William L. Shirer on "This I Believe"
William L. Shirer was one of the great pioneers of broadcast journalism. His work in print and on radio before and during World War II earned him wide renown. In 1940, he delivered an eyewitness report on Adolf Hitler's arrival at the Second Armistice at Compiègne Forest in France.
Shirer delivered this essay as part of Murrow's "This I Believe" radio program on November 26, 1951:
A Reporter Quotes His Sources
EDWARD R. MURROW: This I Believe. The more a reporter sees, the more he learns about life and about himself. William L. Shirer has seen a great lot of what has happened to the world and to the people in it in our time. His Berlin Diary was one of the first documents to impress on us the enormity of the plague inflicted on civilization by a man named Hitler.
Bill Shirer is a distinguished foreign correspondent, author, and lecturer, but he has another side: a simple homespun side springing from a boyhood in Illinois and college days in Iowa. This is the background against which he states his convictions.
WILLIAM L. SHIRER: It's rather difficult in these noisy, confusing, nerve-wracking days to achieve the peace of mind in which to pause for a moment to reflect on what you do believe in. Though it is a thing we live by, and without it, without beliefs, human existence today would hardly be bearable. In my own case, there were two experiences in particular which helped to shape my beliefs: years of life and work under a totalitarian regime, and a glimpse of war. There's so little time and opportunity to give it much thought—though it is the thing we live by; and without it, without beliefs, human existence today would hardly be bearable.
My own view of life, like everyone else's, is conditioned by personal experience. In my own case, there were two experiences, in particular, which helped to shape my beliefs: years of life and work under a totalitarian regime, and a glimpse of war.
Living in a totalitarian land taught me to value highly—and rather fiercely—the very things the dictators denied: tolerance, respect for others, and above all, the freedom of the human spirit. A glimpse of war filled me with wonder not only at man's courage and capacity for self-sacrifice, but at his stubborn, marvelous will to persevere, to endure, to prevail amidst the most incredible savagery and suffering.
When you saw people—civilians—who were bombed out, or worse, who had been hounded in the concentration camps or worked to a frazzle in the slave-labor gangs—when you saw them come out of those ordeals of horror and torture still intact as human beings with a will to go on, with a faith still in themselves, in their fellow man, and in God, you realized that man was indestructible. You appreciated, too, that despite the corruption and cruelty of life, man somehow managed to retain great virtues: love, honor, courage, self-sacrifice, compassion.
It filled you with a certain pride just to be a member of the human race. It renewed your belief in your fellow men.
Of course, there are many days in this age of anxiety when a human being feels awfully low and rather discouraged. I myself find consolation at such moments by two means: trying to develop a sense of history, and renewing the quest for an inner life.
I go back, for example, to reading Plutarch. He reminds you that even in the golden days of Greece and Rome, from which so much that is splendid in our own civilization derives, there was a great deal of what we find so loathsome in our life today: war, strife, corruption, treason, double-crossing, intolerance, tyranny, rabble-rousing. Reading history thus gives you perspective. It enables you to see your troubles relatively. You don't take them so seriously then.
Finally, I find that most true happiness comes from one's inner life; from the disposition of the mind and soul. Admittedly, a good inner life is difficult to achieve, especially in these trying times. It takes reflection and contemplation; self-discipline. One must be honest with oneself, and that's not easy. You have to have patience and understanding. And when you can, seek God.
But the reward of having an inner life, which no outside storm or evil turn of fortune can touch is, it seems to me, a very great one.
MURROW: That was William L. Shirer, father of two children, Connecticut farmer, and a reporter recently turned novelist, but most of all a citizen of integrity who believes that even in these anxious times, men will not only survive but progress if they don't break faith with themselves.