This is the 80th anniversary of the official start of World War 2. There had been extensive warfare prior to this, but Germany’s invasion of Poland on the night of 31 August – 1 September 1939 marked the commencement of full scale war.
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. Prior installments recount the story, using extensive excerpts from the book. The previous installment concludes on 30 September 1938, 11 months before the start of the war. This will cover events from that date up to 1 September 1939.
The Allied powers decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia to forestall another European war.
MUNICH, September 30
It’s all over. At twelve thirty this morning— thirty minutes after midnight— Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier signed a pact turning over Sudetenland to Germany. The German occupation begins tomorrow, Saturday, October 1, and will be completed by October 10. Thus the two “democracies” even assent to letting Hitler get by with his Sportpalast boast that he would get his Sudetenland by October 1. He gets everything he wanted, except that he has to wait a few days longer for all of it. His waiting ten short days has saved the peace of Europe— a curious commentary on this sick, decadent continent.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 144). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer confers with fellow corespondent Edward. R. Murrow. They agree the situation is grim.
PARIS, October 8
Ed Murrow as gloomy as I am. We try to get it out of our systems by talking all night and popping champagne bottles and tramping the streets, but it will take more time, I guess. We agree on these things: that war is now more probable than ever, that it is likely to come after the next harvest, that Poland is obviously next on Hitler’s list (the blind stupidity of the Poles in this crisis, helping to carve up Czechoslovakia!), that we must get Warsaw to rig up a more powerful short-wave transmitter if they want the world to hear their side, and that we ought to build up a staff of American radio reporters. But honestly we have little head for business.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 150-151). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer assesses the mood of the Poles.
WARSAW, November 11
The Poles a delightful, utterly romantic people, and I have had much good food and drink and music with them. But they are horribly unrealistic. In their trust of Hitler, for instance. Polskie Radio promises to get along with their new short-wave transmitter. I explained to them our experience with the Czechs.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 153). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Hitler’s friend and inspiration, Benito Mussolini, is enjoying the prospects. He is almost mocking the British statesmen.
ROME, January 11, 1939
Chamberlain and Halifax arrived today to appease the Duce. At the station Chamberlain, looking more birdlike and vain than when I last saw him at Munich, walked, umbrella in hand, up and down the platform nodding to a motley crowd of British local residents whom Mussolini had slyly invited to greet him. Mussolini and Ciano, in black Fascist uniforms, sauntered along behind the two ridiculous-looking Englishmen, Musso displaying a fine smirk on his face the whole time.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 156). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The fallout from the unfolding events begins.
GENEVA, March 14
The radio reports Slovakia has declared its “independence.” There goes the remains of Czechoslovakia.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 159). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The dominoes continue to fall, and the British PM’s reaction is characteristic and appalling.
PARIS, March 15
The German army has occupied Bohemia and Moravia on this blizzardy day of spring, and Hitler in a cheap theatrical gesture from the Hradshin castle above the Moldau in Prague has proclaimed their annexation to the Third Reich. It is almost banal to record his breaking another solemn treaty. But since I was personally present at Munich, I cannot help recalling how Chamberlain said it not only had saved the peace but had really saved Czechoslovakia.
Complete apathy in Paris tonight about Hitler’s latest coup. France will not move a finger.
Ed Murrow telephones that the reaction in London is the same— that Chamberlain in Commons this afternoon even went so far as to say that he refused to associate himself with any charges of a breach of faith by Hitler. Good God!
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 160). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
A few days later a prelude to World War Two runs its final course.
GENEVA, March 29
Madrid surrendered yesterday, the rest of republican Spain today. There are no words to express what I feel tonight. Franco’s butchery will be terrible.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 162). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Matters begin to solidify in Great Britain. In observance of Hitler’s intransigence and double dealing, the British parliament finally draw a line in the sand.
BERLIN, April 1
Chamberlain, who in the House yesterday enunciated at last a complete change in British foreign policy and announced that Britain would go to the aid of Poland if Polish independence were threatened. Off to Warsaw tomorrow to see when the German attack is expected.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 163). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Shirer assesses the resolve of the Poles.
