March 15, 2023

1943. The Babyn Yar Massacres

"Blood at Babi Yar: Kyiv's Atrocity Story"
"In liberated Kyiv, Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. From left to right: Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28. (Photo by A. Ioselevich / No. 8718, Siberia Photo Service)."*
The Babyn Yar (Babi Yar) ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine is the site of some of the worst massacres of the Holocaust and World War II. The first and largest was carried out in September 1941 over a 36-hour period during which German forces executed 33,771 Jews. Over 100,000 more Jews, Romanis, Ukrainians, and Soviet prisoners of war were murdered there over the next two years until the Soviets retook Kyiv in late 1943.

Bill Downs wrote an article for Newsweek in 1943 titled "Blood at Babii Yar – Kiev's Atrocity Story," in which he recounted the second visit to the site taken by a group of American, British, and Soviet reporters. New York Times correspondent Bill Lawrence was in the same press party, and wrote an article titled "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed." The two accounts are featured below.

From Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22:


The following story was cabled by Bill Downs, Newsweek and CBS Moscow correspondent:
The first foreign witnesses this week returned to Moscow from what are probably the most terrible two acres on eartha series of desolate ravines in the Lukyanovka district three miles northwest of Kiev. The name Babii Yar is going to stink in history. It is the name of the main ravine where the Russians estimate between 50,000 to 80,000 people were killed and buried during the 25 months of the German occupation. From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era occurred there between September 1941 and November 1943.

The press party was led by the Ukrainian author and poet, Nikola Bazhan. The Ukrainian Atrocities Commission called three witnesses to meet us at the ravine. They were Efim Vilkis, 33, Leonid Ostrovsky, 31, and Vladimir Davidoff, 28all Jewish prisoners of war held in a prison camp across the road. Vilkis did most of the talking, interrupted occasionally by the other two. The first act in the tragedy took place in September 1941, a few weeks after the Germans captured Kiev. One day they ordered all Jews to report at the Lukyanovka district and bring their valuables with them. Thousands of men, women, and children marched out to Lukyanovka, thinking they probably would be evacuated. Instead, Nazi SS troops led them to Babii Yar.

At the wide shallow ravine, their valuables and part of their clothing were removed and heaped into a big pile. Then groups of these people were led into a neighboring deep ravine where they were machine-gunned. When bodies covered the ground in more or less of a layer, SS men scraped sand down from the ravine walls to cover them. Then the shooting would continue. The Nazis, we were told, worked three days doing the job. However, even more incredible were the actions taken by the Nazis between Aug. 19 and Sept. 28 last. Vilkis said that in the middle of August the SS mobilized a party of 100 Russian war prisoners, who were taken to the ravines.

On Aug. 19 these men were ordered to disinter all the bodies in the ravine. The Germans meanwhile took a party to a nearby Jewish cemetery whence marble headstones were brought to Babii Yar to form the foundation of a huge funeral pyre. Atop the stones were piled a layer of wood and then a layer of bodies, and so on until the pyre was as high as a two-story house.

Vilkis said that approximately 1,500 bodies were burned in each operation of the furnace and each funeral pyre took two nights and one day to burn completely.

The cremation went on for 40 days, and then the prisoners, who by this time included 341 men, were ordered to build another furnace. Since this was the last furnace and there were no more bodies, the prisoners decided it was for them. They made a break but only a dozen out of more than 200 survived the bullets of the Nazi Tommy guns.

As substantiating evidence, while walking over the mass graves, I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skull with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework.

The most persistent question that presents itself is why the Nazis took such pains to cover this tragedy. Previously, the Germans made little effort to conceal their pogroms in any occupied territory. If in their retreat they intend to try to cover their crimes, this represents a new and significant policy which presupposes the possibility of defeat. The United Nations declaration regarding war criminals, which closely paralleled Soviet announcements on war crimes, thus can be said to have had its first real effect.
"'Babi Yar,' where the Germans carried out mass executions. (Photograph by A. Ioselevich / No. 8717 Siberia Photo Service)"* [The photograph is of the press party being taken through the site].


The Russians took great care not to damage Kiev, their most beautiful city. That was one reason why the first break-through bridge was built dozens of miles upriver. By outflanking them from the northwest, they forced the German withdrawal. There was no fighting in Kiev and the Germans for the first time did not have time to do their usual job of complete demolition.

Yet practically one-fourth of the city has been destroyed, either by Red Army scorched-earth actions or by the Germans. The city's main street, the Kreshchatik, is completely in ruins. However, there are many blocks of apartments and buildings intact. The Germans had a complete municipal organization ready to take over the city at the time the Reds retook it. The plans even included renaming streets such as Doctor Todt Strasse and Horst Wessel Strasse.

The Soviet government reached a new high in efficiency in reestablishing Kiev's municipal government. Before Kiev was taken, food stores and sanitation squads established a dump as close as possible to the city. They then quickly moved in. City and regional Soviets were established shortly after the reoccupation. Bakeries were set up and banks opened.

Today Kiev looks like an ancient city suddenly occupied by pioneers. It is not uncommon to see workmen packing pistols, and you get used to seeing women, some in fur coats and stylish hats, with rifles slung across their backs. But it is a city of old women and children. The strong and healthy have been exported as slave labor to Germany.
Bill Lawrence's Account

From The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3:

Soviet Atrocity Group Hears Nazis Machine-Gunned Victims in Sept., 1941
Prisoners of War Forced to Build Pyres Were Shot to Destroy All Evidence

KIEV, Russia, Oct. 22 (Delayed) — Kiev authorities asserted today that the Germans had machine-gunned from 50,000 to 80,000 of Kiev's Jewish men, women and children in late September, 1941 and, two years later—when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army seemed imminent—had forced Russian prisoners of war to burn all the bodies, completely destroying all the evidence of the crime.

This was the story told to the Kiev Atrocity Commission and to a group of British, American and Russian newspaper correspondents after having visited bleak Babi Yar, a deep ravine northwest of Kiev, where the massacre was alleged to have occurred. The story was told by three Russian soldiers, who said they had participated in the burning of the corpses and had escaped from the Germans, and by Paul F. Aloshin, chief architect of Kiev. No witnesses to the shooting appeared before the atrocity commission or talked with the correspondents.

On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us. It is the contention of the authorities in Kiev that the Germans, with characteristic thoroughness, not only burned the bodies and clothing, but also crumbled the bones, and shot and burned the bodies of all prisoners of war participating in the burning, except for a handful that escaped, so that the evidence of their atrocity could not be available for the outside world.

Remaining Evidence Is Scanty

If this was the Germans' intent, they succeeded well, for there is little evidence in the ravine to prove or disprove the story. We did see a few isolated bones, including a skull and some matted hair, a shoulder bone and an arm, a gold tooth bridgework and some spots on the ground which we were told had been made by the blood of prisoners shot by the Germans after the burning of the bodies of Jewish victims had been completed. There were spectacle cases, handbags and other evidences of things left in Babi Yar. Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there.

Before the war, Kiev had a Jewish population of more than 100,000 in a total population of more than a million persons. Among the estimated 70,000 total population of Kiev today, there are said to be very few Jews.

This is the story as we heard it. Mr. Aloshin, who was the correspondents' guide on our first day in Kiev, took us out to Babi Yar and told us how on Sept. 28, 1941—nine days after the German Army took Kiev—all Jews in the city were ordered to report to the Lukyanovka district, bringing with them their most valuable possessions. Mr. Aloshin said the Jews went expecting that they were to be evacuated. Instead, they were met by German troops, who ordered them into the ravine, where they were directed to give up their valuables. Part of their clothing also was removed. Then, according to the city architect, they were placed on a platform, machine-gunned and thrown into the ravine.

Mr. Aloshin said that war prisoners were required to bury the bodies. Some of the victims were only wounded, but were buried anyway. The job of shooting and burying the Jews took several days, he said.

Eyewitnesses Tell Story

Mr. Aloshin said the story had been told to him by a German architect, who boasted of the deed, but, said Mr. Aloshin, when Kiev's recapture by the Red Army became imminent, the Germans decided to remove the evidences of their crimes because of the lessons learned by the Russian discoveries of the Stalingrad and Kharkov atrocities, and they ordered the bodies burned.

