After reading the final volume of William L. Shirer’s autobiography, I have to admit one thing above all:
I don’t know if the 21st century will be as bloody and chaotic as the 20th. I’m not sure if it’ll even be as exciting. While I can hope for the latter and hope against the former, more than anything else I can only hope that someone chronicles my century as well as William Shirer did his own.
Yes, my friends, as you can tell I enjoyed the hell out of Twentieth Century Journey: A Native’s Return. The work does have some flaws, but its many strengths more than make up for those. Let me give you an overview of both, along with a journey through this volume in the same fashion I provided for the previous two, and I think you’ll come to the same conclusion.
Most of the positives of Shirer’s earlier works are here as well. He introduced the reader to many of the twentieth century’s biggest names, his prose was adequate (though not outstanding) and clearly conveyed his ideas, and throughout the text he came across as genial, thoughtful, and humane. A drawback here compared to his first volume, The Start: 1904-1930 is that his analysis and exposition on mid to late twentieth century America was not as exhaustive or thought-provoking as his recollections of the century’s beginning. I heartily enjoyed his explanations of the Chatauqua tent movement and his description of Chicago’s criminal underworld during the Prohibition era, but equally heavy exploration of particular aspects of American culture and history was absent in this volume, with the exception of McCarthyism, the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and the Viet Nam War, all of which Shirer examined and condemned at some length. Aside from those, many other great movers-and-shakers of the American cultural landscape, such as the Civil Rights movement, the “Woodstock society,” the rise of television, etc. were given a few pages at most.
A lack of focus on these subjects is forgivable, though (at least in my view) because Shirer wanted to concentrate more on his own life in the final volume of his autobiography. This was, after all, written at the twilight of his life; A Native’s Return was finished in 1988, published in 1990, and Shirer passed away in 1993. It therefore makes sense that Shirer would concentrate most of all on the people and things which were most important to him. And in this respect, he succeeded magnificently. A Native’s Return provides the reader with a penetrating condemnation of mid-century McCarthyism, an affecting yet measured and considerate assessment of the dissolution of his marriage, and, most to my taste, a long series of profoundly moving eulogies to Shirer’s friends, many of whom were the most influential writers living during the twentieth century. Indeed, Shirer’s confrontation with mortality, both of his friends and his own, justified the price of the entire third volume by itself for me, and I’ll discuss why I found his attitudes towards the subject so compelling at the end of this review.
Shirer’s preface and introduction lay out some of his general thoughts on the art of living after over 90 years on the earth, and I particularly liked his musings on technology and religion. They’re also germane to some of the things he’ll discuss later on, so I shall reproduce them here:
“Whether all these ingenious mechanical inventions and their fantastic development during the twentieth century have improved the quality of life and given it more meaning, I doubt. They have certainly liberated men—and especially women—from much drudgery, opened horizons not dreamed of at the turn of the century, and speeded up living to such a frantic pace that I often want to get off the merry-go-round and catch my breath and regain my senses.
All these developments have also improved the standard of living of most people immensely, though tens of millions on earth still hunger and remain homeless, a sizable and disgraceful number in the affluent U.S.A. Most of us, at least in the West, are much better off materially than when I was born, but are we better educated, happier, wiser?” (p. xiv)
Shirer terminated his train of thought with this question, and the reader is inclined to believe his answer was not yes. I am sympathetic with that point of view, partially because it’s so common (the number of intellectuals who are skeptical of the benefits of new technology would be too long to even attempt to list) and partially because, in a general sense, I, too, do not believe in the power of technology, in and of itself, to strengthen the hearts and minds of men. It can give us profound opportunities to do so, but whether or not we take advantage of those is up to us alone.
