In 1938 the European correspondent for CBS was in Austria when the Nazis marched in. He wanted to tell the world about it—but first he had to help invent a whole new kind of broadcasting.
As I walked across the Adlon lobby toward the man I took to be Murrow, I was a little taken aback by his handsome face. Black hair. Straight features. Fine chin. Just what you would expect from a radio type, I thought. His neat, freshly pressed dark suit, probably cut in London’s Savile Row, contrasted with my crumpled gray flannel jacket and unpressed slacks. He had asked me to dinner, I was almost certain, to pump me for material for one of his radio broadcasts. Well, I would try to be as civil as possible. He was not the first.
But as we walked into the bar, something in his manner began disarming me. We ordered a couple of martinis and began talking of mutual friends. I was surprised how many there were. We ordered another round.
He started talking about radio in America. The important thing, he said, was its potential. It was not living up to it yet, but it might someday.
“I’m looking for an experienced foreign correspondent,” he said, “to open a CBS office on the Continent. I can’t cover all of Europe from London.”
It was the first good news I’d heard in months.
“Are you interested?” Murrow asked.
“Well, yes,” I said, trying to stem the surge I felt.
“How much have you been making?”
I told him.
“Good. We can pay you the same—to start with.”
I had hoped he might offer a little more—CBS and NBC paid good salaries, I had heard—but I said nothing. Tess and I could continue to live all right on $125 a week.
“Is it a deal?” he asked.
“I … I … guess so. This is all rather sudden.”
“No more for you than for me,” he said. “Anyway, welcome to CBS!”
We had a good dinner.
Murrow fired me with a feeling that we could go places in this newfangled radio business—that we might, in fact, be the first to steer radio into serious broadcasting of the news. But this exciting prospect was soon dashed.
After a week with him in London at the beginning of October, I confided to my diary: “One disappointing thing about the job, though: Murrow and I are not supposed to do any talking on the radio ourselves. New York wants us to hire newspaper correspondents for that. We just arrange broadcasts. Since I know as much about Europe as most newspaper correspondents, and a bit more than the younger ones, who lack foreign languages and background, I don’t get the point.”
The point CBS made, Murrow said, was that for us to do the reporting ourselves on the air would commit CBS editorially. Commit the network to what? It made no sense to me.
So much for radio journalism! I felt let down by Murrow and the CBS brass, led by William S. Paley, who owned and ran the network. And I had thought—Murrow had told me— I had been hired because of my knowledge and experience of Europe as a veteran foreign correspondent! But I swallowed my disappointment. I would stay on with this frustrating radio job until I could get back to newspaper reporting. Murrow himself, I quickly learned, would be a grand guy to work with. He was sensitive, serious, and intelligent, with a warmth behind his reserve and a droll sense of humor.
We laughed about concocting a title for me that would impress the state-owned European broadcasting companies, whose facilities we would need, and came up with “Continental representative of CBS.” Murrow in London would be the CBS “European director. ” We discussed whether I should make my headquarters in Geneva or Vienna—it would have to be in a centrally located neutral country from which I could arrange broadcasts from all nations without censorship.
I knew Geneva from having covered the League of Nations and I did not particularly like the prospect of living and working there permanently: it was too stodgy. I preferred Vienna, which was cosmopolitan and more centrally located, with better transportation and communication facilities. It had special charm and cultivation, and it was Tess’s native city, where we had met, married, and started life together. Ed agreed with our choice, and the Shirers left for Vienna.
It was obvious those first months of our return to Austria that there was a ferment in that country that threatened to stir up all Europe.
In Austria the Christian fascist regime of Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg was crumbling, undermined by a surge of Nazism kindled from across the border in Germany and by the revival of the Socialists, whom Schuschnigg’s predecessor, Engelbert Dollfuss, had put down so savagely in 1934 before he was murdered by a Nazi gang. Hitler’s interest was aroused; as he had written in the opening lines of Mein Kampf, he wanted his native Austria to be joined to the German Reich.
Beautiful, stately, civilized, gemütlich Vienna had become a sad place in the years we had been away. The great baroque and neoclassical buildings were now dilapidated, the paint scaling from their walls. The city and the people, as I noted in my diary on Christmas Day, 1937, looked “terribly poor. … The workers are sullen …and one sees beggars on every street corner.” The great mistake of this clerical dictatorship, which was mild compared with the Nazi dictatorship in Berlin, was to not have a social program that would ease the lot of the unemployed, the poor, the ill, and the old.
My diary took notice of these things and also of some that were more personal. We had found a comfortable apartment in the Plösslgasse, next door to the Rothschild palace. The owners, being Jewish, had removed themselves to safer parts. Tess had liked the apartment, but it had one disadvantage. It was on the third floor, and climbing stairs was becoming increasingly difficult for her. Our baby was due in seven weeks, but so far all had gone well with Tess. Her pediatrician did not anticipate any complications.
Though I had left Germany, I was still supposed to cover it for CBS. But cover it how? Ed Murrow and I were busy broadcasting youth choirs from all over Europe for a weekly children’s program called “Columbia's American School of the Air.” Still, I tried to follow the news—especially of Berlin and Vienna, which by early February appeared to be on a collision course. In Berlin itself some kind of an internal struggle was going on. I kept calling my contacts in the German capital, mindful that we had to be careful over the phone. They knew something was “cooking,” they said, but they were not sure just what.
On Saturday, February 5, the news burst upon us. Hitler had, the night before, cashiered the two men who had built up the German army from scratch: Field Marshal Werner von Blomberg, who was minister of war, and Gen. Baron Werner von Fritsch, commander-in-chief of the army. The Führer, a corporal in the Great War, named himself supreme commander of the armed services. To make sure that the army accepted this drastic shake-up, Hitler relieved sixteen senior generals of their commands and transferred forty-four others.
But that was not all. Konstantin von Neurath, the old-school but compliant foreign minister, was fired and replaced by Joachim von Ribbentrop. Two veteran career diplomats, Ulrich von Hasseil, the ambassador in Rome, and Herbert von Dirksen, the ambassador in Tokyo, were retired, and Franz von Papen, the Führer’s minister in Vienna, was relieved of his post, which caused him to become, he later said, “speechless with astonishment.” Papen had been zealous in furthering Hitler’s interests in Vienna. But he had been somewhat taken aback at the beginning of February when he learned of a plan concocted by Rudolf Hess to stage a riot in front of the German legation in Vienna, have someone murder Papen himself and the German military attaché, and thus give Hitler an excuse to march his troops into Austria to “restore order.”
This shake-up marked a turning point in the evolution of the Third Reich. The last of the key conservatives who had stood in the way of Hitler’s embarking on risky foreign adventures had now been swept away on a winter’s weekend.
What provoked the downfall of Field Marshal Blomberg and General Fritsch at this particular moment we did not learn until much later. Of all things, it was matters pertaining to sex.
Field Marshal von Blomberg, a widower, had fallen in love with his secretary, one Fräulein Erna Grühn, and toward the end of 1937 had proposed marriage. The haughty, aristocratic officer’s corps had opposed it because the secretary was a commoner. But Hitler and Göring approved, and on January 12 the marriage took place, with the Führer and Göring present as principal witnesses.
A few days later, while the couple were beginning a honeymoon in Italy, a Berlin police file was discovered. It showed that the bride had a police record as a prostitute and had once been convicted of posing for pornographic photographs. The new Frau Field Marshal had, in fact, grown up in a brothel run by her mother.
The officer’s corps was horrified, and Hitler dismissed his field marshal. As Gen. Ludwig Beck, chief of the army general staff, put it, “One cannot tolerate the highest-ranking officer in the armed forces marrying a whore.”
Unsavory as the revelations of the past of Blomberg’s bride were, they were nothing compared with the accusations that now fell upon Gen. Werner von Fritsch. A gifted and unbending officer of the old school, Fritsch never concealed his contempt for Hitler and his henchmen, and Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS and Gestapo, had long been determined to “get” him. By the beginning of 1938, Himmler, assisted by his chief aide, Reinhard Heydrich, and the resources of the Gestapo, had framed the general. They had sent Hitler “documentary proof” that General Fritsch was guilty of homosexual offenses under Section 175 of the German criminal code, and that he had been paying blackmail to an ex-convict since 1935 to hush up the matter. Summoned by Hitler to answer the charge, the general was too outraged to speak, and the dictator fired him. Later Fritsch was completely exonerated by a military court of honor, which exposed the malicious frame-up. But Fritsch was never restored to his post, nor were Himmler and Heydrich demoted from theirs.
Hitler’s housecleaning was an extremely important development, and I wanted to hurry to Berlin to report it for CBS radio. But Paley and the rest of the brass in New York were not interested. I was to continue to put juvenile choirs on the air.
In the meantime, as Tess and I waited rather anxiously in Vienna for the baby to come, events were reaching a climax. Adolf Hitler, who had spent most of his youth in this very capital, was now pushing the Austrian Nazis to take over. This was to be preliminary to the achievement of the primary goal of his life: Anschluss—the union of his native Austria with Germany.
In his Alpine mountain retreat above Berchtesgaden on February 12, Hitler, in a scene probably unique in modern European history, rudely threatened and badgered Schuschnigg to turn over Austria to the Nazis or face invasion by the German army. The forty-one-year-old Austrian leader, taken by surprise and overwhelmed by the Führer’s threats and fury, capitulated. He agreed to lift the ban against the Austrian Nazi party, to grant amnesty to all Nazis in prison, to appoint Austrian Nazis to key cabinet posts, giving them charge of the police, the army, and the economy, the last of which was to be “assimilated” into the German economic system. As Schuschnigg later admitted, he was signing the death warrant of Austria.
Perhaps, I thought, I could interest CBS in the end of Austria. I asked for fifteen minutes of air time. No interest. I had obtained a lot of inside information about the horrendous meeting of the two chancellors at Berchtesgaden that, so far as I knew, had not been published or broadcast. Nothing doing. I was told to continue to present my children’s choirs—the next broadcast was scheduled to come from Sofia on February 24.