WARSAW, April 6
Beck [the Polish Foreign Minister], who committed this country to a pro-Nazi, anti-French policy for so many years, has been in London and tonight we have an Anglo-Polish communiqué announcing that the two countries will sign a permanent agreement providing for mutual assistance in case of an attack on either of them by a third power. I think this will halt Hitler for the time being, since force is something he understands and respects and there is no doubt in my mind after a week here that the Poles will fight and that if Britain and France fight too, he is in a hole.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 163). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
As the year progresses the situation develops treacherously.
BERLIN, April 7
When the Orient Express pulled into the Schlesischer Bahnhof here this evening, the first thing I saw was Huss’s face on the platform and I knew there was bad news. He said London had phoned to get me off the train as the British had reports of German troop movements on the Polish frontier. I had watched for these as we came across the border, but saw
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 165). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
At this time the American government sought assurances that Hitler had no additional plans against neighboring countries. Hitler’s response was caustic and classic. He turned the challenge around.
BERLIN, April 28
Hitler in the Reichstag today denounced a couple more treaties (I could hardly repress a chuckle at this part of his speech) and answered Roosevelt’s plea that he give assurance that he will not attack the rest of the independent nations of Europe. His answer to the President rather shrewd, I think, in that it was designed to play on the sympathies of the appeasers and anti-New-Dealers at home and the former in Britain and France.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 165-166). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Here is an excerpt from his speech of that date:
Or is Mr. Roosevelt in a position, with the enormous amount of work which he must have to do in his own country, to recognize of his own accord all the inmost thoughts and feelings of other peoples and their governments?
Finally, Mr. Roosevelt asks that assurances be given him that the German armed forces will not attack, and above all, not invade, the territory or possessions of the following independent nations. He then names as those to which he refers: Finland, Lithuania, Latvia,’ Estonia, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain , Ireland, France, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Russia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iraq, the Arabias, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iran.
Answers I have first taken the trouble to ascertain from the states mentioned, firstly, whether they feel themselves threatened, and, what is most important, secondly, whether this inquiry by the American President was addressed to us at their suggestion or at least with their consent.
The reply was in all cases negative, in some instances strongly so. It is true that there were certain ones among the states and nations mentioned, whom I could not question because they themselves – as for example, Syria – are at present not in possession of their freedom, but are under occupation by the military agents of democratic states and consequently deprived of their rights.
There is a video of this. We see his words dripping in sarcasm as he tics off the list of countries.
At the time Shirer was unsure how this would eventually play out. In the end he turned out to be wrong. Still 28 April 1939.
Still much doubt here among the informed whether Hitler has made up his mind to begin a world war for the sake of Danzig. My guess is he hopes to get it by the Munich method.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 167). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
During the summer Shirer returned to the United States for a visit. His narrative assesses the mood of the American people.
WASHINGTON, July 3
Hope I can stay a little while in my native land. It takes some getting used to again after being almost continuously away since the age of twenty-one. Little awareness here or in New York of the European crisis, and Tess says I’m making myself most unpopular by taking such a pessimistic view. The trouble is everyone here knows all the answers. They know there will be no war. I wish I knew it. But I think there will be war unless Germany backs down, and I’m not certain at all she will, though of course it’s a possibility. Congress here in a hopeless muddle.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 167-168). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The experience of the previous world war demonstrated Germany’s weak position regarding war materials. Those conditions persisted in 1939.
GENEVA, July 28
[Marcel W. “Mike”] Fodor and [John] Gunther dropped in tonight and we argued and talked most of the night through. John fairly optimistic about peace. Fodor, a trained engineer himself, had a lot of material about Germany’s lack of iron. You can’t store much iron ore, Fodor says.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 170). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
In August, days before Armageddon, events begin to take a dramatic turn. Doubts start to vanish.
BERLIN, August 10
How completely isolated a world the German people live in. A glance at the newspapers yesterday and today reminds you of it. Whereas all the rest of the world considers that the peace is about to be broken by Germany, that it is Germany that is threatening to attack Poland over Danzig, here in Germany, in the world the local newspapers create, the very reverse is being maintained. (Not that it surprises me, but when you are away for a while, you forget.) What the Nazi papers are proclaiming is this: that it is Poland which is disturbing the peace of Europe; Poland which is threatening Germany with armed invasion, and so forth. This is the Germany of last September when the steam was turned on Czechoslovakia.
“POLAND? LOOK OUT!” warns the B.Z. headline, adding: “ANSWER TO POLAND, THE RUNNER-AMOK (AMOKLÄUFER) AGAINST PEACE AND RIGHT IN EUROPE!”
Or the headline in Der Führer, daily paper of Karlsruhe, which I bought on the train: “WARSAW THREATENS BOMBARDMENT OF DANZIG— UNBELIEVABLE AGITATION OF THE POLISH ARCH-MADNESS (POLNISCHEN GRÖSSENWAHNS)!”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 172-173). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Here is Shirer’s expanded analysis of the situation on the same day. He includes a personal perspective of German women.
But so far the press limits itself to Danzig. Will the Germans keep their real designs under cover until later? Any fool knows they don’t give a damn about Danzig. It’s just a pretext. The Nazi position, freely admitted in party circles, is that Germany cannot afford to have a strong military power on her eastern frontier, that therefore Poland as it is today must be liquidated, not only Danzig, which is Poland’s life-line, taken, but also the Corridor, Posen, and Upper Silesia. And Poland left a rump state, a vassal of Germany. Then when Hungary and Rumania and Yugoslavia have been similarly reduced (Hungary practically is already), Germany will be economically and agriculturally independent, and the great fear of Anglo-French blockade, which won the last war and at the moment probably could win the next, will be done away with. Germany can then turn on the West and probably beat her.
Struck by the ugliness of the German women on the streets and in restaurants and cafés. As a race they are certainly the least attractive in Europe. They have no ankles. They walk badly. They dress worse than English women used to. Off to Danzig tonight.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 173). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Hours tick away as the horror of war approaches. Shirer pens an appraisal of Poland’s situation.
IN A WAGONLIT, GDYNIA– WARSAW, August 13, midnight
The Poles, with French backing, have done a magnificent job. Fifteen years ago, Gdynia was a sleepy fishing village of 400 souls. Today it’s the largest port in the Baltic, with a population of over 100,000. Lacking natural facilities, the Poles have simply pushed piers out into the sea. The city itself looks like a mushroom growth, much like some of our Western towns thirty-five years ago. It is one of the promises of Poland.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 176-177). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
There has indeed been progress in Poland, but it was too little and too late. Clearly Poland was no match for the German Wehrmacht. Reports come in of rising tensions.
WARSAW, August 16
Much excitement in official Polish circles today. Conferences between Smigly-Rydz, Beck, and the generals. A Polish soldier has been shot on the Danzig frontier. Result: an order tonight instructing Polish troops to shoot anyone crossing the Danzig border on sight and without challenge.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 177). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
WARSAW, August 20
I think the Poles will fight. I know I said that, wrongly, about the Czechs a year ago. But I say it again about the Poles.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 178). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
It turned out Shirer was correct in this assessment. The Poles’ refusal to knuckle under once attacked led to the inevitable raging conflict.
Let me know if you see some similarities to our situation today. What happens when you cross personalities with thin-skinned power?
BERLIN, August 23
Hans Kaltenborn, our star foreign-news commentator, was turned back by the secret police when he arrived at Tempelhof from London this afternoon. We have been nicely double-crossed by the Nazis.
“May I ask why?” Hans said, boiling inside but cool outside, though beads of sweat bubbled out on his forehead. The officer had a ready answer. Looking in his notebook, he said with tremendous seriousness: “Herr Kaltenborn, on such and such a date in Oklahoma City you made a speech insulting the Führer.”
