Berlin Diary by William L. Shirer

I decided to read William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 because I’d read that it gave insight into how Hitler fooled the world during the 1930s. Shirer was a CBS radio correspondent in Berlin from 1934 (the year after Hitler came to power). His most famous work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, came later than the book I’m discussing here. Berlin Diary contains Shirer’s diary entries from the time, written with the intention of publishing them later. They do provide an inside chronicle of Hitler’s lies, but in my opinion the book is far too long (over 600 pages) for what I learned. In the latter parts of the book I was eager to be done with it. Admittedly, I already knew much of what happened from reading biographies of Winston Churchill and Hitler, among other things.

I’ve always been interested in the appeasement of Hitler that took place during the 1930s. Europe allowed Hitler to build up Germany’s military (in violation of the treaty that ended World War I) and take over various countries, initially with just the threat of violence. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe cut back their militaries, leaving them completely unprepared for World War II when it came. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is primarily remembered for that appeasement, particularly for saying he’d achieved “peace in our time” after the Munich Agreement in 1938. In that agreement the European powers agreed to let Hitler take over part of Czechoslovakia (he’d already taken over Austria without opposition). Shortly after that Hitler took the rest of Czechoslovakia. Within a year he’d invaded Poland and, it finally being obvious that the appeasers had been wrong, Britain declared war on Germany. Hitler invaded Western Europe shortly after that.

It’s one of the great lessons of history that people could be so oblivious to something that seems so obvious in retrospect. I believe Hitler was able to get away with his lies because people wanted to believe them. They wanted to see no evil and hear no evil because they were afraid of another World War. They were willing to do anything for peace, and it ended up costing tens of millions of lives. If they’d merely stood up to Hitler his own people probably would have killed him (and they came close a couple of times).

Winston Churchill was one of the few voices in the 30s that warned about Hitler. I remember an anecdote about it. When you say you “stand for” a particular issue, that term comes from the British Parliament. There, to vote on an issue the members would leave the chamber and stand in different adjoining rooms to be counted, each room representing “yea” or “nay.” Winston Churchill put forth a motion to censure Hitler and was the only member standing in one room to pass it… until one young member said “I can’t bear to see the old man stand alone” and went and stood with him.

I read that anecdote in William Manchester’s biography The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940. That’s my recommendation if you want to learn about appeasement. I also recommend the first volume of that three-part series, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874-1932. Unfortunately, the final volume, covering World War II and later, was finished by someone else after Manchester’s death and is inferior in my opinion.

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