February 24, 2015

1945. The Murrow Boys and the Holocaust

Liberté, égalité, fratricide
The Oskar Kokoschka watercolor painting "Das Prinzip" which Bill Downs purchased after seeing Auschwitz. The inscription reads "Liberté, égalité, fratricide." (source)

As the Allies liberated Europe in 1945, several members of the Murrow Boys visited Buchenwald and Auschwitz.

From the Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism by Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, 1996, p. 235:
In any case, those CBS reporters who saw the death camps in 1945 as Hitler's Germany collapsedLeSueur, Hottelet, Downs, Shadel, and Murrow himselfwere overwhelmed. After visiting Buchenwald, Murrow described his first stunned look at the emaciated, ragged scarecrows who surged around him and Bill Shadel at the main gate of the camp. In the distance were the "green fields . . . where well-fed Germans were ploughing," but in the camp were naked, bruised bodies "stacked up like cordwood outside the crematorium; the terrible stench; the piles of gold teeth and human hair, the lampshades of human skin. Murrow concluded, his voice taut with barely repressed fury: "I pray you to believe what I have said about Buchenwald. I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it, I have no words."

When he returned to London, Murrow told Dick Hottelet there were twenty million Germans too many in the world. Hottelet, who despised Nazis but fiercely loved his parents' homeland, was appalled. "You should be ashamed of yourself!" he barked at his mentor and boss. "He knew I meant it," Hottelet said many years later, "and he took it in very good part. Devoted as I was and respectful as I was, I wasn't going to echo his sentiments in that regard." For once Howard Smith agreed with Hottelet and effectively argued on air that the Allies should seize the opportunity to remake German society.

At that time, however, with the war still being fought and the full extent of Nazi atrocities still being learned, most of the Boys shared Murrow's sentiments. Bill Downs told friends after a horrific visit to Auschwitz that he felt like shooting the first German he saw. Before the war was over, he bought an Oskar Kokoschka watercolor, a clown with a grotesque grimace of a smile. At the bottom of the painting was the inscription Liberté, égalité, fratricide. "That in a nutshell summarized my dad's attitude about the human race," said Downs's son Adam.

"By the time the war ended, all our idealism was gone," Downs said later. "Our crusade had been won, but our white horses had been shot out from under us."

Prior to the liberation of the concentration camps (with the exception of Majdanek), Downs wrote to his parents on October 21, 1944 expressing similar frustration:
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.

Edward R. Murrow also delivered a chilling account of what he saw at Buchenwald: