He made the Nazi censors look foolish

John Frost and daughter listening to radio in their home in Tehama County, California, in 1940. (Russell Lee/Library of Congress)

A free press is a threat to tyranny, and Germany’s Nazis understood it well. Shortly after they came to power in 1933, they passed laws to choke what had been a vibrant clamor of views in Germany’s newspapers.

With the German press gagged, foreign correspondents, who had more freedom, served as a crucial conduit for getting information out of Nazi Germany. They had to learn how to navigate the treacherous terrain in Berlin, and also ways around the heavy censorship of their hosts.

William L. Shirer, an American newspaperman and CBS radio broadcaster, was a quick study. Soon after his arrival in Nazi Germany, a senior Nazi press official cautioned him that his job was to report affairs in the country, not to interpret them.

“I soon learned to watch my step. All through my years in Berlin I was conscious of walking a real, if ill-defined, line. If you strayed too far off it you risked expulsion. One soon got the feeling of how far one could go,” Shirer said.[1]

Just prior to arriving in Berlin, the Nazis tossed out Shirer’s friend and fellow American journalist, Dorothy Thompson, for negative comments she had written about Adolf Hitler.

To control foreign journalists, Nazi officials employed a method the Associated Press’ Berlin bureau chief, Louis P. Lochner, called Zuckerbrot und Peitsche — literally sugared bread and the whip — a stronger German variant of the carrot-and-the-stick.

The Propaganda Ministry and the German Foreign Office lavished foreign correspondents with fine wine and food in special clubs and other perks. Journalists deemed sympathetic to the regime often received sought-after interviews with Nazi leaders or tips on upcoming news stories that guaranteed them a front-page story in their home newspapers. If this didn’t work, they resorted to direct intimidation, including Gestapo interrogations, surveillance, arrest, and expulsion.

The AP is a notable case for having come to an accommodation with the Nazis in order to share photos. The wire service shared photos, sometimes supplied directly by the German regime, with its clients, according to both outside researchers and AP’s own investigation. The photos appeared in US papers with the AP credit and no mention of the Nazis. Many more details are available here.

The scripts for Shirer’s radio broadcasts from inside Germany had to pass through three censors, one each from the Propaganda Ministry, the Foreign Office, and the military. Only after the script had been fully reviewed could it be read over the air. Any intimation of Nazi crimes was strictly verboten.

To get around the censors entirely, one could travel to another city, such as London, Geneva, or Paris, to give a radio report, then return. But there were ways to convey crucial information even directly from Berlin. Shirer developed a strategy of using the Nazis own press against them.

“In the Nazi dictatorship,” he later recalled, “there was nothing more effective than quoting Hitler’s own newspaper to buttress your views and expose his.”

Often, he would begin his regular three- to five-minute broadcast by citing a report from the German press, and then use intonation or irony get his point across. For example, on December 10, 1939, Shirer started off with an announcement by SS leader Heinrich Himmler, that two prisoners attacked a guard and escaped from a concentration camp. They were subsequently captured and hanged. Shirer then pointed out the extrajudicial nature of the killings:

“No mention of any trial. I guess in wartime they don’t have trials in such cases, and it’s the first time that I’ve heard of a man in Germany being executed by hanging. Usually a guillotine is used.[2]

Using this strategy, Shirer was able to get information out to American audiences that exposed their brutal actions against Jews and others. He also helped unmask Nazi foreign policy intentions. Following the German invasion and occupation of Poland, he was able to extract news about what was happening to the Jews under Nazi rule from German sources and get it to his listeners. In his September 11, 1939, broadcast from Berlin, he concluded his broadcast with the following:

“Now some may be wondering about those four million Jews [sic] in Poland. I haven’t seen anything in the press about what will happen to them, but the DNB [Deutsches Nachrichtenbüro — German News Office] agency mentions the matter for the first time in a report tonight. It says: We promise the Germans that never again will Polish Jews come to Germany. The solution to the Jewish problem in Poland will contribute to ordered relations between Germans and Poles.[3]

Shirer beat The New York Times to the punch. The “Old Gray Lady” published the story two days later on page 5. In subsequent broadcasts, Shirer indicated that Jews in occupied Poland were being conscripted for forced labor.

In mid-November 1939, Shirer told his listeners that the Nazis were creating “a great ghetto area” outside Lublin, in German-occupied Poland, where Polish and German Jews would be sent. Two days later, he reported that Hans Frank, the German governor-general of occupied Poland, announced that Jews in Warsaw were to be segregated in ghetto because they were carriers of contagious diseases.

But there were stories that even veteran foreign correspondents couldn’t report, because they couldn’t confirm them. In February 1940, Shirer wrote CBS in New York from Geneva, in neutral Switzerland, spelling out the difficulties of reporting from Berlin.

“We have not only political and military censorship of the radio script, but what is often worse, censorship of news at its source. We are not only rarely told anything truthful, but are prevented from getting news ourselves. For instance, we cannot go to Poland to check up on the reports we get from there of German sadism, murder, repression. We indeed have done a bad job on both Poland and Czechoslovakia. Organized German murder in both is one of the most disgusting chapters in this war so far.[4]

Faced with increased censorship, and unwilling to be a mouthpiece for Nazi propaganda, Shirer left Berlin in December 1940. He had clearly worn out his welcome with Nazi authorities. The Propaganda Ministry had gotten wise to his tricks and placed censors familiar with his American idioms, vocal intonations, and irony to review his scripts.

Shirer’s broadcasts, as German officials in the United States reported to Berlin, had been effective in bolstering anti-Nazi sentiment. Some even suspected that he was supplying British and American intelligence with information. Rather than being framed as a spy, Shirer returned to the United States.

It was only then that it became safe for Shirer to report one of his most important scoops, the truth behind the Nazi’s secret “euthanasia” program aimed at murdering institutionalized patients with physical and mental disabilities.

Steven Luckert, Ph.D., is a senior program curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

[1] William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930–1940, (New York: Little, Brown & Co.,1984), 138.

[2] William L. Shirer, “This is Berlin”: Radio Broadcasts from Nazi Germany, (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1999), 158–159.

[3] William L. Shirer, “This is Berlin”, 81–82,

[4] See Shirer’s note to Ed Klauber, CBS newsman in New York, [4] William L. Shirer, “This is Berlin”, 200–201.