The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

by Steve Wick

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The story of legendary American journalist William L. Shirer and how his first-hand reporting on the rise of the Nazis and on World War II brought the devastation alive for millions of Americans

When William L. Shirer started up the Berlin bureau of Edward R. Murrow's CBS News in the 1930s, he quickly became the most trusted reporter in all of Europe. Shirer


The story of legendary American journalist William L. Shirer and how his first-hand reporting on the rise of the Nazis and on World War II brought the devastation alive for millions of Americans

When William L. Shirer started up the Berlin bureau of Edward R. Murrow's CBS News in the 1930s, he quickly became the most trusted reporter in all of Europe. Shirer hit the streets to talk to both the everyman and the disenfranchised, yet he gained the trust of the Nazi elite and through these contacts obtained a unique perspective of the party's rise to power.

Unlike some of his esteemed colleagues, he did not fall for Nazi propaganda and warned early of the consequences if the Third Reich was not stopped. When the Germans swept into Austria in 1938 Shirer was the only American reporter in Vienna, and he broadcast an eyewitness account of the annexation. In 1940 he was embedded with the invading German army as it stormed into France and occupied Paris. The Nazis insisted that the armistice be reported through their channels, yet Shirer managed to circumvent the German censors and again provided the only live eyewitness account. His notoriety grew inside the Gestapo, who began to build a charge of espionage against him. His life at risk, Shirer had to escape from Berlin early in the war. When he returned in 1946 to cover the Nuremberg trials, Shirer had seen the full arc of the Nazi menace. It was that experience that inspired him to write The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich—the magisterial, definitive history of the most brutal ten years the modern world had known—which has sold millions of copies and has become a classic.

Drawing on never-before-seen journals and letters from Shirer's time in Germany, award-winning reporter Steve Wick brings to life the maverick journalist as he watched history unfold and first shared it with the world.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
I'd be lying…if I said I didn't swallow The Long Night in three contented gulps. Mr. Wick sticks close to the plain facts of Shirer's story, taken from his copious letters and journals. His book is packed with daring escapes and midnight deadlines and hard-boiled editors and all-night drinking sessions and crooks and Nazis and spies.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
The accomplishments of acclaimed American journalist William Shirer are celebrated in Wick's latest book, which faithfully tracks the ambitious writer's Midwest origins to his Chicago Tribune reporting apprenticeship and landing a plum job as the workhorse of Edward Murrow's CBS News bureau in 1933 Berlin. Wick, a Pulitzer-winning staffer at Newsday, uses unpublished letters and journals, showing the dogged Shirer, uneasy in the new Germany, wary of the riseof the National Socialists with their swastikas, heated rhetoric, rigid social codes, and treatment of Jews. Shirer, realizing that he was witnessing a historic event in the corruption of a nation by Hitler and his cronies, risked the ire of Nazi officials watching for a wrong move. He "ask the wrong question, the wrong story, to the wrong people," even if that meant risking deportation. After his hasty exit in 1940 (both personally and professionally depleted), Shirer collected his reportage, captured Third Reich documents, and Nuremburg trial testimony to form The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which won the 1961 National Book Award. Wick (Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder) offers an absorbing and very detailed account, the perfect companion piece to Shirer's masterwork. (Aug.)
From the Publisher

“It's this Shirer -- the human being, a man of determination and steely nerve -- that Mr. Wick gets onto the pages of his book.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Illuminating . . . Wick has done an excellent job in bringing together the man's life and work in this detailed and probing biography.” —The St. Petersburg Times

The Long Night is indeed an adventure story, with short chapters and a fast-paced narrative drive. But Mr. Wick has documented the story with scrupulous attention to detail, too, drawing on Shirer's published works as well as his papers and correspondence.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Steve Wick makes excellent use of Shirer's letters and papers to chronicle his often fraught relationships . . . A seasoned journalist, Wick knows how to tell a good story, and for long stretches his book reads like a novel . . . [It] has much of interest to say about the life of a foreign correspondent in the war-torn Europe of the 1930s and early 1940s.” —Richard Evans, The New Republic

