Years of Living Dangerously

Continuing review of Berlin Diary

William Shirer published Berlin Diary in 1941, the year following his departure as a correspondent from Berlin. While the book derives largely from contemporaneous notes, it is not the transcript of a daily ledger. There was difficulty getting his notes out of Germany, considerable danger being attached should they be discovered at the border. At the least, such inflammatory material would have been confiscated. A consequence is that Shirer composed the bulk of the book once safely outside Nazi Germany.

On 30 June 1934 Shirer was working for the Paris Herald and reporting from Paris. He observes that communication with Berlin was cut off for several hours. The reason soon becomes clear.

PARIS, July 14

It now develops that Hitler’s purge was more drastic than first reported. Röhm did not kill himself, but was shot on the orders of Hitler. Other dead: Heines, notorious Nazi boss of Silesia, Dr. Erich Klausner, leader of the “Catholic Action” in Germany, Fritz von Bose and Edgar Jung, two of Papen’s secretaries (Papen himself narrowly escaped with his life), Gregor Strasser, who used to be second in importance to Hitler in the Nazi Party, and General von Schleicher and his wife, the latter two murdered in cold blood. I see von Kahr is on the list, the man who balked Hitler’s Beer House Putsch in 1923. Hitler has thus taken his personal revenge. Yesterday, on Friday the 13th, Hitler got away with his explanation in the Reichstag. When he screamed: “The supreme court of the German people during these twenty-four hours consisted of myself!” the deputies rose and cheered. One had almost forgotten how strong sadism and masochism are in the German people.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 159-166). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Of particular note is the life trajectory of Gregor Strasser. Gregor and his brother Otto were prominent in the formation of what became National Socialism,, but a falling out eventually doomed Gregor:

Born in 1892 in Bavaria, Strasser served in World War I in an artillery regiment, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. He joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) in 1920 and quickly became an influential and important figure. He took part in the abortive putsch in Munich in 1923 and was imprisoned, but released early on for political reasons.

Strasser joined a revived NSDAP in 1925 and once again established himself as a powerful and dominant member, hugely increasing the party’s membership and reputation in northern Germany. Personal and political conflicts with Adolf Hitler led to his death in 1934 during the Night of the Long Knives.

The story of Joseph Goebbels by Fraenkel and Manvell recounts Gregor Strasser’s downfall.

Grim European politics continues to play out while Shirer observes.

PARIS, July 25

Dollfuss is dead, murdered by the Nazis, who today seized control of the Chancellery and the radio station in Vienna. Apparently their coup has failed and Miklas and Dr. Schuschnigg are in control. I do not like murder, and Nazi murder least of all. But I cannot weep for Dollfuss after his cold-blooded slaughter of the Social Democrats last February.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 167-169). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

During this time Hitler nominally shared power with German  President Paul von Hindenburg, German hero of World War One. In  August, following Hitler’s elimination of other rivals to his power, Hindenburg died.

PARIS, August 3

Hitler did what no one expected. He made himself both President and Chancellor. Any doubts about the loyalty of the army were done away with before the old field-marshal’s body was hardly cold. Hitler had the army swear an oath of unconditional obedience to him personally. The man is resourceful.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 174-177). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Hitler’s move was audacious. The minor part was his absorbing both government heads. Having the armed forces swear allegiance to him personally was a diabolical stroke. Picture this: you’re a soldier in the Reichswehr, in formation before your commanding officer, and he “instructs” you to raise your hand in the two-fingered salute and swear allegiance to that one man. Not to the Reichswehr, not to Germany, but to a dictator who has just demonstrated no compunction against mass murder. You cannot say no, and the oath, to a German, is a blood oath. It cannot be rescinded. All did it, and from that day forward the German armed forces were chained to the fortunes of this former army corporal. If he was going down, they were, too.

Shirer received a job offer that was to change the course of his life. It was to lead him to Berlin, into the center of the storm.

PARIS, August 9

Dosch-Fleurot rang me at the office this afternoon from Berlin and offered me a job with Universal Service there. I said yes at once, we agreed on a salary, and he said he would let me know after talking with New York.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 177-179). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Shirer’s introduction to Nazi Germany sets the stage for what is to  come.

BERLIN, August 25

Our introduction to Hitler’s Third Reich this evening was probably typical. Taking the day train from Paris so as to see a little of the country, we arrived at the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof at about ten this evening. The first persons to greet us on the platform were two agents of the secret police. I had expected to meet the secret police sooner or later, but not quite so soon. Two plain-clothes men grabbed me as I stepped off the train, led me a little away, and asked me if I were Herr So-and-So— I could not for the life of me catch the name. I said no. One of them asked again and again and finally I showed him my passport. He scanned it for several minutes, finally looked at me suspiciously, and said: “So…. You are not Herr So-and-So, then. You are Herr Shirer.”

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 182-188). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Followed by… more of what is to come. Life was trying for journalists in Nazi Germany.

BERLIN, August 26

Knickerbocker tells me Dorothy Thompson departed from the Friedrichstrasse station shortly before we arrived yesterday. She had been given twenty-four hours to get out— apparently the work of Putzi Hanfstängl, who could not forgive her for her book I Saw Hitler, which, at that, badly underestimated the man. Knick’s own position here is precarious apparently because of some of his past and present writings. Goebbels, who used to like him, has fallen afoul of him.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 191-195). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

An additional view of life under Hitler:

BERLIN, September 2

The constant Heil Hitler’s, clicking of heels, and brown-shirted storm troopers or black-coated S.S. guards marching up and down the street grate me, though the old-timers say there are not nearly so many brown-shirts about since the purge.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 199-201). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Shirer continues to soak up the Nazi Germany experience, and he gives additional insight.  In September 1934 he attended the yearly Nazi rally in Nuremberg. It’s a telling view of the emboldened Nazi Party and the rebirth of the German military.

