Over the summer I read four volumes by William L. Shirer: Berlin Diary, and Twentieth Century Journey(three volumes). I liked all four books. I recommend them, especially the ones recounting events before World War Two. Of all four the first, Twentieth Century Journey: A Start (1904-1930) is the most varied. Shirer goes to Paris and gets a job on a newspaper. He mets everyone in Paris and tells.

Shirer is by no means correct or accurate about everything. Who is? Most of his shortcomings can be overlooked. In Berlin Shirer respected and was fond of Ambassador Dodd and daughter Martha, a communist. There Martha dated an agent from the KGB or its predecessor agency; summaries of her Soviet files of 1930 activities make very funny reading, an evaluation of a real spy. Her father, the ambassador, had many screws loose and at best was naive. Most notably, the Ambassador wrote Mission to Moscow about Stalin’s purges (1936-1939). When Stalin and his cronies watched the movie, “Mission to Moscow,” they couldn’t stop laughing.

If Shirer knew nothing, he felt free to criticize it liberally – Ronald Reagan and Star Wars, “a hoax.” I wonder if the Israelis think their Iron Dome is a hoax. Shirer’s naiveté and ignorance cannot be excused. He tells about living in horse and buggy days, watching early air flights, using Trans-Atlantic flights to cross that ocean, seeing men visit the Moon, and benefiting from medical advances to prolong his life on Earth. Yet for Shirer there was no scientific progress. We know nothing is a hoax, if science and math can reduce its mysteries to possibilities, to probabilities and to certainties. However, Shirer is selective with some beliefs.

When Shirer was preparing to go to the Soviet Union (1982), he was asked, “What do you think of the Soviets?” He answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t been there.” Shirer’s response is disingenuous on a number of grounds. First, does anyone like Shirer go to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, and not read about the place, so he has no opinion because he’s never seen the country for himself? Second, without reading did Shirer (former foreign correspondence/hard news addict/historian) form any opinions about the Soviets before he went in 1982? If he didn’t have an opinion, his whole life and life’s work is a lie. Third, did Shirer read only books of popular/non-fiction (friend-Harrison Salisbury) and read nothing from academia; the best writer of many books on the Soviets by 1982 was Adam Ulam.

One cannot answer this third question yes or no, which is a failing of the Memoirs. The idea of preparation before going someplace and knowing is attractive: the tourist knows the history, culture and society, and can understand the social significance of what is seen and what is said. It is an enriching experience, rather than arriving and flying-by-the-seat-of-his-pants, as Shirer would have the reader believe. These latter chapters of volume three of A Native’s Return are incomplete and sketchy. We learn nothing about Shirer, himself, except he wants to avoid subjects and certain embarrassment.

Volume three, A Native’s Return, presents a gross inconsistency, academia and the Ivory Tower. And Shirer was correct in his reaction to that. When The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was published, many professors disparaged it. One ground was it was a best seller. The book was one of the first on the subject, and overall, it is not as bad nor better than most books on the subject. What most historians, professors and intellectuals didn’t like was Shirer’s familiarity on many subjects and a sense after reading documents about the people and their acts, persons he once knew and observed, he describes results accurately and authentically.

Shirer was invited to participate in a seminar at Harvard. Shirer writes:

I was troubled by the practice of …young academic historians of drawing historical conclusions from their detailed studies of a tiny part of the picture. …too young to have known Nazi Germany at first hand…kept dodging important questions…more interested in their data…

The last day…an elderly man,…, a refugee from Nazi Germany and for many years a distinguished professor of history at the University at Paris. I knew him by reputation, and the day before he had said he admired my own works on Germany.

“This is all so unreal,” he whispered to me. “Let’s ask the chair if we can interrupt the program for a few minutes and tells some of these young historians what it was like to live in Nazi Germany and just what happened to bring a calamity on the German people. We can tell them how the people really behaved, which is quite different from what the dry data tells them. He got at attention of the chair…and explained that much of the talk over the weekend seemed to him to be so lacking in reality…

The presiding academic historian listened patiently, a little bemused,… and said, “Thank you very much,” and promptly without batting an eye, called on the next speaker on the agenda.
(A Native’s Return, p. 402)

Because of academia and the Ivory Tower, the public can now understand why Martin Gilbert, an academician, has written stark, long histories of the Nazis without the fluff of data points or eye-balling this event, or magnifying incidences as revealing a theory or a postulation, all typical Ivory Tower stuff, especially when analyzing great disasters, gross problems or gutteral practices.

It is equally anonymous that professors, critics and intellectuals would complain about the length and authority of The Rise and Fall. Indeed, the whole East Coast intellectual establishment seemed offended:

“Some American reviewers were declaring that they would no longer read books with an array of footnotes. My God, I thought, my book must have at least a thousand. I had tried to document each fact and had noted it in a footnote.” (A Native’s Return, p. 239)

Without notes that can be checked and the source that can be authenticated, it seems the modern practice for historians, intellectuals and others of the scribbling class to write crap, call it the product of vast, deep thinking and sell it to others of their ilk, and the unsuspecting. Having no or few notes is dangerous. Most writings from that scribbling class which have notes merely refer to previously published writings from the scribbling class.

Why have facts at all? Shirer researched and wrote about the fall the France 1940, The Collapse of the Third Republic. The military disaster was accompanied by political ineptitude. Indeed, the last two Presidents of the Third Republic had mistresses who ran things, gave instructions, interfered and/or counseled their masters in 1940. In 900 pages Shirer devoted four (4) pages to the mistresses. The Ivory Tower screamed! Salacious, irrelevant, misleading. Once again the Ivory Tower got it wrong, but it has a lot to defend: Woodrow Wilson, one-time professor and then President of Princeton. In one hundred years have academic researchers given the American people the low-down of Mrs. Wilson’s presidency? NO! It seems entirely appropriate for Shirer to write four pages about mistresses, when France was falling apart, the government was in disorder, the army would not fight, the President of the Republic was wearing pjs and his mistress was cracking the whip.

It is easy to dismiss the flaws. Overall William L Shirer’s Twentieth Century Journey and Berlin Diary are memorable and worth reading. 


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