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Two Men in Europe

ISSUE:  Autumn 1941

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941. By William I,. Shirer. Alfred A. Knopf. $3.00. Men and Politics: An Autobiography. By Louis Fischer. DuelI, Sloan and Pearce. $3.50.

The fact that a war party exists in the United States has long been evident. Such a party has existed not only since the outbreak of the war of 1939; it existed even during the period which preceded that event. This is fundamentally true in spite of certain potential confusions and necessary qualifications. Thus, for example, the members of the war party, though they are certainly not more favorable than the isolationists to war as such, are inevitably accused of being warmongers; for they favor vigorous prosecution of the present war. Their strong support of collaboration or even of active participation in the war is in turn due in considerable measure to their belief in the importance of an Allied victory and of the defeat of Hitlerite Germany; and yet it is not fair to push too far the implication that every “appeaser” is positively an advocate of a German victory.

There is not the slightest doubt but that the size of the interventionist camp in America has been growing both absolutely and relatively. This growth has had its principal source in the large body of indifferent or undecided persons whose convictions have tended to crystallize as realization has become clearer that America is immediately affected by the world crisis. For this and other reasons, the interventionist party is composed of somewhat heterogeneous elements, varying in strength of conviction, in outlook, and in policy. Not the least interesting manifestation of this situation is to be seen in the fact that the attitudes of both original and converted interventionists towards the Hitlerite menace and towards the future (on the assumption of J-Iitler’s defeat) tend in some cases to be essentially negative, in others more positive.

To call one tendency in interventionist attitudes negative by no means necessarily involves adverse criticism. Persons who display this tendency have for the most part merely simplified their position. They have become convinced primarily through the startling evidence of Hitler’s actions. They recognize that to defeat him appears nearly impossible; but they feel that to accept victory by him is wholly impossible. They see a new era of peace as essentially a period in which Germany, by means of thorough conquest, of disarmament, or even of dismemberment, will be rendered incapable of undertaking again world domination. Advocates of a more positive position would accomplish the same end through heroic striving for a new world order marked by political, social, and economic co-operation and freedom. Hence they envisage positive participation in the war as necessarily and properly taking sides in a conflict of relentless world forces at death grips. Considerations of this kind are at the root of the essential difference between the two recent outstanding contributions by American journalists to our understanding of the European scene—William L. Shirer’s “Berlin Diary” and Louis Fischer’s “Men and Politics.”

Mr. Shirer’s book can be easily characterized. A sincere, shrewd, and courageous reporter entertainingly sets out an uncensored account of the observations he was able to make and of the impressions he formed in Germany, first as newspaperman and later as radio commentator, during a stay in Berlin extending from August 1034 to the end of 1940. Radio listeners of the period in America often chuckled at the impressions Mr. Shirer succeeded in conveying while reading a censored script with a Nazi agent behind him, looking over his shoulder. All such listeners must have seen in Mr. Shirer’s technique something more than the quality, however intriguing and understandable, of a schoolboy’s mischievousness. They must have seen even more than personal courage. They must have seen something which is still more clearly implicit in Mr. Shirer’s book—a high degree of professional integrity.

Mr. Shirer was from the beginning instinctively anti-Nazi. This would have been likely though not certain to be the case with any average young American. But, other aspects of the matter aside, Mr. Shirer’s interest in freedom of expression and his flair for vigorous search after the truth collided head-on at all times with the evil thing that is the Nazi system. In these circumstances, his trained incisive-ness reduced matters to a clear and simple issue. “The crying problem of Europe, I am beginning to think,” he recorded early in 1940, “is not Communism or Fascism—is not therefore social. It is the problem of Germanism.” And he added that until that problem should be solved there would be “no peace in Europe.” About five months later, he set down his profound conviction, based on his mingling with the Germans for years, that they were wholly unfit for the position in Europe to which they have aspired.

It is in no wise derogatory of Mr. Shirer to recognize that his almost sole concern with the country in which he was located gives simplicity to his account. In this simplicity, and a corresponding clarity, lies great strength. It would be difficult to improve on his expression of his relatively few total judgments. Thus, for example, he says by way of one summary: “The primary cause of the Continent’s upheaval was one country, Germany, and one man, Adolf Hitler.” So far as the future is concerned, he observes that he was “rather inclined to agree” with the judgment of a German woman, one of the most intelligent persons of his acquaintance, that the only solution genuinely favorable to the Germans would be “another defeat, even another Peace of Westphalia (which split up Germany into three hundred separate states).” On another occasion, after recording a talk in Geneva with Mr. Winant, who discoursed on ultimate reconstruction and on future measures calculated to cope with maladjustment, with unemployment and deflation and depression, Mr. Shirer asserted: “Personally, I cannot look that far ahead. I cannot see beyond Hitler’s defeat.” All else, Mr. Shirer continued, seemed secondary; and yet, to his credit, he concluded by conceding that “undoubtedly it is a good thing that some are taking a longer view.”

