Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer (1941)

I bought a used first edition of this, with library stamps, from our used book sale.  The topic drew me to the book, but also the way the book looked and felt and smelled.  The font (Scotch) is gorgeous.

World War II just started.  I'm about that far.  This particular book ends in 1941.

What I've noticed so far is that history books, including historical fiction, make the time between the Austrian anschluss and the Czech crisis and the final invasion of Poland seem so long.  The diary format makes you realize that Germany essentially invaded Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland in the very short span of a year, and then turned on Norway, Denmark, BeNeLux, and France within less than a year after that.   In history books, it takes chapters and chapters; in a diary, it's a matter of days and weeks.  It's an interesting perspective.


On September 22, 1938, Shirer saw Hitler walk by him in the garden of the Dreesen Hotel in Godesberg, and noted that --
he had ugly black patches under his eyes.  I think the man is on the edge of a nervous breakdown.  And now I understand the meaning of an expression the party hacks were using when we sat around drinking in the Dreesen last night.  They kept talking about the Teppichfresser, the "carpet-eater."  At first I didn't get it, and then someone explained it in a whisper.  They said Hitler has been having some his nervous crises latey and that in recent days they've taken a strange form.  Whenever he goes on a rampage about BeneŇ° or the Czechs he flings himself to the floor and chews the edges of the carpet, hence the Teppichfresse.  After seeing him this morning, I can believe it.

I think everyone with at least a little knowledge of Hitler has heard this one, and I wonder if Shirer made it up.  Not that I want to stick up for Hitler, but it does sound a little far-fetched, or not to be taken literally, some sort of untranslatable idiom.  The internet is no help.

On March 17, 1940:
In an interview with the German press Neurath says the Czechs are content with their lot, all except "a few intellectuals..."  

Our current Tea Partiers, with their queen bee Sarah Palin, aren't such fans of egghead-ery either.  Anti-intellectualism, I believe I've seen it referred to.  I won't bother making a connection at this point but let that float about it space, like spilled grape juice on the space shuttle, or a well placed fart.

February 23, 1940:
My birthday.  Thought of being thirty-six now, and nothing accomplished, and how fast the middle years fleet by.

Dear lord, here is a brilliant man in the thick of one of the most awful periods of human history, bravely reporting at risk of personal injury and harm, and even he gets depressed on his birthday and thinks he hasn't really accomplished anything.  I guess there is still hope for me!

Berlin, April 14, 1940, prescient thought:  Hitler is sowing something in Europe that one day will destroy not only him but his nation.  Shirer predicted this at a time when it appeared as if Hitler was going to win the war, not lose it.

Shirer's diary feels "live" if that makes sense, rather than narrative, you are getting thoughts and feelings about world events as they happened, opinions and rumor included.  Amazing how the fabric of Europe so quickly unraveled itself, and how small countries like Holland and Denmark both relied on their neutrality and treaties, scrambling to make a peace with the Germans that was as phony as the phony war.  Sweden not coming to the aid of her neighbor Norway, in order to stay out of the war, is pretty crappy. Of course, relations between the Swedes and the Norwegians wasn't really very cordial up to that point anyway.  I did not know the Norwegian Navy escorted the very cargo ships that carried German invaders into port to keep them from the British.


Reading this, you realize how woefully unprepared and weak Britain and France were (more so than poor Belgium, which put up a valiant fight).  It seems obvious from history, but the latest entries in Shirer's diary are all from the Belgian front (before King Leopold surrendered), and that "on the ground" sort of vantage point (as well as the entries on the botched job the British did in Norway) shows how utterly awful the Allies were.  The US and Russia truly won the war.


I was curious about the origin of a phrase and a word.

Phony war.  On January 27, 1940, Shirer writes:  "A phony war.  Today's dispatches from the front deal exclusively with an account of how German machine guns fought French loud-speakers."  (also an example of the French and English bumbling actions in the beginning of the war).  I wondered if Shirer had coined the term.  William Borah, the isolationist senator from Idaho, said "There is something phoney about this war" in September 1939 (,4420477&dq=something-phoney&hl=en).  So he probably coined the term, which Shirer had already heard and was using a few months later.

Blitzkrieg. Shirer doesn't use the word very often in the book; in reference to Poland not at all that I can recall (google book search wasn't much help); the first instance I can find is in May 24:  "Two weeks ago Hitler unloosed his Blitzkrieg in the west."  The word is of German origin, but not really a German word. Germans didn't really use the word (the tactics yes, the word no).  Journalists apparently used it first;
the first known use of the word blitzkrieg in an English publication occurred in an article in Time magazine in September 25, 1939, discussing the Polish campaign. I'm still doing some research on who used it first.  Probably not William L. Shirer.  Although, like Phony War, the word was being used by Shirer just a few months later.


I finished this book a few days ago, but I'm just getting time to write about it.  It was quite good.  I liked the diary aspect, which lent a sense of immediacy to the war that you can't find in a regular history.  Shirer seemed especially prescient, and I was occasionally suspicious about some of his forecasting, although the book was actually published before the United States entered the war.

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-41 by William L. Shirer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Shirer is one of the most famous foreign correspondents in the history of journalism, and a pioneer in radio.  His diary of his years in Berlin during the height of Nazi power is quite interesting.  It lent an immediacy to the beginnings of World War II, as you get the thoughts, feelings, emotions, gossip and rumors of Shirer, his fellow correspondents in Berlin, the German people, and Shirer's informants in the Nazi government who provided him sometimes juicy details about Hitler and his crew of thugs.  Shirer was incredibly prescient on the war, suggesting future events and forecasting the eventual downfall of Hitler(on April 14, 1940, he notes:  "Hitler is sowing something in Europe that one day will destroy not only him but his nation.").  He has many interesting entries on the political situation in Europe in the 1930s and early '40s:  the total wishy-washy-ness of countries like Denmark and Norway up to their invasions; the pluckiness of the Belgians (at least until they surrendered) as opposed to the confusion of the French; the sad weakness of England; the vulture-like Poland tearing at Czechoslovakia's carcass, only to be attacked again a year later.  One thing the diary format did for me was illustrate how quickly Hitler and Germany invaded most of Europe; within a timespan of 18 months or so they moved from Austria to Czechoslovakia to Poland to the most of Europe; books of history almost make that process seem long and drawn out, but Shirer's diary illustrates the impact of Blitzkrieg on most of Europe.  Fascinating.

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1 comment:

  1. I have just purchased a first edition of this amazing book. It gave me a lot of insight and personal witnessing to events day by day. I loved it.


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