Correspondents who heard Mr. Aloshin's story requested Soviet authorities to provide them with eyewitnesses to some of the crimes charged against the Germans. Accordingly, on the following day, in company of Mikola Bojan, Ukrainian poet and Vice Commissar of the Ukrainian Soviet, the correspondents were again taken back to Babi Yar, where the atrocity commission was meeting, and where they heard the stories of Efim Vilkis, 33; Leonid Ostrovsky, 31; and Vladimir Davidoff, 28, who said they were Soviet soldiers who had been captured by the Germans and forced to take part in the disinterment and burning, and who were among the handful of prisoners who escaped.

The principal witness was Vilkis, an Odessa-born Jew who before the war was a freight loader in Kiev. He was a prisoner in the German concentration camp just across the road from Babi Yar, and he told how on Aug. 14, 1943, all prisoners were lined up and 100 selected by the German authorities for an undisclosed task.

Vilkis said these prisoners were taken under heavy guard across the road to Babi Yar. He said they thought they were there to be killed by the Germans. These prisoners were shackled together and told to remove their shoes and hats and strip themselves to the waist.

Then, Vilkis said, they were put under the command of S. S. troops headed by a major general and told to start digging in the ravine. This digging continued for several days, he said, without uncovering anything. Then, Vilkis continued, a German officer who had participated in the original shooting came to the scene and told the commanding officers that they were digging in the wrong place. He directed new digging operations at another place in the ravine and soon they began uncovering bodies.

Ostrovsky and Davidoff listened intently to Vilkis' story, interrupting occasionally to offer corroboration or to provide additional details. The three showed correspondents wounds on their legs caused by leg shackles.

Vilkis said that as the work of uncovering the bodies continued, other prisoners were sent to a near-by Jewish cemetery, where marble grave markers were removed and brought to Babi Yar, where they formed crude stoves. The prisoners then carried the bodies of the Jewish men, women and children and laid them on the marble foundations. More than 100 bodies comprised each layer. On each layer the prisoners were forced to place wood, and then another layer of bodies. When the first stove was filled, gasoline was poured and a fire started, but did not burn well because of lack of draft.

Vilkis said the Germans then sent another group of prisoners back to the cemetery, where the iron railing around the graves was removed to make grates. In the second attempt, the bodies were placed farther apart, and the burning was successful.

Each pyre took two nights and one day to burn.

He said the work of destroying the bodies continued from Aug. 19 to Sept. 28.

During the burning, he said prisoners who became sick or went mad were executed by the Germans in the presence of other prisoners. He said that every day three to five prisoners were shot.

When the work of burning the corpses was completed, they knew then that the Germans intended to kill them and burn their bodies so that there would be no witnesses to the atrocity.

Vilkis said that he and a group of other prisoners had decided to escape. He said that in going through the clothing of disinterred Jews, they had found a few keys, including one that a prisoner who had been a locksmith was able to use to open the door of their dugout. The prisoners loosed their shackles, and on the night of Sept. 28 they decided to make a break for freedom.

By this time the number of prisoners working had been increased to about 300. As they dashed out of their dugouts, German sentries armed with machine guns poured bullets into the groups.

Vilkis said that only a very few had escaped, but he did not know the exact number. He said that he, Ostrovsky and Davidoff found shelter near a cement factory near by, where they remained in hiding until the Red Army took the city Nov. 6.
Members of the press party some time later in Rzhev being led by Soviet officials, 1943.
The Press Party's Reactions

Unlike some of their counterparts on other fronts during the course of World War II, Moscow-based foreign correspondents were not allowed near the front lines; their movement was restricted and their reports were subjected to heavy censorship. Reporters relied frequently on government news sources for important military updates and information, and press trips around Moscow and surrounding areas were directed by watchful state officials.

As the Soviets made major territorial gains in 1943, foreign correspondents were able to visit liberated cities, concentration camps, and massacre sites and see the devastation firsthand—but censorship continued to pose a major challenge. Downs wrote in 1951:

During my stay in the Soviet Union, the government had the excuse of military security to fall back on. However, it is my belief that fear and suspicion are as much a part of the Russian censorship policy as security. There is another quality that is embraced in censorship policy too. This is pride. For example, we had many long arguments with the censors concerning the reporting of military casualties. The government wanted absolutely no mention of them. Our argument was that the world—and particularly Russia's allies—should know the sacrifices the nation was making in fighting the war. But the attitude of the censor was that a Russian killed in battle somehow reflected on the national honor. There was a constant watch on copy to stop anything—be it a humorous story or what—that might possibly reflect on the Russian "honor."

Although the trips to the liberated areas remained as they were before—carefully orchestrated guided tours—they afforded reporters an opportunity to see for themselves the actual scale of the Holocaust, to speak to survivors and witnesses, and to inform readers and listeners at home and abroad exactly what had taken place.

The press party visited Babyn Yar shortly after the area's liberation. According to Deborah Lipstadt (1993), some of the correspondents were skeptical about the death toll, while others questioned whether the murders took place at all. Several considered the incredible scale of the massacres to be implausible. Joan Peterson (2011) addresses the reactions of Downs and Lawrence specifically:

. . . Both men were part of a group of British, U.S., and Russian newspaper reporters who, along with the Kiev Atrocity Commission, heard the account from three Russian prisoners of war who had been forced to participate in the corpse burning in 1943 and later managed to escape from the Germans. The articles differ in tone. Lawrence's is guarded. Given the paucity of evidence after the destruction of the corpses, he stated, "On the basis of what we saw, it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us." Downs, however, wrote, "From what I saw, I am convinced that one of the most horrible tragedies in this era of Nazi era atrocities occurred there." Both men were taken to the ravine where they related slightly different versions of the few scattered bones, shoes, spectacle cases, and bridgework that they observed. Spots of blood on the ground were explained as made by the prisoners who had been shot after they completed their grisly task. (Only a dozen or so prisoners managed to escape out of the 200-300 prisoners forced to do this work.) Where Lawrence used terms such as "isolated" and "scanty," Downs said, "As substantiating evidence, . . . I saw bits of hair, bones, and a crushed skill with bits of flesh and hair still attached. Walking down the ravine, I constantly came across shoes, spectacle cases, and in one place found gold bridgework." Lawrence, however, added, "Freshly excavated earth in the floor of the ravine left no doubt that something had happened there."
.    .    . 
Successive writers would draw from the words used in both depictions. Lawrence described the site as "Bleak Babi Yar." Downs called the site "probably the most terrible two acres on earth," "a series of desolate ravines," and he said that "the name Babi Yar is going to stink in history." Downs used the word "tragedy" three times. It can be surmised that Lawrence's account contains a measure of disbelief at the magnitude of the action; Downs' one of shock and distress. Both responses are consistent with how many people first absorbed reports of Nazi atrocities. 

Deborah Lipstadt is highly critical of the reporting by Lawrence and Toronto Star correspondent Jerome Davis in particular:

By this point the Nazi threat to "exterminate" the Jews should have been understood as a literal one. There was little reason, in light of the abundance of evidence, to deny that multitudes were being murdered as part of a planned program of annihilation. But despite all the detail there was a feeling among some correspondents, New York Times reporter Bill Lawrence most prominent among them, that the reports that Hitler and his followers had conducted a systematic extermination campaign were untrue. Lawrence did not doubt that Hitler had "treated the Jews badly, forcing many of them to flee to the sanctuaries of the West"; but even in October 1943—ten months after the Allied declaration confirming the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews and six months after Bermuda—he could not believe that the Nazis had murdered "millions of Jews, Slavs, gypsies. . . . and those who might be mentally retarded."

His skepticism permeated his story on Babi Yar. Though he acknowledged that there were no more Jews in Kiev, their whereabouts he simply dismissed as a "mystery." Lawrence's report surely left even the least skeptical reader unconvinced of the Babi Yar slayings.

.    .    . 

Equally skeptical about the reports of mass murder was Jerome Davis of Hearst's International News Service and the Toronto Star. Neither Lawrence nor Davis seemed able to accept the idea of a massacre, much less of a Final Solution.

Davis's and Lawrence's doubts would have been more understandable had their colleagues who visited the site with them manifested the same suspicions. But they drew markedly different conclusions. Bill Downs, who was Moscow correspondent for CBS and Newsweek, was convinced that one of the "most horrible tragedies in this Nazi era of atrocities occurred there." Henry Shapiro of United Press, Maurice Hindus, a special correspondent for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and Paul Winterton of the BBC all described the flesh, human bones, hair, shoes, glass cases, and even gold bridgework they found in the dirt. Lawrence and Davis, who saw the same things the other reporters found, could not believe that they represented the remains of thousands. Though neither Lawrence nor Davis suggested it, it was obvious that they both believed that these items could have been placed in the sand by those who wished the reporters to believe that such things had happened there. 

