pictures you have in here of Hitler arriving back in a number of German cities. Look at this, ‘Wildly enthusiastic crowds greet Hitler.” I mean, when you turn the pages and look at the faces-look at Hitler and the child, Hitler and the family.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: These arms outstretched. Look at the looks on the faces of these women as they are peering up at Hitler, greeting him, the crowd here. These two women-that’s his hand, those hands. That is an enthusiasm reserved for the most charismatic.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: I lived through that. One of the first shocks I think I got when I went up to cover Germany permanently in 1934 the year after Hitler took over, was the enthusiasm of the crowds. My first assignment was the Nuremburg party rally, and the hysterical applause of these Germans, as if they were looking at a messiah, I must say now wouldn’t surprise me, but deeply shocked me. And I think what was important and maybe terrible for an outside observer was that the vast majority of people supported Hitler with incredible enthusiasm.
Now, why was that? Well, for one thing, he was giving them what they wanted, and we forget that. He was giving them full employment, he was improving the economics of the place by borrowing a lot of money that he never paid back, he was building up an army, navy and air force. The Germans liked that, there’s a certain militarism, at least in our time, in their blood. And he was telling them we’re going to get back the territories we lost, and we’re going to take Austria, and we’re going to take Czechoslovakia, and so forth. Those were things that the Germans liked.
I remember going up to Hamburg or someplace to try and find out why German workers were supporting him, and they said-I said, “Don’t you miss the freedoms you had, of free trade unions, of free elections?” And they said, “Well, I’ll tell you, there’s one freedom that we don’t miss, and that’s the freedom to starve.” There was no real German resistance. I mean, there were lots of Germans, but they were a handful, really. There was no attempt at Hitler until the very end, and this was by a handful of military people. But the masses, the workers, the petit bourgeoisie and so forth, never revolted. There was never the kind of meetings we have seen in east Europe in recent months, where crowds got out into the streets and-they didn’t seem to care about their freedoms being taken away. And maybe this is true of a lot of countries. It might even be true of us sometime. They didn’t seem to care about loss of freedom as long as they had some prosperity.
BILL MOYERS: All these years later, do you still ask yourself the question why? I mean, you’ve written about the how in one book after another, but the question of why a nation that was a Christian nation, a nation that produced Beethoven and Bach and Immanuel Kant, a nation of great scientists, a nation that was an integral part of “western civilization,” how it could perpetrate such evil, be so blind?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: It’s a question which I posed when I got to Germany, and I’ve been asking myself ever since, and often, how it could have happened. You know, as you say, they were a Christian people, divided between the Catholics and Protestants. They were, I would say, people who went to church every Sunday. And as you say, there’s great culture, which was a part of western civilization. Why they went off, why they could slaughter six million Jews, for example, or seven million in the extermination camps, why they could-and this is something that’s not very well known, but Chancellor Kohl talked about it not long ago, that they let die over half of the six million Russian prisoners of war by not giving them shelter or food, in other words, killing them. But I cannot answer your question, and I wish somebody could, maybe some great philosopher would come around. It’s a stumbling block to my whole imagination.
BILL MOYERS: It’s still hard for me to comprehend, for example, that the mentality of those German businessmen who advertised their bids for the crematoria in the concentration camps. You quote one of the ads in one of your books: ”We guarantee the effectiveness of the cremation ovens, as well as their durability, the use of the best materials and our faultless workmanship.” Don’t tell me they didn’t know what they were going to be used for.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Of course they did. Remember, at Nuremburg, this company I think at first denied that they knew, and then the secret documents published, the correspondence like that. But do you ever think of the thousands, or tens of thousands of other nice Germans, shall we say, who went to church every Sunday, who looked after their families, played with the children and who, in their office hours, went over the gold teeth and the earrings and the finger rings of the Jews who had been slaughtered in the camps. It-this is beyond my imagination. I still-I mean, I heard it at Nuremburg when it first came out, and now, 50, 60 years later, I still can’t comprehend it. It’s a riddle. But I think we should remember it in all this talk about the new Germany.
BILL MOYERS: I read a book in college, 1952, 1953, about the Germany between the wars, between 1920 and 1940. It was called Unto Caesar. I can’t remember the author of it, but he said that so much of what happened when Hitler came to power had been prefigured, foreshadowed, in the art, the literature, the theater of Germany in that period. And he said that men, no less than children, will suit their action to fantasy. And that happened, didn’t it?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: It certainly did, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: What was the Nazi fantasy?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Well, there’s a myth about the whole thing, a myth about Hitler. But those are so intangible, it’s just-it’s very difficult to explain them. But of course, in a sense, the Germans knew what was coming if they had read Mein Kampf. It’s all there. And unfortunately, some Germans didn’t read it, and even more unfortunately, the British and the French and the Russians and Mr. Stalin and the rest didn’t read it. The blueprint was there.
There was a fantasy of a superman, the fantasy of the Germanic race, as they called it, having the mission in life to better the world, by which he really meant expanding so that Germans would be more prosperous at the expense of the Poles and the Russians and the French and the others. And I remember, at Nuremburg there was a postal card, I came across it the other day when I was trying to find something. And it was a postal card of Hitler. And he’s on a white horse with a spear and sort of medieval clothing. And there’s a saying which I’ve forgotten in German, but it does say “Frederick the Great started it, Bismarck continued it and Adolf Hitler’s going to finish it.”