“A suspenseful recasting of the same period covered in Berlin Diary, using the published diary but more importantly the original handwritten pages Shirer smuggled out of Berlin . . . Wick has used his resources scrupulously and illuminates, more than does the 1941 book, the heavy personal toll that remaining in Berlin took on Shirer and his family.” —Columbia Journalism Review

“A gripping account of a courageous journalist's efforts to alert the world to Hitler's plan, and an engaging discussion of the relationship between journalism and personal integrity, which is as relevant today as it was then.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Wick offers an absorbing and very detailed account, the perfect companion piece to Shirer's masterwork.” —Publishers Weekly

“Thorough, fast-paced, and absorbing.” —World War II Magazine

“An intimate portrayal of a pioneering broadcasting icon.” —Baltimore Jewish Times

“A thought-provoking and accessible exposition about the man, the times in which he worked, and the book itself.” —Jewish Book World

“Working as a foreign correspondent in Hitler's Germany was a harrowing experience, but William L. Shirer was among those who delivered exceptional journalism despite the circumstances. In The Long Night, Steve Wick skillfully describes Shirer's courage and persistence during these years.” —Philip Seib, author of Broadcasts from the Blitz: How Edward R. Murrow Helped Lead America into War

“Steve Wick tells the human story behind William Shirer's brilliant and perceptive radio broadcasts from Nazi Berlin. Making extensive use of Shirer's private papers, he succeeds in incorporating the high politics, the everyday and the personal in a single, elegantly-written and engaging narrative.” —Roger Moorhouse, author of Killing Hitler

“In Steve Wick's talented hands, The Long Night puts you in the shoes of William Shirer and lets you experience the frightful, yet fascinating buildup of the Nazi regime for yourself. This account of one gutsy journalist witnessing history in the making is top-notch, an engrossing page turner that will have you eager to see what happens next. The Long Night stands out as a keen telling of one man's eventful life, while also offering a unique perspective on an important moment in time. A compelling read.” —Greg Freeman, author of The Last Mission of the Wham Bam Boys

author of Broadcasts from the Blitz: How Edwar Philip Seib

Working as a foreign correspondent in Hitler's Germany was a harrowing experience, but William L. Shirer was among those who delivered exceptional journalism despite the circumstances. In The Long Night, Steve Wick skillfully describes Shirer's courage and persistence during these years.
Library Journal
The drama and tension of covering Europe during Hitler's rise to power comes to life in this account of William Shirer's early career. Wick (senior editor, Newsday) draws on Shirer's diaries and letters to detail his thoughts and actions as he headed for Paris in 1925 to begin his journalism career. Framed as an adventure story, the book engages readers with an insider's view of Shirer's work and personal life, first with the Chicago Tribune, then with Hearst, and finally partnering with Edward R. Murrow to establish CBS radio news. Shirer was stationed in Paris, Vienna, India, and Berlin, and he knew or covered some of the best-known people of the era. Wick acknowledges the challenges of covering the Nazis under the watchful eye of German government censors but raises questions about whether journalists did enough to inform the world about the Nazi menace. He highlights a Jewish acquaintance of Shirer who sought his assistance in escaping Austria and whose fate is unknown. VERDICT Readers interested in Europe at the beginning of World War II or journalism history will be quickly drawn into this well-written book, which raises important questions about journalism that have resonance today.—Judy Solberg, Seattle Univ. Lib.
Kirkus Reviews

In a trenchant discussion of journalism, biography and ethics, Newsday senior editor Wick (Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder, 1990, etc.) examines the life of William Shirer (1904–1993), American war correspondent and author of the landmark bookThe Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1960).