I spent my birthday, February 23, on the Orient Express as it puffed its way down through the snow-covered Balkans. Our baby was due any moment, but no foreign correspondent let his personal life interfere with his assignments.
I returned on the afternoon of February 26 to be greeted at the Vienna East Railroad Station by an old colleague with the news that I had that morning become the father of a baby girl. My good wife, after an emergency Cesarean operation to save her life and that of her child, would, the doctors thought, survive. I hurried to the hospital.
Neither her doctor nor the nurses who examined her on arrival at the hospital two days before had anticipated any complications. Yet the most simple one imaginable had developed. For forty-eight hours Tess was in labor, but nothing came of it. This was a Catholic hospital, and apparently the nurses, mostly nuns, kept insisting on a natural birth, though every painful hour showed that this was improbable if not impossible. Finally, on the morning of the third day, the doctor, who was Jewish, performed the Cesarean to save the life of mother and child. It had been a close thing, he told me. I wondered why he had waited so long, regardless of the nurses, to operate, but I did not ask him. For the moment I was immensely grateful that Tess and the baby were alive.
I spent most of the ensuing days and evenings by Tess’s side at the hospital. Phlebitis set in, in one leg, threatening to cripple the mother if it did not kill her. I began to have the sickening feeling that care at the hospital was breaking down. No one seemed to know just how to treat the phlebitis. The best they could do was to apply a swarm of leeches to suck the blood. Everyone, doctors and nurses, was increasingly frightened at what was going on outside.
By now it was clear that the Austrian government of Chancellor Schuschnigg was collapsing. The Nazis whom Hitler had forced Schuschnigg to take into his cabinet were fast undermining it. Nazi mobs in the streets, encouraged by the release from prison of their leaders and the legalization of their party, were on the rampage. On February 24, while I was doing my children’s broadcast from Sofia, Schuschnigg, I learned, had attempted to answer in the Austrian Bundestag a boastful speech of Hitler to the German Reichstag of four days before. The Führer had warned that Germans would know how to “protect” the ten million Germans living on its borders, seven million in Austria and three million in Czechoslovakia. Everyone knew what Hitler meant by “protect.”
Schuschnigg’s speech had been conciliatory to the Germans, but he declared that Austria had gone to the limit of concessions: ”… we must call a halt and say, ‘This far and no further.’” Austria, he concluded, would never voluntarily give up its independence, and he ended with a stirring call: “Red-White-Red [the Austrian national colors] until we’re dead.” (The expression also rhymes in German.)
The Austrian chancellor’s speech set off a wild reaction in the provincial city of Graz, where twenty thousand Austrian Nazis invaded the town square, tore down the loudspeakers carrying Schuschnigg’s words, hauled down the Austrian flag, and raised the swastika banner of Germany. In charge of the police was the Austrian Nazi Dr. Artur Seyss-Inquart, whom Hitler had forced Schuschnigg to make minister of interior. Inevitably, no effort was made to curb this Nazi riot or others that began to break out across the country.
In his desperation, Schuschnigg turned for help to the Austrian workers, whose trade unions and political party, the Social Democrats, he had kept suppressed after Dollfuss had smashed them in 1934. These people represented 42 percent of the Austrian electorate. Schuschnigg promised to restore their political party and release their leaders still in prison.
But it was too late.
Still, Schuschnigg made one last effort to save Austria. In a speech delivered at Innsbruck on the evening of March 9, he announced that a plebiscite would be held four days hence—on Sunday, March 13. The Austrian people would be asked whether they were for a “free, independent, social, Christian and united Austria—Ja oder Nein?”
I missed this sudden and fateful announcement. That evening I was on the overnight train to Ljubljana, the charming little capital of Slovenia in Yugoslavia, to do still another children’s broadcast for Columbia’s American School of the Air.
The sun was out and spring was in the air when my train from Ljubljana steamed into Vienna’s Südbahnhof at eight o’clock on the morning of Friday, March 11. I felt good. In a few moments I would be seeing Tess and the baby. For the moment I had forgotten Hitler and Schuschnigg and the Austrian crisis.
The taxi driver abruptly brought me down to earth. Overhead two planes were dropping leaflets.
“What are they all about?” I asked him.
“The one Schuschnigg ordered for Sunday. ”
I climbed the stairs to our apartment, puzzled. I asked the maid. She handed me a stack of newspapers for the three days I had been away. The front-page headlines brought me up to date.
M. W. Fodor, the Vienna correspondent for the Manchester Guardian and the New York Post and a walking encyclopedia of information about Austria, was there. With him was Ed Taylor of the Chicago Tribune. Both were old friends. They were a little tense, but hopeful—even Fodor, who as a Jew had to fear for his life if the Nazis took over. The plebiscite would go off peacefully, he thought. And Schuschnigg would win it easily, now that he apparently had gained the support of the Socialists.
Ed Murrow being away in Poland, I wrote out a cable to Paul White, the news director in New York, urging him to allow me to broadcast the results of the plebiscite Sunday evening. But before I could telephone it in, events on this eventful Friday of March 11 began to cascade.
