William L. Shirer and World War II: My Quickshot Review of The Nightmare Years

The second volume of William Shirer’s autobiography is titled Twentieth Century Journey: The Nightmare Years, 1930-1940. It starts off where his first volume left off, almost—he doesn’t go into much detail on his time in India, since he already wrote about his experiences there in Gandhi: A Memoir. It rather begins in Kabul, where he did some work on the way back to Europe from India, then describes his years in Europe, where he really built his reputation.

I liked this volume, but not as much as I liked the first volume or the next (A Native’s Return). The first reason for this is just personal preference. The first and third volumes of Twentieth Century Journey center around America and American life, which I’m particularly interested in. The Nightmare Years, however, focuses primarily on Europe. So if you want more European rather than American history, I can recommend this to you heartily, you’ll like it better than I did (though, as I said, I still enjoyed it!). More importantly, though, a lot of what he wrote here wasn’t new to me. I’d actually read much of it before in The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Many of his descriptions of important Nazi personages and the early parts of the war (Chamberlain’s “appeasement,” the fall of Czechoslovakia and Poland, Blitzkrieg, etc.) are quite similar in Shirer’s magnum opus and The Nightmare Years. Heck, some quotes seem to come straight from his earlier books, like this one:

“What surprised me at first was that most Germans, so far as I could see, did not seem to mind that their personal freedom had been taken away, that so much of their splendid culture was being destroyed and replaced with a mindless barbarism,or that their life and work were becoming regimented to a degree never before experienced even by a people accustomed for generations to a great deal of regimentation.” (p. 147).

The almost exact same quote can be found here at the very beginning of the chapter “Life in the Third Reich” in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Now, we can’t really blame Shirer, since that paragraph captures life in Nazi Germany so well it makes sense to reuse it more than once. And generally, there would obviously be a lot of overlap between the history of Germany he wrote about and his own history. (1) However, for someone who’d already read Rise and Fall, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of originality. If you haven’t read Shirer’s other books, this likely won’t be much of a problem for you.

With that out of the way, allow me to discuss what I liked about this book, and there’s quite a lot I liked! The strengths of the first volume continue to shine in this one; Shirer has a knack for intertwining large-scale history with his own personal narrative. The history of Afghanistan in the first book of this volume he provides is quite exhaustive and illuminating, interspersed with tidbits about his time as a correspondent there, particularly some extremely exciting tales of some of his close shaves, such as getting shot at by enemies of a sheik he was interviewing. He also provides some interesting, skeptical musings on the Biblical creation story and offers a report of losing his job which struck me as one of the few times in his memoirs he really gets angry at someone. Halfway through the first book he mentions his marriage to Tess Shirer—he never really goes into much detail about their romance, though I guess this makes sense given their later divorce ;_; He does talk about his time in Spain in great detail, though, which was fantastic. He and Tess actually lived in the same house as the great guitarist Andre Segovia for a while, and anyone interested in music will love the stories Shirer told of him. The last part of this book concerns his return to France, once again intertwining some great analysis of French history (I particularly liked his description of the French government’s reaction to the Great Depression, the infighting between its political factions, and especially its calls for a government of “technicians” on pp. 85-86) with riveting personal stories. He had yet another close shave with death in 1934, where he was almost shot (the bullets missed him and hit a woman nearby) watching a riot on the Place de Concorde. The government’s lenient treatment of the rioters inspired an interesting question he posed at the time:

“Were the western democracies in an increasingly totalitarian world becoming too soft or too stupid or too tried to defend themselves and the freedoms and decencies they had won and maintained for their people?” (p. 104)(2)

The next book, “Life in Berlin” concerns Shirer’s reporting of the Nazi party’s rise to powers. As I mentioned above, most of this will be familiar to readers of Shirer’s other books, but there is more than a bit of original content here too, enough to make it worth reading. Shirer spends several pages on Martin Niemoller, describing the man’s beliefs and the status of Christianity in Germany with a sensitivity and respect even though Shirer was not a believer himself. He also tells the heartrending story of the struggle to save the life of a Jewish poet, Hirsch, and how it tragically failed in the end. After that (along with a series of interesting pictures depicting Shirer and life in the 3rd Reich—there are many pictures in these volumes, all of them worth looking at) there’s a personal aside of Shirer’s describing the vacation he took to see his old mother, which I found quite touching. This return to his homeland prompted some more interesting musings I’d like to reproduce:

