“On that day I myself finally got to the front. I caught up with the German Sixth Army, pushing the surrounded Allied forces, British, Belgian, and French, west and southwest of Brussels, toward the Panzer divisions that had just reached the sea behind them.
“The initial sight of the destruction of modern war appalled me.
“What guns and bombs [I wrote in my diary that night] do to houses and people . . . to towns, cities, bridges, railroad stations and tracks and trains, to universities and ancient noble buildings, to enemy soldiers, trucks, tanks and horses caught along the way!
“It was not pretty . . . Take Louvain, that lovely old university town, burned in 1914 by the Germans in their fury, and rebuilt—partly by American aid.
“In shambles it was. The great library of the ancient Belgian university, rebuilt by the donations of American schools and universities after the first war, was completely gutted—a sickening sight. We poked through the still-smoldering ruins. I noted down the inscription on some of the stones. UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER. PHILLIPS ACADEMY, ANDOVER. UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS. They were among the many who helped rebuild the university’s library, now once again destroyed.”
– William Shirer, The Nightmare Years 1930-1940, page 508
This passage in William Shirer’s memoir, written from the perspective of an American foreign correspondent chasing the story of the invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France by the German Army on May 17, 1940, has always left a deep impression on me for several reasons.
First, there is the impression of the stark brutality and destruction that modern warfare inflicts upon its victims. Shirer does not mention bloody details, but his listing of infrastructure and human victims from his diary allows the reader’s imagination to supply details where his pen does not.
Second, there is Shirer’s connecting history to what he sees. The German rape of Louvain in 1914, in which the cultural treasure of the university library was needlessly destroyed, not only set the tone for the barbarity to come in the Great War but also sets a clear marker in Shirer’s eyes for what will happen in this war.
Third, again connecting the present scene to history, is Shirer’s observation in the rubble of how Americans came to aid the destroyed library at Louvain after the first war, which the United States was drawn into in 1917. The implication that Americans will not be able to escape the escalating war Shirer sees in 1940 hangs on the horizon of his account.
For the modern student of history, there is also the knowledge of what will happen, invisible to Shirer in 1940, in his first sentence. The mighty German Sixth Army was triumphant in France, but over two years later the Sixth Army was completely decimated at the battle for Stalingrad. Of the 250,000 soldiers of the Sixth Army surrounded by the Soviets in the “kessel” in November 1942, only approximately 5,000, or 2 percent of the entire army, would survive to return to Germany a decade after the war’s conclusion.
And lastly for the student of history there is a lesson in historiography present in the passage. For 15 years after World War II ended, there was little scholarship produced to analyze and explain why Hitler, Nazi Germany, and World War II had occurred. Having personally witnessed Hitler’s attainment of power, the realities of the Nazi regime, and the rising war fever emerging from Berlin in the 1930s, in 1960 Shirer published his The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. While historians have corrected and added much to the story, Shirer’s account remains a classic that firmly placed the story of Nazi Germany and World War II before the general public, and has contributed to keeping interest in these events alive to this day.
Note: This is the first of two posts about Shirer's wartime memoir. Read the second here.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.