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. Posts follow by 80 years the time line of events.
From August to October 1938 Hitler’s demands on Czechoslovakia became increasingly bellicose. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave the appearance of willing to commit to any of Hitler’s demands in order to stave off another European war. Hitler read the tea leaves correctly, and he played the Allied Powers as dupes to his designs. Excerpts from Shirer’s diary during this period give insight into the developing events.
PRAGUE, August 4
Lord Runciman arrived today to gum up the works and sell the Czechs short if he can. He and his Lady and staff, with piles of baggage, proceeded to the town’s swankiest hotel, the Alcron, where they have almost a whole floor. Later Runciman, a taciturn thin-lipped little man with a bald head so round it looks like a mis-shapen egg, received us— about three hundred Czech and foreign reporters— in the reception hall. I thought he went out of his way to thank the Sudeten leaders, who, along with Czech Cabinet members, turned out to meet him at the station, for their presence.
Runciman’s whole mission smells. He says he has come here to mediate between the Czech government and the Sudeten party of Konrad Henlein. But Henlein is not a free agent. He cannot negotiate. He is completely under the orders of Hitler. The dispute is between Prague and Berlin. The Czechs know that Chamberlain personally wants Czechoslovakia to give in to Hitler’s wishes. These wishes we know: incorporation of all Germans within the Greater Reich. Someone tonight— Walter Kerr, I think, of the Herald Tribune, produced a clipping from his paper of a dispatch written by its London correspondent, Joseph Driscoll, after he had participated in a luncheon with Chamberlain given by Lady Astor. It dates back to last May, but makes it clear that the Tory government goes so far as to favour Czecho ceding the Sudetenland outright to Germany. Before the Czechs do this,
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 120-121). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The involvement of Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford is recounted in an item posted to Wikipedia:
Runciman returned to public life when, at the beginning of August 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sent him on a mission to Czechoslovakia to mediate in a dispute between the Government of Czechoslovakia and the Sudeten German Party (SdP), the latter representing the ethnic German population of the border regions, known as the Sudetenland. Unknown to Runciman, the SdP, although it was ostensibly calling for autonomy for the Sudetenland, had instructions from Nazi Germany not to reach any agreement on the matter and so attempts at mediation failed. With international tension rising in Central Europe, Runciman was recalled to London on 16 September 1938.
His controversial report provided support for British policy towards Czechoslovakia, which culminated in the dismembering of the country under the terms of the Munich Agreement.
Further controversy arose from Runciman’s use of his leisure time in Czechoslovakia spent mostly in the company of Hitler’s Jewish spy and erstwhile lover of Lord Rothermere, Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe, and the pro-SdP aristocracy. Maria Dowling claims that Runciman spent most of his time in Czechoslovakia being entertained by German aristocrats and listening to complaints from Germans that had suffered from the 1920s land reform.
It is clear that Shirer’s assessment of Runciman’s mission is spot-on. With people such as Runciman dealing for Britain, there would be scant chance that Czechoslovakia’s interests would be protected. As close to the events as he was, Shirer often misread the action.
BERLIN, August 25
Some of the American correspondents, more friendly than others to the Nazis, laughed at me at the Taverne tonight when I maintained the Czechs would fight.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 123). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
In the end, the Czechs did not fight. Shirer saw, as did most others, the threat of war was real.
GENEVA, September 9
One last fleeting visit with the family before the war clouds break. In Berlin the best opinion is that Hitler has made up his mind for war if it is necessary to get back his Sudetens. I doubt it for two reasons: first, the German army is not ready; secondly, the people are dead against war. The radio has been saying all day that Great Britain has told Germany she will fight if Czecho is invaded. Perhaps so, but you cannot forget the Times leader of three days ago inviting the Czechs to become a more “homogeneous state” by handing the Sudetens over to Hitler.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 124). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer put down his musings at the time.
PRAGUE, September 10
All Europe waiting for Hitler’s final word to be pronounced at the wind-up of the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg day after tomorrow. In the meantime we had two speeches today, one by President Beneš here; the other by Göring at Nuremberg, where all week the Nazis have been thundering threats against Czechoslovakia. Beneš, who spoke from the studio of the Czech Broadcasting System, was calm and reasonable—reasonable— too much so, I thought, though he was obviously trying to please the British. He said: “I firmly believe that nothing other than moral force, goodwill, and mutual trust will be needed…. Should we, in peace, solve our nationality affairs… our country will be one of the most beautiful, best administered, worthiest, and most equitable countries in the world….
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 125). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
That same day the Nazis were playing their propaganda game to the hilt
The other speech, Göring’s, as given out by Reuter’s here: “A petty segment of Europe is harassing human beings…. This miserable pygmy race [the Czechs] without culture— no one knows where it came from— is oppressing a cultured people and behind it is Moscow and the eternal mask of the Jew devil….”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 126). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
This day shows Hitler at his most Hitler:
PRAGUE, September 12
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 126). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
I have never heard the Adolf quite so full of hate, his audience quite so on the borders of bedlam. What poison in his voice when at the beginning of his long recital of alleged wrongs to the Sudeteners he paused: “Ich spreche von der Czechoslovakei!” His words, his tone, dripping with venom.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 127). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer reports as events follow a pattern that was to become familiar.
PRAGUE, September 13– 14 (3 a.m.)
War very near, and since midnight we’ve been waiting for the German bombers, but so far no sign. Much shooting up in the Sudetenland, at Eger, Elbogen, Falkenau, Habersbirk. A few Sudeteners and Czechs killed and the Germans have been plundering Czech and Jewish shops.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 128). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Runciman’s swan song.
PRAGUE, September 16
LATER.— Hoorah! Heard New York perfectly on the feedback tonight and they heard me equally well. After four days of being blotted out, and these four days! Runciman has left for London, skipping out very quietly, unloved, unhonoured, unsung.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 133). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Here is what a government can do when it controls the press and suppresses opposing speech.
BERLIN, September 19
The Nazis, and quite rightly too, are jubilant over what they consider Hitler’s greatest triumph up to date. “And without bloodshed, like all the others,” they kept rubbing it in to me today. As for the good people in the street, they’re immensely relieved. They do not want war. The Nazi press full of hysterical headlines. All lies. Some examples: WOMEN AND CHILDREN MOWED DOWN BY CZECH ARMOURED CARS, or BLOODY REGIME— NEW CZECH MURDERS OF GERMANS. The Börsen Zeitung takes the prize: POISON-GAS ATTACK ON AUSSIG? The Hamburger Zeitung is pretty good: EXTORTION, PLUNDERING, SHOOTING— CZECH TERROR IN SUDETEN GERMAN LAND GROWS WORSE FROM DAY TO DAY!
[Emphasis in the original]
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 134-135). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Czechoslovakia’s neighbors were eager to join the feast, not realizing they were next on the menu.
ON THE TRAIN, BERLIN– GODESBERG, September 20
But there were no American correspondents. The platform was empty. At ten I started to chat away ad lib. The only news I had was that the Hungarians and the Poles had been down to Berchtesgaden during the day to demand, like jackals, their share of the Czech spoils.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 136). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Nazi fervor reaches a crescendo.
BERLIN, September 26
Hitler has finally burned his last bridges. Shouting and shrieking in the worst state of excitement I’ve ever seen him in, he stated in the Sportpalast tonight that he would have his Sudetenland by October 1— next Saturday, today being Monday. If Beneš doesn’t hand it over to him he will go to war, this Saturday. Curious audience, the fifteen thousand party Bonzen packed into the hall. They applauded his words with the usual enthusiasm. Yet there was no war fever. The crowd was good-natured, as if it didn’t realize what his words meant. The old man full of more venom than even he has ever shown, hurling personal insults at Beneš. Twice Hitler screamed that this is absolutely his last territorial demand in Europe.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 141). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
And more from the same day.
I broadcast the scene from a seat in the balcony just above Hitler. He’s still got that nervous tic. All during his speech he kept cocking his shoulder, and the opposite leg from the knee down would bounce up. Audience couldn’t see it, but I could. As a matter of fact, for the first time in all the years I’ve observed him he seemed tonight to have completely lost control of himself. When he sat down after his talk, Goebbels sprang up and shouted: “One thing is sure: 1918 will never be repeated!” Hitler looked up to him, a wild, eager expression in his eyes, as if those were the words which he had been searching for all evening and hadn’t quite found. He leaped to his feet and with a fanatical fire in his eyes that I shall never forget brought his right hand, after a grand sweep, pounding down on the table and yelled with all the power in his mighty lungs: “Ja!” Then he slumped into his chair exhausted.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 142). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
There are rumblings of war, but there would be no war for another year.
BERLIN, September 27 A motorized division rolled through the city’s streets just at dusk this evening in the direction of the Czech frontier. I went out to the corner of the Linden where the column was turning down the Wilhelmstrasse, expecting to see a tremendous demonstration. I pictured the scenes I had read of in 1914 when the cheering throngs on this same street tossed flowers at the marching soldiers, and the girls ran up and kissed them. The hour was undoubtedly chosen today to catch the hundreds of thousands of Berliners pouring out of their offices at the end of the day’s work. But they ducked into the subways, refused to look on, and the handful that did stood at the curb in utter silence unable to find a word of cheer for the flower of their youth going away to the glorious war. It has been the most striking demonstration against war I’ve ever seen. Hitler himself reported furious. I had not been standing long at the corner when a policeman came up the Wilhelmstrasse from the direction of the Chancellery and shouted to the few of us standing at the curb that the Führer was on his balcony reviewing the troops. Few moved. I went down to have a look. Hitler stood there, and there weren’t two hundred people in the street or the great square of the Wilhelmsplatz. Hitler looked grim, then angry, and soon went inside, leaving his troops to parade by unreviewed. What I’ve seen tonight almost rekindles a little faith in the German people. They are dead set against war.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 142-143). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The Allied Powers ended up selling out Czechoslovakia for false promises of peace. Notably, Winston Churchill stood alone against the tide.
MUNICH, September 30
Only Winston Churchill, a voice in the wilderness all these years, will say, addressing the Commons: “We have sustained a total, unmitigated defeat…. Do not let us blind ourselves. We must expect that all the countries of central and eastern Europe will make the best terms they can with the triumphant Nazi power…. The road down the Danube… the road to the Black Sea and Turkey, has been broken. It seems to me that all the countries of Mittel Europa and the Danube Valley, one after the other, will be drawn into the vast system of Nazi politics, not only power military politics, but power economic
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 147-148). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Czechoslovakia was sacrificed, ultimately for nothing. At Hitler’s direction, Europe slid relentlessly toward war during the following 11 months.