Man with the inside story is dead, but Shirer's 'Third Reich' endures

December 31, 1993|By M. R. Montgomery | M. R. Montgomery,Boston Globe

In the beginning, there were just two voices bringing the war in Europe to America on CBS radio: Edward R. Murrow intoning "this is London," and the slightly higher-pitched and more rapid-speaking William L. Shirer broadcasting from Vienna or Berlin. They invented broadcast journalism as we know it, and now Mr. Shirer's voice, too, is stilled.

He died Tuesday at Massachusetts General Hospital, at the age of 89.

The official and accurate cause was heart disease, but anyone who knew him would add that he was just plain worn-out from a lifetime of daily writing, ceaseless curiosity and dedication to the old principle that the truth will make us free.

His two great books, "Berlin Diary" and "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," will ensure his reputation as long as humankind reads. At his home in Lenox, Mass., in the Berkshire Hills, he took some pride in showing visitors one of the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that held "Rise and Fall" translated into, as one remembers too vaguely, some 60 or 70 languages.

For all the enormous seriousness of his craft, Bill Shirer had a saving grace that kept him going despite decades of the journalist's vices -- bad hours, bad cigarettes, good whiskey and fair coffee. The man had a quizzical sense of humor about the human condition.

Mr. Shirer loved to tell the story about how his publisher, Little, Brown & Co., which had profited mightily on "Berlin Diary," refused to consider "Rise and Fall." It may have been politics, it may have been sheer stupidity, but, when he wrote to Boston to propose the idea, a vice president of Little, Brown drove all the way down to Connecticut to meet with Shirer.

"I don't want to mention his name," Mr. Shirer related, "it's over the dam now, but I'll never forget, he sits down at the table where we'regoing to have lunch and says:

" 'Please, dear God, please, Bill, don't ask us to publish a whole book about Adolf Hitler.'

"And then he drove back to Boston and dictated a letter with the same message. I lost my copy, and once I asked Little, Brown for a copy of theirs, and they said there wasn't any such letter. I think the man destroyed it," he finished with a satisfied chuckle.

If there is a message to Mr. Shirer's career, if he can offer an example to young people starting out in journalism, it is fairly simple: Forget about job security and go where the action is. He recognized, long before anyone else, that Mohandas Gandhi was a unique force, and he went to India in 1930 to watch this small person in a loincloth face down the British Empire in the great salt-tax mass action. Virtually nothing he wrote reached his newspaper. It was not until he left India that he realized the British, controlling the telegraph system, had systematically stifled his dispatches. But it would pay off almost three decades later.

When Gandhi was traveling by train across Europe in 1947 on his way to negotiate the final details of the establishment of a free India in London, British and French security forces guarded the train-ferry as it was about to cross the English Channel and kept dozens of journalists away from the Indian delegates. All except Mr. Shirer, who was a personal guest of Gandhi.

"I admit," he recalled, "somewhat enjoying the sensation of leaning out the window as the train headed for the ferry, waving and smiling at my colleagues on the platform."

He was, after the war, a victim of the general Red Scare that would soon become McCarthyism, fired from his job at CBS by his old colleague, Ed Murrow. One of the issues was that Mr. Shirer kept pointing out that there was one fascist government left in Europe -- Spain under Franco.

"I don't understand," he said, sitting in his home one afternoon after yet another morning at the typewriter, "what there is in the American character, which is fairly liberal here at home, why it is that almost automatically, even when we have a liberal president, we support fascist dictatorships or are tolerant towards them?

"Why, also, we see Bolsheviks under the bed every night is something I don't understand."

What he thought, in the last years of his life, of the surge of neo-Nazism in Germany and skinheads elsewhere is something we in this business should have had the good sense to ask him. But I know he would not have been surprised. "I wrote a juvenile book ('The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler')," he said just a little less than 10 years ago, and when it was in print, "I used to get two or three letters a week from teen-age boys saying: 'Gee, that was a great book. You actually knew him? Could you send me a lock of his hair or something?' "

And saying that, Mr. Shirer could raise his hands palms-up and smile ruefully at the incredible variety of the human species.

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