The Words of War

In William Shirer's war memoir, two foreign correspondents walk in a Berlin park and share a farewell drink as a global inferno nears ignition.  

“Two or three times I had tried to slip past the censors a story of the new crisis in Russo-German relations but they had cut it out. It became obvious to all of us correspondents that it was a touchy subject and that Hitler wanted nothing written about it—yet. Ralph Barnes, who had returned from his post as chief correspondent of the New York Herald Tribune in London to cover the campaign in the West from the German side, decided nonetheless to cable a story about Hitler and Stalin beginning to fall out. Ralph had been the Herald Tribune’s correspondent in Moscow before coming to Berlin, knew Russia and the Russians well, and got his story mostly, I suspect, from contacts in the Soviet embassy in Berlin. Hitler was furious. He ordered Ralph’s immediate expulsion. I had got back to Berlin from Geneva in time to see Ralph off. We were close and old friends ...

“The day before his forced departure Ralph and I had a long walk in the Tiergarten, the last of many we had taken in that green refuge over the years. He was depressed at being kicked out, not being sure his newspaper would understand it, and resentful for being ousted for writing what he was certain was the truth. I tried to console him. He had more guts than the rest of us in trying to get a big story through. The threatened breakup of the collaboration between Hitler and Stalin, who we were sure hated each other’s guts, was important news. It would affect the course of this war. In the meantime, I reminded Ralph, he could go back to London and cover the biggest story he had ever had: the German invasion of England. I probably would have to be reporting it from the German side.

“We adjourned to the Adlon bar, as so often before, and had a farewell drink. The next day Ralph was off. Four months later he was killed in a British bomber returning over the fog-shrouded mountains to a base in Greece after a raid on the Italian lines in Albania.”

– William Shirer, The Nightmare Years 1930-1940, pages 550-551

This passage from American radio correspondent William Shirer describing the expulsion of his colleague Ralph Barnes from Germany in the summer of 1940 is memorable, I think, for several reasons.

First is the evergreen importance of freedom of speech, often identified as the freedom from which all others flow, and the central freedom at issue for the two reporters. Americans often forget that our First Amendment protections for speech, press, assembly, and religious worship legally do not extend into the sovereignty of foreign nations—and the control of information was a first principle of the dictator states controlled by Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler. It is interesting to note how Shirer related that Barnes was depressed because he was certain he was telling the truth—and as we know today, he was.

The second element of Shirer’s passage that makes it interesting is how the two reporters were certain that Hitler and Stalin literally hated each other, hatred that flowed from their ideological convictions. Students often asked me in the past why Hitler and Stalin were able to murder millions of people, and I replied that Hitler and Stalin both show the importance of ideas in history, that ideas and beliefs matter. Both dictators in the end truly believed in their racial and Marxist class-warfare philosophies of history, and believed that their ideological goals justified whatever human cost was endured as the means to achieve their historical ends.
The last element that makes the passage memorable is the shocking, unexpected news of Ralph Barnes’s death just a few months later in Albania. Those brief sentences convey much more about the state of the world than just Hitler’s censorship. The reader is brought into the reality of an expanding world war—Barnes was flying in a British plane attacking Italian lines in Albania after Mussolini ordered the invasion of that nation in October 1940. His death is indicative of the uncertainty of dangerous times, as the student of history no doubt will recall that the inferno of World War II had much greater theaters to ignite:  Hitler would double-cross Stalin and invade the Soviet Union only a year after Shirer and Barnes had their last drink together.

Note: This is the second of two posts about Shirer's WWII memoir. Read the first 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 Huxen

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.    

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