Around 4:00 P.M. I dashed out to the hospital to see if Tess was feeling any better. As I crossed the Karlsplatz to catch the subway, I was stopped by a crowd of about a thousand people. Most of them wore Nazi swastika armbands on their overcoats. But they were surprisingly docile. One lone policeman was yelling and gesticulating at them. And they were giving ground! If that’s all the guts the Austrian Nazis have, I thought, Schuschnigg will have no trouble with his plebiscite. I hurried on to the hospital. Tess said she was feeling a little better. The baby was fine. Reassured, I headed back to town.
When I emerged from the subway at Karlsplatz about 6:00 P.M., I was amazed to find that the situation there had changed abruptly. Several thousand shouting, hysterical Nazis were milling around the vast square in the gathering darkness. The lone policeman of two hours ago must have been captured by the crowd or gone home for supper.
I found myself being swept by this riotous, yelling throng out of the Square past the Ring, past the opera, into the Kärntner Strasse and down this narrow street, where most of the fashionable shops were, to the offices of the German “tourist” bureau, which, with its immense, flower draped portrait of Adolf Hitler in the window, had been a rallying point, a veritable shrine, for the Austrian Nazis. Here the mob stopped to demonstrate, and in the streetlights I noted the familiar faces of some of the individuals who made up this churning herd. I had seen those faces at the party rallies in Nuremberg: the fanatically popping eyes, the gaping mouths, the contorted expressions of hysteria and paranoia. And now they were screaming: Sieg heil! Sieg heil! Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler! Hang Schuschnigg! Hang Schuschnigg! Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Führer!
I had often seen the Vienna police break up Nazi demonstrations in this spot. But now they were standing with folded arms. And most of them were grinning. Some of the young women in the crowd began to take off their hooked-cross armbands and tie them on the sleeves of the police. More grins. Obviously the Vienna police were going over to the Nazis. I wondered what had happened so suddenly. I turned to some of those nearest to me. They were too excited to answer. Finally a middle-aged woman responded.
“The plebiscite,” she yelled in my ear. “Called off! We think Hitler comes tomorrow. Isn’t it wonderful!”
The calling off of the plebiscite was news to me. If true, I thought, Schuschnigg could scarcely survive this very night. He was already losing the streets and the police to the Nazis. I extricated myself from the swirling mob and fought my way back to the Hotel Bristol. Ed Taylor was in the lobby. He confirmed the news. Schuschnigg had called off his plebiscite, promising to broadcast an explanation shortly.
Ed and I caught a taxi to the American legation. John Wiley, the American chargé d’affaires, was standing before his desk, clutching his long cigarette holder and trying to smile—in the way one does after a terrible setback.
“It’s all over, my friends,” he said quietly. “There has been an ultimatum from Berlin: No plebiscite Sunday, or the German army marches in. Schuschnigg has capitulated.”
The chancellor might go on the air at any moment and explain the situation, Wiley said. He invited us to stay for supper and listen in, but I had to get hold of Murrow in Poland and enlist his aid in getting New York to let me broadcast. I returned to our apartment in the Plösslgasse, in which I also had my office, put in a long distance call to Ed, and switched on the radio. It was playing a gay Strauss waltz. I could not reach Ed at a Warsaw number he had given me. I hung up. The waltz abruptly stopped.
“Attention! Attention!” an excited voice said. “In a few minutes you will hear an important announcement.” Then came the familiar ticking of a metronome, the Austrian radio’s identification signal. Maddeningly it sounded: tick … tick … tick … I turned the radio down. Then came a voice I knew well. It was Chancellor Schuschnigg. I took down his words: “This day has placed us in a tragic and decisive situation. I have to give my Austrian fellow countrymen the details of the events of today.
“The German Government today handed to President Miklas an ultimatum, with a time limit, ordering him to nominate as chancellor a person designated by the German Government, and to appoint members of a cabinet on the orders of the German Government. Otherwise German troops would invade Austria.
“I declare before the world that the reports launched in Germany concerning disorders by the workers, the shedding of streams of blood, and the creation of a situation beyond the control of the Austrian Government are lies from A to Z. President Miklas has asked me to tell the people of Austria that we have yielded to force since we are not prepared even in this terrible situation to shed blood. We have decided to order the troops to offer no resistance.
“So I take leave of the Austrian people with a German word of farewell uttered from the depth of my heart: God protect Austria!”
Toward the end I thought his voice would break, that he would begin to sob. But he managed to control himself. There was a moment of silence, as his voice fell away. Then the Austrian national anthem was played—it sounded as if it came from an old record. It was the familiar tune of Deutschland über Alles, only in the original version, as Haydn composed it. That was all.
A little later the rasping voice of the Judas came over the air. This was Seyss-Inquart, an old friend of Schuschnigg—they had served in the same regiment during the war—who announced that he was taking power and felt himself responsible for law and order. He sounded confused, but he made one important point. The Austrian army, he said, was to offer no resistance. This was the first I had heard of a German invasion. Hitler’s ultimatum, Schuschnigg had said, was: Capitulate or face invasion.
