William Shirer

William Shirer, right, reporting at Compiègne, France in June of 1940. Source: German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons.

By Amanda McGowan

“You can no longer report the war or conditions in Germany as they are,” William Shirer wrote in his diary, “Berlin Days.”

It was October of 1940, and the CBS correspondent had decided it was time to get out of Berlin.

Air raids were being launched on Britain and German troops were moving in on Romania. Shirer was there to report it, but censors blocked him from mentioning the details of the war. The reason? They were concerned any information that would create an “unfavorable impression” of Nazi Germany in the United States.

“You cannot call the Nazis ‘Nazis’ or an invasion an ‘invasion,’” Shirer wrote. He asked himself: At what point is a foreign journalist working under restrictive conditions reduced to a mouthpiece for the regime? And what could he do about it?

Shirer had come to Europe in 1925 as a young college graduate and reported from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Austria, and India before moving to Berlin. By 1935, he was delivering early reports from Nazi Germany covering the Reich’s preparations for the Winter Olympics the following year. His reports proved to be an exceptionally clear-eyed about the reality of life under the Nazis. As the U.S. Holocaust Museum notes, most foreign correspondents at the time praised the glitz and glitter of the celebrations (The New York Times reported that it brought Germany “back into the fold of nations.”)

“All Jew baiting is officially off in Germany during the Olympics,” Shirer wrote, acknowledging that the Nazis had taken down their antisemitic signage to make the city more palatable to foreign visitors. For his report, authorities threatened to expel Shirer from the country. But they didn’t.

After the war began, restrictions on foreign journalists working in Germany increased, requiring Shirer to come up with creative — and dangerous — workarounds. The most dramatic example came in June 1940 after the surrender of the French army. Hitler had ordered all the foreign correspondents stationed in Paris to return to Berlin, so that all news of the armistice would come from official government sources. Most American journalists complied. Shirer had a contact in the German High Command who tipped him off to the location where the armistice signing would take place — at Compiègne, where the Germans had surrendered to the French in 1918. He intended to go.

According to his biographer Steve Wick, Shirer was able to get a ride to Compiègne with his source and Harold Diettrich, the head of Germany’s short-wave radio program, who was mistakenly under the impression that Hitler’s ban only applied to newspaper reporters. He ended up broadcasting live, for three hours, directly to New York, before the news had even been announced in Berlin.

But Shirer’s coverage of Compiègne was the exception, not the norm. Usually, censors were more difficult to get around and dictated the terms of his coverage. In “Berlin Days,” he describes attempting to sneak messages through by using “certain tones and inflections,” “a pause held longer than is natural,” or by employing “Americanisms” that would not have been understood by the Germans.” It is unclear if these messages — intended to be read “between the lines” — were ever understood in the way he wanted.

By October he became increasingly desperate, writing that “my usefulness here is about over.” He left in December of that year, returning only in 1945 — this time to cover the Nuremberg Trials.

Shirer abandoned his beat, convinced that working under those restrictions would have compromised his ability to accurately report, but many journalists of the time did not. The Associated Press, for example, made arrangements with Nazi officials to publish propaganda images in order to retain access to the country.

In the 1950s, his name appeared in the infamous “Red Channels” booklet, which accused prominent broadcasters of communist sympathies. He was blacklisted from the airwaves. But the time away from broadcasting, he said, allowed him the freedom to pen his seminal history of the Nazi period, “The Rise And Fall of The Third Reich.” The book won him a National Book Award and sold over one million copies, but it also finally gave him the chance to tell the true story of the war, unfiltered, as he saw it.

 

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