.    .    . 

Despite subsequent reports further confirming the disappearance of the Jews from cities and towns throughout Europe, Lawrence maintained his "built in skepticism" for a long time. If someone such as Lawrence, a seasoned reporter for the most important and influential American newspaper and one who had the chance to visit the site and talk with witnesses, remained so riddled with doubt, it is not surprising that the American public, which depended on the press to bring it the news, tenaciously clung to its skepticism. As we shall see, Lawrence was far from alone. In fact many of those in the highest and most powerful echelons of his profession maintained their skepticism for another year and a half.

Lipstadt notes that The New York Times ran the story on page 3, while others ran it on page 1. She also notes that the New York Journal-American ran the United Press story by Henry Shapiro under the headline "100,000 Kiev Civilians Killed by Nazis: Wholesale Massacre Revealed."

In the book Buried by the Times (2005), Laurel Leff writes:

Lawrence later wrote that he had doubted that "50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here," and got into "furious arguments" about how to report the story with CBS's Bill Downs, "who believed it all." . . . Lawrence was at the height of his frustration with the Moscow assignment. He had been begging his editors to transfer him for months. Just before he went to Babi Yar, he noted other Moscow correspondents' willingness to print unverified assertions and then to retract the claim in a subsequent story. "But, meanwhile, the damage of false reporting had been done," he wrote to [Edwin L.] James.

Lawrence himself reflected in 1972 that "Babi Yar was the first site of an alleged atrocity that I had ever visited, and my skeptical mind simply rejected claims that more than 50,000 Jewish people had been murdered here."

He recounted one instance in which reporters and foreign dignitaries were taken in January 1944 to the site of the Katyn massacre, where 22,000 Polish officers and prisoners of war were murdered in a series of mass executions. Soviet authorities blamed the Germans, who had discovered the site a year earlier and sought to use it for their own propaganda purposes. It took decades before the Russian government admitted that the NKVD had committed the executions in 1940. However, in a report in April 1943, Downs relayed the Soviet denial published in Pravda after the Germans uncovered the site. He described the German announcement as "the latest gory German propaganda," and said that "the German story of this crime has too many holes in it to be believed."

Lawrence wrote that he ultimately concluded that the Germans had committed the atrocities at Katyn, but said that the evidence was contradictory. The manner of execution pointed toward the Soviets, but the postmortem handling of the victims was characteristic of the Nazis in 1941—the year that the murders had taken place, according to Soviet officials who denied responsibility.

Lawrence wrote that "all my skepticism about war crimes and atrocities vanished" after visiting the Majdanek concentration and extermination camp that had been operated in Poland by the Nazis until its liberation in July 1944. He described, in graphic detail, what he called "the most terrible place on the face of the earth" in an article published on August 30, 1944 titled "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp." He wrote:

This is a place that must be seen to be believed. I have been present at numerous atrocity investigations in the Soviet Union, but never have I been confronted with such complete evidence, clearly establishing every allegation made by those investigating German crimes.

After inspection of Maidanek, I am now prepared to believe any story of German atrocities, no matter how savage, cruel and depraved.

Many news outlets were deeply insufficient in their reporting on the atrocities against Jews. Lipstadt writes that "as late as 1944 eyewitness accounts, particularly those of survivors, were not considered irrefutable evidence even if they came from independent sources and corroborated one another. The press often categorized them as prejudiced or exaggerated." She quotes Kenneth McCaleb, the war editor of the New York Daily Mirror, who said that foreigners were seen as having an "axe to grind" against the Germans.

Downs' Experience

Bill Downs, for his part, was greatly affected by what he had seen in the year he spent in Moscow. Cloud and Olson (1996) write that Downs told friends upon his return home that "coming back . . . is something like stepping out of a St. Valentine's Day massacre into a Sunday school classroom." They quote a letter to his parents in which he said that "I've seen more bodies than I care to remember." In a 1946 manuscript, Downs wrote:

When I returned to the United States from Soviet Russia early in 1944 I recounted what I had seen at Babi Yar. It received mixed reaction. People would look at me curiously. Obviously I had been taken in by Russian propaganda. My friends expressed pity. Others called me a liar. In fact, one fanatic wrote me a post card charging me with being a Russian agent and threatening my life.

This was, you remember, before we had landed in France. It was before we had uncovered the horror and brutality of Buchenwald, Belsen, and Dachau. But we saw what we saw. And I suppose skepticism over facts so horrible, details so stomach-wrenching, was not an unnatural reaction to the sheltered, inexperienced minds at home.

.    .    . 

The story of Babi Yar is an important story. A story which the world should remember in the coming days as our statesmen attempt to lay the foundations of peace. The mortar for this foundation is mixed with the blood of millions of people—American soldiers and the soldiers of a dozen other of our Allies. The blood let at Babi Yar also is in this foundation.

While accompanying the British Second Army on its advance toward Germany, Downs lamented the doubt and indifference in another letter to his parents dated October 21, 1944:
We are beginning to run into the old atrocity stories again. I tried to tell them in Russia, but no one paid any attention. Now we are finding the same Nazi prisons, the same torture weaponswith some improvementsand the same sad stories of persecution, execution and privation by Hitler's bad boys. I don't suppose anyone will believe these stories either, although we collect and print enough evidence to hang the whole German army.
It seems that the Presbyterian mind of the average American cannot accept the fact that any group of people can coolly sit down and decide to torture thousands of people. And if torture isn't enough, then to kill them as calmly as an ordinary person would swat a fly. This refusal to believe these facts is probably the greatest weapon the Nazis have . . . and it will operate in the post-war judgment of the Germans, wait and see. All of us more or less normal people will throw up our hands in horror even at the prosecution of the guiltybecause there are so many guilty that we again will think that we are carrying on a pogrom when actually it is only making the Nazis pay for their crimes.

Unless it can be brought home as to what the Germans have done in Europethe cruelty and ruthlessness and bestial killings and emasculations and dismemberment that has gone onwell, I'm afraid that we'll be too soft on them.

His disillusionment had only hardened by the end of the war. Cloud and Olson recount that, after visiting Auschwitz in 1945, Downs told friends he felt like shooting the first German he saw, and later said: "By the time the war ended, all our idealism was gone. . . . Our crusade had been won, but our white horses had been shot out from under us."

Several memorials have been erected in the decades since the Babyn Yar massacres, including one dedicated in 1991 to the Jewish victims fifty years after the first killings took place.

Menorah monument in Kyiv, Ukraine dedicated to the Jewish victims of the Babyn Yar massacres (source)

* The first two photographs are from Bill Downs' personal papers. The Russian-language captions were taken from notes taped to the back of each photo. The English captions include more detail and are thus not intended to be direct translations. The original captions are below.
First photo:

Оставшиеся в живых свидетели массовых казней десятков тысяч мирных жителей, совершенных немцами в окрестности Киева "Бабий яр". На снимке /слева направо/ Вилкис, Островский и давыдовю.

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис

Second photo:

"Бабий яр", где проводились немцами массовые расстрелы мирых жителей.

Фото А. Иоселевич
№ 8717 Сибфотосарвис
This post was originally published in 2013. It previously included Lawrence's account as told in his memoir, which can be read here. The text contains the same details as the Times article.

Cloud, Stanley; Olson, Lynne. The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 195-196, 235.

Downs, Bill. "Blood at Babii Yar: Kiev's Atrocity Story," Newsweek, December 6, 1943, p. 22. Accessible at:
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, April 8, 1943. William R. Downs Papers, Booth Family Center for Special Collections, Georgetown University Library, Washington, D.C.

Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to his parents, October 21, 1944. William R. Downs Papers.
Downs, Bill. Correspondence from Bill Downs to John Desmond, December 26, 1951. William R. Downs Papers.

Lawrence, Bill. "50,000 Kiev Jews Reportedly Killed," The New York Times, November 29, 1943, p. 3. Accessible at:

Lawrence, Bill. "Nazi Mass Killing Laid Bare in Camp," The New York Times, August 30, 1944, pp. 1, 9. Accessible at:

Lawrence, Bill. Six Presidents, Too Many Wars. (New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972), pp. 91-100. Accessible at:

Leff, Laurel. Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 172.