Hitler had quickly broken the terms of his own ultimatum. He now had his Anschluss—the union of his native Austria with Germany. He might also have, it occurred to me, a war. This was the last time the old allies— Britain, France, and Italy, assisted by Czechoslovakia, which had a well-armed military force—could act to stop him.
My main problem was to get it on the air.
First, I had to persuade CBS to put me on. Then I had to have facilities for the broadcast from whoever was in charge of RAVAG, the Austrian broadcasting company.
So far I had received no word from CBS in New York as to whether they were interested in hearing from me and I had been unable to get in touch with Murrow, who had much more clout with the brass in New York. Neither of us—I had to face it—had yet been allowed to broadcast reports ourselves. Would CBS make an exception now? I forced myself to think it would. I phoned the Austrian broadcasting company to set something up. No answer. Probably the Nazis had already taken over. I hurried downtown to see.
In the Johannesgasse, before the RAVAG building, steel-helmeted soldiers in field-gray uniforms were standing guard with fixed bayonets. They must have been flown in from Germany. After some parleying they let me in. They were very businesslike. The vestibule and corridor, in contrast, was a scene of confusion. Young men in all sorts of Nazi uniforms were milling about, brandishing revolvers, playing with bayonets, and shouting continually. I managed to get past them to the offices of Emil Czeja, the director general, and Erich Kunsti, the program director, with whom I had worked on various broadcasts. I found them surrounded by excited Storm Troopers. The two men obviously were prisoners. I managed to get in a word with Kunsti.
“How soon can I get on the air?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I’ve ceased to exist around here,” he said, trying to laugh. He motioned to a scar-faced trooper. “Ask him, he seems to be in charge.”
I went up to the fellow and explained I wanted to set up a broadcast to New York. He had a blank look on his face that must have been permanent. I could make no impression on him. Finally, I said, raising my voice: “Let me talk to your chiefs in Berlin. I know them. I’ve worked with them. They’ll want me to broadcast.”
I had decided that getting a line through to a shortwave transmitter in Berlin, which could then relay me through to New York, was the only course left. I would have to use a little double-talk to get past the censor there.
“Can’t get through to Berlin,” the wooden-headed trooper said. “Lines all dead. Maybe later.”
“Not a chance,” Kunsti whispered to me.
A couple of guards, fingering their revolvers, nudged me away. Outside in the corridor I decided to stick around and wait for a chance to talk to the broadcasting people in Berlin. I glanced at my watch. Midnight. A local news bulletin came through on the loudspeaker. It said a new government was being formed at the Ballhausplatz. I dashed over there in time to see Seyss-Inquart, standing on the balcony, naming himself head of a new National-Socialist government.
On my way back to RAVAG, I stopped at the Café Louvre, where the American correspondents hung out. Martha Fodor, the beautiful Slovak Martha, was fighting to keep back the tears. This was the end of her world. Her husband was not there. He had gone home to try to telephone his story to London. John Wiley, she said, had already called to say that in the morning he would take them to Bratislava, across the nearby frontier in Slovakia. So the Fodors would be safe!
My former assistant when I was the correspondent of the Chicago Tribune in Vienna, one Emil Maass, swaggered in. He had been a rather mousy man when he worked for me, a little backward for his thirty years. He was half-American, half-Austrian, and had two passports. He came up to the table where I was sitting with Martha and Major Goldschmidt, a monarchist leader working for the restoration of the Hapsburgs, and two or three others.
“Well, meine Damen und Herren, ” he smirked, “it was about time.”
He turned over his coat lapel, unpinned his hidden swastika button, and ostentatiously pinned it on the outside over the buttonhole. Martha shrieked “Shame!” at him.
Major Goldschmidt, to whom I had taken a liking, rose quietly from the table. He had a Jewish father but he was a practicing Catholic. Hitler, I thought, would never forgive him for his racial mixture or his politics—after the Jews in Vienna, Hitler hated the Hapsburgs most, as he made plain in Mein Kampf.
The major stood at the table for a moment.
“Thank you all for your friendship,” he said quietly, “even if you didn’t like what I was up to. ” He shook hands around the table.
“You will please excuse me,” he said. “I shall go home now and get my revolver.” Later that night he shot and killed himself.
I hurried from the Louvre back to the Austrian broadcasting house. My scar-faced trooper did not greet me warmly.
“You back?” he said. “Nothing doing. No lines. No broadcast. Will you please leave.” And he beckoned a couple of troopers, one of whom took my arm none too gently and ushered me out into the street.
I looked at my watch. It was 3:00 A.M. I had failed. I had been sitting on a great story all evening. And now I would never get it out. I felt crushed.
As I headed toward home, the chilly night air began to clear my mind. How selfish and small-minded I was, I saw, to feel sorry for myself. What was my failure to get the story out compared with the story itself, to what had happened in a single night to this unlucky country—indeed, to this strife-ridden continent. It was a milestone in history we were living through in Europe, a great tragedy for Austria, a considerable triumph for Adolf Hitler. As a reporter, I had been lucky to witness it. Despite a personal frustration my life and work would go on. But for many Austrians this night’s happenings meant the end—in a concentration camp, a prison. Or the ruin of a career or business. For the country’s two hundred thousand Jews it meant worse.
