William Shirer was an American journalist who found himself at the heart of unfolding history in Nazi Germany, both in print and on the radio for CBS. In September of 1934, just one month after Hitler assumed the title of Führer, Shirer attended the Nuremberg rally, where an astounding 700,000 Nazi Party supporters gathered for a grand display of unity and force. In his diary after the rally’s first day, Shirer attempted to put into words the spectacle he had witnessed—a heady mix of religious fervour, nationalistic symbolism, and carefully orchestrated theatrics that signalled the terrifying potential of mass manipulation. A mere five years later, this momentum culminated in Germany’s invasion of Poland, an act that marked the beginning of World War II.
The Diary Entry
I’m beginning to comprehend, I think, some of the reasons for Hitler’s astounding success.
Borrowing a chapter from the Roman church, he is restoring pageantry and color and mysticism to the drab lives of twentieth-century Germans. This morning’s opening meeting in the Luitpold Hall on the outskirts of Nuremberg was more than a gorgeous show; it also had something of the mysticism and religious fervor of an Easter or Christmas Mass in a great Gothic cathedral. The hall was a sea of brightly colored flags. Even Hitler’s arrival was made dramatic. The band stopped playing. There was a hush over the thirty thousand people packed in the hall. Then the band struck up the Badenweiler March, a very catchy tune, and used only, I’m told, when Hitler makes his big entries. Hitler appeared in the back of the auditorium, and followed by his aides, Goering, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler, and the others, he strode slowly down the long center aisle while thirty thousand hands were raised in salute. It is a ritual, the old-timers say, which is always followed. Then an immense symphony orchestra played Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. Great Klieg lights played on the stage, where Hitler sat surrounded by a hundred party officials and officers of the army and navy.
Behind them the “blood flag,” the one carried down the streets of Munich in the ill-fated putsch. Behind this, four or five hundred SA standards. When the music was over, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s closest confidant, rose and slowly read the names of the Nazi “martyrs” brown-shirts who had been killed in the struggle for power—a roll-call of the dead, and the thirty thousand seemed very moved.
In such an atmosphere no wonder, then, that every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high. Man’s—or at least the German’s—critical faculty is swept away at such moments, and every lie pronounced is accepted as high truth itself.
It was while the crowd—all Nazi officials—were in this mood that the Führer’s proclamation was sprung on them. He did not read it himself. It was read by Gauleiter [Adolf] Wagner of Bavaria, who, curiously, has a voice and manner of speaking so like Hitler’s that some of the correspondents who were listening back at the hotel on the radio thought it was Hitler.
As to the proclamation, it contained such statements as these, all wildly applauded as if they were new truths: “The German form of life is definitely determined for the next thousand years. For us, the nervous nineteenth century has finally ended. There will be no revolution in Germany for the next one thousand years!”
Or: “Germany has done everything possible to assure world peace. If war comes to Europe it will come only because of Communist chaos.” Later before a “Kultur” meeting he added: “Only brainless dwarfs cannot realize that Germany has been the breakwater against Communist floods which would have drowned Europe and its culture.”
Hitler also referred to the fight now going on against his attempt to Nazify the Protestant church. “I am striving to unify it. I am convinced that Luther would have done the same and would have thought of unified Germany first and last.”
William Shirer’s diaries are kept at the George T. Henry College Archives at Coe College. In 1941, they were published by Alfred A. Knopf with the title Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941.
- Footage of the 1934 Nuremberg Rally (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum)
- William L. Shirer at Wikipedia
- Shirer’s obituary in the New York Times in 1993
Diary entry excerpted from Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941, first published in 1941 by Alfred A. Knopf. © 1941, renewed 1968 by William L. Shirer; Reprinted by permission of Don Congdon Associates, Inc.