William Shirer’s book recounts his experiences and observations from close up during the years prior to the war and concluding when Adolf Hitler’s government expelled him in 1940. Eighty years ago a new year opened with the war ramping up. The Kriegsmarine suffered its first major defeat with the loss of the Graf Spee. Hitler suspected the Allies were casting an eye on Scandinavia, and he was right. Holland and Belgium blithely acted on the presumption they could stay out of the war. This post will cover excerpts from January 1940.
Winter in Berlin.
Berlin, January 1, 1940
What will this year bring? The decision, as Hitler boasted yesterday? I haven’t met a German yet who isn’t absolutely certain. Certain it is that this phony kind of war cannot continue long. Hitler has got to go forward to new victories or his kind of system cracks.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 271-272). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Same day, a nearly hilarious incident involving more people than sanity allows attempting to use a lone taxi. A little girl upsets this awful arrangement.
She too cried to get out. Her mother joined her. Then her father. Finally the driver, apparently awakened by the bedlam, decided to stop. Out on the curb the father and the soldier began to engage in a fierce argument as to who had spoiled whose New Year’s Eve. Russell and I and the taxi-driver stole away, leaving them to fight it out. The frayed nerves of the war, we decided.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 272-273). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer lays out the realities of Germany’s situation during this stage in the war. It is grim.
Berlin, January 3
I learned today what the Russians have promised to deliver to Germany this year:
1,000,000 tons of fodder and grain;
500,000 tons of oil seeds;
500,000 tons of soya beans;
900,000 tons of petroleum;
150,000 tons of cotton (this is more cotton than Russia had to export to the whole world last year);
Three million gold marks’ worth of leather and hides. This looks good on paper, but I would bet a lot the Russians deliver no more than a fraction of what they have promised.
An official statement announces that Göring is to become absolute dictator of Germany’s war economy—a job he has had in effect for a long time. The press is beginning to harp about “Britain’s aggressive designs in Scandinavia.” Hitler, we hear, has told the army, navy, and air force to rush plans for heading off the Allies in Scandinavia should they go in there to help Finland against Russia. The army and navy are very pro-Finnish, but realize they must protect their trade routes to the Swedish iron-ore fields. If Germany loses these, she is sunk.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 273). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Swedish neutrality turned out to be Hitler’s savior. Without the iron ore Sweden supplied throughout the war, Germany would have either needed to conquer Sweden or else throw in the towel when its war industry ran out of steel.
Hitler did conquer and occupy Norway, using neutral Swedish territory. Clifton is a town in Texas, and it is populated by Norwegian settlers. For some time after, Swedes were not welcome in Clifton.
The fighting in Finland was the main news in the early part of the year.
Berlin, January 9
Harry C., probably the best-informed man we have in the Moscow Embassy, passed through today with his wife, who is going to have her baby in America. Harry, no Bolo-baiter, had some weird tales. He says the one and only thought of a Russian nowadays is to toe the Stalin line so that he can save his job or at least his life. The Russians, he says, have hopelessly bungled the attack on Finland. A hundred thousand casualties already, the hospitals in Leningrad and the north jammed with wounded. But they are the lucky ones because thousands of lightly wounded died of cold and exposure. Harry says everyone in Moscow, from Stalin down, thought the Red army would be in Helsinki a week after the attack started. They were so sure that they timed an attack on Bessarabia for December 6, and only called it off at the last minute.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 274-275). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
For clarification, Bolo was slang for Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks (majority) defeated the Mensheviks (minority) in the Russian Revolution, and the Communists are known as Bolsheviks.
The same day—the brutality of the Gestapo is a surprise?
Learn that eighteen Poles were killed and thirty wounded recently in a Polish prison camp. The S.S. here claim there was a “revolt.” The army is protesting to Hitler about the senseless brutality of the Gestapo in Poland, but I doubt if that will change matters.
Must note a new propaganda campaign to convince the German people that this is not only a war against the “plutocratic” British and French, but a holy struggle against the Jews. Says Dr. Ley in the Angriff tonight: “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany…. England is spiritually, politically, and economically at one with the Jews…. For us England and the Jews remain the common foe….”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 275). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Gestapo is a contraction of Geheim Staatspolizei, secret state’s police, headed up by Heinrich Himmler.
The winter of 1940 was particularly bitter, and German citizens suffered more so due to the lack of coal. Those out of favor suffered even worse.
Berlin, January 11
Cold. Fifteen degrees below zero centigrade outside my window. Half the population freezing in their homes and offices and workshops because there’s no coal. Pitiful to see in the streets yesterday people carrying a sack of coal home in a baby-carriage or on their shoulders. I’m surprised the Nazis are letting the situation become so serious. Everyone is grumbling. Nothing like continual cold to lower your morale.
Hitler is back in town and last night at the Chancellery, I hear, he and Göring lambasted the big industrialists, who had been hurriedly convoked from the Rhineland, for being slack. These great tycoons, who made it possible with their money for Hitler to climb to power, sat there, I’m told, with red faces and never dared utter a peep. Hitler also saw the military yesterday and today and there is talk about a big push in the spring. The army, according to my spies, is still against an offensive on the Maginot Line despite party pressure for it. Will the Germans try to go through Holland, as many think? They want air bases on the Dutch coast for the take-off against Britain. Also fantastic talk here of an invasion of England; of the Germans going into Sweden to sew up their Swedish iron-ore supplies, the justification to be that the Swedes are plotting to let in Allied armies to fight in Finland.
Learned today from a traveller [sic] back from Prague that producers of butter, flour, and other things in Slovakia and Bohemia are marking their goods destined for Germany as “Made in Russia.” This on orders from Berlin, the idea being to show the German people how much “help” is already coming from the Soviets.
A Wilhelmstrasse official admitted to me today that the Germans had imposed forced labour on all Jews in Poland. He said the term of forced labour was “only two years.”16 A German school-teacher tells me this one: the instructors begin the day with this greeting to their pupils: “Gott strafe England!”—whereupon the children are supposed to answer: “He will.”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 276-277). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Wilhelmstrasse is a major Berlin thoroughfare, the center of government during this period. The term was used to designate the German government.
Edward R. Murrow rose to prominence with his coverage of the war, particularly during the Blitz, from London. Shirer and Murrow got together in Amsterdam to confer. Shirer’s take on the Dutch outlook is revealing. Germany’s neighbor’s worked under the delusion they could survive having Nazi Germany as a neighbor. We know today of the tragedy that was to come in a few weeks, and this knowledge is stark in juxtaposition with the picture Shirer paints here.
Amsterdam, January 18
Ed [Murrow] and I here for a few days to discuss our European coverage, or at least that’s our excuse. Actually, intoxicated by the lights at night and the fine food and the change in atmosphere, we have been cutting up like a couple of youngsters suddenly escaped from a stern old aunt or a reform school. Last night in sheer joy, as we were coming home from an enormous dinner with a fresh snow drifting down like confetti, we stopped under a bright street-light and fought a mighty snow-ball battle. I lost my glasses and my hat and we limped back to the hotel exhausted but happy. This morning we have been ice-skating on the canals with Mary Marvin Breckinridge, who has forsaken the soft and dull life of American society to represent us here. The Dutch still lead the good life. The food they consume as to both quantity and quality (oysters, fowl, meats, vegetables, oranges, bananas, coffee—the things the warring peoples never see) is fantastic. They dine and dance and go to church and skate on canals and tend their businesses. And they are blind—oh, so blind—to the dangers that confront them. Ed and I have tried to do a little missionary work, but to no avail, I fear. The Dutch, like everyone else, want it both ways. They want peace and the comfortable life, but they won’t make the sacrifices or even the hard decisions which might ensure their way of life in the long run. The Queen, they say, stubbornly refuses to allow staff talks with the Allies or even with the Belgians. In the meantime, as I could observe when I crossed the border, the Germans pile up their forces and supplies on the Dutch frontier. If and when they move, there will be no time for staff talks with the Allies. The Dutch tell you that if they even whisper to the Allies about joint defence [British spelling] plans, Hitler will consider that an excuse to walk in. As though Hitler will ever want for an excuse if he really decides to walk in.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 277-278). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
I was in Amsterdam last year, and I had a conversation with a resident. I brought up the matter of skating on the canals, and he told me that was a thing of the past. The climate is so much warmer, the canals no longer freeze.
I have to reprint the entire section from January 20, because it gives a stark picture of how anybody, no matter who they were, could be caught up in the paranoid Nazi machine.