Wearily I climbed the stairs to our apartment. It felt as if I lived on the fifteenth floor instead of on the third. The phone rang. It was Ed Murrow, finally, from Warsaw. I told him the news—and my bad news.
“Fly to London tomorrow morning, why don’t you?” Ed suggested. “You can get there by tomorrow evening and give us the first uncensored eyewitness account. And I’ll come down to Vienna.”
I phoned the airport. Only military planes were being cleared for landing or takeoff. I decided to try anyway. Finally, at around 5:00 A.M., I lay down to catch an hour’s sleep.
When I arrived at the airport at 7:00 A.M., I found that the German Gestapo had taken over the main building. A surly, black-coated SS officer shouted at me that no planes were being allowed to take off I soon found that Göring’s Luftwaffe was running the airport, and military planes were landing every minute. An air force captain told me that the ban on commercial flights might be lifted any moment and advised me to try my luck with a British Airways plane leaving for London. No luck. It already was overbooked—mostly, I saw, by frightened Jews. I did not have the heart to replace one of them.
I turned next to Lufthansa, the German airline. They had a plane for Berlin due out at 9:00 A.M. No Jews were applying to fly there. I got a seat on it. It would be stopping at Prague and Dresden, but should reach Berlin by noon. From there I had at least some chance of catching a plane to London.
At Tempelhof airfield in Berlin I made immediately for the offices of the Dutch airline. More luck. They had a plane leaving in an hour for Amsterdam and then continuing on to London. And they had one more seat, which I instantly bought. There was time for a lunch and a glance at Berlin’s morning newspapers. I was taken aback by the headlines, especially the one in Hitler’s own newspaper, Der Völkischer Beobachter. Across the front page stretched a bannerline in three-inch-high type: GERMAN-AUSTRIA SAVED FROM CHAOS! Beneath was an incredible story, a tissue of lies describing violent “Red” disorders in the main streets of Vienna—“fighting, shooting, pillage,” it said. I tucked the newspapers into my briefcase—I intended to read from them during my broadcast from London, if I ever got there.
Our flight to Amsterdam kept being postponed. Finally, when I had about given up, it was called. I felt relieved when we had circled over Berlin and turned west. I was, at last, getting free of Nazi censorship. I began to scrawl a rough script for the broadcast from London. By the time we came down at Croydon, it was almost finished. I phoned the office from the airfield. To my happy surprise the English secretary informed me that New York had arranged for me to go on the air for a fifteen-minute report at 11:30 that evening, 6:30 P.M. at home.
This would be the first time CBS had ever allowed one of its own staff to broadcast the news firsthand. I could scarcely believe it, even hours later as I nervously watched the minute hand on the clock in the little BBC studio circle to 11:30 P.M. Then, over the feedback from New York I heard the CBS announcer introduce me: “A little more than twenty-four hours ago, Nazi troops passed over the border into Austria. ... At the time of the invasion yesterday, William L. Shirer, Columbia’s Central European director, was in Vienna. This afternoon he flew to London to bring you an uncensored, eyewitness account of the move. … We take you now to London.”
On that cue, facing a mike in a BBC studio, I began my first broadcast of the news since joining CBS.
I said yes and hung up. The truth was I didn’t have the faintest idea how. Nothing like it had ever been done before. I put in a call to Murrow in Vienna and, as I waited for him to call back, I pondered what to do. I knew almost all the American foreign correspondents in the various capitals. It would be no problem to line up a good man in each capital, provided we could locate them on a Sunday evening.
Ed and I also now knew the directors and chief engineers of the various European broadcasting systems whose technical facilities we must use as well as the key men in the ministries of post, telegraph, and telephone, whose lines and transmitters we also needed. While waiting for Murrow, I put in long-distance calls to American correspondents in Paris, Rome, and Berlin. I also called the directors and chief engineers of the French National Broadcasting Company and of the Ministry of Post, Telegraph, and Telephone (PTT) in Paris, the Ministry of Posts and the Reichs Rundfunk Gesellschaft (RRG) in Berlin, and the Ente Italiano Audizioni Radiofoniche (EIAR) in Turin. I was thankful I had picked up French, German, and Italian. Without them I don’t know how I could have operated that Sunday afternoon.
Murrow came through from Vienna. He thought he could persuade the Germans to give him a telephone line to Berlin, where his broadcast could be relayed to New York by the shortwave transmitters there. He also gave me some tips about other technical problems. Rome had a good shortwave transmitter, but if it was not available, we must order telephone lines from Rome to Geneva or London. Paris had no transmitters. I must book a telephone line from there to London through the French PTT. Before long my telephones were buzzing—and in four languages. In Turin I was unable to arouse any EIAR official or engineer who could help. I would have to book a telephone line through the Italian Ministry of Communications from Rome. Berlin came through. The RRG would give me a studio and a shortwave transmitter. They would also try to set up a line to Murrow in Vienna but they also warned me that the only good one between Vienna and Berlin was in the hands of the German army and, therefore, doubtful.