His general introduction is quite similar to the one in his first volume, with the exception of religion: He expanded on that subject a bit more. Shirer was clearly cognizant of his impending death, and rather than running away from it or showing fear, he seemed to have accepted it with some degree of peace. He noted he lost his faith “in the Christian certainties of the hereafter,” and instead supports the view of Epicurus, that “[f]or the wise man one human life is sufficient, and a stupid man will not know what to do with eternity.” (pp. xx-xxi)
Shirer also had a refreshing amount of appreciation for the perspective his life provided to his writings. Some excerpts from the end of his introduction deserve reproduction here:
“I’ve always felt it was helpful in my understanding of our country to have been born in Chicago and to have begun to grow up there shortly after the turn of the century. Not that there were plenty of other equally interesting and certainly more pleasant places to be born in…Still, it was in Chicago, I think, around the turn of the century, that one could grasp best what had become of America and where it was going. All the boisterousness and the raucausness, the enormous drive to build, to accumulate riches and power, all the ugliness, the meanness, the greed, the corruption of the raw, growing country was exemplified in windy Chicago. Yet some of the poetry of the land and city were there too…The Midwest, too, was not the only good place to begin life, but it gave us something no other region had. It was the heartland…more than any other section, I think, it shaped the American nation and whatever civilization we had.”
And of his time in Europe, when he “yanked up” his American roots, he said,
“Without these direct, immediate experiences I never could have gained at least some understanding of, much less have got the feel of, what happened—and perhaps why—in that troubled time. They helped later in the writing of some history.”
As the old saying goes, it’s best to write what you know, and I suppose the same applies to history. Shirer knew well the Germans and the French and Europe generally, and perhaps that is why he wrote such excellent history of that continent.
Book one of this volume, “A Coming Home: 1945” tells the story of Shirer’s permanent return to America following his long sojourn to Europe. Even then, however, world affairs loomed large in his thoughts. He recalled that “we felt, though, that the planet would never be the same again” after the detonation of two atomic bombs over Japan, and spends a few pages describing the formation of the United Nations. His assessment of his intellectual limitations struck me as endearing; he admitted he was “naïve enough to believe they had learned a lesson from history”, and optimistic enough to think the U.N would do a better job than the old League of Nations, since the leaders of man, bright or not, would have to realize a third world war would annihilate humanity. (pp. 3-10) Though his optimism may have been replaced by pessimism by the time this book was being written, given the fact we’re still here, perhaps it wasn’t entirely misplaced!
Soon after his return home, though, he’d come back to Berlin for a brief visit to see how things had changed. In what would be a recurring theme throughout the narrative, Shirer expressed his disappointment in the Germans and how little they seemed to have learned, claiming “I found no sense of guilt or remorse in Berlin. Nor any resentment against Hitler for having landed them in such a mess. As for the terrible crimes inflicted on the occupied peoples, they seemed indifferent.” (pp. 10-11, Shirer expresses some regret over not reporting more on those crimes on p. 27) There is here, along with some later parts in the book, some repetition of stories Shirer has told elsewhere; he described Hitler’s suicide with words almost identical to those in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler, to take one instance. Still, if you haven’t read those books, you’ll very much enjoy those asides.
You’ll also enjoy, or at least find moving, many of the developments in Shirer’s personal life he detailed in this section. He noted that he came down with the worst case of the flu he ever had while covering the Nuremburg trials, and even worse, his mother died while he was away, so he couldn’t attend her funeral in his condition. He could at least, however, pay her a noble tribute: “She had endured the loneliness of widowhood for thirty-two years after a marriage of less than half that length, never complaining of her fate. She accepted it with grace and wisdom.” (p. 32)
It was very much to Shirer’s credit that he could speak so well, encapsulate so much of the good so succinctly and eloquently, of a loved one who’d passed on. It is a skill he would continue to demonstrate throughout the second half of this volume.