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 179). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The same day. The pact between Hitler and Stalin was critical. Hitler dared not attack Poland without the collusion of the Soviet Union. A deal was struck to divide the conquered country between the two dictatorships. Again the same day:
LATER (Four hours after midnight).— Great excitement at the Taverne tonight. About two a.m. we get the terms of the Russian-German pact. It goes much further than anyone dreamed. It’s a virtual alliance and Stalin, the supposed arch-enemy of Nazism and aggression, by its terms invites Germany to go in and clean up Poland. The friends of the Bolos are consternated. Several German editors— Halfeld, Kriegk, Silex— who only day before yesterday were writing hysterically about the Bolo peril, now come in, order champagne, and reveal themselves as old friends of the Soviets! That Stalin would play such crude power politics and also play into the hands of the Nazis overwhelms the rest of us.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 180). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The Nazi propaganda machine ramps up, preparing to counter the inevitable.
BERLIN, August 26
program. Some choice headlines in the German press today: The B.Z.: “COMPLETE CHAOS IN POLAND— GERMAN FAMILIES FLEE— POLISH SOLDIERS PUSH TO EDGE OF GERMAN BORDER!” The 12-Uhr Blatt: “THIS PLAYING WITH FIRE GOING TOO FAR— THREE GERMAN PASSENGER PLANES SHOT AT BY POLES— IN CORRIDOR MANY GERMAN FARMHOUSES IN FLAMES!”
“WHOLE OF POLAND IN WAR FEVER! 1,500,000 MEN MOBILIZED! UNINTERRUPTED TROOP TRANSPORT TOWARD THE FRONTIER! CHAOS IN UPPER SILESIA!”
No mention of any German mobilization, of course, though the Germans have been mobilized for a fortnight.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 185 – 186). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
Like an ocean wave, the specter of war advances without remorse.
BERLIN, August 27
(Sunday) Hot and sultry today, which makes for an increase in tension. Henderson failed to return today as expected, causing the Wilhelmstrasse to accuse the British of stalling. (In another fortnight the rains start in Poland, making the roads impassable.) Some Nazis, however, think Henderson’s delay in London means the British are giving in. Tomorrow’s Völkische Beobachter will ask the people to be patient: “The Führer is still demanding patience from you because he wants to exhaust even the last possibilities for a peaceful solution of the crisis. That means a bloodless fulfilment of the irreducible German demands.” This is a nice build-up to convince the people that if war does come, the Führer did everything possible to avoid it. The V.B. ends by saying that Germany, however, will not renounce her demands. “The individual, as well as the nation, can renounce only those things which are not vital.” There you have German character stripped to the bone. A German cannot renounce vital things, but he expects the other fellow to.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 186). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
There is a harbinger of things to come, echos from the war 20 years ago. The same day.
Food rations were fixed today and I heard many Germans grumbling at their size. Some: meat, 700 grams per week; sugar, 280 grams; marmalade, 110 grams; coffee or substitute, one eighth of a pound per week. As to soap, 125 grams are allotted to each person for the next four weeks.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 187). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
There can no longer be any doubt. War is coming.
BERLIN, August 28
Troops, east-bound, pouring through the streets today. No crack units these. They were being transported in moving-vans, grocery trucks, et cetera. Germany has assured Belgium, Holland, Luxemburg, and Switzerland that it will respect their neutrality in case of war.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (p. 189). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The countdown continues.
BERLIN, August 30
The British reply to Hitler’s latest came bouncing back to Berlin tonight. With what result, we don’t know. Henderson has seen Ribbentrop again, but no news of it. Tonight may well be decisive. DNB [the German news agency] has announced it will be issuing news all night tonight. This sounds ominous. The Wilhelmstrasse took pains this evening to point out to us that the non-aggression pact with Russia is also a consultative pact and that this part of it had been put into operation the last few days. This puzzles me, but I said in my broadcast tonight: “That would seem to mean— and, indeed, informed circles in the Wilhelmstrasse leave no doubt about it— that the Germans and Soviets also have been doing some talking the last few days, and, as one writer says tonight, ‘talking about Poland.’ In this connection the German press tonight does not omit to mention a dispatch from Moscow to the effect that not only has Russia not withdrawn her three hundred thousand men from its western frontier, as reported, but on the contrary has strengthened her forces there— that is, on the Polish border. I don’t know the significance of that. I only know that it’s given some prominence here.”