As the evening wore on, the broadcast began to take shape. White telephoned from New York with the exact times scheduled from each capital—London, Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Rome —and with the cues that would get each talk on and off the air. I called the last four capitals with the time skeds and cues. I hoped the engineers would somehow understand our cues, which were in English.
My newspaper friends started to respond to the calls I had put in for them. Edgar Mowrer, Paris correspondent of the Chicago Daily News, was spending the weekend in the country. It took some urging to persuade him to return to town to broadcast. But Mowrer had a passion for talking about anything connected with Hitler, who had booted him out of Berlin. No man, I knew, felt more deeply about what Hitler had just done to Austria. Frank Gervasi in Rome and Pierre Huss in Berlin came through. They would broadcast if their International News Service office in New York agreed. I called CBS in New York asking them to get INS to permit Gervasi and Huss to talk.
“Okay,” Paul White said. “And while I’ve got you on the line, what transmitters on what wavelengths are Berlin and Rome using tonight?”
I had forgotten about that. We probably couldn’t get the Rome transmitter, I told him. As for Berlin, I’d have to phone there and call him back, which I did. I was going to take Gervasi from Rome via a telephone line to Geneva, if I could set it up. I was having a hard time making contact with the Swiss and Italians on a Sunday evening.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll call you back on that.” I had been unable thus far to locate any member of Parliament; they were all weekending in the country. Ellen Wilkinson, the fiery, redheaded Labor M. P., came through on the phone. She, like everyone else, was in the country.
“How long will it take you to get back to London?” I asked her.
“About an hour,” she said. It was 11:00 P.M. We had two hours to go.
“Okay,” I said. “We go on the air at 1:00 A.M . I’ll meet you at the BBC shortly before that. That gives you two hours to compose some brilliant remarks about British reaction to Hitler’s taking Austria this weekend. Or” —Ellen was an old friend—"British lack of reaction.”
Gervasi was on another line from Rome. “The Italians can’t arrange it from here on such short notice,” he said. “What shall I do?”
“We’ll take you over Geneva,” I finally said. “Tell EIAR to order the lines for you and to be sure to reserve a studio in Rome.”
“I’ll try,” Gervasi said, but there was not much hope in his voice. He knew the Italians.
“I’ll get after the Swiss,” I said. “And if all fails, phone me back in an hour with your story and I’ll read it over the air from here. New York,” I added, “is very anxious to know what Mussolini is going to do.”
“You know damned well what he’s going to do, or rather not going to do, Bill,” Gervasi said. We, too, were old friends.
“Sure. Same as Chamberlain here in London. Nothing,” I said.
“But New York, Frank, wants to hear it from you, speaking from Rome. Sounds more effective than if I say it here from London.”
The phones kept jangling and I kept chattering into them. Finally it was 12:45 A.M. I hurried up the street to BBC’s broadcasting house. Ellen Wilkinson was just arriving, and we walked down the stairs to a studio. Soon New York came through on a feedback, and I made a final check with Paul White. It looked as if we had clear sailing with Paris and Berlin and Vienna—Ed Murrow had become quite confident he would get through on a line to Berlin. We were bringing Paris in on a telephone line to London. Rome was out. I simply had been unable to get a line from Rome to Geneva. But Gervasi was on the phone this minute from Rome, dictating his story to a stenographer. White agreed to switch back to London toward the end so I could read it.
The last fifteen seconds ticked off to 1:00 A.M., 8:00 P.M. of the thirteenth in New York. Through my earphones I could hear the calm, smooth voice of Bob Trout introducing the show. ”… To bring you the picture of Europe tonight Columbia now presents a special broadcast with pickups direct from London, from Paris and such other European capitals as have communication channels available.... Columbia begins its radio tour of Europe’s capitals with a transoceanic pickup from London. We take you now to London.”
Still, I thought, the roundup went very well, considering it was a first try. Berlin, Vienna, and Paris came in on time and clearly. New York switched back to me so that I could read Gervasi’s report from Rome. He stressed that Mussolini would not oppose Hitler in Austria, as he had been ready to do four years before. The Duce, he reminded us, had joined the Führer's camp.
Paul White came back to me on the feedback at the end of the broadcast. Everyone in New York, from Paley on down, he said, was elated. They thought this first broadcast roundup had been a huge success.
“So much so,” White said, “that we want another one tomorrow night. Can you do it?”
I was awfully tired, but elated too.
“No problem,” I said.
Though I was eager to return as soon as possible to Vienna, New York asked me to stay on in London for the rest of the week to finish up the story from there. This would give Ed Murrow a well-deserved chance to cover Hitler’s triumphant return to Austria.
Though, like me, Murrow was working nearly twice around the clock, he had found time to visit Tess in the hospital and to phone me daily about her condition, which was not good. Her phlebitis, the doctor said, was still critical. The baby girl, whom we had not yet had time to name, was fine.
Back in London there was plenty to keep me busy. On Monday I spent a good part of the day organizing our second news roundup, scheduled for 3:30 A.M., our time, Tuesday, with pickups again from London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna, and Rome. The second broadcast was a little easier.
