William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary

note: Learned my first blogging lesson: Don’t post too quickly… after sleeping on this, I realized it could benefit from substantial revision.

Berlin Diary is a record of Shirer’s six years as a CBS radio reporter in Europe, as the Nazi occupation developed. It is also largely a history of Nazi propaganda and how it led the German people to war and villainy against the minorities among them. Americans often forget the history of the origins of the second World War, and of the first two years of the war, when America remained neutral. Here we see these years, until December of 1940, from the point of view of an anti-Nazi, but officially neutral, American observer.

As read today, the book chronicles an inevitable march of events, as the German support of the Spanish Fascists, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and the capture of the Sudetenland and Anschluss of Austria, without significant opposition from France or England (or the U.S.) leads to the eventual outbreak of war on the invasion of Poland, then months of “Phoney War”, and finally the invasion and collapse of Holland, Belgium, and then France. The book ends with Germany and the U.K. engaged in a war of bombers and propaganda, with Shirer leaving Germany feeling censorship had tightened to the point of making his position as a reporter irrelevant. Of course, when written, this was all current events, and part of the public debate in America on joining the war.

Shirer gives us a view of the Germans’ reactions and attitudes as this history unfolded. He also highlights the role of propaganda in forming German public opinion. Shirer shows how even when people don’t trust their news sources, knowing they are providing only propaganda, they are still influenced by them. He shows how the Nazis led Germans to believe that violence was justified in response to any slight against Germany, but that other nations were foolish to defend themselves with force against German invasion.

These elements of the story are probably the most valuable today. They show how dehumanizing our neighbors enables us to act horrifically, and they probably apply to every international (or civil) conflict that has lead to war since Shirer’s time.

Shirer also discusses the censorship he had to work under as a broadcaster. For instance, at some point the Germans realized that the term “Nazi” had acquired a negative connotation in the U.S., so they forbid him to use it in his broadcasts. Once the war had started, and British bombers were attacking Berlin regularly, they supplied the broadcast studio with a special “lip mic” that required Shirer to talk so close to the microphone that the outside sounds of falling bombs and anti-aircraft fire could not be heard, thus avoiding the perception that England could successfully attack them.

One omission seems strange today: the status of Jews in Hitler’s Germany is mentioned only obliquely. Shirer did investigate, and report on, Nazi exterminations of the mentally disabled, but events such as Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, in which Germans rioted across the company and tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps, are utterly ignored. Shirer only seems to notice the flood of refugees attempting to leave Europe (and finding few safe harbors) as the German army pushed outward. Was Shirer unaware of the extent of Nazi persecution, or did he think these crimes were so monstrous they could not be believed by his audience in America? Did he think that emphasis on the fate of Europe’s Jews would not be received sympathetically, and thus engaged in a bit of propaganda himself by downplaying it in the book?

In a much less momentous aspect, the book is also fascinating from the point of view of history of technology, because it goes into detail about the difficulty of broadcasting with the technology of the day, and some of the innovations Shirer (with colleague Edward R. Murrow) introduced to radio news reporting. At the time, broadcast facilities were limited to only a few stations in each European country, and Shirer had to have the cooperation of the German broadcast service to transmit his “talks” to the CBS New York station by shortwave for re-broadcast in America. Before they were invaded, Shirer made a point of encouraging Czech and Polish authorities to complete their own shortwave facilities to enable communication with the west in the event of war.

In the methods of broadcast news, Shirer also describes innovations made while he was in Berlin. For example, when he was hired, CBS’s policy was that its own news employees would not speak on the air, but only invite others, mostly newspaper journalists, to speak. Shirer (again, with Murrow) realized that in the event of war the newspapers would not scoop themselves by allowing their reporters to give their stories on the radio, and so managed to get the CBS rule changed at roughly the time of the Austrian Anschluss.

All-in-all, this 69-year-old book is still engaging, illuminating both the brutal consequences of propaganda-fueled nationalism, and, in a secondary thread of history, the technical means of carrying the news across continents. The Nazis may have employed propaganda in its most extreme forms, but this book should remind us to step back once in a while from everything we read, most importantly from news reflecting views we believe in ourselves, and check if we’re being manipulated by emotional words, selective reporting, or even outright lies.


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