KP Reads

Reading William L. Shirer, or Why I Miss the 20th Century

Shirer began his three-volume autobiography “20th Century Journey” with “The Start” in 1976, followed by “The Nightmare Years” and “A Native’s Return.”


Maybe you miss it too. Or maybe you just missed it, or missed most of it. Not that it was all lollipops and moonbeams. There was plenty of horrible stuff. But looking back, a lot of important things happened and my memory leaves me curious, and nostalgic. 

It feels familiar. While I was only around for the second half of it, I have family stories and photographs that make it feel real, as if I was around for more. Is it history if I was there, or feel like “we” were?  William Shirer was there for a lot of it, and his autobiography is full of being there.

He was born in 1904 in Chicago to a middle-class family to a dad with a law practice, mom at home, siblings, kind of “Leave it to Beaver” stuff but before cars. Then his dad got sick and died. Single mom has to move the kids back home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, little Billy has to work to help out, eventually goes to a little liberal arts college to study liberal arts — you know, history, English and sociology. That was an OK thing to do, then. Works on the school paper, figures maybe journalism.

He graduates, burns all his money on a summer trip to Paris. Autumn, broke, last minute he lands a job on the city desk for the French edition of the Chicago Tribune. In his 20s, in 1920s Paris, he’s living in a dive hotel, primitive plumbing down the hall, but he’s in Paris. Cafes, food, drink and writers abound. F. Scott Fitzgerald just coming into fame, he shows up drunk and Shirer has to take him home to Zelda, who’s had just about enough. Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Joyce, he gets to know them all.

The Trib sends him to Vienna as their foreign correspondent for Eastern Europe. Meets a local girl. Now it’s the 1930s, he’s in his 30s, oh, a revolution in India, so go spend a few months with this guy Gandhi. Great Depression, nobody stateside cares about Europe. He gets canned, the young couple figure that if they live on the cheap they can last a year. Move to a fishing village just north of Barcelona, rent part of a villa, the larger part is being rented by Andrés Segovia, who would become one of the greatest classical guitarists of the century. The Spanish republic is failing, civil war in the streets, Franco takes charge with support from Hitler and Mussolini, who get to try out their new kind of warfare based on civilian terror. Shirer gets transferred to Berlin as the mad Nazi consolidates control, lies to Chamberlain, annexes the Sudetenland, invades Poland. He hears all the rallies from the press box, Ribbentrop, Göring, Himmler, encircling the screaming tyrant before the adoring mobs.

Shirer’s colleague Ed Murrow talks him into doing live radio news broadcasts from Berlin. We weren’t in the war yet, so he was not an enemy and Hitler wanted the U.S. to hear how successful Germany had become. Shirer is the first guy to do this. He gets embedded with the Nazi push to Paris and hides in a corner to witness the French capitulation, the only reporter to do so.

Toward the end of the war, his youthful European adventure turns into that often-told nightmare as he and his wife and two young daughters flee the Nazis on a harrowing trip through Switzerland, France, Spain and Portugal, a moving dockside farewell from his buddy Ed Murrow and finally there’s Lady Liberty and home.

Proud to introduce his family to the safety and comfort of the good ole’ U.S. of A, and he quickly finds out that CBS, along with the rest of the New York publishing world, is really not that into him. The family is down to growing their own vegetables on a small farm in Connecticut, he’s making a little money on the lecture circuit, but even that starts to dry up. Come to find out that he’s been blacklisted (yup, our own version of “purification” with Nixon and McCarthy ascendant) because he cosigned an amicus brief in support of several colleagues charged with sedition.  Eventually he finds enough support to research and write “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” a huge commercial success despite low expectations.  

It just goes on and on. Shirer was everywhere, and he tells the stories personally, quoting often from his contemporaneous journals. It’s a day-to-day saga from the beginning to the end of the century. It’s a monster body of work that is completely readable. He graciously breaks the story into three books. “The Start” covers his family’s roots through his glamorous Paris years, 1904-1930. “The Nightmare Years” covers the fall of democracies all over Europe and deep into WWII, 1930-1940. “A Native’s Return” describes his postwar years back home in the U.S., 1945-1988.

It’s a personal history and far from objective. But he was there, taking names and taking notes. I cannot imagine a more authoritative source. Much of his discussion of 1930s and ’40s Germany is from personal observation, augmented by years of study of recovered Nazi files captured by U.S. forces and from testimony at the Nuremberg war crime trials. Yes, he was there too.

From horse and buggy to the moon. It was quite a ride, that century.