“There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is.” – Ari Fleischer, White House Press Secretary, September 26, 2001.
During a cold December day, William L. Shirer, foreign correspondent for CBS, hurries to Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. He wants to catch a plane to take him out of Germany and on to Spain, from Spain eventually to New York City and the safety and security of the United States. Steve Wick’s The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich opens like a taut political thriller. Like Shirer, Wick is a journalist writing history. This gives the book immediacy with a palpable “you are there” quality.
Shirer grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, listening to radio broadcasts of the Great War, his fingers following the routes of the armies on the maps shown in the newspapers. When he graduated from the local Coe College, he set his eyes on Europe. Shirer thought himself destined for greatness and his ambitious proved unflagging throughout his journalistic career. In that career, he went on to work for the Chicago Tribune and CBS. His years in Europe began with hanging around other literary members of the Lost Generation, including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, eventually gaining a lowly position in the Tribune’s Paris office. He worked his way up and then, without warning or cause, got fired. Through happenstance following a year in Spain, Shirer met Edward R. Murrow and worked alongside him at CBS. Following his career as a journalist, Shirer, beset by tough financial times, set out to write The Big Book, what we know today as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
The Long Night spends very little time on the actual writing of that large book. (Relegated to a few pages in an Epilogue.) Instead, the book focuses on Shirer’s years as a foreign correspondent living in Berlin. Once Hitler’s Nazi Party consolidates its power, Shirer faced the challenge of balancing accurate reporting from a totalitarian state and not getting expelled. The balancing act involved dealing with the censors at the Propaganda Ministry. Once the Second World War started, he had to deal with three censors (from the Propaganda Ministry, Foreign Office, and Military). Shirer’s continuous quest to report the truth made him a high-profile target for the Nazis. He saw colleagues expelled and sources vanish. While his commitment to journalistic integrity created a situation where he could get expelled at the merest criticism of Nazi lies and distortion, he felt obligated to perform the balancing act because the United State and the world needed to hear about Nazi atrocities.
Shirer himself proves a rich source of information. An eyewitness to history, he wrote personal diaries from a very early age. Coupled with the Big Book and his later memoirs, we get a variety of perspectives on this momentous time in history. Wick used Shirer’s diaries to reconstruct his life and times. This gives Long Night a clarity and immediacy associated with thrillers and unfazed by the murky nostalgia that sometimes infects popular history books. The Long Night is a short volume for those interested in the daily struggles of a journalist in a hostile state and a doorway to unlocking the interpretations forwarded in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.