September 1, 1939:
“The Times concludes as follows: ‘The whole of the proceedings in Parliament yesterday were inspired by the conviction that a great evil must be erased from the world. That evil is the spirit of faithlessness, of intolerance, of bullying, and of senseless ambition which is embodied in Herr Hitler and those who surround him. The conviction overrides the horror of the thought that civilized man has had to tackle the same task twice in twenty-five years. The task will be done again, no matter what the effort required, and it will be done this time in a way which will insure that our children will not have to repeat it.’
“In general, tomorrow morning’s press is unanimous in its support of the government. You have been told of the hardening of public opinion here, the unity in the House of Commons, and the calm steadiness of the British public. You have been told that many expected a declaration of war tonight, and you have been told that there has been delay because a final appeal has been made to Herr Hitler to withdraw—an appeal which the Prime Minister has said he does not expect to succeed.
“I suggest that it is hardly time to become impatient over the delayed outbreak of a war which may spread over the world like a dark stain of death and destruction. We shall have the answer soon enough. If war comes tomorrow or the next day, most folks here believe that it will be a long war, and it is the historical belief of Britishers that wars are won at the end, not at the beginning.”
Edward R. Murrow, This is London, p. 12-13.
In the history books today, we read that World War II in Europe officially began on September 1, 1939, with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. But on that day, as can be seen by these words spoken by Edward Murrow in his radio broadcast, the world was still waiting on whether Britain and France would, in fact, make war. What is memorable about the passage above is the immediacy of the moment. But what also stands out for the student of history is the moral context which Murrow references on the day the war began which would be massively confirmed and vindicated in the hard years ahead.
The passage begins with Murrow quoting the London Times newspaper (just prior to the quote, he noted the paper’s left-wing political leanings to his audience) as exemplifying the spirit of the British nation in reaction to the news that Germany has indeed invaded Poland. As a historian, what I find interesting in the quote is the influence of history upon the present moment. The Great War had been an almost insurmountable cultural barrier against firmer policies in response to the Hitler regime during the 1930s. Postwar Britain was possessed of a mindset that no nation could possibly wish to relive the horrors of the modern warfare as experienced from 1914-1918—an attitude about as far removed as possible from the Nazi mindset, which lusted for revenge, exalted military triumph, and actively promoted the armed conquest of a new Germanic empire which would be racially purified of all “undesirable” elements. But it was the clear unmasking of this German mindset that was now hardening into a conviction in the British mindset that war would have to now be revisited, a quarter of a century later, and this time settled in a manner which would permanently settle the matter.
A more truthful assessment on the first day of a war might never be found: World War II would, in fact, develop into a war to the total destruction of Germany (and Japan) before hostilities were ended. But what is notable in the second paragraph is a truth of the moment: Britain was not yet at war. Although the government pledged to come to Poland’s aid, Prime Minister Chamberlain was grasping at the last straws of hope that war could be avoided, even as his ally was suffering under German blows. The response from Hitler which Murrow alludes to, and mentions that Chamberlain has little hope for, in fact, would never come. Consequently, Britain would formally go to war with Germany two days after Murrow gave this broadcast, on September 3, 1939.
But that is what also makes the last paragraph from Murrow so interesting to a student of history. Murrow clearly understands that the war will be a great catastrophe, a “dark stain of death and destruction” in his own words. But he again references the impact of history upon the situation when he says that based upon their experiences, the British believe that wars are won at their endings, not their beginnings. It is an interesting comment because success at the beginning of a war often leads to a quicker, successful conclusion of the war. In World War II, both Germany and Japan would have tremendous successes at the beginning of the war, and as we today know, they lost in the end. But in this case, Britain would come incredibly close to not surviving the beginning of this war. And on the day when Germany invaded Poland and Murrow broadcast these words, the man who would be responsible for leading Britain through the war, who virtually single-handedly prevented Hitler from achieving the strategic victory that would have changed the course of the war and history into a completely different (and probably even darker) channel, was not officially even a member of the British government—because Britain was still technically at peace, at this moment.
This is the first of three posts on Murrow's broadcasts. Read Part One, Read Part Three.
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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
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.