Wednesday, February 4, 2015

On "Berlin Diary" by William L. Shirer *****

I would have never thought a diary could be so engrossing. Diaries are generally private thoughts written for one's own self. Perhaps, if one is very interested in the person, the diary might prove of interest, but I would figure to be bored reading about a lot of stuff I don't care about amid the things I do. Of course, that's why there are editors, and it's likely Shirer's diary also was edited for mass consumption.

Still, the diary, as it is, focuses on Shirer's life as a CBS radio correspondent in the leadup to World War II. There is personal stuff: Shirer's being laid off, his interview with Edward R. Murrow, his being taken on as a correspondent, his concern for his wife, his wife's pregnancy and the birth of his child. But there is also a good amount of history here as well, told from the point of view of an American overseas as the events are happening. And that, I think, is the most intriguing aspect of the diary. It makes history fresh. Shirer doesn't know what's coming, and we again almost feel as if we don't either--although historically we do. Hence, as Hitler makes one demand after another, we wonder how far he can go, and when he goes to war, we wonder how successful he will be and how long it will take. We read in a sort of real time, which means events happen incredibly slowly and incredibly fast. Twenty pages will pass on negotiations, and then, wham, there's invasion and confusion, and then that invasion lingers on and fades--it's happened.

What came into focus, in reading this, is how much the Allied side seemed to want to avoid war. No doubt--and Shirer makes this plain throughout--Shirer has a bias for the Allied side. At times, I felt like I was reading Allied propaganda. (He goes so far as to complain not just about Nazi authoritarianism but even about the supposed ugliness of German women.) Still, over and over Hitler would make a demand or break a treaty, and the Allies would say, Okay, this time. Part of France first, then Austria (Hitler annexed it before the pleibescite was complete), then part of Czechoslovakia, then all of it, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and finally Poland. That's when France and Britain finally said that's enough. Meanwhile, Hitler makes a stunning pact with Russia (stunning, because just days before, the Nazis were spewing out their typical anticommunist rhetoric--which came to a stop overnight after the pact with Stalin) to share the Polish spoils. Then there's a seemingly long spell (though it was only months) as Hitler makes plans to invade France, going through Holland (which puts up little fight) and Belgium (which puts up a lot). France, Shirer notes, when touring the country, put up little fight at all, if judging by the lack of rubble in the cities and that state of the fields.

Germany gets bombed with some frequency, but Shirer has to broadcast using a special mic so that the bombing won't be heard, and he's not allowed to mention it. (Meanwhile, the blitz starts on Britain also.) There is much complaint of censorship, how the Germans won't allow him to talk about what is going on oftentimes, even when it's in their own newspapers. (Ironically, after leaving Germany, censors in Portugal stop a broadcast, not wanting to interfere with their neutrality. And though you would think the Allies above such things from Shirer's language, the United States too had its censorship, failing by and large to report on the extent of German U-boat activity, lest the public be too frightened.)

Shirer generally sees the German public as one that has been pushed into accepting Hitler and his crew. There is not a lot of genuine enthusiasm for him, but one does what one must to survive. And yet, he also at times sees the Germans as naively believing the propaganda given to them by the German government and supporting the Nazi cause as a result. He seems surprised to find true believers at times. The lives of Berliners are interrupted by nighttime raids but mostly by lack of sleep (the noise and flight to shelters) rather than destruction wrought by bombing (which remained minimal at this early stage of the war).

Amid this, we get some hilarious or odd stories about the news business. One that I can't locate now (it's fairly early on in the book, before the war begins) involves a meeting with a Nazi official in his office. The official denotes that he is out, but Shirer storms the office, and a conversation ensues that would make for a great comedy sketch.

Also of interest is Shirer's discussion of the German best-seller list in 1939 (October 29). Fiction included Gone with the Wind; A. J. Cronin's Citadel (Cronin was tops on the best-seller list in America a couple years later); and Beyond Sing the Woods, by Trygve Gulbranssen--all foreign authors on the Allied side. The nonfiction, however, tended to be much more German in point of view and focus: The Coloured Front (a study on the black-white race "problem"); Look Up the Subject of England (a propaganda book on the country); Der totale Krieg (Ludendorff's book on Total War); Fifty Years of Germany, by Sven Hedin, a friend of Hitler's; and So This Is Poland by von Oertzen. Also popular were anti-Soviet books. So it seems that books about the nations at war were what was selling well in the nonfiction department, but fiction was perhaps, for Germans, more escapist faire.

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