Lipstadt, Deborah E. Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945. (New York: Free Press, 1985), pp. 244-248. Accessible at:

Peterson, Joan. "Iterations of Babi Yar." Journal of Ecumenical Studies. September 22, 2011. The Free Library. Accessible at:

March 9, 2023

1945. "First-Hand Report on the German Soldier"

German Army Prisoners Speak to Allied Interrogators
A Canadian soldier guards a captured German officer at Caen station, July 18, 1944 (Photo by Ken Bellsource)
In February 1945, New York Times correspondent Harold Denny wrote about what German prisoners of war were saying to interrogators after being taken into custody by Allied forces on the Western Front.

From The New York Times, February 18, 1945, pp. 5, 47-49:
First-Hand Report on the German Soldier
Here are the observations of a correspondent who questioned prisoners fresh from the front

WESTERN FRONT — The German Army is staggering toward a debacle which we now know is inevitable and which we hope may come quickly.

The Wehrmacht at last is being squeezed to death in the vise of that all-out two-front war which its generals always knew would be fatal. Its strategic reserves have been spent and it has had to draft boys, old men and the sick into its depleted divisions. Its air force is almost gone. Its transport is addled. Its gasoline supplies are running low.

It is tired—desperately tired—from five years of a war which it had expected to win in one year. And behind it is a country half wrecked, cold and hungry. Its roads choked with refugees.

Yet the German Army continues to fight—skillfully, obstinately and often bravely. We do not know how long it can keep it up. It may struggle on for months. It may give up tomorrow. For when the Germans collapse they collapse suddenly and completely—one day fighting tooth and nail, the next in abject disintegration. But as this is written we can see no signs of the break-up which some day must come.

Why is this? How can that army go on in the face of a defeat which even its most fanatical members must now see is inescapable, and with every added day of war increasing the devastation and suffering of the Reich?

The answer, I think, is in the character of the German soldier, which in turn is a distillation of the character of the German people.

The German people, for all their dark complexities and their mental and moral limitations, are tough and courageous—until affairs go too badly. So is the German soldier. But with their toughness the Germans are obedient to the point of docility and crave a master, even (or especially) one who beats them. I have seen much of Germans in peacetime in their own country and in the front lines of two wars, and it is my conviction that this docility is the key to the understanding of many of the strange things that they do.

•      •      •

It is perhaps the bitterest irony of history that this trait which in civilized eyes is a mark of inferiority is the very one which has let the Germans be led by cruel and unscrupulous leaders in an attempt to master the world on the ground that they are a superior race. In the German soldier that trait has been accentuated by military training and the discipline which is over him every moment.

But before theorizing any more let us look at the German soldier in the flesh. It is not hard to do this here. Just a few hours and a jeep ride.

You cannot well study the German soldier in the front line, though you do learn that sometimes he fights well and sometimes badly or not at all, and that usually he knows his job and can be very dangerous.

The only place where you can safely see the German soldier close up and talk with him is in prison cages and camps. It might be argued that prisoners are not a fair sampling—that they are the weaklings who gave up. This is true only within limits. In the kind of war we are fighting now, with ambushes, traps and encirclements, many brave men are captured willy-nilly along with others who are looking for a chance to give themselves up. At any rate, they are the only ones we can see, so let us go see them.

Here is a prison enclosure in a wrecked German village just behind the front lines. It is in the walled courtyard of what once was a pretentious mansion. There are guards at the gate and at strategic points inside. Up forward our attack is progressing well. Our troops have driven in behind the enemy positions and are mopping up isolated detachments hiding in foxholes, cellars and ruined buildings. They are coming back to this "cage" now in returning ammunition trucks.

•      •      •

These men are at the lowest point in any soldier's life—that bewildered, shocked hour or two just after capture—and are just beginning to grasp with relief the fact that they have got out alive. Most of them are still trembling from that awful artillery fire which broke their defenses. They are wet to the skin and trembling with cold, too. Their clothes are sodden and mudcaked. The men themselves are dirty and many of them have several days' beard.

As each truck arrives its cargo is lined up against the building wall and sometimes they look frightened at this, for they have been told that Americans shoot prisoners, especially SS men. They cheer up when they learn that this isn't so. Guards go over each man, having him empty his pockets, searching for weapons. Each German soldier piles his personal belongings on the ground in front of him. His toilet kit and other harmless articles are returned. Knives, razors and anything with which he might do harm are kept. Rations are distributed among the prisoners and, either before or after that, depending on convenience, interrogations begin.

•      •      •

Prisoners are taken off to one side singly or in small groups and questioned by American officers and soldiers who speak German. Military information is sought, of course. But these interrogations often produce much other interesting data, especially on the Germans' thinking processes. Each prisoner presents an individual case history and in the aggregate they are building into a museum of psychology—or psychopathology.

Here is no such thing, of course, as an average or typical German soldier. There are all types in the German Army, and especially now, when Hitler has scraped the bottom of his manpower barrel and dragged in even the most unlikely specimens for cannon fodder.

Here, facing one interrogator, stands a better-than-average soldier who was a high-school student before he was drafted into the SS as a panzer grenadier last fall. He has been morosely watching our troops and equipment rolling forward—truckloads of our strong, well-fed soldiers, trucks loaded with ammunition and with gasoline in five-gallon containers; tanks, bulldozers and field guns—and overhead our planes flying as serenely as in peacetime. He finally breaks down to an interrogator.

"All we can see is defeat—in the east, in the west, in the south, in the southeast; the front is everywhere. This material superiority of yours—we simply cannot believe it. We can see that there is too much opposing us. We cannot carry on any more. We cannot win now. What do we have to win with?"

•      •      •

Over there is another panzer grenadier, less reconciled to the situation. He was a young waiter who volunteered for the SS in 1941 one day when he was half drunk. He is pro-Nazi though not a party member. "The war must be won, now that everything is destroyed," he is insisting to his interrogator. "We can get what we need for reconstruction only from our own State, not from any foreign country. That is why people are sticking to their guns. Many bombed-out people think they will have their homes replaced only if Germany wins."

And here is a man whose mother never raised him to be a soldier, and he admits it. He is a middle-aged farmer with a wife and two children and is sour on the whole Hitler business. He got "lost from his unit" and was picked up by our troops as he had hoped. "Going on with this war is senseless," he exclaims. "The Nazi party just wants to make history. Hitler wants us to have more children and then send them to war. They tell us to fight so that our children can have a better life. But they should let us also have a good life, then our children's lives would be good too."
Yes, he had been pro-Nazi in the beginning, he said, and he voted for Hitler in 1933.

"We wanted to see what would happen," he explained. They are certainly finding out.

Sitting on the ground in a corner, his shoulders hunched, and breathing chagrin and hatred, is the cream of the crop. He is a 25-year-old SS sergeant who has been captured trying to evacuate five wounded men from a house which our troops had surrounded. He had got ten out earlier, but we caught him this time. He is a brave man. He is also a fanatical Nazi and proclaims it, whereas most Nazis try to deny it or explain that they had to join the party to get a good job.

This young man also had a few months at a university before he joined the army, and he prides himself on being a "philosopher."

"Only the independent thinkers in Germany are true Nazis," he is saying to the interrogator. "True idealists will save victory for Germany against all odds."

He went into an encomium on the idealism of Hitler and Goebbels, and then revealed his belief in the Nazi principle that might makes right.

"Two worlds are locked in battle to decide whose idea is stronger," he said sententiously. "If you win, then yours is the better one. But our idea is stronger because we have withstood this war for five years."

Pressed a little further for his philosophical views, this "independent thinker" soared off on a recital of every one of Goebbels' clichés, word by word.

•      •      •

One more prisoner here deserves a close-up, for there are many like him in the German Army—foreigners who have been impressed into military service. This man, also an SS, was a young farmer of German stock on the Volga in the Ukraine when the German hordes swept over his region earlier in the war. His family were moved away, heaven knows where. When the Germans had to retreat they took this man and thousands of others with them, and last July they put him into the SS as they did others like him from conquered or satellite countries.

He is fed up but absolutely apathetic. He is a lone man being pushed around in a world in which he has no say-so, and he uncomplainingly obeys whoever happens to be his master at the moment. He appears to have no hatreds, no likes and little resentment. He shows no interest even in trying to trace his mother, father and sisters. He doesn't care where he is sent—any place where there's a job will do. To all questions he replies, "I cannot know anything about that. Everything's so mixed up."

He looks and acts like a man in a profound state of shock.

"We are all human beings," he finally says in his only expression of opinion. "If we had peace, if people would work together, they'd perhaps be comrades. But now——"

•      •      •

So it goes, as you walk from prisoner to prisoner with interrogators. Occasionally you meet a German who is positive, but mostly you feel you are in a congregation of intellectual zombies. To almost every question which might evoke an expression of opinion almost every man shrugs it off with:

"We could not know about that. Such things are for leaders to decide. They know much more than we do," or some equivalent utterance of futility.

