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. This is one of a series reviewing the book.

This installment will cover the year 1936. That year saw the continued territorial solidification of Nazi Germany, with the re-militarization of the Rhineland. Imposition of capital punishment for those opposing the Nazis became a harsh reality. The Nazis began to extend their reach beyond national borders as Germany and Italy threw their weight on the side of the Republican faction in the Spanish Civil War, and Germany signed the Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan. The year opened ominously and from there deteriorated without remorse.

BERLIN, January 4, 1936

The afternoon press, especially the Börsen Zeitung and the Angriff, very angry at Roosevelt’s denunciation of dictatorships and aggression, obviously directed mostly against Mussolini, but also meant for Berlin. Incidentally, an item I forgot to record: X of the Börsen Zeitung is not to be executed. His death sentence has been commuted to life imprisonment. His offence: he occasionally saw that some of us received copies of Goebbels’s secret daily orders to the press. They made rich reading, ordering daily suppression of this truth and the substitution of that lie. He was given away, I hear, by a Polish diplomat, a fellow I never trusted. The German people, unless they can read foreign newspapers (the London Times has an immense circulation here now), are terribly cut off from events in the outside world and of course are told nothing of what is happening behind the scenes in their own country. For a while they stormed the news-stands to buy the Baseler Nachrichten, a Swiss German-language paper, which sold more copies in Germany than it did in Switzerland. But that paper has now been banned.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 567-576). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The Börsen Zeitung is not to be confused with the current publication, founded in 1952. Der Angriff (the Attack) was a propaganda sheet established by Joseph Goebbels. That somebody could receive the death sentence for disclosing manipulation of the press is telling of the Nazis’ need to strangle free information and also of their ruthless approach to the suppression of all opposition. Shirer’s continued conflict with Nazi repression was indicative:

BERLIN, January 23

An unpleasant day. A telephone call awakened me this morning— I work late and sleep late— and it turned out to be Wilfred Bade, a fanatical Nazi careerist at the moment in charge of the Foreign Press in the Propaganda Ministry. He began: “Have you been in Garmisch recently?” I said: “No.” Then he began to shout: “I see, you haven’t been there and yet you have the dishonesty to write a fake story about the Jews there….” “Wait a minute,” I said, “you can’t call me dishonest…” but he had hung up.

At noon Tess turned on the radio for the news just in time for us to hear a ringing personal attack on me, implying that I was a dirty Jew and was trying to torpedo the winter Olympic Games at Garmisch (which begin in a few days) with false stories about the Jews and Nazi officials there. When I got to the office after lunch, the front pages of the afternoon papers were full of typically hysterical Nazi denunciations of me. The Germans at the office expected the Gestapo to come to get me at any moment. Actually, I had written in a mail series, some time ago, that the Nazis at Garmisch had pulled down all the signs saying that Jews were unwanted (they’re all over Germany) and that the Olympic visitors would thus be spared any signs of the kind of treatment meted out to Jews in this country. I had also remarked, in passing, that Nazi officials had taken all the good hotels for themselves and had put the press in inconvenient pensions, which was true.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 576-588). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

There follows Shirer’s account of his confrontation with Propaganda Minister Wilfrid Bade. That a nation would have the office of Propaganda Ministry is startling, and that it would be called the Propaganda Ministry is more so. Bade was scooped up by the Soviets at the conclusion of the European war in 1945 and died in one of their prisons later that year.

It should be noted that not all the Nazis were on the same side of the English Channel:

BERLIN, February 25

Learn that Lord Londonderry was here around the first of the month, saw Hitler, Göring, and most of the others. He is an all-out pro-Nazi. Fear he has not been up to any good.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 619-621). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

About this time the French, with the aim at hemming in Nazi Germany, concluded a mutual assistance pact with the Soviet Union, and the Nazis reacted in typical, scripted, fashion:

BERLIN, February 28

The French Chamber has approved the Soviet pact by a big majority. Much indignation in the Wilhelmstrasse. Fred Oechsner says that when he and Roy Howard saw Hitler day before yesterday, he seemed to be very preoccupied about something.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 622-624). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Stirrings became apparent within Nazi Germany as surreptitious plans for re-militarization of the Rhineland were conducted, even as denials flew:

BERLIN, March 6, midnight

This has been a day of the wildest rumours. Definite, however, is that Hitler has convoked the Reichstag for noon tomorrow and summoned the ambassadors of Britain, France, Italy, and Belgium for tomorrow morning. Since these are the four Locarno powers, it is obvious from that and from what little information I could pry out of party circles that Hitler intends to denounce the Locarno Treaty, which only a year ago this month he said Germany would “scrupulously respect.” My guess too, based on what I’ve heard today, is that Hitler will also make an end of the demilitarized zone in the Rhineland, though the Wilhelmstrasse savagely denies this. Whether he will send the Reichswehr in is not sure. This seems too big a risk in view of the fact that the French army could easily drive it out.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 627-633). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The Rhineland is a German region adjacent to the border with France, and it had been decreed a military-free zone under terms of the Treaty of Versailles. The movement of German troops into this region was Hitler’s riskiest gamble at the time, and the lack of action by France and other Allied factions set the course for the coming of another world war.

BERLIN, March 7

A little on the careful side is right! Hitler on this day has torn up the Locarno Treaty and sent in the Reichswehr to occupy the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland! A few diplomats on the pessimistic side think it means war. Most think he will get by with it. The important thing is that the French army has not budged. Tonight for the first time since 1870 grey-clad German soldiers and blue-clad French troops face each other across the upper Rhine. But I talked to Karlsruhe on the phone an hour ago; there have been no shots. I’ve had our Paris office on the line all evening, filing my dispatch. They say the French are not mobilizing— yet, at least— though the Cabinet is in session with the General Staff. London— as a year ago— seems to be holding back. The Reichswehr generals are still nervous, but not so nervous as they were this morning.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 641-647). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Same day, Shirer assesses Hitler’s commitment to sincerity:

The quality of Hitler’s sincerity may be measured by his proposal to demilitarize both sides of the frontiers, thus forcing France to scrap her Maginot Line, now her last protection against a German attack.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 664-666). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Discussing Hitler:

He cleverly tried to reassure Poland in his speech today. His words were: “I wish the German people to understand that although it affects us painfully that an access to the sea for a nation of thirty-five million people should cut through German territory, it is unreasonable to deny such a great nation that access.”

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 699-701). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

To say that the German military command was nervous at this risky move is an understatement. This kind of action was counter to all good military experience, of which there was a considerable amount being wasted. The former corporal, in naive brashness, had successfully gone where the generals feared to tread. Shirer recalls observing Werner von Blomberg, commander of German armed forces:

After lunch I took a stroll alone through the Tiergarten to collect my thoughts. Near the Skagerakplatz I ran into General von Blomberg walking along with two dogs on the leash. His face was still white, his cheeks twitching. “Has anything gone wrong?” I wondered. Then to the office, where I pounded my head off all afternoon, stopping to telephone to Paris my story every time I had three or four hundred words. Remembered it was Saturday when New York came through by cable hollering for early copy for the Sunday morningers. Saturday is Hitler’s day all right: the blood purge, conscription, today— all Saturday affairs.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 702-706). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The same day:

Our Cologne correspondent phoned several times to give a description of the occupation. According to him, the German troops have been given delirious receptions everywhere, the women strewing their line of march with flowers. He says the air force landed bombers and fighters at the Düsseldorf airdrome and several other fields. How many troops the Germans have sent into the Rhineland today nobody knows. François Poncet (the French Ambassador) told a friend of mine tonight that he had been lied to three times by the German Foreign Office on the subject in the course of the day. The Germans first announced 2,000 troops, then later 9,500 with “thirteen detachments of artillery.” My information is that they’ve sent in four divisions— about 50,000 men.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 709-715). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Shirer relates the apparent success of Hitler’s audacious move. What was possibly the last great opportunity to stop Hitler has been forfeited:

BERLIN, March 8

Hitler has got away with it! France is not marching. Instead it is appealing to the League! No wonder the faces of Hitler and Göring and Blomberg and Fritsch were all smiles this noon as they sat in the royal box at the State Opera and for the second time in two years celebrated in a most military fashion Heroes Memorial Day, which is supposed to mark the memory of the two million Germans slain in the last war.