The author is very much attuned to the conflicts and difficulties of a journalist like Shirer working in a police state. Wick asks what more he might have done, and discusses Shirer's concerns about getting stories published in New York, where he thought "no one...paid much attention." Shirer's knowledge only part of the story. He endured both the German government's lies and the corporate concerns of CBS, and he had to act on this partial and contradictory knowledge, not the fuller truth now available. He also had to protect his sources. His transmissions were monitored by Nazi spies in the United States who reported back with recommendations for action against him. It was a major undertaking for him to get his diaries and personal papers out of Hitler's Germany when he left in 1940. The papers eventually provided the necessary documentation for the influential books he later wrote about Hitler's rise to power and the Third Reich. As one of the first broadcast journalists, Shirer was breaking new ground with his nightly transmissions. Unfortunately, we will never know his full story because he protected his sources and burned sensitive papers before he left.

A gripping account of a courageous journalist's efforts to alert the world to Hitler's plan, and an engaging discussion of the relationship between journalism and personal integrity, which is as relevant today as it was then.

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The Long Night

William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By Steve Wick

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2011 Steve Wick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-62318-7


The Writer

Lloret de Mar, Spain, Summer 1933

Every morning at 8:00 sharp, William Lawrence Shirer climbed the stairs to his study on the third floor in the big villa by the sea and took his seat at his desk in front of the typewriter. The desk was covered with books, his many files and manuscripts, and stacks of newspapers—from London, Paris, Vienna, and Spain. There were American magazines, too, that his brother and mother sent to help keep him informed on news back home. He could read about the Depression in the United States and political upheavals in London and Paris, and about the new government in Berlin that had come to power the previous January.

Every day that he sat at his desk, he followed a strict schedule, working faithfully from 8:00 A.M. to 1:00 P.M. He knew that a writer who wanted to be successful needed a routine that he stuck to as an article of faith, something never to be disrespected or cast aside. There was always paper in the typewriter and no shortage of ideas. There were his stories, a play about India, a novel, a memoir, and, of course, the letters to friends and the regular entries in his diary or those he typed on onionskin paper. He kept at it, day after day.

On sunny days when the air was warm and the sky a deep, rich blue, the big house filled with soft light soon after sunrise. It was the kind of light painters called "wet," the light diffused by salt water. At the end of the day when the sun dropped behind the mountains west of the village, the sea in front of the house turned colors, from a soft blue to a darker blue, and then darker still as the sun disappeared and the jealous sky reluctantly let go of the glorious light. With all the windows open on hot afternoons and a breeze off theMediterranean, Bill and Tess could sit almost anywhere in the house and smell the salt in the air and tell each other how lucky they were. They had both been born landlocked—he in the American Midwest, she in Austria. The sea was a marvel.

On some mornings, seated in front of his typewriter, Shirer listened to Andres Segovia practicing his guitar on the far side of the big house. The soft chords, filtered through the house's thick walls, pleased Shirer. Hearing Segovia play reminded Shirer of nights in Vienna, when he and Tess had gone to concerts to hear a Mozart work and, when it was over, moved almost to tears, had jumped to their feet and shouted and clapped their hands. Shirer acquired his love of music from his mother, who on afternoons in the living room of her house in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, sat enraptured in front of her radio listening to the opera broadcast from New York City.

"Had so much grand music on the radio today," she wrote her son one day. "Do not know as I can come down to earth enough to write. Heard three symphony concerts. Sunday is the greatest day for grand music ... We get a full opera broadcast from the N.Y. Metropolitan. I just could not exist in this place if it were not for the radio."

Shirer felt lucky to have discovered the village and the house and thought it a stroke of good fortune when the Spanish guitarist rented one side of the villa to enjoy the summer months on the Costa Brava. A small fishing village, Lloret de Mar hugged the Mediterranean Sea north of Barcelona, its back to the mountains that pushed north to the Pyrenees and the high, rugged frontier with France.