Or there is this: "That was an order of the party." A man will tell you, "Orders must be obeyed or there will be chaos. It is not for us to question our leaders. They know best."

"The German soldier cannot throw away his gun," says a man when asked why he fought on after he knew that the war was lost. "The higher officers are driven on from above, and they in turn drive the soldier forward. 'From above.' That's always the way of the party." And when you ask another who concedes that he can see only further ruin in every additional day of battle, he answers: "Soldiers will not give up as long as the home front holds, and people at home will not revolt because of the old stab-in-the-back legend. Each is waiting for the other to make the first move."

After talking with many prisoners of varied types and making a liberal allowance for the probability that they are much lower in morale than the average of those who are still fighting, one reaches several conclusions. The most important of these is that a great proportion—the large majority—of German soldiers and civilians, too, want to quit, but are held in line by force, fear and that deadly German instinct of dumb obedience. Some especially among officers go on from a sense of soldierly honor, but their number is dwindling.

The decline in German morale in the past few months has been catastrophic. It had been low at the time of our march through France and Belgium, but had risen appreciably when we were unable to exploit our first nibbles into the Siegfried Line. It soared to the highest point since D-Day, however, at the opening of the German counter-offensive on Dec. 16.

•      •      •

That "battle of decision" was sold to German troops with every conceivably promise. They were to have an air strength equal to ours, and ten-to-one superiority in artillery. Actually they seldom got a plane into the air, and they were badly outgunned on the ground. After their drive opened promisingly, they were told that their forward elements had taken Liège or even Brussels and that a German army was at the gates of Paris. They thought then that it was true that they had knocked the Allies off the Continent, and, perhaps, out of the war. Then their drive gradually bogged down, whole divisions were dismembered, and finally our renewed offensive drove them back through the Siegfried Line.

The discrepancy between the promise and the actuality was so flagrant that even the Germans—the most gullible of people—saw that they had been lied to. This was at about the time also that German soldiers had come to disbelieve earlier promises that secret weapons would pull victory out of defeat. And Germans who had been told of imaginary American atrocities in occupied German towns found when they retook the towns at the beginning of their offensive that the Americans had treated German civilians better than had German soldiers.

So now a wave of disillusion and skepticism is sweeping the German Army, or so the prisoners tell us.

•      •      •

Authorities, alarmed at the number of German soldiers who desert to our lines, warned their troops that reprisals would be taken against families of deserters. This is still a powerful deterrent, but has lost some of its force, and more men are taking chances. The German people have been warned also that if their country is defeated the Wehrmacht will be scattered through Siberia as slaves, youths will be sterilized, women destroyed, children taken from their parents, Germany partitioned, the population forcibly reduced and industry destroyed. Fewer soldiers believe that now, but enough still to help keep them fighting. And some fight on because they have nothing more to lose. Their homes have been destroyed in bombings, their families are gone, the future is hopeless—why not go on and die?

Perhaps—probably—if their officers told them to revolt, they would down arms or turn on their higher leaders. But nobody has told them yet. So we have the spectacle of soldiers who believe the war is lost and many of whom no longer honor Hitler, moving like sleep-walkers to their own destruction.

"The German soldier hardly thinks any more," says one tired young patriot. "He is posted somewhere and does what he is ordered to do. He shoots as long as he can, or until he gets hit. After six years of war he doesn't know anything but to go on."

February 21, 2023

Edward R. Murrow's "Wires and Lights in a Box" Speech

"Wires and Lights in a Box"

Keynote Address to the Radio-Television News Directors Association
October 15, 1958
This just might do nobody any good. At the end of this discourse a few people may accuse this reporter of fouling his own comfortable nest, and your organization may be accused of having given hospitality to heretical and even dangerous thoughts. But I am persuaded that the elaborate structure of networks, advertising agencies, and sponsors will not be shaken or altered. It is my desire, if not my duty, to try to talk to you journeymen with some candor about what is happening to radio and television in this generous and capacious land.

I have no technical advice or counsel to offer those of you who labor in this vineyard, the one that produces words and pictures. You will, I am sure, forgive me for not telling you that the instruments with which you work are miraculous, that your responsibility is unprecedented or that your aspirations are frequently frustrated. It is not necessary to remind you of the fact that your voice, amplified to the degree where it reaches from one end of the country to the other, does not confer upon you greater wisdom than when your voice reached only from one end of the bar to the other. All of these things you know.

You should also know at the outset that, in the manner of witnesses before Congressional committees, I appear here voluntarily—by invitation—that I am an employee of the Columbia Broadcasting System, that I am neither an officer nor any longer a director of that corporation and that these remarks are strictly of a "do-it-yourself" nature. If what I have to say is responsible, then I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Seeking neither approbation from my employers, nor news sponsors, nor acclaim from the critics of radio and television, I cannot very well be disappointed. Believing that potentially the commercial system of broadcasting as practiced in this country is the best and freest yet devised, I have decided to express my concern about what I believe to be happening to radio and television. These instruments have been good to me beyond my due. There exists in my mind no reasonable grounds for any kind of personal complaint. I have no feud, either with my employers, any sponsors, or with the professional critics of radio and television. But I am seized with an abiding fear regarding what these two instruments are doing to our society, our culture, and our heritage.

Our history will be what we make it. And if there are any historians about fifty or a hundred years from now, and there should be preserved the kinescopes for one week of all three networks, they will there find recorded in black and white, or perhaps in color, evidence of decadence, escapism, and insulation from the realities of the world in which we live. I invite your attention to the television schedules of all networks between the hours of 8 and 11 PM., Eastern Time. Here you will find only fleeting and spasmodic reference to the fact that this nation is in mortal danger. There are, it is true, occasional informative programs presented in that intellectual ghetto on Sunday afternoons. But during the daily peak viewing periods, television in the main insulates us from the realities of the world in which we live. If this state of affairs continues, we may alter an advertising slogan to read: "Look now and pay later."

For surely we shall pay for using this most powerful instrument of communication to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must indeed be faced if we are to survive. I mean the word survive quite literally. If there were to be a competition in indifference, or perhaps in insulation from reality, then Nero and his fiddle, Chamberlain and his umbrella, could not find a place on an early afternoon sustaining show. If Hollywood were to run out of Indians, the program schedules would be mangled beyond all recognition. Then perhaps some young and courageous soul with a small budget might do a documentary telling what, in fact, we have done—and are still doing—to the Indians in this country. But that would be unpleasant. And we must at all costs shield the sensitive citizens from anything that is unpleasant.

I am entirely persuaded that the American public is more reasonable, restrained, and more mature than most of our industry's program planners believe. Their fear of controversy is not warranted by the evidence. I have reason to know, as do many of you, that when the evidence on a controversial subject is fairly and calmly presented, the public recognizes it for what it is: an effort to illuminate rather than to agitate.

Several years ago, when we undertook to do a program on Egypt and Israel, well-meaning, experienced and intelligent friends in the business said, "This you cannot do. This time you will be handed your head." It is an emotion-packed controversy, and there is no room for reason in it." We did the program. Zionists, anti-Zionists, the friends of the Middle East, Egyptian and Israeli officials said, with I must confess a faint tone of surprise, "It was a fair account. The information was there. We have no complaints."

Our experience was similar with two half hour programs dealing with cigarette smoking and lung cancer. Both the medical profession and the tobacco industry cooperated, but in a rather wary fashion. But at the end of the day they were both reasonably content. The subject of radioactive fallout and the banning of nuclear tests was, and is, highly controversial. But according to what little evidence there is, viewers were prepared to listen to both sides with reason and restraint. This is not said to claim any special or unusual competence in the presentation of controversial subjects, but rather to indicate that timidity in these areas is not warranted by the evidence.

Recently, network spokesmen have been disposed to complain that the professional critics of television in print have been "rather beastly." There have been ill-disguised hints that somehow competition for the advertising dollar has caused the critics of print to gang up on television and radio. This reporter has no desire to defend the critics. They have space in which to do that on their own behalf. But it remains a fact that the newspapers and magazines are the only instruments of mass communication which remain free from sustained and regular critical comment. I would suggest that if the network spokesmen are so anguished about what appears in print, then let them come forth and engage in a little sustained and regular comment regarding newspapers and magazines. It is an ancient and sad fact that most people in network television and radio have an exaggerated regard for what appears in print. And there have been cases where executives have refused to make even private comment on a program for which they were responsible until they had read the reviews in print. This is hardly an exhibition of confidence.

