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William L. Shirer

William L. Shirer
Born, 1904, died, 1993

Introduction

One of the most recognized U.S. Americans to visit Nazi Germany, William Shirer perhaps shed more light on the events that led to Hitler’s ascendancy and German involvement in World War II than anyone else from the United States. Although closely watched in Germany, Shirer managed to convey much in his reporting by using subtle phrasing, suggestive tones of voice or U.S. slang unfamiliar to German censors trained only in formal British English. Having lived in Paris and familiar with Central Europe from his days with the Chicago Tribune, Shirer became one of the most respected U.S. journalists in wartime Europe. Selected as one of twelve foreign correspondents to accompany the German army in its 1940 western offensive, for example, he had a scoop on the French-German armistice in Compiegne by hearing over a German sound truck that France would surrender—three hours before even Berlin knew of the French defeat.

 

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 Some excerpts from William L. Shirer's book,
 The Nightmare Years 1930-1940

Labor

Later, for quite different reasons, I had similar thoughts about Robert Ley, who at this time was just emerging into the limelight. Fritz Thyssen, the steel magnate, referred to Ley as a "stammering drunkard" and indeed at one of Rosenberg's Bierabends he did stammer and he was tipsy, though this was not the first meeting at which I bad noted this. His secretary, who thought he was a great man, complained that he was "always drunk." Nevertheless he was not without ability in the crazy Nazi world. Like some of his roughneck colleagues, he got things done.

Son of a poor peasant, reared in oppressive poverty, Ley doggedly worked his way through high school and the university a much more difficult feat in imperial Germany than in America and gained a doctorate in chemistry. Wounded in the war, he taught briefly afterward at the University of Westphalia, served for a while as a chemist for the giant 1. C. Farben Chemical Trust, joined the Nazi party in 1924, and soon thereafter quit his chemist's job to work full time for the party. Hitler named him Gauleiter of Cologne and shortly after coming to power gave him a formidable assignment: to destroy the powerful free trade unions, which had been the bulwark of the Weimar Republic.

To lull the unions before he struck, Hitler proclaimed May Day, 1933, three months after he had taken over the government, to be a national holiday and officially named it the "Day of National Labor." For half a century May Day had been the traditional day of celebration for the German - and European - worker. In every capital of the continent the Socialists, Communists and trade-union workers had staged gigantic May Day parades.

Though Hitler had just destroyed the Communist and Socialist parties and now secretly planned to destroy the unions, he promised the latter that the first May Day under National Socialism would be celebrated as never before. Actually, it was. But not in the manner expected by the lulled union leaders. They were flown to Berlin from all parts of Germany, along with big delegations of workers. And out at Tempelhof Field thousands of banners were unfurled acclaiming the Nazi regime's solidarity with the worker.

Before the massive rally Hitler received the workers' delegates in the ornate hall of the Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse .

"You will see how untrue and unjust," he said, "is the statement that the [Nazi] revolution is directed against the German workers. On the contrary!"

Later in his speech to more than a hundred thousand workers at the airfield, Hitler pronounced the motto of the day: "Honor work and respect the worker." He promised that May Day would be celebrated in honor of German labor "throughout the century."

The next morning, May 2, the trade-union offices throughout the country were occupied by the police, the 5.5. and the S.A. All union funds were confiscated, the unions dissolved and the leaders arrested, beaten and carted off to concentration camp.

Ley, who had led the entire operation, tried to assure the workers with the customary Nazi double-talk.

Workers! Your institutions are sacred to us National Socialists. I myself am a poor peasant's son and understand poverty. . . . I know the exploitation of anonymous capitalism. Workers I swear to you, we will not only keep everything that exists, we will build up the protection and the rights of the workers still further.

Within three weeks the hollowness of such promises was exposed. Hitler decreed a law bringing an end to collective bargaining and outlawing strikes. Ley explained the decree to the country. It promised, he said, "to restore absolute leadership to the natural leader of a factory that is, the employer." Henceforth, he added, the employer was to be "the master in the house."