Unwilling to impose on Shirer and disturb his daily writing ritual, Segovia had told him he would practice as far away from him as he could. Shirer appreciated the kindness. Truth be told, he did not mind at all, nor did the guitar disturb him as he sat at the desk trying to write a future for himself. The three-story seaside house at Calle de San Bartolome 14, a double-sided villa with high ceilings and large rooms and a kind of shabby gentility, was big enough for both of them.

Bill and Tess had found the village, with its population of three thousand, by accident and then lucked out when the house was available. It was far too big for them, but it was cheap, the rent just $15 a month, its owner a doctor in Barcelona to whom Shirer had taken an instant liking. The year he hoped they could spend productively in the village would cost them a few hundred dollars a month, at most. They had less than $1,000 when they arrived soon after stepping off a ship that had brought them from the Italian coast. Hoping for the best, Shirer had paid the landlord the full year in advance, so he knew they would have a roof over their heads until April 1934. He gave himself twelve months to gain some traction on his writing goals. If he failed, he would have to begin aggressively looking for another reporting job.

He was well into a novel and a stage play about India. One of the characters was Gandhi, whom Shirer had met two years before. He posted query letters to New York editors nearly every week. He could not have been busier, but it was the busyness of a man anxiously looking for direction and so far not finding it. Still, he kept to his daily routine: at his desk from 8:00 A.M. until early afternoon, then sitting on the beach with Tess and Segovia or other friends like John and Frances Gunther if they were in town, reading from a bag of books he had assembled before they arrived. Evening found them having supper in the house, often freshly caught fish sold by the local fishermen, and afterward sitting in the living room and listening intently to Mozart, his favorite composer. Shirer sat quietly smoking his pipe, a book or a newspaper on his lap.

The newspapers brought word of growing unrest across Spain. Shirer feared that the Republican government would almost certainly fall. In Germany, Hitler was halfway through his first year as chancellor. In America, the economy was in a shambles. Certainly his brother, John, kept him up to date on that news. Shirer knew, as his and Tess's money slowly ran out, that it would be next to impossible to find another job in journalism. So deep was his despair that he began to accept the unthinkable: he might never again work as an American correspondent based in Europe.

Some days he felt overwhelmed with the sickening weight of failure and the great fear that the life he wanted for himself had been thwarted. E. S. Beck, the managing editor of theChicago Tribune, had fired him the previous October, for reasons Shirer could still not get his mind around. He believed it had something to do with his crossing the paper's imperious publisher, Colonel Robert McCormick, but in any case he'd had no success in joining the staff of another paper. Now, so much depended on his writing efforts to bring in the money they needed to get by.

"McCormick's a contemptible son of a bitch," Shirer told Tess.

* * *

On a warm spring day in May 1925, in Cedar Rapids, a growing city in eastern Iowa that served as the business hub for the region's farm belt, Shirer walked across the campus of Coe College on graduation day feeling confident about himself and the road that lay ahead of him. At twenty-one years of age, with a boyish face and light brown hair he often parted down the middle, Shirer acted like a much older, more worldly man, one about to step out of rural Iowa and through an open door into his future.

His four years on the campus were over, finally. While he would remain cynical in many ways about his college experience, he had had several excellent professors and he felt more than well prepared. He was buoyant, self-assured, looking out across his own horizon and seeing nothing but great promise.

Just before graduation he had borrowed $100 from his deceased father's brother, Bill, who worked on the business side of publishing in Chicago, with the goal of using it as seed money to go to Paris to look for a job on the reporting staff of an American newspaper. He was certain that, if he got there, the pieces of the life he envisioned for himself would click together. Beginning during his last years at Coe College, while he was a reporter on the campus newspaper, no place tugged at Shirer's imagination more than Paris. It was everything he wanted. On top of that, he saw no future at all for himself in Cedar Rapids, whose small-city ways had long bored him half to death and about whose leading lights, in business, politics, and religion, he had grown increasingly cynical.

