The Words of War

As the Nazi invasion of Poland looms, journalist Edward Murrow reports on Britain's stiffening willpower.

Living Room

“I have a feeling that Englishmen are a little proud of themselves tonight. They believe that their government’s reply was pretty tough, that the Lion has turned and that the retreat from Manchukuo, Abyssinia, Spain and Czechoslovakia and Austria has stopped. They are amazingly calm; they still employ understatement, and they are inclined to discuss the prospects of war with, oh, a casual ‘bad show,’ or, ‘If this is peace, give me a good war.’  I have heard no one say as many said last September, ‘I hope Mr. Chamberlain can find a way out.’ 

“The military timetable has certainly been drawn up, but so far as we know in London the train for an unknown destination hasn’t started. Within the last two hours, I have talked to men who have a certain amount of firsthand information as to the state of mind in Whitehall and I may tell you that they see little chance of preserving the peace. They feel that Herr Hitler may modify the demands, that the Italians may counsel against war, but they don’t see a great deal of hope, and there the matter stands and there it may stand until Parliament meets tomorrow in that small, ill-ventilated room where so many decisions have been made. I shall be there to report it to you.

“Well, if it is to be war, how will it end?  That is a question Englishmen are asking, and for what will it be fought and what will be the position of the U.S. Of course, that is a matter for you to decide and you will reach your own conclusions in the light of more information than is available in any other country, and I am not going to talk about it. But I do venture to suggest that you watch carefully these moves during the next few days, that you further sift the evidence that the machinery to influence your thinking and your decisions has already been set up in many countries. And now, the last word that has reached London concerning tonight’s development is that at the British Embassy in Berlin all the luggage of the personnel and staff has been piled up in the hall and it is remarked here that the most prominent article in the heavy luggage was a folded umbrella, given pride of placement amongst all the other pieces of luggage.”
 

    Edward R. Murrow, This is London, p. 4-5.

This September 1 marks the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II in Europe, which commenced 79 years ago with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. After breaking the Munich pact less than six months after it was signed by taking over the eastern part of Czechoslovakia, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machine made it clear in the spring of 1939 that Poland was their next target. With the burns still fresh from trusting Hitler’s word at Munich, Britain and France extended pledges to the Poles to go to war on their behalf if Germany invaded their country. By forming this alliance, they thought that Hitler was militarily hemmed in from attacking Poland because the Soviet Union had pledged undying ideological hostility to Nazism. They continued to think this as Hitler’s political demands and rhetoric against the Poles escalated through the summer when the unthinkable happened. The Nazi-Soviet pact burst upon the world on August 23, 1939, with the two dictator states announcing they had signed a nonaggression pact (in fact, they had secretly agreed to divide Poland between them) which made a German invasion possible. War was now imminent.

It is within this last week of August 1939, as the world held its breath wondering if Germany would indeed invade Poland, and if Britain and France would keep their promises this time (after having betrayed their alliance with the Czechs in return for Hitler’s promise of peace), that this passage needs to be examined and understood.

The first thing that is remarkable about these words of war is that originally they were not printed for public consumption, but spoken. Edward Murrow was reporting via radio broadcasts, and this was the most immediate medium through which Americans received news of a continent on the brink of war. In the first paragraph, what stands out to the student of history is the spirit of the British at that moment. As Murrow reports, the point has been reached where the uncontested march of the aggressor nations Japan, Italy, and Germany through the 1930s is now reaching an end, and his detection of quiet determination among the British is the briefest foreshadowing of the spirit that will be absolutely necessary for their survival in the coming year.

 

radio

Images at top and above: The living room and kitchen radios featured in the War Affects Every Home gallery of The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George R. Brown Salute to the Home Front exhibit at The National WWII Museum.

The second impression the passage leaves with readers is the uncertainty of the moment. We today know that Hitler rescheduled the invasion of Poland from two days before this August 28 broadcast, but the British government and the audience listening to Murrow, like Murrow himself, did not know that fact or that the invasion was scheduled to take place only three days later. The confusion amid the high-ranking British politicians that Murrow reports subtly underlines the political reality of the situation, that there was little they could know or do directly because the initiative for war truly lay in Adolf Hitler’s hands.

Finally, there is Murrow’s conclusion for his listeners. With Europe on the brink of war, he concludes not with whether there will be a war, but with how it will end. Before the war has even officially started, he raises the question of American involvement. In language that is striking for today’s media environment, Murrow not only honors and encourages the independent analysis of events by his listening audience, but also delicately reminds them of the hidden agendas woven into some of what they are hearing. Students of history know that the German press controlled by the Nazi government was filled at this time with false stories of the Poles committing abuses against Germans within Poland, even stories of German men being castrated, which Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels were orchestrating to justify a German invasion.

But the most telling part of Murrow’s broadcast, to me, is the image he creates at the end. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used umbrellas as props during his political career. The umbrella symbolized his status as a practical British businessman among the people, and Chamberlain had even been photographed carrying an umbrella while shaking hands with Hitler at Berchtesgaden during the negotiations in September 1938 that culminated in the Munich agreement. Murrow relates that perched on top of the pile of luggage in the British embassy in Berlin, literally on its way out, is an umbrella—a subtle but unmistakable symbol of the end of British appeasement of Hitler.

This is the first of three posts on Murrow's broadcasts. Read Part Two, Part Three.

Purchase a recording of Murrow's and other reporters' broadcasts from the Museum Store.

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“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD , Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum

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Keith Huxen

Keith Huxen, PhD, is the Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII...
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