Following the story of his mother, Shirer gave us a glimpse at some of his odder acquantances: Newsmen who’d thrown their lot in with the Third Reich. He told us of William Joyce, the British pro-Nazi nicknamed “Haw-Haw,” Fred Kaltenbach, the fanatical American anti-Semite, as well as Constance Drexel, Charles Flicksteger, Bob Best, and Donald Day. He spoke of most of them quite fairly, in my view, noting that few had gone over to the Nazis for money but had stood up for their beliefs, misguided as those beliefs may have been. (pp. 37-47)
In any case, as 1945 dragged on, Shirer realized that his time in Europe was coming to an end as well, and with the closing of the war and the beginning of reconstruction, he told his wife, Tess, and his daughters, Eileen and Inga, “[t]here would be peace and some decency in the world and we would have it.” (p. 50)
On that note, Book Two starts off happily enough, with Shirer adjusting well to life back at home, enjoying writing columns, broadcasts, and lectures. He had some interesting perspectives on lectures, though, noting that it took him a long time to prepare for them. He also enjoyed debates, as the back-and-forth kept him from getting too puffed up over himself. He was also very happy to see all his old friends from Europe back in America as well and spends several pages on moving tributes to their friendships (he does admit to having some arguments with Dorothy Thompson over the subject of the Germans). He even forged a friendship with the famous Hellen Keller, which, as he noted on page 61, also contributed to his growing interest in Russia (pp. 54-63). Ms. Keller loved his book, Berlin Diary, and he spent much of the next chapter of Book Two describing it and its influence on his life. Shirer told some amusing stories about his experiences writing the book, particularly in saving his diaries and keeping them from the German censors, but I paid particular attention to the conflicts with the Author’s Guild he described along with the massive amount of rage his book provoked among Anti-Semites. While I was already familiar with the chilly reception The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich received in Germany, I had not known that his other books got similar opprobrium in the U.S, and from such unsavory people as well. He noted on page 73 being puzzled by how many anti-Semites thought he was a Jew. (pp. 64-85) I can certainly sympathize there, given how many /pol/ refugees on 4chan will call you a Jewish shill if you don’t believe Hitler was some sort of hero…XD
In the next chapter Shirer continued on with his descriptions of happy family life and his job, starting off by saying “the flattery heaped upon me was embarrassing. I had to keep knocking it into my head that it was superficial, shallow, and meaningless and could be poisonous if you believed in it for one second” (p. 81). Shirer’s refusal to let himself get puffed up always endeared him to me, and I was happy to see that trait expressed up to the end of his life. I was also intrigued by his thoughts on the importance of sound in modern reporting; he criticized CBS for not allowing him to use recordings to display the “sound and fury” of modern warfare (84), and I find their reasoning to be as puzzling as he did. At this point, though, he was more worried about World War III and spent a few paragraphs on a rumor that Russia would invade Turkey in 1946. (87-88)
Shirer’s worries about the Cold War would be subsumed by troubles closer to home, unfortunately. The title of Book Three fits it well: “Ousted by CBS. 1947. The End of a Career in Broadcasting.” It concentrates mainly on two things: Shirer’s run-ins with McCarthyism and the destruction of the friendship between him and Ed Murrow. He first described how the House Un-American Activities Committee had been revived by John E. Rankin, and how the mounting fear of communism contributed to his subsequent departure from CBS. The trouble started on March 10, 1947, where Shirer found out one of his show’s sponsors, a shaving cream company, wanted to take his show off the air in favor of one which would appeal to a younger audience. Shirer was quite suspicious of this because his show still had high ratings, and thought they were dropping him because he was too liberal and people like Congressman Rankin were drumming up more intolerance in American culture. Thus, he went to his boss Ed Murrow, who was also one of his closest friends, for support. However, with little explanation, Murrow just told him he’d be replaced by another commentator! Shirer felt angry and betrayed, and this was the end of the great friendship between him and Murrow. He spends several pages describing that friendship (which readers of the previous volumes may recall), which, at least for me, made this breach even more heartbreaking. At the very least, however, he was able to meet Murrow again before his friend died in 1964. Though they didn’t really dwell on their breach or restore their friendship to what it had been, they managed to bury their animosities, if nothing else. (86-94, 96-120)