Not a religious man in the formal sense—he, his sister, Josephine, his brother, John, and their mother, Elizabeth (Bessie), were Presbyterians in an overwhelmingly Protestant part of the country—Shirer nonetheless believed in the essentially Calvinist notion of fate. It was not a religious conviction as much as a profoundly personal one. He saw a role for himself in the world. He had carried with him since his teen years a strong sense of his own place and the kind of life he wanted. It was a life in large part drawn from his readings while still in high school and later in college. The adventures of the journalist John Reed had captivated him. Reed's book on witnessing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Ten Days That Shook the World, k nocked Shirer for a loop. He couldn't imagine seeing what Reed saw and writing it all down in a popular book. This pivotal role of the journalist as an eyewitness to history, as a keeper of the record and a sounder of alarms, informed Shirer's view of the world.

He also had a habit from childhood of reading the Chicago newspapers, the Tribune, which billed itself as the "World's Greatest Newspaper," and the Daily News. Even before Shirer began reading newspapers on his own, his father would read stories out loud to his family, excitedly relaying the big news of the day. Everything the papers represented in a free society fascinated Shirer—from the rough-and-tumble ways of the reporters' work in a corrupt society to the images they conveyed of a writer seated at his desk in a loud, busy newsroom, typing out a story.

Shirer's reading habits and fascination with daily events came to him from his father, Seward Shirer, a Chicago federal prosecutor who involved himself in his community and read avidly in politics and history. In 1904, the year Shirer was born in the family home at 6500 Greenwood Avenue, Seward Shirer was a sergeant-at-arms at the Republican National Convention in the city. He watched as Theodore Roosevelt was nominated for the presidency. A political moderate, the senior Shirer was close to many of the city's most influential citizens, including the attorney Clarence Darrow, a champion of the poor and of the city's embattled labor unions.

Seward Shirer died on February 18, 1913, when his son Bill was eight years old, after his appendix burst and his doctors were unable to stop a severe infection from spreading through his body. His death at age forty-two forced his widow, with only the proceeds of a small insurance policy, to move with her three young children from Chicago to her parents' home in Cedar Rapids. Bessie Shirer had grown up in the city, attending an elementary school also attended by Orville and Wilbur Wright. There was considerable history on both sides of the family in Iowa. Seward Shirer had been born in 1871 on a farm in Black Hawk County, and he stayed in Iowa to attend the Methodist-affiliated Cornell College.

Years later, the young Shirer would remember stepping off the train at Union Station in Cedar Rapids with his sad mother, brother, and sister, to be greeted by his anxious maternal grandparents. The city's skyline was dominated by the grain elevators of the Quaker Oats cereal company. From the train station he could see a large sign "meant to catch the eye of the tens of thousands who passed by on the passenger trains of the four railroads: CEDAR RAPIDS SUITS ME! IT WILL YOU!"

With his mother's encouragement, Shirer again read the newspapers. He appreciated that his mother had the Chicago Tribune delivered to the house. That way, Shirer could keep up on developments in the city where his father had worked. As she and her husband had done in Chicago, Bessie also talked with her children about art and books and writers. It caught on with Bill. "Something in the literary ferment in Chicago, a constant subject of talk in our household as I grew up, must have brushed off on me so that a little later, in Iowa, I felt it in my bones," Shirer wrote.

The young boy read the papers closely, taking particular note of the bylined stories of the correspondents who sent in their dispatches from across Europe. Often, he spoke with his mother about the accounts of the Great War that had begun the year after the family moved to Cedar Rapids. He knew the reporters' names, read their every word, and followed battlefield developments on maps printed in the newspapers. He was enormously relieved to read one day that Paris had not fallen to the advancing Germans.

Certainly before his eighteenth birthday, when he graduated from Washington High School and enrolled at Coe College near the family's home for his freshman year, he was sure he wanted to be a part of the rarefied world of these correspondents whose lives he romanticized. As he made clear to his mother and friends, staying in Iowa after college was not an option. Chicago, maybe, but not Cedar Rapids. The world was divided between doers and phonies, and he knew what side of the line he wanted to be on.