It is the supreme virtue of Louis Fischer’s autobiography that it covers a vast field without leaving any impression of superficiality. The proportions of the book are, it is true, formidable. This is doubtless inevitable in the case of any work which seriously attempts to deal with the “Men and Politics” in the recent history of all the principal powers of Europe. The wonder is that so much could be compressed within the limits of one book.

The key to Mr. Fischer’s success in spreading wide without spreading thin is to be found in the implications of an observation which occurs about midway in his book. “There can,” he writes, “be no divorce between foreign policy and domestic conditions.” Mr. Fischer himself is an exceedingly thorough and unusually penetrating student of the internal situations which condition international relations. In his conclusions, there is much of profound judgment, of easy generalization none.

The prevalent practice of treating international relations as “current events,” with all the connotations involved, results in a superficiality which is to be criticized not merely from an academic point of view. Generalizations about France and Germany and England and America, which are after all abstractions, are, it is true, both cause and effect of mental habits which manifest little affinity with intellectual discipline; and yet dangers are involved that far transcend the bounds of educational theory. Mr. Fischer would probably say that one exceedingly serious consequence of divorcing foreign policy and domestic conditions is the likelihood of falling into a position of thoroughgoing determinism.

This, in turn, is to play into the hands of the forces of evil against which Mr. Fischer wields such an able lance on the side of democracy; for the dictators wish nothing better than to see the view prevail that their activities are the working of destiny. Mr. Fischer manifestly much prefers what the late Mr. Justice Cardozo referred to as “a robust common sense which assumes the freedom of the will as a working hypothesis.” Thus Mr. Fischer writes: “To regard anything in politics as inevitable is a fatalism which ignores the dynamic laws of society. Man is not entirely free, but within broad limits he can affect and alter his fate.” This conclusion Mr. Fischer urges in the international as well as in the national sphere. He sees nothing inevitable about what was the outcome in Abyssinia, in Spain, at Munich, or elsewhere. The only thing certain was that “retreat in the face of Fascist aggression encouraged further Fascist aggression,” and that “a succession of surrenders to the totalitarian dictators” necessarily ended in a “major catastrophe.”

Mr. Fischer does not hesitate to assert that the outbreak of the war and much of its subsequent course were wholly in keeping with contentions which had been made by the Left. This is, he says, no case of “hind sight.” On the contrary, “the Left foresaw what actually happened.” Indeed, the issue that persisted throughout was one between Left and Right; and this more particularly took the form of an issue between collective security, which was a matter of “common sense,” and appeasement, where “class hatreds and economic prejudices” asserted themselves. Mr. Fischer has no patience with the view that appeasement was necessitated by military unpreparedness. On the contrary, it was, he asserts, “not a matter of a weak arm but of a weak brain and a weak will.”

In the matter of sad reflection on mistakes that belong to the past, Mr. Fischer’s favorite example is that of Spain. He envisages the future primarily in terms of Great Britain. He conceives that the deep-running issue between Left and Right injects itself at all points. He cites with relish the Archbishop of York who dismissed as “impenetrable stupidity” the remark of a Tory M. P. that nobody was “interested in anything but beating Hitler.” Mr. Fischer expresses his agreement with Herbert Morrison that the war is “an international war” and “concurrently a civil war.” In this context, he feels that “the shape of the peace to come, assuming Hitler’s defeat, will be determined by the extent of the social victory within Great Britain.” As a solution, he concludes that “a new social order and a new international organization must be evolved which will make Kaisers as well as Hitlers, Czars as well as Stalins, Chamberlains as well as Poincares forever impossible.”

As in the case of Mr. Shirer’s diary, there is in Mr. Fischer’s solid autobiography a minimum of what is personal about the author. On the other hand, there is in a different sense much of Louis Fischer. Whereas Mr. Shirer in his book expressly eschews “editorializing,” Mr. Fischer in his introduces a great profusion of epigrammatic judgments. These judgments, together with the rare scraps of information of a personal character, suggest that Louis Fischer is a man of exceedingly wide experience and unusual understanding, of deep feeling, and of great sincerity and genuine humaneness. It is heartening to observe so marked a lack of cynicism in one who has experienced so much that is disappointing and disillusioning. His attitude towards matters personal, and even national and international, would seem to be epitomized in an observation concerning his humble origins, made with manifest sincerity and striking restraint. “A long, intimate acquaintance with poverty,” says Louis Fischer “killed my dread of it. In later years, I could always reduce my needs to my means and I never craved security. But life as I had seen it could certainly stand improvement. Especially did I feel that society has an obligation to help us overcome the accident of birth. It does so often, but not often enough.”


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