Amsterdam, January 20
Ed off today to Paris and I, alas, must head back tonight to Berlin. I’ve invited Marvin to come up next month and do the “women’s angle.” Ran into Tom R., an American businessman, in the bar of the Carlton this afternoon. He gave me the story at last of what happened to Eleanor K.17 He himself was involved. He had given her a couple of business letters to certain parties in Germany which he says he did not think were compromising, but which obviously were. These were the letters which in the end almost led to her death. Eleanor did not look at them, merely tucking them into her bag. At Bentheim, on the Dutch-German border, the Gestapo discovered them. They arrested her, but allowed her to be confined in the local hotel, there being no suitable jail. Each day there were long hours of questioning, with the Gestapo inquisitioners trying to break her down and make her admit what she in truth refused to: that she knew the contents of her letters and was really a courier in the service of shady business interests inside and outside Germany which were engaging in unlawful financial practices. To make matters worse, one of the letters was to a Jew in Berlin. One night in the hotel Eleanor fell into a mood of deep depression. The Gestapo had questioned and threatened her all day. She saw herself receiving a long prison sentence. She had intended to return to America for good in a few weeks. Now she would spend years in a Nazi concentration camp or a damp prison cell. She decided to make sure she wouldn’t. She decided to kill herself. The resolve made, she prepared for it coolly. She procured a rope, tied one end to the radiator, the other around her neck, opened the window, sat down on the window-ledge, and began to swallow strong sleeping-pills. She would soon be unconscious, she knew, would topple out of the window, and the rope would do the rest. Why it didn’t, she will never know, Tom says. Probably the rope slipped off the radiator. All she knows is that some days later they told her in the hospital that the snow in the street below had broken her fall, that she had lain there for five hours until someone had stumbled across her half-frozen form in the first light of dawn, and that she had broken almost every bone in her body, but probably would recover. Eventually she was removed to a prison hospital in Berlin, where the American consulate, in great secrecy, procured her release and quietly got her out of the country. She is now in America, Tom says.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 278-280). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Another entire copy and paste, illustrating how unglamorous was the life of a foreign correspondent during the war.
Berlin, January 22
I got an idea yesterday of how German transportation, at least of railroad passengers, has been paralysed by the severe winter and the demands of the army. At the German border we were told that the usual express train to Berlin had stopped running. With fifty other passengers I took refuge from the blizzard in the station at Bentheim and waited several hours until the railroad officials organized a local train which they said would take us some twenty-five miles of the two hundred and fifty miles to Berlin. The train, which was unheated, soon stopped; we piled out in the snow with our luggage as best we could, there being no porters in Germany nowadays. By the time it was dark, we had progressed on various local trains about seventy-five miles when in one little station word came that an express train from Cologne would be coming along soon and would pick us up for Berlin. But when it came in, it was jammed and there were at least five hundred people on the platform who wanted to get aboard. There was a free-for-all fight. I used college football tactics and charged in behind my baggage, just managing to squeeze into the outer platform of a third-class coach, the rest of the crammed passengers shouting and cursing at me. For the next eight hours I stood in that unheated spot until we got almost to Berlin. Several hundred irritable passengers stood in the corridors most of the night, and there were thousands on the station platforms we stopped at who never got on the train at all. Such grumbling I have not heard from Germans since the war started.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 280-281). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer obtains a perspective of the German mentality from somebody thoroughly acquainted.
Berlin, January 24
think Percival W., a retired American businessman of German parentage who has spent most of his life in this country, sees something I’ve been trying to get straight. I had never met him before, but he dropped up to my room this morning for a chat. We discussed the German conception of ethics, honour, conduct. Said he: “For Germans a thing is right, ethical, honourable, if it squares with the tradition of what a German thinks a German should do; or if it advances the interests of Germanism or Germany. But the Germans have no abstract idea of ethics, or honour, or right conduct.” He gave a pretty illustration. A German friend said to him: “Isn’t it terrible what the Finns are doing, taking on Russia? It’s utterly wrong.” When Mr. W. remonstrated that, after all, the Finns were only doing what you would expect all decent Germans to do if they got in the same fix—namely, defending their liberty and independence against wanton aggression—his friend retorted: “But Russia is Germany’s friend.”
In other words, for a German to defend his country’s liberty and independence is right. For a Finn to do the same is wrong, because it disturbs Germany’s relations with Russia. The abstract idea there is missing in the German mentality.
That probably explains the Germans’ complete lack of regard or sympathy for the plight of the Poles or Czechs. What the Germans are doing to these people—murdering them, for one thing—is right because the Germans are doing it, and the victims, in the German view, are an inferior race who must think right whatever the Germans please to do to them. As Dr. Ley puts it: “Right is what the Führer does.” All this confirms an idea I got years ago: that the German conception of “honour,” about which Germans never cease to talk, is nonsense.
Mr. W. tells me he was in Germany until shortly before we entered the war in 1917 and that until the winter of 1916–17 there was no suffering among the civilian population at all. He says the present rations and shortages are about the same as Germany experienced in the third year of the World War. He is sure things cannot go on as at present, with the front quiet and nothing but hardship, especially the suffering from the cold we’ve had for more than a month now. “What the Germans must have,” he said in departing, “are a lot of quick victories.”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 281-282). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Another entire section copied and pasted. Shirer gives more insight into German thinking from talking to people.