The oldest excuse of the networks for their timidity is their youth. Their spokesmen say, "We are young; we have not developed the traditions nor acquired the experience of the older media." If they but knew it, they are building those traditions and creating those precedents every day. Each time they yield to a voice from Washington or any political pressure, each time they eliminate something that might offend some section of the community, they are creating their own body of precedent and tradition, and it will continue to pursue them. They are, in fact, not content to be "half safe."

Nowhere is this better illustrated than by the fact that the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission publicly prods broadcasters to engage in their legal right to editorialize. Of course, to undertake an editorial policy, overt, clearly labeled, and obviously unsponsored, requires a station or a network to be responsible. Most stations today probably do not have the manpower to assume this responsibility, but the manpower could be recruited. Editorials of course would not be profitable. If they had a cutting edge, they might even offend. It is much easier, much less troublesome, to use this money-making machine of television and radio merely as a conduit through which to channel anything that will be paid for that is not libelous, obscene, or defamatory. In that way one has the illusion of power without responsibility.

So far as radio—that most satisfying, ancient but rewarding instrument—is concerned, the diagnosis of the difficulties is not too difficult. And obviously I speak only of news and information. In order to progress it need only go backward. Back to the time when singing commercials were not allowed on news reports, when there was no middle commercial in a fifteen minute news report, when radio was rather proud, alert, and fast. I recently asked a network official, "Why this great rash of five-minute news reports (including three commercials) on weekends?" And he replied, "Because that seems to be the only thing we can sell."

In this kind of complex and confusing world, you can't tell very much about the why of the news in broadcasts where only three minutes is available for news. The only man who could do that was Elmer Davis, and his kind aren't about anymore. If radio news is to be regarded as a commodity, only acceptable when saleable, and only when packaged to fit the advertising appropriation of a sponsor, then I don't care what you call it—I say it isn't news.

My memory—and I have not yet reached the point where my memories fascinate me—but my memory also goes back to the time when the fear of a slight reduction in business did not result in an immediate cutback in bodies in the news and public affairs department at a time when network profits had just reached an all-time high. We would all agree, I think, that whether on a station or a network, the stapling machine is a very poor substitute for a newsroom typewriter and somebody to beat it properly.

One of the minor tragedies of television news and information is that the networks will not even defend their vital interests. When my employer, CBS, through a combination of enterprise and good luck, did an interview with Nikita Khrushchev, the President uttered a few ill-chosen, uninformed words on the subject, and the network thereupon practically apologized. This produced a rarity. Many newspapers defended the CBS right to produce the program and commended it for initiative. The other networks remained silent.

Likewise, when John Foster Dulles, by personal decree, banned American journalists from going to Communist China and subsequently offered seven contradictory explanations for his fiat, the networks entered only a mild protest. Then they apparently forgot the unpleasantness. Can it be that this national industry is content to serve the public interest only with the trickle of news that comes out of Hong Kong, to leave its viewers in ignorance of the cataclysmic changes that are occurring in a nation of 600 million people? I have no illusions about the difficulties reporting from a dictatorship, but our British and French allies have been better served in their public interest with some very useful information from their reporters in Communist China.

One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising, and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles. The top management of the networks, with a few notable exceptions, has been trained in advertising, research, sales, or show business. But by the nature of the corporate structure, they also make the final and crucial decisions having to do with news and public affairs. Frequently they have neither the time nor the competence to do this.

It is, after all, not easy for the same small group of men to decide whether to buy a new station for millions of dollars, build a new building, alter the rate card, buy a new Western, sell a soap opera, decide what defensive line to take in connection with the latest Congressional inquiry, how much money to spend on promoting a new program, what additions or deletions should be made in the existing covey or clutch of vice presidents, and at the same time—frequently on the long, same long day—to give mature, thoughtful consideration to the manifold problems that confront those who are charged with the responsibility for news and public affairs.

Sometimes there is a clash between the public interest and the corporate interest. A telephone call or a letter from the proper quarter in Washington is treated rather more seriously than a communication from an irate but not politically potent viewer. It is tempting enough to give away a little air time for frequently irresponsible and unwarranted utterances in an effort to temper the wind of political criticism. But this could well be the subject of a separate and even lengthier and drearier dissertation.

Upon occasion, economics and editorial judgment are in conflict. And there is no law which says that dollars will be defeated by duty. Not so long ago the President of the United States delivered a television address to the nation. He was discoursing on the possibility or the probability of war between this nation and the Soviet Union and Communist China. It would seem to have been a reasonably compelling subject with a degree of urgency—a test. Two networks, CBS and NBC, delayed that broadcast for an hour and fifteen minutes. If this decision was dictated by anything other than financial reasons, the networks didn't deign to explain those reasons. That hour and fifteen minute delay, by the way, is a little more than twice the time required for an ICBM to travel from the Soviet Union to major targets in the United States. It is difficult to believe that this decision was made by men who love, respect, and understand news.

I have been dealing largely with the deficit side of the ledger, and the items could be expanded. But I have said, and I believe, that potentially we have in this country a free enterprise system of radio and television which is superior to any other. But to achieve its promise, it must be both free and enterprising. There is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I can find nothing in the Bill of Rights or in the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the Republic collapse. I do not suggest that news and information should be subsidized by foundations or private subscriptions. I am aware that the networks have expended, and are expending, very considerable sums of money on public affairs programs from which they cannot receive any financial reward. I have had the privilege at CBS of presiding over a considerable number of such programs. And I am able to stand here and say, that I have never had a program turned down by my superiors just because of the money it would cost.

But we all know that you cannot reach the potential maximum audience in marginal time with a sustaining program. This is so because so many stations on the network—any network—will decline to carry it. Every licensee who applies for a grant to operate in the public interest, convenience, and necessity makes certain promises as to what he will do in terms of program content. Many recipients of licenses have, in blunt language, just plain welshed on those promises. The money-making machine somehow blunts their memories. The only remedy for this is closer inspection and punitive action by the FCC. But in the view of many this would come perilously close to supervision of program content by a federal agency.

So it seems that we cannot rely on philanthropic support or foundation subsidies. We cannot follow the "sustaining route"—the networks cannot pay all the freight—and the FCC cannot, will not, or should not discipline those who abuse the facilities that belong to the public. What, then, is the answer? Do we merely stay in our comfortable nests, concluding that the obligation of these instruments has been discharged when we work at the job of informing the public for a minimum of time? Or do we believe that the preservation of the Republic is a seven-day-a-week job, demanding more awareness, better skills, and more perseverance than we have yet contemplated?

I am frightened by the imbalance; the constant striving to reach the largest possible audience for everything; by the absence of a sustained study of the state of the nation. Heywood Broun once wrote, "No body politic is healthy until it begins to itch." I would like television to produce some itching pills rather than this endless outpouring of tranquilizers. It can be done. Maybe it won't be, but it could. But let us not shoot the wrong piano player. Do not be deluded into believing that the titular heads of the networks control what appears on their network. They all have better taste. All are responsible to stockholders, and in my experience all are honorable men. But they must schedule what they can sell in the public market.

And this brings us to the nub of the question. In one sense it rather revolves around the phrase heard frequently along Madison Avenue: "the corporate image." I am not precisely sure what this phrase means, but I would imagine that it reflects a desire on the part of the corporations who pay the advertising bills to have the public image, or believe that they are not merely bodies with no souls, panting in pursuit of elusive dollars. They would like us to believe that they can distinguish between the public good and the private or corporate gain.

So the question is this: Are the big corporations who pay the freight for radio and television programs wise to use that time exclusively for the sale of goods and services? Is it in their own interest and that of the stockholders so to do? The sponsor of an hour's television program is not buying merely the six minutes devoted to commercial message. He is determining, within broad limits, the sum total of the impact of the entire hour. If he always, invariably, reaches for the largest possible audience, then this process of insulation, of escape from reality, will continue to be massively financed, and its apologist will continue to make winsome speeches about giving the public what it wants, or "letting the public decide."

I refuse to believe that the presidents and chairmen of the boards of these big corporations want their corporate image to consist exclusively of a solemn voice in an echo chamber, or a pretty girl opening the door of a refrigerator, or a horse that talks. They want something better, and on occasion some of them have demonstrated it. But most of the men whose legal and moral responsibility it is to spend the stockholders' money for advertising are in fact removed from the realities of the mass media by five, six, or a dozen contraceptive layers of vice presidents, public relations counsel, and advertising agencies. Their business is to sell goods, and the competition is pretty tough.