NUREMBERG, September 4

Like a Roman emperor Hitler rode into this mediæval town at sundown today past solid phalanxes of wildly cheering Nazis who packed the narrow streets that once saw Hans Sachs and the Meistersinger.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 212-214). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

And Hitler, himself:

He was clad in a rather worn gaberdine trench-coat, his face had no particular expression at all— I expected it to be stronger— and for the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob which was greeting him so wildly. He does not stand before the crowd with that theatrical imperiousness which I have seen Mussolini use. I was glad to see that he did not poke out his chin and throw his head back as does the Duce nor make his eyes glassy— though there is something glassy in his eyes, the strongest thing in his face. He almost seemed to be affecting a modesty in his bearing. I doubt if it’s genuine.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 218-223). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

What modern world leader does this bring to mind?

Putzi Hanfstängl, an immense, high-strung, incoherent clown who does not often fail to remind us that he is part American and graduated from Harvard, made the main speech of the day in his capacity of foreign press chief of the party. Obviously trying to please his boss, he had the crust to ask us to “report on affairs in Germany without attempting to interpret them.” “History alone,” Putzi shouted, “can evaluate the events now taking place under Hitler.” What he meant, and what Goebbels and Rosenberg mean, is that we should jump on the band-wagon of Nazi propaganda.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 225-229). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

It’s impossible to pass up this opportunity to  relate Shirer’s impression of the Hitler experience:

About ten o’clock tonight I got caught in a mob of ten thousand hysterics who jammed the moat in front of Hitler’s hotel, shouting: “We want our Führer.” I was a little shocked at the faces, especially those of the women, when Hitler finally appeared on the balcony for a moment. They reminded me of the crazed expressions I saw once in the back country of Louisiana on the faces of some Holy Rollers who were about to hit the trail. They looked up at him as if he were a Messiah, their faces transformed into something positively inhuman. If he had remained in sight for more than a few moments, I think many of the women would have swooned from excitement.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 230-235). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

And more:

NUREMBERG, September 5

I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 239-241). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

And more:

I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astounding success. Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and colour and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 239-241). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Further impressions:

NUREMBERG, September 6

Now, the goose-step has always seemed to me to be an outlandish exhibition of the human being in his most undignified and stupid state, but I felt for the first time this morning what an inner chord it strikes in the strange soul of the German people.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 264-269). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Some observations:

NUREMBERG, September 7

Von Papen arrived today and stood alone in a car behind Hitler tonight, the first public appearance he has made, I think, since he narrowly escaped being murdered by Göring on June 30. He did not look happy.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 278-287). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The decapitation of the SA and other opposition to Hitler would likely produce some repercussions. Hitler had to get things straight. There had to be assurances the bloodletting was over… for now.

NUREMBERG, September 9

Hitler faced his S.A. storm troopers today for the first time since the bloody purge. In a harangue to fifty thousand of them he “absolved” them from blame for the Röhm “revolt.” There was considerable tension in the stadium and I noticed that Hitler’s own S.S. bodyguard was drawn up in force in front of him, separating him from the mass of the brown-shirts.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 287-291). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Germany lost big in the First World War, and the Versailles Treaty placed onerous burdens of reparation on the country. Further, the treaty sharply restricted German rearmament, a restriction the Germans immediately and covertly began to  undermine. Winston Churchill, out of power during this critical period, was one of a few, and by far the most strident, to raise alarms at Germany’s covert action:

It was also at this moment a great diplomatic advantage to Hitler to divide the Allies, to have one of them ready to condone breaches of the Treaty of Versailles, and to invest the regaining of full freedom to rearm with the sanction of agreement with Britain. The effect of the announcement was another blow at the League of Nations. The French had every right to complain that their vital interests were affected by the permission accorded by Great Britain for the building of U-boats. Mussolini saw in this episode evidence that Great Britain was not acting in good faith with her other allies, and that, so long as her special naval interests were secured, she would apparently go to any length in accommodation with Germany, regardless of the detriment to friendly Powers menaced by the growth of the German land forces. He was encouraged by what seemed the cynical and selfish attitude of Great Britain to press on with his plans against Abyssinia. The Scandinavian Powers, who only a fortnight before had courageously sustained the protest against Hitler’s introduction of compulsory service in the German Army, now found that Great Britain had behind the scenes agreed to a German Navy which, though only a third of the British, would within this limit be master of the Baltic.

Churchill, Winston. The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Volume 1 (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 2142-2151). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Immediately following the previous war, the German military command began to play the treaty’s restrictions. There were limits on total troop strength. No problem. What is basic to an armed force is a command structure, so German military leaders didn’t waste numbers on privates and corporals. They created an officer corps wearing enlisted stripes. Came time to ramp up, the command structure was in place. All that was necessary was pinning on stars and bars. The lower ranks could be quickly filled from with conscripts and a horde of volunteers. Shirer describes the obvious, that German rearmament has been underway for years.

NUREMBERG, September 10

I feel that all those Americans and English (among others) who thought that German militarism was merely a product of the Hohenzollerns—from Frederick the Great to Kaiser Wilhelm II—made a mistake. It is rather something deeply ingrained in all Germans. They acted today like children playing with tin soldiers. The Reichswehr “fought” today only with the “defensive” weapons allowed them by Versailles, but everybody knows they’ve got the rest— tanks, heavy artillery, and probably airplanes.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 294-300). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The review of William Shirer’s Berlin Diary will resume with October 1934.

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2 thoughts on “Years of Living Dangerously

  1. Pingback: Years of Living Dangerously | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Snowflake-in-Chief | Skeptical Analysis

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