Oh, the stupidity (or is it paralysis?) of the French! I learned today on absolute authority that the German troops which marched into the demilitarized zone of the Rhineland yesterday had strict orders to beat a hasty retreat if the French army opposed them in any way. They were not prepared or equipped to fight a regular army. That probably explains Blomberg’s white face yesterday. Apparently Fritsch (commander-in-chief of the Reichswehr) and most of the generals opposed the move, but Blomberg, who has a blind faith in the Führer and his judgment, talked them into it. It may be that Fritsch, who loves neither Hitler nor the Nazi regime, consented to go along on the theory that if the coup failed, that would be the end of Hitler; if it succeeded, then one of his main military problems was solved.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 722-731). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The same day:

LATER.— Dosch-Fleurot had an interesting story tonight from the Rhineland, where he’s been watching the German occupation. He reports that Catholic priests met the German troops at the Rhine bridges and conferred blessings on them. In Cologne Cathedral Cardinal Schulte, he says, praised Hitler for “sending back our army.” Quickly forgotten is the Nazi persecution of the church. Dosch says the Rhine wine is flowing freely down there tonight.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 756-759). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Shirer analyses the aftermath of the rearmament of the Rhineland:

KARLSRUHE, March 13

Here, within artillery range of the Maginot Line, Hitler made his first “election” speech tonight. Special trains poured in all day from surrounding towns, bringing the faithful and those ordered to come. The meeting was held in a huge tent and the atmosphere was so suffocating that I left before Hitler arrived, returning to my hotel, where over a good dinner and a bottle of wine, with most of the other correspondents, I listened to the speech by radio. Nothing new in it, though he drummed away nicely about his desire for friendship with France. Certainly these Rhinelanders don’t want another war with France, but this reoccupation by German troops has inculcated them with the Nazi bug. They’re as hysterical as the rest of the Germans. Later went out to a Kneipe with a taxi-driver who had driven me around during the day and had a few Schnaps. He turned out to be a Communist, waxed bitter about the Nazis, and predicted their early collapse. It was a relief to find one German here against the regime. He said there are a lot of others, but I sometimes wonder.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 763-771). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

No part of public life was left untouched by the growing power of the dictatorship. Vis, the matter of Dr. Hugo Eckener:

March 29

The new Zeppelin— to be called the Hindenburg— soared gracefully over our office yesterday. I was down to Friedrichshafen the other day to inspect it and it’s a marvel of German engineering genius. Yesterday it was doing “election” propaganda, dropping leaflets exhorting the populace to vote “Ja.” Dr. Hugo Eckener, who is getting it ready for its maiden flight to Brazil, strenuously objected to putting it in the air this week-end on the ground it was not yet The new Zeppelin— to be called the Hindenburg— soared gracefully over our office yesterday. I was down to Friedrichshafen the other day to inspect it and it’s a marvel of German engineering genius. Yesterday it was doing “election” propaganda, dropping leaflets exhorting the populace to vote “Ja.” Dr. Hugo Eckener, who is getting it ready for its maiden flight to Brazil, strenuously objected to putting it in the air this week-end on the ground it was not yet

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 772-781). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Then, later in April:

Goebbels has forbidden the press to mention Eckener’s name.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Location 788). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

The Hindenburg exploded in flames while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey, the following year, killing 36 people.

Civil war erupted in Spain, where Shirer and his wife had spent the year 1933. Germany and Italy were to intervene, and the conclusion was eventually to affect disastrously the fortunes of the Axis powers:

BERLIN, July 18

Trouble in Spain. A right-wing revolt. Fighting in Madrid, Barcelona, and other places.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 820-821). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Charles Lindbergh became America’s hero in 1927 with his solo flight from New York to Le Borget in France, where Shirer covered the landing. Lindbergh’s fame allowed him to wander into international politics, and his favorable slant toward the Nazis took much of the luster off his former glory:

BERLIN, July 23

The Lindberghs are here, and the Nazis, led by Göring, are making a great play for them.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 822-823). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

In 1936 Germany and Italy threw their full support behind Spain’s General Francisco Franco, sealing the doom of the Monarchists and ushering in a period of political oppression in Spain that was to last until Franco’s death in 1975.

