Rare is the American home that would openly display a Nazi swastika. One of the few acceptable exceptions is on the black dust jacket of William L. Shirer's epic "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." The journalist-historian, who died last week at 89, helped awaken two generations of Americans to the infamy of the Nazi scourge. The first was the contemporaries of Adolf Hitler, who heard Mr. Shirer's pioneering radio newscasts and read his first book, "Berlin Diary," published shortly before the U.S. entered World War II. The second generation was their children, who had the horrors of the Nazi era brilliantly and eloquently depicted for them in "Rise and Fall" two decades later.
Remembered mostly for his writing on Nazi Germany, Mr. Shirer had a great many other achievements. His CBS Radio broadcasts from Central Europe in the '30s complemented the work of Edward R. Murrow from London. In that pre-television age, both journalists painted vivid word pictures of a continent heading for war. Mr. Shirer consistently was in the right place at the right time. He witnessed the Nazi takeover of Austria and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and was broadcasting from Berlin when World War II broke out. For many Americans he, Ed Murrow and a handful of other CBS reporters were regular companions at the breakfast table,
Earlier, Mr. Shirer chronicled the rise of Mohandas K. Gandhi in India long before many Western journalists discovered the apostle of peaceful resistance. He saw a nice irony in the fact that the two greatest figures he covered were the saintly Gandhi and the despicable Hitler.
After the war and a revisit to an occupied Germany, Mr. Shirer returned to the United States. Among other books was a distinguished work on the collapse of France in 1940 after the German blitzkrieg, which won him added critical acclaim. He continued his broadcasts for CBS Radio, but fell afoul of the Red baiters who were purging the networks and was blacklisted for a decade.
In the post-war years, Mr. Shirer became as sharp-eyed a commentator on his own country as he had been about Europe in the pre-war years. He traveled widely, wrote, lectured to college audiences and gathered material for a series of books on the U.S.
Someone else used the title, "Eyewitness to History," but it belonged to Bill Shirer as well.