But this nation is now in competition with malignant forces of evil who are using every instrument at their command to empty the minds of their subjects and fill those minds with slogans, determination, and faith in the future. If we go on as we are, we are protecting the mind of the American public from any real contact with the menacing world that squeezes in upon us. We are engaged in a great experiment to discover whether a free public opinion can devise and direct methods of managing the affairs of the nation. We may fail. But in terms of information we are handicapping ourselves needlessly.

Let us have a little competition. Not only in selling soap, cigarettes, and automobiles, but in informing a troubled, apprehensive but receptive public. Why should not each of the twenty or thirty big corporations, and they dominate radio and television, decide that they will give up one or two of their regularly scheduled programs each year, turn the time over to the networks and say in effect: "This is a tiny tithe, just a little bit of our profits. On this particular night we aren't going to try to sell cigarettes or automobiles; this is merely a gesture to indicate our belief in the importance of ideas." The networks should, and I think they would, pay for the cost of producing the program. The advertiser, the sponsor, would get name credit but would have nothing to do with the content of the program. Would this blemish the corporate image? Would the stockholders rise up and object? I think not. For if the premise upon which our pluralistic society rests, which as I understand it is that if the people are given sufficient undiluted information, they will then somehow, even after long, sober second thoughts, reach the right decision. If that premise is wrong, then not only the corporate image but the corporations and the rest of us are done for.

There used to be an old phrase in this country, employed when someone talked too much. I am grateful to all of you for not having employed it earlier. It was: "Go hire a hall." Under this proposal the sponsor would have hired the hall. He has bought the time; the local station operator, no matter how indifferent, is going to carry the program—he has to. He's getting paid for it. Then it's up to the networks to fill the hall. I am not here talking about editorializing but about straightaway exposition as direct, unadorned, and impartial as fallible human beings can make it. Just once in a while let us exalt the importance of ideas and information. Let us dream to the extent of saying that on a given Sunday night the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan is given over to a clinical survey of the state of American education, and a week or two later the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up and complain? Would anything happen other than that a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country, and therefore also the future of the corporations? This method would also provide real competition between the networks as to which could outdo the others in the palatable presentation of information. It would provide an outlet for the young men of skill, and there are many, even of dedication, who would like to do something other than devise methods of insulating while selling.

There may be other and simpler methods of utilizing these instruments of radio and television in the interests of a free society. But I know of none that could be so easily accomplished inside the framework of the existing commercial system. I don't know how you would measure the success or failure of a given program. And it would be very hard to prove the magnitude of the benefit accruing to the corporation which gave up one night of a variety or quiz show in order that the network might marshal its skills to do a thoroughgoing job on the present status of NATO, or plans for controlling nuclear tests. But I would reckon that the president, and indeed the stockholders of the corporation who sponsored such a venture, would feel just a little bit better about both the corporation and the country.

It may be that this present system, with no modifications and no experiments, can survive. Perhaps the money-making machine has some kind of built-in perpetual motion, but I do not think so. To a very considerable extent the media of mass communications in a given country reflects the political, economic, and social climate in which it grows and flourishes. That is the reason ours differ from the British and French, or the Russian and Chinese. We are currently wealthy, fat, comfortable, and complacent. We have currently a built-in allergy to unpleasant or disturbing information, and our mass media reflect this. But unless we get up off our fat surpluses and recognize that television in the main is being used to distract, delude, amuse, and insulate us, then television and those who finance it, those who look at it, and those who work at it, may see a totally different picture too late.

I do not advocate that we turn television into a 27-inch wailing wall, where longhairs constantly moan about the state of our culture and our defense. But I would just like to see it reflect occasionally the hard, unyielding realities of the world in which we live. I would like to see it done inside the existing framework, and I would like to see the doing of it redound to the credit of those who finance and program it. Measure the results by Nielsen, Trendex, or Silex—it doesn't matter. The main thing is to try. The responsibility can be easily placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television, and it rests on the top. Responsibility is not something that can be assigned or delegated. And it promises its own reward: both good business and good television.

Perhaps no one will do anything about it. I have ventured to outline it against a background of criticism that may have been too harsh only because I could think of nothing better. Someone once said—and I think it was Max Eastman—that "that publisher serves his advertiser best who best serves his readers." I cannot believe that radio and television, or the corporations that finance the programs, are serving well or truly their viewers, or their listeners, or themselves.

I began by saying that our history will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, then history will take its revenge, and retribution will not limp in catching up with us.

We are to a large extent an imitative society. If one or two or three corporations would undertake to devote just a small fraction of their advertising appropriation along the lines that I have suggested, the procedure might well grow by contagion. The economic burden would be bearable, and there might ensue a most exciting adventure—exposure to ideas and the bringing of reality into the homes of the nation.

To those who say people wouldn't look; they wouldn't be interested; they're too complacent, indifferent, and insulated, I can only reply: there is, in one reporter's opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse, and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.

This instrument can teach, it can illuminate, yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it's nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance, and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.

Stonewall Jackson, who is generally believed to have known something weapons, is reported to have said, "When war comes, you must draw the sword and throw away the scabbard." The trouble with television is that it is rusting in the scabbard during a battle for survival. Thank you for your patience.

February 8, 2023

1943. The Occupation of Kharkiv

The Nazi Colonization of Ukraine
A delicatessen Kharkiv, Ukraine during the Nazi occupation in 1941 (Photo by Johannes Hähle source)

Bill Downs visited the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv following its initial liberation in February 1943. He later reported on the city's reoccupation during the Third Battle of Kharkov. Parentheses in the reports featured here indicate text that did not pass Soviet censors for military security or propaganda reasons.

(For more, see the complete 1943 Moscow reports.)

Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 27, 1943

I have just had a close-up of how Adolf Hitler's New Order makes history—you know, the kind of history he raves about at the drop of a helmet. The Nazi brand of history he has sold to Italy and certain other countries in Europe. The kind of history Japan is trying to market in the Far East.

At 9:30 this morning I took a plane out of Russia's rich Ukraine. I spent Thursday and Friday wandering around the streets of Kharkov talking to people and seeing what I could see.

Right now, Kharkov is a very special place. It is more than just another city which the Red Army has recaptured. It's the first big city in Europe that has been retaken from the Axis in which Hitler's New Order had a chance to work. You remember the Germans held Kharkov for fifteen months. And I got to Kharkov with a party of other news reporters only eight days after the New Order was kicked outbefore the smell of it had completely left the city.

(Yes, you can still smell Hitler's New Order tonight, if you were in Ukraine. It's the stench of cordite, and the dry smell of bombed buildings and the wet smell of charred wood. It's the sweet smell of blood and the bitter smell of people too weak from hunger to walk a couple of miles to the river to wash.)

(When we flew with a Russian fighter escort towards Kharkov the other day, you could follow the path of the New Order very easily. The miles were marked with the walls of ruined villages where fighting had occurred. Along the railroad leading eastward from the city were the hulks of ruined tanks and occasionally Junkers or a Heinkel bomber.)

(After we landed on the ruined airport—there wasn't a building left standing—we saw our first definite sign that the Germans had actually possessed this Ukrainian industrial center. It was a German sign which read, "Parking verboten." We found out that a lot of things were "verboten" during the German occupation of Kharkov.)

There is no doubt that the Germans thought they were in Kharkov for keeps. All the street signs were written in both German and Ukrainian—German first, of course.

German colonists—at least that's what Hitler calls them—had set up business, and there were restaurants and shops with German signs on them. Yes, the Nazis sent a lot of loyal German families to (examine the corpse of Kharkov) collect what they thought was going to be easy money and a pleasant life in the wake of Hitler's Wehrmacht. No one knows just how many colonists Hitler sent to Kharkov. They were a little difficult to count—like flies on a sugar stack. For months they played at being super-men. Ukrainians couldn't ride in the same street cars with them—they had to catch the one hitched on behind.

If Ukrainians had better homes or business than [the colonists] had been allotted, the colonists went around to authorities and arranged to take over. That's the way the New Order works. But these good Nazi families were too smart to get themselves caught by the Russians. They ran away with everything they could carry early in January when the Red Army started to march.

Two days before the German army fled the city, the Nazi command destroyed every major building in Kharkov. There literally is not one single store, office building, hotel, or government house in the main part of the city which has not been gutted by fire, blown to bits, or bombed.

But during the occupation, the Germans did something else—something much more damaging than making piles of rubble out of buildings.

