First Person Singular

William L. Shirer was born in Chicago thirtyseven years ago, but although he has lived for long stretches in India and Afghanistan (where he lost his health), in the Alps (where he lost the sight of one eye skiing), and in Paris, Berlin, and Spain, he never lost the accent or the common sense of the better-than-average American. Immediately after his graduation from Coe College, Iowa, Shirer ferried over to Europe on a cattle boat to join that corps which, during the Long Armistice, was more adventurous than the Foreign Legion, more candid than the diplomats, more influential than the novelists—that corps which had in its front ranks men like John Gunther, Knickerbocker, Vincent Sheean, William Henry Chamberlin, Walter Duranty, and Douglas Reed. Being younger, Shirer served for a time in the rear ranks. Then in 1937, after twelve years of being shunted from one capital to another, he went into action on his own for CBS. His soft, almost diffident voice coming over the air from Berlin told us directly and by inference and comparison so much more about the Nazis than any other spokesman that we wondered how he did it, how he defended himself within their barriers, and how much more he knew than he could say. Now he gives us his answer, and a superb one it is, in his Berlin Diary (Knopf, $3.00).
It goes without saying that Shirer has had a ringside seat in Europe. That was his job, and his Diary is therefore a close-up of Hitler in the ring. But what really sets this book apart is its revelation of Bill Shirer. At the outset, the reader is attracted to him because of the situation. Here is a young American living in Berlin with his Viennese wife and pegging away in his determination to uncover the truth which lies behind Nazi coercion, propaganda, and brag. But it is not long before we begin to admire his working principles. On page forty-five we begin to see the integrity and indignation with which he confronts Wilfred Bade, one of the fanatics in the Propaganda Ministry, and we recognize the only defense which Shirer has against bullying: he can and did refuse to broadcast, and when, on one occasion, his silence continued for a week, the Germans relented. Meantime another impression is sinking deeper. We see Shirer acknowledge the hypnotism of the Nürnberg rally, the sham of the Olympic Games; we see him note down the deplorable stupidity of the Chamberlain-Henderson diplomacy, the laxity of the French, the recklessness of the Poles, the calculated ruthlessness of the Nazis — and the conviction grows that the diarist is right-minded, that he has an astonishingly consistent grasp of right and wrong. I don’t mean that he is a smart aleck, or that his pages have been retouched throughout with second guesses. He makes mistakes and admits them. But if you identify yourself unhesitatingly with Shirer, it is because he is conscientious and right-minded.
Finally — and this, I think, will make the Diary live — he is a man of letters: he writes with the power and beauty, with the anger and pity, that come straight from the incandescent moments he lived through. He doesn’t deal in venom. He lets the evidence speak, and his stark quotation of the German headlines is one of his most skillful strokes. If we are ever to succeed in breaking down national barriers and in making our common sense felt through Europe, it will be because of Americans like Shirer.
It strikes me as curious that we have had so few good war stories since September 1939. I don’t mean fiction: I mean the literal, masculine truth as told by a fighter who survives. You can count them on the fingers of one hand — that marvelous interview of the gunner’s mate on the destroyer Hardy sunk in Narvik Fjord, the naval account of Dunkirk which ‘Bartimeus’ sent the Atlantic by Clipper, the story of the RAF in the same action which appeared in Life, and, last but not least, the letter about a dogfight over Kent written by Ralph Hope, the Cambridge Blue who crashed before he ever saw his words in print.
But from now on we can expect more of them, and in book form. Surely the most heroic we have yet had from the Battle of the Atlantic is Two Survived. by Guy Pearce Jones (Random House, $2.00), the grim, gallant story of Tapscott (aged nineteen) and Widdicombe — those two British seamen, survivors of the freighter Anglo-Saxon, who somehow managed to keep the spark alive and to resist the easier exit of suicide through seventy parched, delirious days in an open boat. In his stirring introduction, William McFee points out the full implication of those seventy days of thirst and starvation and storm. At the beginning there were seven of them in the jolly boat; at the end, two. And the story of what happened in between is a prodigy of survival, a record of travail, despair, and gentleness, to show that English fortitude at sea today is no less than under Nelson.
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It is hard to know where to draw the line about I Was a Nazi Flier, by Gottfried Leske (Dial Press, $2.50). Would a Flight Sergeant in the Luftwaffe write a diary with one eye on its possible publication? Doesn’t he explain at length and too obviously an indoctrination which I should think a Nazi would take for granted? What about the elements of romance which could so easily have been developed into a novel, the stories of Lieselotte and Else? Is it likely that this same flier would be in on the bombing of London, of Birmingham, and of Coventry? Is the smuggling out of the diary quite clear? And why no affidavits from the Canadian captors, or indeed from anyone along the line?
There are no such doubts about The Airmen Speak (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50). The editors of this book found their source material in some one hundred and fifty broadcasts prepared for BBC by the officers and airmen of the RAF. The stories are of dogfights, of long bombing raids over Germany and Italy, of the grim defense of the Channel, and of the pounding retaliation which was beginning in the winter of 1941. Written anonymously, these sketches have the colloquialism, the understatement, the broad grin, and the cockiness of the individual pilots and bombers who faced first the music and then the mike. These stories are full of life, and so tight-packed with adventures that unless you read closely you may think it was all as easy as falling off a log.
An editor takes particular relish in the new idiom of the air. Language is made when new situations arise and words have to be invented to fit experience. English men and women have been exposed to situations which stun the imagination. That exposure has called out new words and phrases to cope with the horror. A pilot above the clouds calls down to another, ‘Look what’s coming, dearie. Hordes and hordes of nasty Messerschmitts.’ And the answer: ‘Okay, pal. Keep ‘em busy. I’m coming upstairs.’ In the RAF you don’t get annoyed or fed up — you get ‘ browned off.’ In the navy, when you’ve had a few too many drinks, you are ‘half seas over.’ When that happens to you in the RAF you ‘fly one wing low.’ And when a pilot crashes, his loss is covered up by that immortal phrase, ‘He was flying too near the sun.’