Berlin, January 25 (midnight)
Dined alone at Habel’s. A 1923 half-bottle of Bordeaux rouge, but despite the waiter’s assurances, it was not a good enough wine to withstand that age; 1934 is the best year now for ordinary wines. I was about to leave when a white-haired old duffer sat down at my table. As he had no fat card for a meat dish he had ordered, I offered him one of mine. We started talking.
“Who will win the war?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Why, selbstverständlich, Germany,” he laughed. He argued that in 1914 Germany had the whole world against her, now only Great Britain and France, and Russia was friendly.
“Each side thinks it will win,” I said. “In all the wars.”
He looked at me with pity in his old eyes. “Germany will win,” he said. “It is certain. The Führer has said so.”
But as we talked I was conscious that my remarks were jarring him. He became aggressive, irritated. He said Britain and France started the war. “But you attacked Poland, and some people feel that started the war,” I put in. He drew himself up in astonishment.
“I beg your pardon,” he gasped, and then proceeded for ten minutes to repeat every lie about the origins of the war that Hitler has told. (The German people do believe Hitler then, I mused.) “The documents issued by our Foreign Office have proved beyond the shadow of doubt,” he went on, “that Britain and France started the war and indeed planned it for more than a year.”
“They don’t prove it to me,” I said.
This caused him to lose his breath. When he had recovered he said: “As I was saying, saying, the documents prove it….”
I noticed my sour remarks were attracting the attention of the rest of the room and that two hatchet-faced men with party buttons at the next table seemed to be on the point of intervening with some heroics of their own. I upped and left, bidding the old gentleman good-night.
At six p.m. Fräulein X called for some provisions I had brought her from relatives abroad. She turned out to be the most intelligent German female I have met in ages. We talked about the German theatre and films, about which she knew a great deal. She had some interesting ideas about German character, history, direction. The trouble with the Germans, she said, was that they were “geborene Untertanen”—born subjects, though “Untertan” conveys also a connotation of submissive subjects. Authority and direction from a master above was about all a German wanted in life.
“A German,” she said, “will think he has died a good German if he waits at a curb at a red light, and then crosses on a green one though he knows perfectly well that a truck, against the law though it may be, is bearing down upon him to crush him to death.”
What embittered her—and she was brilliantly bitter—was that this Germany was staking all in a war which might end the very Western civilization which certain elements in Germany had not only contributed to but had tried to make one with Germany’s culture. She thought the present regime cared not a whit about Western civilization and represented the barbarian element which had always lurked below the surface in German history and for whom life only had meaning when it meant glorified war, force, conquest, brutality, and grinding down a weaker foe, especially if he were a Slav. She blasted away about the German’s utter lack of political sense,
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 283-284). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
his slavishness towards authority, his cowardly refusal to think or act for himself.
The non-European, anti-Western civilization element, as she put it, now has the upper hand in Germany and she thought the only way the west-European nature of the German could be saved would be by another defeat, even another Peace of Westphalia (which split up Germany in 1648 into three hundred separate states). I’m rather inclined to agree.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 282-285). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer tells of the greatest organized mass migration in modern times. Germans will be moved in to occupy the territory stripped from the Poles. This is to be followed six years later by the greatest organized mass migration in modern times, as these Germans are repatriated to the post-war German state.
There is also great irony in the propaganda war.
Berlin, January 27
The greatest organized mass migration since the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey after the last war is now coming to an end in Poland. Some 135,000 Germans from Russian-occupied eastern Poland and 100,000 Germans from the Baltic states are now being settled in the part of Poland which Germany has annexed outright. To make room for them an equal number of Poles are being turned out of house, home, and farm and sent to occupied Poland…. Dr. Frank, German Governor-General of Poland, has decreed the death sentence for Poles who hold back goods from sale or refuse to sell their wares when offered a “decent” price. This will enable the Germans to complete their pillage of Poland. If a Pole objects, off with his head…. A German court in Posen has sentenced eight Poles, including three women, to death for allegedly mistreating German flyers—probably parachutists. Even the Germans admit that not one of the flyers was killed.
A phony war. Today’s dispatches from the front deal exclusively with an account of how German machine-guns fought French loud-speakers! It seems that along the Rhine front the French broadcast some recordings which the Germans say constituted a personal insult to the Führer.
“The French did not realize,” says the DNB with that complete lack of humour which makes the Germans so funny, “that an attack on the Führer would be immediately rejected by the German troops.” So the Germans opened fire on the French loud-speakers at Altenheim and Breisach. Actually the army people tell me that the French broadcast recordings of Hitler’s former speeches denouncing Bolshevism and the Soviets.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 285-286). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The following post will relate sections in the book from February 1940.