BERLIN, November 18 The Wilhelmstrasse announced today that Germany (with Italy) has recognized Franco. General Faupel, who has done good work for Germany in South America and Spain, is to be Hitler’s Ambassador to Salamanca. Apparently today’s decision was timed to offset Franco’s failure to take Madrid just as he seemed to have it in his grasp. At first, I’m told, recognition was to coincide with Franco’s entry into Madrid, which the Germans expected ten days ago. Dodd tells me our consulate in Hamburg reported this week the departure from there of three German ships loaded with arms for Spain. In the meantime the comedy of “non-intervention” goes on in London. For two years now the policies of London and Paris have ceased making sense to me, judged by their own vital interests. They did nothing on March 16, 1935 and on March 7 this year, and they’re doing nothing about Spain now. Is my judgment becoming warped after two years in this hysterical Nazi land? Is it absurd or isn’t it absurd to conclude that

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 891-898). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

As the year 1936 drew down, the bizarre nature of a modern dictatorship continued to unfold.

BERLIN, November 25

We were summoned to the Propaganda Ministry today for an “important” announcement. Wondered what Hitler was up to, but it turned out to be merely the signing of an anti-Comintern pact between Germany and Japan. Ribbentrop, who signed for Germany, strutted in and harangued us for a quarter of an hour about the pact’s meaning, if any. He said it meant, among other things, that Germany and Japan had joined together to defend “Western civilization.” This was such a novel idea, for Japan at least, that at the end of his talk one of the British correspondents asked him if he had understood him correctly. Ribbentrop, who has no sense of humour, then repeated the silly statement, without batting an eye. It seems obvious that Japan and Germany have drawn up at the same time a secret military treaty calling for joint action against Russia should one of them get involved in war with the Soviets.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 899-906). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

If I have not mentioned Joachim von Ribbentrop previously, be advised here is one of Nazism’s most interesting characters. He rose to prominence through a curious route, as a wine merchant introduced to Hitler. He offered to work as a go between for Hitler with Franz von Papen, then Chancellor or Germany, later to be succeeded by Hitler. Ribbentrop became Nazi Germany’s foreign minister and was instrumental in many of the regime’s international intrigues. Winston Churchill, in his book World War II, recounts Ribbentrop’s lack of diplomacy, typical of Nazi diplomatic dealings:

However, Herr von Ribbentrop and his wife did not seem at all conscious of this atmosphere. On the contrary, they tarried for nearly half an hour engaging their host and hostess in voluble conversation. At one moment I came in contact with Frau von Ribbentrop, and in a valedictory vein I said, “I hope England and Germany will preserve their friendship.” “Be careful you don’t spoil it,” was her graceful rejoinder. I am sure they both knew perfectly well what had happened, but thought it was a good manœuvre to keep the Prime Minister away from his work and the telephone. At length Mr. Chamberlain said to the Ambassador, “I am sorry I have to go now to attend to urgent business,” and without more ado he left the room. The Ribbentrops lingered on, so that most of us made our excuses and our way home. Eventually I suppose they left. This was the last time I saw Herr von Ribbentrop before he was hanged.

Churchill, Winston. The Gathering Storm: The Second World War, Volume 1 (Winston Churchill World War II Collection) (Kindle Locations 4169-4176). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

1936 concluded with holiday celebrations and Germany’s further lurch into foreign militarism:

BERLIN, December 25

A pleasant Christmas dinner, and American at that, even to mince pie, with Ralph and Esther Barnes and their children. Ralph and I had to get up in the middle of it, though, to check on queries from New York about a sensational A.P. report that the Germans had landed a large body of troops in Morocco to help Franco. There was no one in the Wilhelmstrasse, as all officials are out of town over the holidays, so we were unable to get a confirmation or denial. Sounds like a fake, though.

Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (Kindle Locations 907-911). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.

Starting with 1937, once I get caught up, posts will appear on the 80th anniversary of Shirer’s diary entries. 1937 marked the beginning of the tumult that was to become another world war.

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One thought on “Years of Living Dangerously

  1. Pingback: Years of Living Dangerously | Skeptical Analysis

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