LATER.— Poles ordered general mobilization at two thirty p.m. today. It isn’t terribly important, because Poland has already mobilized about as many men as it has guns and shoes for. But the story gives the German press an excuse to hail Poland as the aggressor. (Germany has mobilized too, though not formally.) Since Hitler now has publicly demanded the return of Danzig and the Corridor, the German people ought to know who the aggressor is liable to be. But they are swallowing Dr. Goebbels’s pills, I fear. At midnight Hitler announces formation of a War Cabinet— to be called a Ministerial Council for the Defence of the Reich. Göring to preside; other members are Frick, Funk, Lammers, and General Keitel.
The sands are running fast tonight.
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 190-191). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The ax falls on the lives of millions of people.
BERLIN, August 31
(morning) Everybody against the war. People talking openly. How can a country go into a major war with a population so dead against it? People also kicking about being kept in the dark. A German said to me last night: “We know nothing. Why don’t they tell us what’s up?” Optimism in official circles melting away this morning, I thought. Huss thinks Hitler may have one great card left, an agreement with Stalin to attack the Poles in the back. I highly doubt it, but after the Russo-German pact anything is possible. Some think the Big Boy is trying to get off the limb now— but how?
LATER.— Broadcast at seven forty-five p.m. Said: “The situation tonight is very critical. Hitler has not yet answered the British note of last night…. An answer may not be necessary…. The new Defence Council sat all day. The Wilhelmstrasse has been seething with activity…. There has been no contact between the German and British governments. Instead… between Russia and Germany. Berlin expects the Soviets to ratify the Russo-German pact this evening…. The British Ambassador did not visit the Wilhelmstrasse. He had a talk with his French colleague, M. Coulondre. Then he saw the Polish Ambassador, M. Lipski. Bags at these three embassies are all packed….”
LATER. Three thirty a.m.— A typical Hitler swindle was sprung this evening. At nine p.m. the German radio stopped its ordinary program and broadcast the terms of German “proposals” to Poland. I was taken aback by their reasonableness, and having to translate them for our American listeners immediately, as we were on the air, I missed the catch. This is that Hitler demanded that a Polish plenipotentiary be sent to Berlin to “discuss” them by last night, though they were only given to Henderson the night before. 7 An official German statement (very neat) complains that the Poles would not even come to Berlin to discuss them. Obviously, they didn’t have time. And why should Hitler set a time limit to a sovereign power? The “proposals”— obviously never meant seriously— read like sweet reason, almost. They contain sixteen points, but the essential ones are four: (1) Return of Danzig to Germany. (2) A plebiscite to determine who shall have the Corridor. (3) An exchange of minority populations. (4) Gdynia to remain Polish even if the Corridor votes to return to Germany.
Tonight the great armies, navies, and air forces are all mobilized. Each country is shut off from the other. We have not been able today to get through to Paris or London, or of course to Warsaw, though I did talk to Tess in Geneva. At that, no precipitate action is expected tonight. Berlin is quite normal in appearance this evening. There has been no evacuation of the women and children, not even any sandbagging of the windows. We’ll have to wait through still another night, it appears, before we know. And so to bed, almost at dawn.
BERLIN, September 1
At six a.m. Sigrid Schultz— bless her heart— phoned. She said: “It’s happened.” I was very sleepy— my body and mind numbed, paralysed. I mumbled: “Thanks, Sigrid,” and tumbled out of bed.
The war is on!
Shirer, William L.. Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 (pp. 191-194). RosettaBooks. Kindle Edition.
The remainder of the book recounts events up to a few weeks prior to the American entry into the war.