A War Correspondent Remembers
William Shirer's last installment of a three-volume set of memoirs offers nostalgia and insight
DIARISTS who harbor hopes that their private thoughts might really make best-selling reading should take heart from William Shirer. Not only did he parlay his jottings as a war correspondent in Hitler's Germany into two popular books, ``Berlin Diary'' (1941) and ``End of a Berlin Diary'' (1947), he has also drawn heavily on his daily notes to produce a three-volume set of memoirs, the final portion of which has just been published.
In between, of course, he managed to write several ``real'' books. By far the most well-known, ``The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'' (1960), is a monumental 1,200-page account of the Hitler era in all its glory and horror.
Shirer would seem to be at a disadvantage in this final volume of memoirs, which begins in 1945 at the close of the war. After all, what could possibly be compelling about his return home to New York City, his reunion with his wife and two daughters, their summers and holidays at the family retreat in rural Connecticut, and the trials of book writing?
Somehow Shirer largely succeeds in making the pages fly by. And while the book builds to no great single dramatic climax or tidy conclusion (how many real lives do?), it tugs the reader along by inches: a vignette of a famous friend here, a scrap of diary there, a reminiscence followed by an observation. No clever word play here: This is storytelling that puts the story first, whether small or great, artful in its lack of artifice.
After covering the Nuremberg war crimes trials in late 1945, Shirer comes home to America as a veteran of more than 20 years as a reporter throughout Europe. In the years before the US entered the war, he was part of a corps of memorable American radio reporters who brought the news, and occasionally the sound, of European conflict into North American living rooms.
During the Battle of Britain, when CBS radio compatriot Edward R. Murrow would begin his broadcast, ``This is London,'' Shirer would follow, altering the emphasis to make his signature dateline, ``This is Berlin!''
In postwar America, Shirer settled into a regular Sunday afternoon radio slot as a commentator (television dominance of news reporting was still years away). A lifelong liberal, he soon found himself apparently a victim of the McCarthy-era witch hunt for communists. He was dismissed from his program (replaced, incidentally, by longtime Monitor correspondent Joseph C. Harsch) by his boss and old friend, Mr. Murrow, and by CBS board chairman William Paley, purportedly for journalistic reasons. Shirer spends a chapter trying his best to convince us that CBS had actually bowed to pressures from right-wing groups.
With his livelihood gone, how is he to make a living? The blessing in disguise of this painful episode, Shirer decides, is that it frees him to take up his first love - writing books - full-time.
But for more than a decade he struggles to make ends meet: Can he find a publisher for his latest idea? Will the publisher grant Shirer an advance to keep food on the table? Reluctantly, Shirer agrees to hit the lecture circuit, even though he finds the travel exhausting and the talks intellectually sterile. Finally, even the lectures peter out. Americans, he is told, are tired of hearing about Hitler and World War II.
Can he stick to his new-found profession? Early in his book-writing career he writes in his diary: ``... I have to confess that at 47 (which I'll be next month) I have not yet solved the problem of making a living.... Radio would help ... but I seem to be blacklisted from that. It is puzzling how journalism, in which I made a certain mark, I think, has so little use for those who not so long ago were hailed as being near the top.
``My only course, as I see it this New Year's Day, is to struggle along making what I can from lectures and mag. articles, keep my eye out for radio or TV, and ABOVE ALL ELSE, continue to write, write, write....''
We know, of course, that the diligence paid off with the publication of his immensely successful ``Rise and Fall.'' But even this victory was bittersweet: While many reviewers and the public found it gripping and important history-telling, professional historians generally scoffed, despite the mountains of data he presented from captured German documents and his own eyewitness experiences.
Shirer still seems hurt by this cold shoulder; he quotes others as suggesting it was due to jealousy of his popularity and writing ability.
Indeed, Shirer says, ``One thing that bothered me about a good many of our academic historians was they did not seem to connect history with literature. This was painfully evident from the books many of them wrote, in which there was no respect for the beauty and the subtleties and the rhythms of our language nor any feeling for them. Almost all good narrative history, it seemed to me - especially that written for the general public, from Herodotus and Thucydides on - had been good literature as well.''
Along the way, as the books come forth, his marriage of 36 years falls apart and his friends and colleagues (famous and not-so-famous) begin dying off. Yet on he goes: to the Soviet Union to visit the home of his beloved Tolstoy; into a second marriage and a ninth decade.
Shirer quotes S"oren Kierkegaard as saying ``Life must move forward, but it can only be understood backward.'' This hefty tome gives us little understanding of the inner Shirer, except by indirection; but it satisfies in other ways, as confident, mature writing, and valuable insight into our century.