Journalists from neutral countries still had a considerable degree of freedom to report independently from occupied Europe. American reporters had greater freedom than most to take an openly critical line.
Soon the United States would line up in support of Britain. This would make the situation of her otherwise neutral journalists increasingly difficult, long before Hitler declared war on America.
William Shirer was making a name for himself as he gathered stories close to the heart of the Nazi regime. Now he scored a considerable scoop by witnessing the French surrender in Hitler’s carefully choreographed Armistice ceremony:
…It is now three three twenty p.m. and the Germans stride over to the armistice car. For a moment or two they stand in the sunlight outside the car, chatting. Then Hitler steps up into the car, followed by the others. We can see nicely through the car windows.
Hitler takes the place occupied by Marshal Foch when the 1918 armistice terms were signed. The others spread themselves around him. Four chairs on the opposite side of the table from Hitler remain empty. The French have not yet appeared. But we do not wait long. Exactly at three thirty p.m. they alight from a car. They have flown up from Bordeaux to a near-by landing field. …Then they walk down the avenue flanked by three German officers. We see them now as they come into the sunlight of the clearing.
…It is a grave hour in the life of France. The Frenchmen keep their eyes straight ahead. Their faces are solemn, drawn. They are the picture of tragic dignity. They walk stiffly to the car, where they are met by two German officers, Lieutenant-General Tippelskirch, Quartermaster General, and Colonel Thomas, chief of the Fuhrer’s headquarters. The Germans salute. The French salute. The atmosphere is what Europeans call “correct.” There are salutes, but no handshakes.
Now we get our picture through the dusty windows of that old wagon-lit car. Hitler and the other German leaders rise as the French enter the drawing-room. Hitler gives the Nazi salute, the arm raised. Ribbentrop and Hess do the same. I cannot see M. Noel to notice whether he salutes or not.
Hitler, as far as we can see through the windows, does not say a word to the French or to anybody else. He nods to General Keitel at his side. We see General Keitel adjusting his papers. Then he starts to read. He is reading the preamble to the German armistice terms. The French sit there with marble-like faces and listen intently. Hitler and Goring glance at the green table-top.
The reading of the preamble lasts but a few minutes. Hitler, we soon observe, has no intention of remaining very long, of listening to the reading of the armistice terms themselves. At three forty-two p.m., twelve minutes after the French arrive, we see Hitler stand up, salute stiffly, and then stride out of the drawing-room, followed by Goring, Brauchitsch, Raeder, Hess, and Ribbentrop. The French, like figures of stone, remain at the green-topped table. General Keitel remains with them. He starts to read them the detailed conditions of the armistice.
Hitler and his aides stride down the avenue towards the Alsace-Lorraine monument, where their cars are waiting. As they pass the guard of honour, the German band strikes up the two national anthems, Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles and the Horst Wessel song. The whole ceremony in which Hitler has reached a new pinnacle in his meteoric career and Germany avenged the 1918 defeat is over in a quarter of an hour.
William Shirer was not supposed to be at the site of the Armistice at all, all other foreign journalists had been sent back to Berlin. Shirer had the help of a German unsympathetic to Hitler to get to the site and to witness the proceedings. He went on to outwit the Germans who permitted him to make a recorded radio broadcast of the Armistice terms, that they insisted would be played only after the Germans had made their own broadcast. In a spectacular scoop he managed to get a live link to CBS while he was in the studio waiting to make the recording, persuaded the engineer present that he had permission to do this, and broadcast the news a full six hours ahead of the Germans.