Following this, Shirer’s next book is aptly titled, “Down and Out: The McCarthy Years, The Struggle to Survive and to Write and to Publish, 1948-1959.” Things weren’t all bad during this time; Shirer bought a farm in Connecticut and spoke very highly of the healthy upbringing it allowed him to provide his daughters, up to the point they went off to college and got married. Still, he also noted that being blacklisted constantly foiled his attempts to find a new job after leaving CBS, and that McCarthyist thuggry (the return of loyalty tests, the increasing hysteria of anti-Communist rhetoric) and the deepening of the Cold War continued to weigh heavily on his mind. During this period of unemployment he was at least able to begin working on his first novel, The Traitor, and offers a few thoughts on “Writing what you know,” which in Shirer’s case was journalism. (pp. 123-145) In 1950, however, he did get an offer to do some consulting and even a play a small part in a movie about Hitler, and took his family back to Vienna for a short while (he told an exciting—and tragic—story about the city’s great opera hall being destroyed by American bombers in 1945—pp. 148-150). He took the opportunity to return to European politics, discussing how England and France were reacting and adjusting to the post-war world (the former undergoing a social revolution—Shirer had high praise for “socialized medicine”– and losing her empire, the latter dealing with a weak government and de Gaulle’s offer to return to power) and at last giving Germany a bit of credit for democratizing under leaders such as Adenauer and Bundt. (pp. 147-160). Chapter Four of this book concentrates mainly on the Red Scare and the blacklists; Shirer noted that at first he was amused at being labeled in the Red Channels before the situation came home to him with terrible force. He also described his friends’ struggle against McCarthyism; his testament on behalf of his friends John Carter Vincent and Joseph Franckenstein was quite forceful and I was moved by his loyalty. For any historians interested in McCarthyism, I highly recommend Shirer’s account of his struggle against Red Channels in the judiciary system if you need a primary-source story to really demonstrate the fright of coming into the crosshairs of those people during the 50s. (pp. 159-178). Shirer continued to tell us of his woes with joblessness and being blacklisted through the end of this book, noting he was surviving now mainly through lecturing (which on page 191 he admitted could lead to a degree of intellectual laziness). He did meet some famous people during this time, though, most notably Greta Garbo. And while Shirer never met Stalin, he did take note of the dictator’s death. Admirably honest here, Shirer admits he thought Stalin would be remembered as having a “big” place in history when the tyrant died in 1953. However, reading Khrushchev and George Kennan’s accounts of Stalin’s crimes changed his opinion very quickly, and Shirer called Stalin as bad as Ivan the Terrible (p. 198). Following this list of famous deaths, the book closes by providing the reader with a few tantalizing hints of what would finally give Shirer’s family some financial security. He was running out of money (not even being able to replace a furnace in his farm) but was working on a huge book he really wanted to write but was told would not sell. It was his great magnum opus, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and the next part of A Native’s Return concerns itself mostly with the writing of that epic history.
Shirer began by telling us he was well aware of being an “academic outsider.” He asked around and waited for the professors to get to it, though, and none did. He compliments Bullock’s biography of Hitler and Bennett’s book on his rise to power, but none wrote of the Third Reich itself, not even the Germans. At last, he decided to write one himself, and Simon and Schuster, despite their misgivings about the book’s likely popularity, gave him an advance that was enough to live on. Shirer then described the effort of plowing through the incredibly voluminous amounts of primary sources the Germans had left behind, interviewing those he could (such as the sympathetic German general Halder, though Shirer did criticize him and other reluctant Nazis for not standing up to Hitler sooner—p. 312), and his thoughts on history as literature (which I found particularly pleasing; it seems my previous assessment of his writing was just what he wanted to convey). He moved on to the effect of the book when it was published; his happiness at its positive reviews, his joy when it was named Book of the Month, and his responses to its negative reviews. While he admitted the book had flaws, he repeats here what he said in the introduction to it: That many of its academic critics were just jealous of an outsider and nitpicked small, silly things, while the Germans were angry that someone had laid their crimes to light (on page 260 he quotes the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who admitted the Germans had not yet truly understood the freedom their conquerors had given them and did not yet truly belong to the world community of free men).
After The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was finished, however, Shirer was left to figure out what he would do afterwards. Book Six, “The Running Out of Time. 1960-1975” told the story of his professional pursuits and the development of his personal life in the wake of his newfound prosperity. He starts off by describing his troubles trying to write a biography of Hitler for younger readers—I was amused to find that book was indeed The Rise and Fall of Adolf Hitler. Shirer had some piquant thoughts on the importance of not talking down to youths when writing for them. I don’t know if my parents chose to buy that book for me or my brother intentionally, if they did at all, but it seems they chose wisely. It ended up getting one youth interested in history, at least! (p. 263-266) He also told a droll anecdote about his book being optioned up at Hollywood and a touching account of the marriage of his daughter Inga. Alas, his own marriage was disintegrating at the time, and he told us the full story of that unhappy business as well.
