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Joseph Bottum

The Long Night

A biography of William L. Shirer

The only problem with the journalist William L. Shirer is that he couldn't think. Not that reporters have to think. Not much, anyway. Besides, Shirer had most of the other talents a newspaper writer needs. He possessed, for instance, that almost impossibly restless activity that good reporters seem to have, slamming back and forth across 1930s and early 1940s Europe like he was bouncing around in a pinball machine: Bing off one bumper, and he's in Vienna for the German takeover of Austria, then boing off another bumper, and he's back in Munich as Neville Chamberlain lets Hitler take Czechoslovakia out for a test drive. And then with a sudden bang, he's racing across Belgium with the German Army, and then with a quick bop, he's in the Compiègne Forest watching the French surrender. He's everywhere, an ostensibly neutral American observer in a Europe at war, reporting on history as it happened.

Which is what Shirer apparently wanted out of life—the chance to be an "eyewitness to history" and "a keeper of the record," as Steve Wick reports in The Long Night, a brief biography of the ubiquitous reporter most famous for writing the 1960 bestseller The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

As it happens, the word biography is a little grand for The Long Night, as the biographer himself admits. A senior editor at Newsday, Wick notes of his 264-page volume that "My goal from the beginning was to write more of an adventure story than a book of history."

And I guess it is. A kind of adventure story, although, really, it's more the story of an adventurous man than it is a story of adventure, if one can make that distinction. Adventure stories usually tell of the adventurer's having accomplished something: conquered the dragon, survived the dark forest, married the princess. Tales of adventurous journalists, however, are at best stories of people who go out to see rather than to do. Their finest accomplishments come when, like daring flies, they manage to sneak in and cling to the wall, eavesdropping while others make things happen.

The model for them all is Henri Blowitz, the Bohemian tramp who served as the Times foreign correspondent in the 1870s—an all-around Victorian sneak who managed that strange journalistic combination of obsequious audacity to such a high degree that all Europe was agog to read his exposés of official German secrets and French conspiracies. The United States seems to dominate the field, with figures from the dashing Richard Harding Davis during the Spanish-American War to the folksy Ernie Pyle during World War II.

In The Long Night, Wick observes the influence of John Reed on William Shirer. Reed, of course, was the pro-Bolshevik American correspondent during the Russian Revolution whose widely read book Ten Days That Shook the World appeared in 1919 when Shirer was fifteen years old. And maybe so. Shirer, in Wick's account, read the book to pieces. But the boy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, would find a more obvious role model in Ernest Hemingway, from the novelist's accounts of the First World War to his journalistic reports on the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. After graduating from Coe College in 1925, Shirer pulled a Hemingway (or, at least, what a romantic young man of the time would have imagined a Hemingway) and worked his way across to Europe on a cattle boat, shoveling manure to pay for his passage. It's tempting—isn't it?—to use that as a metaphor for his subsequent career.

Certainly he was shoveling something during his days as a foreign correspondent. But where Reed was the very model of a journalist pushing an agenda, Shirer in his early reporting became conscientiously neutral. Dull, even. He managed to hook up quickly with the Chicago Tribune, whose publisher, the famously highhanded Robert McCormick, complained, "This guy Shirer is as heavy as a bride's cake." Even so, he held on for seven years, before McCormick fired him without explanation in 1932. His answer—oh, the long shadow that Hemingway cast over that generation—was to try to write a novel. A year later, William Randolph Hearst's news service rescued him with the offer of a job in Berlin. When Hearst's European posts were closed in 1937, Edward R. Murrow hired him for CBS. And from then to the entry of the United States into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, he proved himself indispensable, perhaps the premiere journalist in the world over those brief years.

Much of this is covered in Berlin Diary, the book he wrote after he fled Germany in December 1940, upon learning that the Nazis were building an espionage case against him. The book did well enough—his radio broadcasts had helped mature his prose into a smooth and easy-reading flow—but his relations with his close friend Murrow deteriorated rapidly after the war, and he was fired from CBS in 1947. He did a little radio work afterward, together with some reviewing and column writing, and he lectured where he could, but a real income proved elusive. And so he took a small advance from Simon & Schuster to write a book about Nazi Germany. Twelve hundred pages later, the result was an astonishing bestseller, perhaps the biggest seller of the decade—and, in truth, the only reason we still remember much about William L. Shirer. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is the only reason someone like Steve Wick would write an adventure story cum biography about him. The trouble is that Shirer's magnum opus just isn't very smart. It's well reported, naturally, and at the same time it goes beyond reporting to do some of the genuine research that documents from the Nuremberg Trials allowed. If journalists write the first draft of history, while scholars write the second, then The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is history at one and a half drafts: a density of details connected by a storyteller's narrative.

You remember its thesis, yes? The connecting theme of the book is that Martin Luther did it. There's a straight line, Shirer argues, that connects the Protestant Reformation in Germany with Adolf Hitler. Nazism was not born of a totalitarian political theory, the way Fascism was in Italy. Nazism came straight from the German character as defined by Luther and shaped by subsequent figures from Frederick the Great to Bismarck, all of whom "made blind obedience to temporal rulers the highest virtue of Germanic man, and put a premium on servility."

The notion that there was something in the German soul that helped produce the Nazis isn't an impossible one—not, at least, for anybody who's ever actually had to spend much time among Germans. But it's nutty to think that German character was the most significant or, as Shirer argued, the nearly sole cause of Nazism. And even nuttier to imagine that Martin Luther was the definer of that nasty German combination of licking the boots of the strong and putting the boot into the bellies of the weak. If Bach comes from another place in the German soul, then so does Luther. In truth, that was just one of the ideas floating around in the late 1950s, a shortlived thesis (which Daniel Goldhagen tried, in essence, to resurrect in 1996 with Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust) that Shirer latched on to because … well, because he didn't have anything else.

He'd had the adventures, and he reported on it all. He'd been there at Hitler's speeches and the key events, bouncing around Europe in a non-stop pinball game. He knew everything that could be known about the Nazis at the time. Unfortunately, he didn't understand them.

But, then, why should he? He was a journalist, all the way down.

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to the Weekly Standard and the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words (St. Augustine's Press).

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