William L. Shirer

William L. ShirerUnlike his counterpart, Ed Murrow, Bill Shirer was born in a large city, Chicago, and was raised for his first nine years in a rather intellectual family. His father had been a U.S. Attorney and was a man with populist ideas. Friends with Clarence Darrow, who was a frequent guest in the Shirer household, Shirer's father was constantly espousing on the likes of John Dewey and Theodore Dreiser. But very quickly, Bill Shirer's world would change. At age nine, his father suddenly died and Shirer's mother, now with little money, moved the family to his maternal grandmother's home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But because of his previous life in Chicago, Bill Shirer came to dislike the squeaky-clean life he lived in Iowa.

The lack of money only allowed Shirer to attend Coe, a small Presbyterian school in Cedar Rapids. He found it boring, but became the editor in his senior year of the school's newspaper, the Cosmos, which he promptly used as a forum to eschew bourgeois lifestyles. In one of his editorials, “Thousands for Athletics; Why Not a Few Shekels for Literature?” he argued for support of a student literary publication. While at Coe, Shirer met Dr. Edward R. Burkhalter, who happened to be a neighbor. According to the broadcaster, he wrote:

“Over the back fence which separated his garden from ours, we talked for hours over the years…to widen my reading, he did succeed at least in making me take note of some of the subjects of his scholarly pursuits. To my untutored mind they were formidable. Like all great scholars, he carried his learning easily, and he was tolerant of my intellectual limitations.”

Upon graduation in 1925, he took off for Europe where he was able to garner a job with the Paris Tribune. Beginning as a copy editor, he relished his life in Paris at this time. It was a time of ferment in the city of Lights. He found himself in constant discussions with his friend James Thurber as they talked of Hemmingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald all of whom were there.

In 1927, he became a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, which owned the Paris Tribune. He was sent to other parts of the world such as India to cover Gandhi in a series of interviews and Afghanistan reporting on their new King. But soon, with the depression forcing companies to reduce staff, Shirer soon found himself out of a job. He was rescued by the Paris Herald, the French branch of the New York Herald, which offered him a job back on the copy desk, for which he had no choice if he wanted to remain.

Within a few months, opportunity came knocking in a position in Berlin with the Hearst Universal Wire Service. For it he covered the rising Nazi's as they paraded at Nuremberg. He continued to cover the rise of Hitler and the increasing hate of Jews all of which alarmed Shirer. But by 1937, the Hearst Wire service was being shut down and Shirer once more found himself out of a job. Coincidentally, he had received a note from Ed Murrow asking to have lunch with him.

Murrow was trying to establish CBS as a news organization and felt hiring a print journalist would add even more credibility to the task. Shirer, out of work at the time, accepted even though he did not feel he had the voice for broadcasting. Paul White, Murrow's boss felt the same way, but Murrow prevailed.

Shirer's work with CBS is a standout. His inate knowledge and dogged journalist sense allowed him to get to the heart of what was happening to the people of Europe, especially Germany, in light of Hitler's rise. He was able to ferret out a story and reported with not only the people's comments, but with some wit of his own. As Nazi power increased, Shirer was increasingly in danger and had to be careful how he reported the news. On the eve of the start of European War in 1939, Shirer found himself in Berlin. Three days, August 28, 1939, before the invasion of Poland, he reported [Click for Sound] on events at that time. Then again after Germany had invaded Poland and was making fast work of taking over that country, he reported [Click for Sound] on the status of things on September 9th.

When Hitler began to invade Western Europe, Shirer continued to cover events from Berlin. By June 21st, 1940, Nazi Germany took Paris and Hitler wanted a signing of the surrender of France to be held at Compienge using the same rail car that the French had used when they defeated Germany at the end of The Great War. Shirer went to Compienge to report [Click for Sound] on the events.

Eventually, he had to escape Germany wherein he returned to the USA and began reporting news and commentary on his own news program in New York. He eventually left CBS and broadcast journalism and began working on several books detailing his own experience (Berlin Diary) in Germany. His most famous work was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which reports in details how the Nazis came to power, and how they ultimately fell from grace.


Shirer, William L., Berlin Diary; New York, Little, Brown & Co., 1941.
Shirer, William L., The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; New York, Simon & Schuster, 1960.
Cloud, Stanley & Olson, Lynne, The Murrow Boys, New York, Houghton-Mifflin, 1996.
William L. Shirer, Coe College History web page, http://www.public.coe.edu/historyweb/alumni_shirer_william.htm