Shirer’s treatment of his own relationship troubles struck me as perhaps the most notable testament to his honesty, integrity, thoughtfulness, and humane nature I have found in any of his writings. His foremost concern was for his ex-wife; it seemed to me he took pains to lay the causes of their marital strife at his own feet when his wife would surely have contributed to the end of the marriage in her own ways. Either way, the only thing he said was “[t]here were other causes and their consequences too intimate to expose, ever, to the outside world. I am attempting to keep in mind the words of Shaw that ‘no man is bad enough to tell the truth about himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and his friends and his colleagues. This is especially true about a spouse.’” (p.270) Instead, Shirer went on to describe all of his own failings. In addition to the long periods of time spent away from his wife and children, he had several dalliances with other women, one of whom was the dancer Tilly Losch. Her death caused him personal strain and put pressure on his marriage, but would not break it yet—that would come later. In Chapter 2 he described writing another of his more involved works, The Fall of the Third Republic, which about the fall of the French government during World War II. I’ve never read that book, but after reading about it I think I ought to sometime (277-279). After relating another anecdote about Martha Dodd (she and her family were being harassed for supposed Communist dalliances, as Shirer had been), the author begins his brief overview of the 1960s in chapter 3. He provided us with (in my view) rather amusing opinions on TV and its deleterious effect, noting he was “appalled” at how it became the primary source of news by the 70s and how people no longer spoke to each other at dinner or during gatherings, so occupied were they with “the tube.” He also thought that with the exception of sports, evening news, and occasionally plays or concerts most commercial TV programs were “trash.” He offers up this funny estimation of TV’s effects:
“I gather there is not much general reading, at least of books, in our country anymore. Gazing at the tube has replaced it as it has replaced social conversation. Are the consequences not predictable: A country of illiterate boobs sitting dumbly around the TV set, like ancient cavemen around a fire, unable to communicate or articulate, stupefied by inanities?” (pp. 287-288)
While I’d been aware of his skepticism about technology ever since reading the introduction to this volume, this passage was one of the few, in my estimation, where he really came across as an old fuddy-duddy XD
The rest of the book is far less lighthearted, though. Many of Shirer’s friends and people he knew were passing away. First was President Kennedy, whom Shirer greatly admired and who was assassinated on November 23, 1963. He wrote in his diary that such a tragedy was proof a righteous God did not exist (p. 290). After him was Winston Churchill, another man Shirer admired. Though the journalist disagreed with Churchill’s contempt and animosity towards Gandhi, he respected the politician’s stand against the Nazis. Ironically, Shirer also struck up a friendship with Nye Bevan, one of Churchilll’s political rivals, and mourns his passing five years before Churchill’s. (290-301) Then more and more continued to die—H.G. Well, Rebecca West, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, T.S. Eliot, the German general Halder, and inanimate things too, like The Orient Express and Life. At the beginning of the 1970s, many of Shirer’s personal friends were sharing the same fate—Mark Van Doren, Ed Snow, Jay Allen, and other colleagues of Shirer’s passed in the year of 1972. Making matters worse was the onset of the Viet Nam War, which Shirer fervently opposed. (pp. 302-330) The last of his old friends to die was Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean, and the book ends with a touching list of the many kindnesses the man had shown Shirer, such as notifying him of Gandhi’s death in 1947.
Though he did not dwell on it or say anything explicitly, one can feel almost viscerally the melancholy pervading this section of the book. Readers may feel sorry for the lonely Shirer, but at the same time, this reader, at least, felt a combination of admiration and a tinge of envy as well. Admiration, because Shirer was so clearly a very good and devoted friend to all the people he mourned. If he was able to speak so well and eloquently of them as they passed, I would wager they were as lucky to have known him as he was to have known them. And envy, because he had so many friends, and had befriended so many luminous, famous personalities over the course of his life.