Besides a strong desire to get away, Shirer was less than enthusiastic about the citizens of Cedar Rapids. An exception was the painter Grant Wood, who lived with his mother in a house on Fourteenth Street and later built a studio in an old barn across the street from the Shirer home. The two came from different worlds—Wood's early life was marked by extreme rural poverty—and they were more than ten years apart in age. The two saw each other occasionally in Cedar Rapids, at a time when the artist had not yet caught on, and Shirer saw him as an example of an artist pursuing his passion through thick and thin.

Because he saw himself as a budding writer and journalist whose words would one day mean a great deal, Shirer in his late teens began recording his thoughts in diaries and journals and, later, on typed sheets of onionskin paper. Like any diarist, Shirer did not know what lay ahead. A historian works in hindsight, examining a record and knowing full well what would come; a diary exists only for the moment it is written and knows nothing of the future.

Similarly, a man living in Germany, Victor Klemperer, determined to "bear witness" in his diary, could sit at his writing table on an August day in 1933—when Shirer and his wife might have been on the beach in front of their villa, happily reading and chatting—and observe without any knowledge of what lay ahead: "I simply cannot believe that the mood of the masses is really still behind Hitler. Too many signs of the opposite. But everyone, literally everyone cringes with fear. No letter, no telephone conversation, no word on the street is safe anymore. Everyone fears the next person may be an informer."

Soon after enrolling at Coe College in the fall of 1921, Shirer and other students interested in journalism fell under the spell of one of the school's brightest lights, a dedicated professor named Ethel R. Outland. She had graduated from Coe in the class of 1909, had gone east to Radcliffe to attend graduate school as had many of Iowa's brightest, and returned to teach at her alma mater. In addition to teaching classes, she oversaw the staff of the campus newspaper, the Cosmos, whose reporters and editors prided themselves on their independence from the school.

Photographs of Outland taken at the time show a small, serious woman, single then and for the rest of her life, who was all about her work. She was one of those professors students always remembered—dedicated, very good at her chosen field, blunt in her criticism of work she considered inferior, a grammarian who knew the rules of the language and expected everyone else to know them as well, and someone who introduced her students to the wider world available to them if they applied themselves.

"She could not stand sloppy thinking and especially sloppy writing," Shirer wrote. She read books, attended plays, was worldly in a Midwestern city not noted for its worldliness, and kept up on the news of the day locally, nationally, and internationally. For Shirer and several other students who went on to find careers in journalism, she was a transformative figure. For him, his four years at Coe would largely come down to everything he learned from Ethel Outland.

While attending classes and writing for the Cosmos as well as one of the Cedar Rapids newspapers, Shirer began looking ahead to his graduation in 1925. He kept in touch with Coe graduates who had found work on the staffs of newspapers around the region. A friend who wrote for an industry newspaper in Chicago called the Manufacturer's News, which came out every Saturday, advised Shirer to reach out to H. J. Smith, the news editor of the Chicago Daily News. In addition, the friend urged Shirer to write to R. J. Finnegan, the managing editor of the Chicago Journal, and to James P. Bicket, the news editor of the Chicago American. Shirer had a special connection to Bicket, who had been a good friend of his father's.


Excerpted from The Long Night by Steve Wick. Copyright © 2011 Steve Wick. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Steve Wick is a senior editor at Newsday and the author of Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder, among others. He has been a journalist for 30 years and has won dozens of writing and reporting awards, including sharing in two Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting.

Steve Wick is a senior editor at Newsday and the author of Bad Company: Drugs, Hollywood and the Cotton Club Murder, among others. He has been a journalist for 30 years and has won dozens of writing and reporting awards, including sharing in two Pulitzer Prizes for local reporting.

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