BILL MOYERS: I do think character changes. Certainly, circumstances change, and so much of the drive for freedom in eastern Europe today, including eastern Germany, is coming from the churches, whose members, 60, 70 years ago, were often -not always, but often -supporting Hitler and the Nazis. That’s been a remarkable transformation.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: It is, I think. Of course, under Hitler they were under pressure to conform, and as always in institutions, even though the institutions will conform in order, probably they think, to save themselves, there’s always a band of individuals who have the guts and character and may be a little bit mad. And so you had that in the Catholic and Protestant churches. I think all of the correspondents, for example, had good contacts in the church. Maybe not with the cardinal or bishop, but with somebody right under him, or articularly with the Protestants. And one of the worst moments of my life was when a young Protestant Lutheran clergyman, who had been feeding me information about the persecution of the church, and we tried so hard, we met in toilets and the Platz der Bonhoef, and the Tieregarten, and so forth, they nabbed him. I was not the only correspondent who-foreign correspondent who knew him, some of my colleagues, too. And for days we went around thinking that any of us make a false step and expose this man-and when he was condemned to death, it-I just wanted to go out of the country. Later it was changed to life imprisonment, and I hope he got out somehow. I never could find him after the war. But that was what you had to remember.
BILL MOYERS: Did many of your sources wind up betrayed, and the Nazis close in on them?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: I think so, yeah. The Gestapo was so powerful and so good, I would say. I had-one other source was an editor of a leading morning paper. And he gave me daily the instructions from Goebbels on what his paper should print, what editorials they should write and what they should keep out, so I was able, almost daily, to find out what the dictatorship was telling the papers to write and so forth. Well, he got picked up, he was sentenced to death. And again, that terrible feeling of, did you make a slip sometime, did you ever just sort of mention in passing that he came to you and to some of my colleagues? Fortunately, he again was-the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and again, I never felt out when I got back after the war, I tried to look some of these people up, but I never found him, either. He worked under that pressure of responsibility, which was a little bit too much sometimes.
BILL MOYERS: What was your most difficult moment?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Well, I left Berlin for the last time, during the Nazi time, in December, 1940. I wanted very much to get out my diaries, and certain papers that I had acquired from here and there. And I picked my brains, which are not very good, and I couldn’t think of anything. And also, the danger, because any dispatches, you couldn’t write the truth about Nazi Germany. But in my diaries, almost every day I would write what I really thought. So I simply decided, I bought a couple of steel-big steel suitcases, small trunks, and put my diaries in the bottom. And on the top I put my dispatches, which were censored and had the stamp of [unintelligible], the high command of the German army. And those stamps always impressed a German. Turned them over to the Gestapo and told them that I wanted to take my dispatches out, and here they were. I also put a few general staff maps that I had, which I knew I couldn’t take out. You have to give them some excuse to take something out of your suitcase.
So they grabbed the maps, said you can’t take those out, and then I showed them the dispatches. At any rate, they finally sealed them, and that’s the way I got out my diaries.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you’re the most vivid example I’ve met of the value of keeping a daily journal, of keeping a diary.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Well, you wonder about it, but I thought-I had a feeling. I’ve always kept a diary, and it’s a terrible bother, but during the time in Germany, you come back from broadcasting, it’d be two or three in the morning. I knew if I left it till the next morning I wouldn’t do it. So I’d sit down and type out-of course, I was so angry all the-much of the time about the lies, that I would-but also, you got tips in the time. You’ve got to remember, even-I’ve been saying to you that the regime was backed by the majority of the Germans, as
I believe it was. There was always people who were not that kind, as a matter of fact, who opposed the regime, who fed the information. That was true during the war, when I think two or three of my best contacts were in the German general staff, so that into my diaries often went information I got from them, not giving the source, of course. But the diaries would have-they would have hanged me if I guess, if they’d caught them.
BILL MOYERS: Is it true that, when Hitler took over Austria, the Anschluss, you were trying to arrange a broadcast on CBS of that event, and a CBS executive in New York was chastising you for not following up on arranging the broadcast of a children’s choir? That he wanted the children’s choir, he didn’t really care about your broadcast of Hitler’s arrival in Vienna. Is that true?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Absolutely. You realize that when Ed Murrow and I first started this two-man job of corresponding from Europe for CBS, neither Ed nor I were allowed to speak on the air. You know what we had to do for the first eight months that I was on the thing? Ed and I went around Europe organizing children’s choirs for some Sunday afternoon program of kids’ choirs. Well, they were very nice choirs, the kids were wonderful, but here was Europe going to hell, and we couldn’t report it. If we did this-try a report, we had to get another correspondent to talk.
BILL MOYERS: A newspaper correspondent?
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Yeah. And if you went to, say, The New York Times, or UP or AP, they wouldn’t let their top people talk on the air. And that was some-because you remember, there was a prejudice against radio news at that time. But they would give you the fifth or sixth man. So I’d hire somebody to talk, say, from Vienna or Berlin, some kid just away from the police beat in New York. And I have to admit, it rather burned me up. I thought I knew a little bit more than he did about it, because I’d been around so long.
BILL MOYERS: But CBS wouldn’t let you do it because
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: They wouldn’t do it.
BILL MOYERS: -they didn’t want their employees editorializing, or
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: Right.
BILL MOYERS: -taking sides.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: And actually, when the war started, because Ed and I broke it-you mentioned the Anschluss, when they wouldn’t let me broadcast that night when the Nazis took over the Austrian radio, and I flew to London. And Ed, who’d been up in Poland on some children’s choir or something, came down to Vienna to cover for me. I think it was a Saturday I arrived, a Saturday evening, getting out of Vienna had been difficult, I finally got there by plane. And just went on the air, I didn’t ask them at all, I just said, “Can you give me a few minutes for an eyewitness report?” That’s the first time that we broke that rule. After that, Ed and I were on the air every day.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] We’ll continue this conversation with William L. Shirer on another edition of A World of Ideas. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on March 26, 2015.