Of course, making so many wonderful friends but ending up being the last of them to go may leave one quite lonely. I imagine Shirer felt this acutely, as Book Seven begins with more on the dissolution of his marriage. It is titled “Past Hope or Fear: Twilight and the Gathering Night, 1975-1988”. He started off by describing his tumultuous relationship with a woman named Gilly, who died at the dawn of 1967, and noted that his dalliances had by this point become intolerable to his wife, Tess. His description of the divorce and its impact were quite painful to me, as I’d imagine they’d be for most men—he notes Tess lying about how much money he sent her, which is something I’ve heard many divorced men go through (p. 341). Yet, at the same time, he admitted, “who was I to complain of lies, I who had lied so often about other women in my life?” He spoke not one ill word of her, instead ending the chapter by saying he would remember Tess for the good times and for raising two wonderful daughters. In short, Shirer was wounded deeply, yet didn’t give in to bitterness and, as the remainder of his book demonstrates, lived the rest of his life quite well.
Despite his divorce, he managed to finish his book on the fall of France. His comparison of the challenges of finding primary sources and documents in France and Germany would be of interest to both historians and laymen fans of his books, as is the description of the reception (scholarly and popular) of The Fall of the Third Republic. Once again, Shirer admitted his book had flaws, but dismissed the academic reviewers who dismissed it for being insufficiently academic. Shirer also told a particularly funny anecdote about giving a lecture on the book at Grenoble, where the interlocutor could not pronounce his name. He also noted the passing of General DuGalle, and reproduced a letter sent by the French war hero praising the book for its objectivity. (p. 367, 345-371)
Following that, Shirer provided a brief but illuminating overview of the 60s and 70s and his thoughts on them. As I stated in the introduction, I wished this section was more robust, but another reason Shirer didn’t say much about American culture at this time was that he was doing so much research for his book on France. Thus, he left the reader with just a few impressions: His approval of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement, his opposition to the Viet Nam War, his support for the youth, Woodstock, and their opposition to the establishment (he castigated the killings at Kent State), and most of all, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s landing on the moon. Shirer also provided his thoughts on Nixon and the corruption of his government, Gerald Ford somehow stumbling into the presidency, and the oil embargo of 1976, which provoked some ruminations in Shirer’s diary of how humanity would have to come to grips with the reality of limited resources (370-382).
Shirer then shared with us the process of writing the memoirs I’ve been reviewing for the past three weeks, along with his conflicts with Simon and Schuster in doing so, as well as some of the reviews he received for his first volume (William Sheridan Allen particularly disliked it—Shirer recounted a telling anecdote in which an elderly survivor of World War II defended him against historians like Allen by pointing out he had witnessed what he wrote about firsthand). In addition to some descriptions of his worsening medical problems, Shirer also provided his thoughts on the 1980s, and spends several amusing pages lambasting president Ronald Reagan. (383-402) He then segued into his growing interested in Russia, his attempts to learn the language, and his particular love of Leo Tolstoy. His views on the changing Soviet culture (particularly under Gorbachev and particularly in reference to Chernobyl) were as informed and historically interesting as those on early twentieth century American culture he shared in The Start. (403-438) After his stay in Russia he went back to visit Germany a final time—he made clear his lack of affinity for those people, along with his understandable reasons for feeling that way, given how little it seemed to him they had changed. I go into this in greater depth in my musings here.
The very last pages of these memoirs are spent on Shirer’s confrontation with death. It seemed to me he had some resignation as he stared at it, but not much fear. As he said, “I find myself keeping too busy writing, reading, gardening, sailing, listening to music, attending the theater and the dance and chewing the fat to think of death. I wonder why so many fear it, even the great Tolstoy, for instance, who dreaded its coming and cursed it for destroying life.” (p. 463)
I think it was a very good thing Shirer could press on so stoically in the face of death, for he took no solace in religion. Pages 465 and 466 describe directly the loss of faith he’d alluded to at earlier points in his memoir; the atrocities he’d witnessed made him disbelieve in a loving God and his experiences with Gandhi made him doubt the exclusivity of Christian salvation. He did wonder how the universe came into being, but admits he never thought about it much when he was younger. (pp. 460-467) But in the end, he didn’t care that much about the question. As the sand in his hourglass nearly ran out, Shirer was content to say nothing but this:
“It was a complex fate, maybe,” as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as ‘the ugly Americans.’ Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.”
Those are wonderful words, I believe, with which to leave a life very well-lived. And if Shirer was glad for his fate, I am glad as well to have read his account of it.