“I had been happy in 1929 to get out of the country again and back to Paris. Now, in 1935, after a fortnight in New York, I was restless to leave and get back “home”—even if home had become Berlin. This feeling still puzzled me. Why was it, I wondered, that we Americans were so rootless that after a few years abroad we felt strangers to our homeland? This could not be true of the English, French, Greeks, and others. In due time I would come to feel that we Americans who worked abroad were really strangers in the countries in which we worked. We never quite mastered the language. We never quite slipped into the native way of life. We continued to be foreign observers. When that realization came, I knew what I would eventually do: go home. Before it was too late, I hoped.(3)

Midway through this book, at the beginning of its second and end of its first chapter, there are a few more interesting notes. Shirer’s thoughts on the Olympics he covered are fascinating and perceptive, and there’s also another funny aside about his first faltering attempts to write a novel. His thoughts on writing fiction from a journalist’s perspective are worth reading for any writer, IMO. The first part of this book ends with a description of the Hindenburg disaster, which Shirer barely missed—yet another exciting episode in what strikes me as a very exciting life. (4)

Highlights of the second half of this book include the story of the birth of Shirer’s daughter, masterfully entwined on pages 289-295 with Hitler’s conquest of Austria happening at the same time, a funny story about a technical mix-up before a broadcast, a piercing condemnation of how the Viennese gave in to Nazi anti-semitism (p. 324) and several interesting quotes. First is Shirer’s thoughts on journalism:

“Not often, it seemed to me, in anyone’s life, anywhere, in any time, had there been such an opportunity to watch at first hand a mighty surge of history approaching its climax and threatening to envelop the earth.” (p. 281). This is followed by Thucydides’ famous quote on being of an age to understand the war he witnessed and wishing to write down its records.

Then there’s an anecdote on pages 300-302 which nicely illustrates Shirer’s caring, sensitive nature.  He mentions being unable to score a story about the cessation of Austria to Germany because the German guards wouldn’t let him into an area, and then rebukes himself, realizing that the Austrians had suffered a far greater misfortune than he. Shirer generally comes across as more likable in The Nightmare Years than he did in the first volume of his autobiography.

Finally, in one of his rare moments of self-adulation—but in this case very deserved, in my view—he allows himself to muse on the impact of radio broadcasting and his hand in it:

“Ed Murrow and I, I think I can say, helped radio news broadcasting abruptly come of age. We arranged and put on air the first world news roundup ever. From that hasty development sprang the principle of broadcast news—first over the radio, then over television—as we have known it ever since.” (303)

Quite true. While I’m not a historian of radio and television, as far as I know Shirer’s program was the first “broadcast” news which we’re all familiar with. He and his boss were close friends, but they had a falling-out, which will be covered in his next volume ;_;

The end of this book, and much of the next (The Coming of World War II) is similarly much the same stuff I already read in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Once again, though, there are some interesting highlights. Upon describing Hitler’s designs on Poland, Shirer described the Poles as a “delightful, utterly romantic people” (p. 371) which I very much agree with; my best friend growing up was Polish <3. After that, the narrative turns to Rome, where Shirer went to cover the illness of Pope Pius XI. Once again, despite being an unbeliever, Shirer writers about Catholicism with understanding and grace, and also provides an excellent history of Italy and Mussolini’s rise to power. There’s also an adorable family story on pages 411-413 when Shirer takes another vacation back to the U.S, and when he returns to Europe, and extremely exciting story of his first-hand coverage of the Battle of the Scheldt (511-517). Historians might also find his attempts to get around German censorships of his broadcasts interesting—there’s a great story about it on page 591.

The volume as a whole ends in 1940, with a brief epilogue detailing Shirer’s reactions to the Nuremburg trials. I guess he skipped over World War II because he went back to America in 1940, which meant that the World War he described in Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was no longer part of his personal history and therefore needn’t be included in his autobiography.

So, overall, while I didn’t find Volume II to be quite as compelling as Volume I, all that is due more to personal reasons than anything else. People coming in with a different reading background will almost certainly enjoy The Nightmare Years as well. I highly recommend it!


1: See books “Life in Berlin” and “Road to Berlin” along with corresponding chapters in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The quote I refer to comes from page 231 of my edition of the latter.

2: Pp. 1-101, 13, 32-34, 55, 57.

3: pp. 225, 227-228, 230-240.

4: 230-240, 261-262, 266-67.

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