It's something you can see in the face of every kid you run into on the streets. The women and old men who are left have the same look.

The people are pale from hunger. The boys and girls, particularly, have faces the color of wet dough. They have rings under their eyes like old people.

I stopped what I thought was a 10-year-old boy on the street to talk with him. He was thin and had black hair that hung down into his eyes.

He grinned when I introduced myself and said in a tough kind of way that he supposed he would tell me his name. He was Vladimir Voskresensky, a good Ukrainian name. He was 14. You see, kids just don't grow very fast without food.

I asked him what he did while the Germans were there. He shrugged and answered, "Oh, sometimes I begged for food. Some bread or a piece of chocolate if I was lucky. And sometimes I could earn some food by taking my sledge and dragging luggage to the station for German officers. I would get half a slice of bread for that."

I noticed that Vladimir had on an outside man's suit coat which struck him below the knees. He looked a little bit like Jackie Coogan used to in the silent pictures. I asked him where he got that coat—I should never have asked.

Vladimir started out bravely enough. "It belonged to my father," he said. "He was an engineer. They took him to the hotel over there and beat him for four days. He died. I never saw him again."

He was crying when he finished the story. He was a tough kid, like all the kids that survived the New Order in Kharkov.

But those kids won't forget. And neither will the rest of the world.

During the fifteen months of German occupation, a lot of things happened to Kharkov—all of them bad. For example, there are some facts repeated to me at random by a half-dozen people to whom I talked on the streets of the city.

A year ago last October when the Germans took the city they started hanging people. By the second day of the occupation, every balcony stretching for two miles on the main street through the center of the city had become a gallows. Scores of men and women were trussed up and left to hang.

Six weeks after the occupation, every Jew in the city was ordered to go to an empty machine tool shop nine miles out of town. Women cried as they told me about this. 10,000 Jews were herded into this camp. Ten days later a huge ditch was dug and a squad of German Tommy-gunners shot every man, woman, and child.

It is estimated that 18,000 people were executed in the first weeks of the occupation, but no one knows the exact number. The Germans didn't bother about death proclamations or keeping records. I have checked that figure not only with Soviet officials now in charge of Kharkov, but also with a school teacher, a college professor, and four other people who were in the city at the time.

This is simply another example of how the New Order works.
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

February 28, 1943

Hitler's guns, which for fifteen months were held against the heart of Kharkov, were pushed further back westward from the city last night. This morning's communiqué announced that another series of inhabited points have been taken west of the wreckage and ruined buildings which today mark the site of one of the proudest cities in the Ukraine.

I left Kharkov yesterday morning after spending Thursday and Friday wandering around the city's streets talking to people and seeing what I could see.

Kharkov was about the size of Washington, D.C. before Hitler got to it. It had a peacetime population of 900,000 which swelled to over a million inhabitants as the war progressed.

Imagine every major building in Washington gutted with fire. Imagine all of the buildings across the Potomac blown to bits. Imagine every railroad station deliberately wrecked. Imagine street car and bus trolley wires lying over the street. Imagine Washington with just two water fountains and the sewage system wrecked with the streets thick with ice. Scatter a goodly number of bomb craters throughout the city. Then you will have a pretty good picture of Kharkov after fifteen months of Hitler's New Order.

But the New Order has done something else to Kharkov. Something more terrible than mere wrecking of buildings and homes and streets. Something more deeply significant than putting up street signs in German and deliberately looting the city. Something more than taking warm clothing from men and women who walked the streets.

Kharkov has a hungry population of only 350,000 today. This means that during the fifteen months of Hitler's New Order, something has happened to about 600,000 people. This does not include a quarter of a million people which the Russian government succeeded in evacuating from Kharkov before the Germans took the city a year ago last October.

In talking with Soviet officials, college professors, and people on the street, here's all I could find out about the 600,000 Kharkov citizens who have disappeared under Hitler's New Order.

During the first days of the occupation about 18,000 people were executed. Bodies hanging from balconies were a common sight. Among these 18,000 executed were about 10,000 Jews—men, women, and children—who were taken nine miles out of the city, shot and buried in a big ditch.

One hundred and ten thousand people were shipped to Germany for forced labor.

Meanwhile, it is estimated unofficially that at least 70,000 people died of starvation under the German rule. (And all the time during the fifteen months the executions went on. As conditions grew worse, more and more people escaped from the city to unoccupied Russia.)

All in all, it is estimated that between 90,000 and 100,000 Kharkov citizens will never be accounted for. It's something to think about as Doctor Goebbels prattles about saving European civilization from the "eastern hordes."
Soviet partisans hanging from the balcony of an administrative building on the Mius-Front near the Ukrainian village of Dyakivka in March 1943 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

March 9, 1943

(Ever since Hitler took over Czechoslovakia and marched into Poland, we have been hearing about the slavery and semi-slavery into which has been throwing the conquered European peoples. With the Red Army killing his soldiers in Russia—and with the United States and British air forces knocking out his factories in Germany and Western Europe—the Fuehrer has been forced more and more to rely on kidnapped labor to keep his war machine working.)

At Kharkov a couple of weeks ago, I got my first glimpse of just what Nazi "forced labor" means. Simon Legree, with his whip and bloodhounds, was a sissy compared to the Nazi with his rubber hose, his barbed wire, and his hangman's noose.

An estimated 110,000 Kharkov citizens are doing forced labor in Germany today. They range from boys and girls of fourteen years of age to men and women of forty. The only requirements for work in Germany is a strong back and a brace of biceps.

According to the people to whom I talked in Kharkov, the Germans there used two methods of getting workers to work in their factories. They simply picked them up off the street and packed them off, or they sent around a notice saying the workers should report to a recruiting headquarters—or else.

The Germans have an efficient, standard identification card with which they register their foreign workers. It's printed in eleven languages, so it comes in handy for a dozen countries from which they can kidnap labor.

This identification card serves as a passport. When the kidnapped worker gets to Germany, he finds that it allows him to move from his factory, or his labor gang, to his barracks—and no place else.
Bill Downs

CBS Moscow

March 16, 1943

We (the American and British foreign correspondents who live at the Metropol Hotel) here in Moscow are a pretty sad group of people today.

It's because of the bad news from Kharkov.

It was only two weeks and two days ago that we were in that Ukrainian city—and every one of us came away with a clearer picture of what Hitler's New Order means to the conquered people of Europe than any one of us ever had before.

(During the fifteen months of occupation by the German forces, Kharkov had all but died of Nazism. Over 18,000 people had been executed. 70,000 had died of starvation. Over 110,000 had been shipped off to Germany. And about 90,000 were simply listed as "missing.")

Today the Germans are back in Kharkov. (It is depressing to think just how many of the 350,000 Kharkov residents we found there two weeks ago will be left when the Red Army again takes the city. And it will be retaken—make no mistake about that.)

(Another thing which saddens the foreign press corps here is the uncertainty of) We are wondering what is going to happen to the people to whom we talked. The people who told us the horrible story of the German occupation.

For example, the little 14-year-old boy who (broke down and) cried as he told how his father was killed by the Germans. (The indigent Ukrainian housewife who wept when she told how her sister had been shipped away to Germany.) The kindly little college professor who was trying to reorganize Kharkov's educational and social services to care for the children orphaned by German executions. He was very pleased when we talked to him that he had found homes and food for 300 of these orphans.

(You see, as news reporters, we used the names of all these people so that you people in America reading our stories could have verified evidence of what the Nazis did to Kharkov.)

If I know anything about the efficiency of the Gestapo, (the names of) these people today head the list of German reprisals. I and the rest of my colleagues here in Moscow can only hope that those people evacuated the city with the Red Army. Or that they go into hiding until the city is captured again.

I know, as every correspondent does, that it is not often the problems of news reporting make significant news. (These things are part of our job).

But there is no better demonstration of just what Hitlerism stands for in this world than Kharkov.

Usually, discussions about "truth" have a nebulous quality that almost always end up in confused arguments about what is right and what is wrong.

I don't want to preach any sermons. There is nothing nebulous about "truth" in Kharkov today. The people who told the truth to us American and British reporters now stand under the thread of execution.

Truth in that Ukrainian city today is a matter of life and death. (And so it is in this whole war raging throughout the world.)

One writer in the Moscow newspapers said this morning that "it is not easy to give up Kharkov." Kharkov is a city of tears. Then he added, "but for every Russian tear, let there be mountains of dead Germans."

That's the way the foreign press corps in Moscow feels this morning.