I have always admired the writing style of William L. Shirer, who died twenty-three years ago today (December 28, 1993), as well as his judgments, which I used frequently in my annotations of From Day to Day: One Man’s Diary of Survival in Nazi Concentration Camps.
Shirer and Odd Nansen were contemporaries of sorts—Shirer was born two years after Nansen—but whether they ever met while Shirer worked as a foreign correspondent in Europe (1925-1940) or thereafter is unknown.
What is certain is that Shirer knew of Odd’s father, Fridtjof Nansen. In a review of From Day to Day written by Shirer for the New York Herald Tribune in February 1949, Shirer referred to:
“[T]he distinguished Norwegian Arctic explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, who dedicated the last years of his life to helping the refugees–the displaced persons, as we call them now–of the first world war. This reviewer still remembers the old gentleman, with his thick white hair and his lively eyes, stamping around the palace of the League of Nations in Geneva and forcing the harried statesmen of the world to heed him and his endeavors to find homes for the world’s homeless.”
Shirer’s review was one of the many glowing reviews written following the initial publication of From Day to Day in early 1949. Nansen’s diary, Shirer writes, “rises above [WWII’s unspeakable barbarities] and reminds us in never-to-be-forgotten pages how noble and generous the human spirit can be in the face of terrible adversity.”
It is not surprising to see Shirer writing for the Herald Tribune. In Ken Cuthbertson’s biography of Shirer, A Complex Fate, Cuthbertson points out that Shirer was good friends with Irita Van Doren, wife of Carl Van Doren and the highly respected editor of the Herald Tribune’s Sunday book section. Shirer’s by-line at the time describes him only as the author of Berlin Diary and End of a Berlin Diary—his history of the Third Reich wouldn’t appear for more than a decade. At the time of Shirer’s review he had just been forced out at CBS, where he had established a world-wide reputation as one of “Morrow’s Boys,” but was still a year away from being blacklisted during the Red Scare of the McCarthy era. Once blacklisted, practically the only source of income Shirer could still count on was from book reviews.
While The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ultimately re-established Shirer’s reputation (and income), it almost never made it into print. His then current publisher, Little, Brown, turned him down flat. According to Cuthbertson, even in 1955 it was presumed that “people . . . were tired of hearing about Nazis, Japanese imperialism, and [the] Holocaust.” It was only through the intervention of and old journalist buddy, turned senior book editor (at Simon & Schuster) that Shirer was able to find a home for his magnum opus.
The appearance of Rise and Fall proved all publishers’ presumptions about America’s appetite for serious war writing to be unfounded. Within its first year the book went through twenty printings, and it is now estimated that over 10 million copies have been sold.
As I said earlier, having seen all of the famous personalities of World War II up close and in person, Shirer’s judgments have proven both prescient and durable. And here is how Shirer concludes his 1949 book review:
“[From Day to Day] is the moving record of a man who, though he seems to be unconscious of it, is one of the noble and heroic spirits of our barbarous and unhappy time.”