When it comes to the history of Nazi Germany, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is unique. Not only did it top bestseller lists, it was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. With sales in the millions, it may be not only the most popular study of the period but perhaps the best selling history book of all time, particularly surprising considering it exceeds 1,000 pages.
Yet despite its breadth and focus, it was not written by a historian. Instead, author William L. Shirer was a reporter who, from 1934 through 1940, was in the center of events leading to World War II. Those six years are the focus of Steve Wick’s biography of Shirer, The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Like his subject, Wick is a journalist, not an academic, a point he makes in an author’s note. His goal “was to write more of an adventure story than a book of history.” The Long Night meets that objective.
Wick traces Shirer’s life and career from Coe College in Iowa to Europe and India and his work as a wire service, newspaper and radio correspondent until his departure from Berlin in December 1940. Throughout, Shirer was an inveterate diarist. The notes and journals he smuggled out of Nazi Germany when he left were the basis of Shirer’s Berlin Diary, itself a bestseller in 1941. Wick relies on and quotes extensively from those notes and journals. He occasionally looks to other sources in attempting to give a more complete picture but perhaps not as often as one might like in fully setting the significant times and events in the Nazi rise to power and entry into war.
Although Wick writes in the straightforward prose one would expect from a journalist, he uses the original material to tell the story in a way that occasionally utilizes but does not abuse the concept of creative nonfiction. In addition to detailing Shirer’s journey as a European correspondent, The Long Night presents some of the conflicts that confronted Shirer and other reporters as the Nazis increased their power. As the Nazis grew stronger, reporters struggled with balancing government censorship against the risk of expulsion. Is censored news better than no news about what was happening in Germany? Wick also points out the human level of some of the conflicts. How does a reporter balance the extent to which they use a source in the government or the Nazi party against the risk that contact will result in the source’s arrest? Perhaps more crucially, should the Nazi government’s treatment of the Jews require a journalist subject to censorship to become an advocate for them or at least against the Nazis?
Although it was his coverage of Nazi Germany that made Shirer famous, he actually set off for Europe in 1925 without a job. By luck, he was hired by the Chicago Tribune in Paris just as he was preparing to return to America. At the beginning, he only covered Europe, including Charles Lindbergh’s landing in Paris after his solo flight across the Atlantic. Eventually, the job would take him to India to report on Gandhi’s efforts for independence. He would also find his way into Afghanistan, where, according to Wick, he concluded the seemingly endless conflicts and wars left a “sinkhole not worth a drop of foreign blood.”
In 1934, Shirer began work in Berlin as a correspondent for William Randolph Hearst’s Universal News Service. The news service, however, was shut down in 1937. Again, luck played its hand as Shirer was contacted and hired by Edward R. Murrow, the head of CBS’s European staff. Somewhat ironically, although he and Murrow would essentially pioneer foreign radio correspondents actually broadcasting news from the scene, that was not Shirer’s main task when he started with CBS. Instead, he arranged and set up venues for non-news programs, such as musical performances. When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, though, he and Murrow headed up a round-up of European coverage, a format the CBS radio network would use for years.
As censorship increased, Shirer tried to use subtle references and intonations to convey more meaning to audiences with the language the censors would allow. Wick examines Shirer’s true feelings toward the Nazis and the internal conflict — and even depression — the censorship produced. The Long Night also suggests this period could be the source of a theme of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich frequently criticized by academics.
Shirer’s perspective was that Hitler and Nazism arose because of the character of Germans and their society. Wick acknowledges that Shirer’s feelings toward the German people hardened and became more cynical with time. “He saw them as cows. They wanted to be led around by a strong leader who lied to them every time he opened his mouth,” Wick writes. “They did what they were told and did not debate moral issues. They never debated moral issues when self-interests were involved.”
While that theory was debated and criticized by academics, The Long Night makes clear he was not a historian; he was a reporter whose later books allowed him to express what he could not when in Germany. Because Wick’s intent was to write “about a journalist at work,” he does not delve into those books or the validity of Shirer’s ideas and themes. Rather, Shirer’s life after leaving Berlin in 1940 is summarized in a 12½-page “Postscript.” To that extent, those interested in Shirer will be disappointed and need to await a full biography. For now, Wick at least provides insight not only into the man but the formative period of his most notable work.