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Shirer’s roots in Connecticut

When William L. Shirer’s publisher announced in the summer of 1961 that his history of Nazi Germany, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” had become the first $10 book to sell 200,000 copies, Shirer’s plumber paid him a visit. “He thought that with $2 million in my pocket, I might be interested in some new plumbing for the house,” Shirer told me when I interviewed the best-selling author in his Torrington home in October 1961. Shirer said he explained to the entrepreneur that the publisher took a good part of the $2 million for going to the trouble of printing and promoting the book, so the plumbing might have to wait. “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” would become one of the best-selling histories of all time, eventually allowing Shirer to replace not the plumbing, but the house. He soon moved to Lenox in the Berkshires and lived there until his death in 1993.When I interviewed him nearly 50 years ago for a piece in what was then The Hartford Courant’s Sunday Magazine, Shirer was a courteous, soft-spoken man of 57, who pleased a 28-year-old reporter immensely by autographing my copy of his book, “With best wishes to a colleague.”Shirer and his monumental history are the subject of a new book, “The Long Night,” by Steven Wick. It’s an account of the career of the journalist who was half of the CBS news team reporting from Europe from the 1930s through the first years of World War II and the book he wrote about those years. Edward R. Murrow covered Great Britain and Scandanavia while Shirer was responsible for the rest of the Continent.“It isn’t generally remembered,” Shirer said in 1961, “but until the Anschluss” — the German annexation of Austria — “CBS didn’t permit Ed and me to broadcast the news. Before 1938, we had to find newspapermen to broadcast for us. CBS didn’t want its employees expressing an opinion or even a fact over the air from Europe in those days.” Murrow gained a place in history with his stirring broadcasts from the rooftops of London while Nazi bombs fell on the city. Shirer was everywhere else — in 1938 Vienna for the forced unification of Austria and Germany; in Munich for Neville Chamberlain’s “peace in our time” appeasement of Hitler; in Prague when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia; with the German army as it roared across Belgium and into France; in Paris after its fall and in the railroad car in the Compiegne forest where Germany had surrendered in 1918 and Hitler staged France’s 1940 surrender. Shirer recalled all of that and more in the 1,200-page book that was rejected twice before Simon & Schuster reluctantly agreed to print a modest 20,000 copies, with 7,500 of them going to Great Britain.“Don’t ask us to publish a book entitled ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’” Alfred Knopf, the publisher of Shirer’s first bestseller, 1941’s “Berlin Diary,” told him, in rejecting his request for an advance to write what New York Times critic Orville Prescott would call “one of the most important works of history of our times.” Shirer wrote most of the book in a barn behind the modest Torrington farm house where I saw him soon after he had won the National Book Award and the book was completing a year at the top of the bestseller lists. The Book of the Month Club edition alone would eventually sell nearly a million copies.The author attributed the book’s great success to two generations, the one too busy fighting the war to learn at the time why it had to be fought, and mine, the millions who grew up during the war and bought the book to know more about the event that defined their childhood. Many years later, I was to enjoy something of a follow-up to Shirer’s story about his plumber. Not long after I retired in 1998 and began writing this column, a plumber working at our home in Riverton was kind enough to tell me he recognized my name from the column he read every week. He observed that there had always been a lot of writers living in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut, some of them quite famous.“Years ago,” he said proudly, “that World War II writer, William L. Shirer, was a customer of mine.” Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at dahles@hotmail.com.

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