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National Book Award Classics

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The following essay appeared in the December, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

William L. Shirer (1904-1993)
The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany
National Book Award Nonfiction Winner, 1961

"Hitler was in a highly nervous state. On the morning of the twenty-second [September 22, 1938] I was having breakfast on the terrace of the Hotel Dreesen [in Godesberg, Germany] where the talks were to take place [with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain], when Hitler strode past on his way down to the riverbank to inspect his yacht. He seemed to have a particular tic. Every few steps he cocked his right shoulder nervously, his left leg snapping up as he did so. He had ugly, black patches under his eyes. He seemed to be, as I noted in my diary that evening, on the edge of a nervous breakdown."

Thus reports William L. Shirer in "The Road to Munich," Chapter 12 of his magisterial The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Do not be daunted by the heft and weight of this 1250-page tome. "You are there" journalism and impeccable scholarship combine to make this concluding entry in our 'National Book Award Classics' series an irresistible reading pleasure.

William Louis Shirer was born in 1904 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. His father, a lawyer, died when William was a boy, and so he delivered newspapers and sold eggs to help the family. He studied English and composition with the legendary Professor Ethel Outland at Coe College in his hometown. At graduation, Shirer received a $100 loan from Coe President Harry Morehouse Gage, enough to get the young writer across the Atlantic on a cattle boat.

Arriving in Paris in the summer of 1925, Shirer found work at the International Herald Tribune and the Chicago Tribune. He covered Charles Lindbergh's solo trans-Atlantic flight and the League of Nations meetings in Geneva. In the early '30's, he traveled through India and Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent. He met Mohandas K. Gandhi and later wrote a memoir about him. Shirer moved from Vienna to Berlin in August, 1934, to work for Universal News Service. In 1937, Edward R. Murrow hired Shirer to work for Columbia Broadcasting Service radio as its Berlin correspondent.

For the next three years -- until he was forced to leave Germany in December, 1940 - Shirer filed regular on-air commentaries as an integral part of Murrow's "World News Roundup." He was "present at the creation" and inexorable build-up of Nazi Germany. Reading transcripts of Shirer's radio reports more than sixty years later, one is impressed by the prescient observations of this pioneering radio journalist and the insights that first found their way into his first book, Berlin Diary (1941) - smuggled out of the country hidden within a stack of old scripts - and eventually into the magnum opus featured herewith.

For instance, on Monday evening, September 26, 1938, Shirer was sitting in the balcony of the Berlin Sportspalast "within fifty or sixty feet" of Chancellor Hitler, listening to the Fuhrer's incendiary "harangue" in which he threatened Czechoslovakian President Eduard Benes with forcible takeover of the Sudetenland by October first. Within five hours, Shirer was on the air. He said it succinctly and bluntly, and yet with a touch of resignation: "Well, at least on this fateful evening for Europe, we know where we stand…Those were the Chancellor's words, and they brought the house down with a burst of yelling and cheering the likes of which I have never heard before at a Nazi meeting." The "consequences" of Hitler's anger, Shirer observed with a chill, "in this critical hour you almost hesitate to use the word - are war…No one in that vast hall, or none of the millions upon millions of Germans who gathered tonight in every town and village of Germany to hear the speech broadcast through community loudspeakers, or who sat quietly in their homes listening - had any doubts, so far as one can find out."

The vitality of Shirer's immediate impressions is blended into research of gargantuan scale to provide the texture of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. In illuminating essays at the beginning and end of the book, the author recounts the sources for his documentation, more than 485 tons of records from the German Foreign Office, captured by the U.S. First Army covering as far back as Bismarck and the Weimar years; stenographic records of the fifty-one "Fuehrer Conferences;" documents assembled at Nuremberg in preparation for the war-crime trials, which the author also covered; records gleaned from interrogation of German military officers as well as Nazi party officials; transcripts of telephone conversations by Nazi leaders; unpublished memoirs and seven volumes of typescript diaries with annotation by Hitler's General Staff Chief Franz Halder - the accounting of primary sources goes on and on.

In his 1990 Afterword, reprinted in the current, handsomely-produced Touchstone edition, Shirer recalls that the first printing by Simon & Schuster of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was a cautious 12,500 copies. It was 1960, and Shirer was told that there was 'no more interest' in this dark period. Reviews were lukewarm. The scholarly community reacted with disdain because of the author's propensity for anecdotal accounting and his preference for raw documentary material rather than 'historiographically-correct' reference to previously-published works. With the conferring of the National Book Award, the book went on to become a Fawcett mass-market runaway success; it is still the best-selling title in the history of the Book of the Month Club. The thirtieth anniversary edition fell on the occasion of the new reunification of Germany.

And now, as of this writing at the commencement of a new century, we are once again reading in the newspaper the accounts of Milosovic's war-crimes tribunal, and, inevitably, the world will soon hear what Saddam Hussein has to say.

[Grateful acknowledgment to the Coe College Courier for valuable biographical information about William L. Shirer, class of 1925, who bequeathed his entire archive to the Library of his beloved alma mater.]

-- Neil Baldwin

Picture of William L. Shirer, Credit: Arnold Newman, 1960.

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