That fall of my arrival in Berlin, 1934, Dr. Ley was busy setting up the so-called Labor Front to replace the dissolved unions. Like so much in Nazi land, the "Labor Front" was a swindle. It did not represent the workers. It took in not only wage and salary earners, but also the employers and members of the professions. All had to join. It was, I concluded after watching it in action for several years, in reality a vast propaganda organization and, as the workers soon found out, a gigantic fraud. Dr. Ley saw to it that it kept the German workers in line. There were no more demands for increased wages and the threat of a strike to obtain them. Workers, like everyone e]se under Nazism, did what they were told. As in the ea~y days of industrialism, they took what the employers offered them.

Worse than that, they were bound by the state to their place of labor, like medieval serfs. A couple of months after I saw Ley at the Rosenberg evening, in February, 1935, he introduced the "work book," in which was kept a record of a worker's skills and employment. No worker could be hired unless he possessed one. The work book not only provided the state and the employers with up-to-date data on every employee in the nation, but was used to tie a worker to his bench. If he desired to leave for other employment, his employer could retain his work book, barring him from legal employment elsewhere. By 1938 the Nazis instituted labor conscription. It obliged every German to work where the state assigned him.

The German workers, like the Roman proletariat, were provided by the enterprising Dr. Ley with circuses to divert their attention from the lack of freedom and the scarcity of bread. Within the Labor Front Ley created a gigantic organization called Kraft durch Freude ("Strength Through Joy"), which provided the German worker with fun and games for his leisure at bargain rates. It offered, for instance, dirt-cheap vacation trips on land and sea. Dr. Ley built two 25,000-ton cruise ships (one of which he named for himself), and chartered ten others to handle ocean cruises for Kraft durch Freude. They were amazingly inexpensive. A cruise to Madeira cost twenty-five dollars for ten days. On land, vacations on the beaches in the summer and skiing excursions to the Alps in the winter cost eleven dollars a week. Hundreds of beach and lake resorts were taken over for the exclusive use of these worker vacations.

During the next few years I occasionally visited them and once was enticed by Dr. Ley to join a KDF ocean cruise he wanted me to see, he said, how happy the German workers were in the Third Reich. I found life at the resorts and especially on the cruise ships excruciatingly organized. But the German workers and their families seemed to be having a fine time Germans had always been great organizers, even of their leisure. Individuals I talked to expressed pride that for the first time ever a laboring man and his family could afford to take an ocean cruise or loll on the beaches for a week or go skiing in the mountains. Maybe in America, one coal miner said to me, a worker made enough to afford such vacations, but never in Europe, never in Germany.

By giving labor such circuses and, even more important, full employment after the weary, dreary years of unemployment after the war, Hitler, I would come to think, had won the cooperation of German labor despite destroying the unions, depressing wages and making the employer the complete master of his enterprise. The worker, it seemed to me, had been taken in less by Nazi propaganda than any other segment of German society. He was less Nazi. But he went along. He was thankful for a steady job. He enjoyed the new opportunities for leisure provided by KDF. Without his steady contribution as a skilled and dedicated worker, the great war machine which Hitler had started to fashion about the time I arrived in Berlin would never have reached the awesome proportions it did.

I found Robert Ley personally repulsive, though not so much so as Himmler, Ribbentrop, Goebbels and Rosenberg. He was tough, excitable, vulgar a brawling roughneck. He seemed to me to have the instability, the sense of insecurity, that was common to most of the men around Hitler. University-educated though he was, he appeared incapable of making a coherent speech and I must have heard at least a dozen or even of carrying on a coherent conversation.

Probably in the years I bumped into him from 1934 on, when he was building up his incredible labor empire, Ley suffered from progressive brain damage. But I did not know this at the time. Had I known it I could have better comprehended his strange ways. At Nuremberg, after the war, Dr. Douglas M . Kelley, the American psychiatrist assigned to observe the accused major Nazi war criminals on trial there, found that Dr. Ley suffered from organic brain disease that had grown progressively worse over the last few years.

But the old drunk, who had wielded so much power in the Third Reich, was resourceful to the end. He cheated, as did G8ring, the Allied hangman at Nuremberg. He hanged himself in his cell.