I was more excited, and so was Murrow, at CBS’s eagerness to put the two of us on the air after having kept us off so long. At 4:00 P.M. on Monday I broadcast a report of Prime Minister Chamberlain’s statement to the Commons on Hitler’s conquest. The immediacy of radio fascinated me. “Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain,” I began, “arose to make a statement in the House of Commons a half hour ago.” It was still coming over the news ticker as I began to report.
“The hard fact,” said the prime minister, “is that nothing could have arrested what has actually happened [in Austria] unless this country and other countries had been prepared to use force.”
That was true enough. But I wondered what the future of Great Britain could be if it were unwilling to use force to counter Nazi force.
Winston Churchill, still out of power, still a voice in the wilderness of British politics, touched on that subject in a speech that struck me as the most realistic and farsighted of any in the House that day: “The gravity of the event of March 12 cannot be exaggerated. Europe is confronted with aggression … and there is only one choice open … either to submit, like Austria, or else to take effective measures while time remains.... If we go on waiting upon events, how much shall we throw away of resources now available for our security and the maintenance of peace? How many friends will be alienated, how many potential allies shall we see go one by one down the grisly gulf?”
Some of my colleagues who had heard Churchill speak in the House told me that they had never heard him more eloquent. This gave me an idea. Why not ask him to talk over our network and speak the very words he had used in the House of Commons?
Paley, when I phoned him, liked the idea very much.
“Call Winston immediately,” he said, “and tell him I would like very much for him to do a fifteen-minute broadcast for CBS—preferably repeating what he said so well in the House of Commons.”
“I’ll phone him at once,” I said. “How much do we offer him?”
“Fifty dollars,” Paley said.
Fifty dollars? I could not believe it. “Bill, I don’t think Churchill will do it for fifty dollars. That’s only ten pounds.”
“Explain to Winston,” Paley countered, “that this will be a ‘sustaining’ program, that is, without commercials. Tell him fifty dollars is our standard fee for sustainers.”
“Fifty dollars,” Paley said. He was getting exasperated with me.
I phoned Churchill at the House of Commons. He would be delighted to talk for fifteen minutes over CBS, he said.
“What, may I ask, do you pay for such a talk?”
“Fifty dollars,” I said. “Ten pounds.”
My words apparently stunned him into silence.
“Fifty dollars?” he finally asked.
“Mr. Paley asked me to explain to you, sir,” I said, “that that is the customary fee for a ‘sustaining’ program of fifteen minutes. That means there are no commercials, you see. We did not think you would like to be sponsored commercially, even if we had time to arrange it.” Churchill did not seem to appreciate the difference. Finally he said, “Tell your boss I’ll be happy to do it for five hundred dollars—one hundred pounds, that is.”
It was a bargain!
Paley refused to pay it.
I left London for Vienna at the end of that hectic week, and Murrow met me at the airport. It was too late to gain admission to the hospital to see Tess, but Ed had just come from there and assured me that, though she was still having a rough time, she would certainly pull through. It had been particularly difficult for her in the confusion and terror of the Nazi take-over. One Jewish woman across the hall had jumped out the window and killed herself and her baby. Tess’s obstetrician had fled, but another doctor had been found.
When Ed and I arrived before my house in the Plösslgasse, SS guards in steel helmets with fixed bayonets were standing at the door. What looked like a whole platoon of them stood guard before the Rothschild palace next to us. When we started to enter my home, the S.S. men prodded us back.
“I live here!” I said.
“Makes no difference. You can’t go in,” one of the guards countered.
“Where can I find your commander?” I asked.
“In the Rothschild palace.”
A towering SS man escorted us into the Rothschild gardener’s house, which adjoined our building. As we entered, we collided with some SS officers who were carting up silver and other loot from the basement. One, who appeared to be the commander of the unit, was loaded down with a heavy box of silver knives and forks. He put it down, not the least embarrassed, while I explained my business and our nationality. It struck him as rather funny, but he told the guard to escort us to my door.
“But you’ll have to stay put there—at least for awhile,” he said, again chuckling—"until this little operation is finished.”
From a window of my apartment, Ed and I, after a stiff drink, watched the SS men emerging from the Rothschild house and piling their booty in waiting trucks. I was anxious to see what the city looked like, now that Hitler had taken it over. So we crept down the stairs, waited until our guards were away from the entry-way, and sneaked out on tiptoe into the darkness. The streets were fairly quiet. Ed said all the Jews had pretty well been rounded up and arrested— several thousand of them—as well as several more thousand Socialists and followers of Schuschnigg. Vienna had become just another city of the Reich, a provincial district administrative center, withering away. Hitler had wiped his native land off the map and deprived its once glittering capital, which he thought had rejected him, of its last shred of glory and importance.
We walked around the inner city for an hour and then adjourned to a bar off the Kärntner Strasse. By this time Ed had settled into a lugubrious mood. He was depressed by what he had lived through in Vienna all week: the hysteria of the crowds, the shouting and boasting of Hitler, the sadism of the Nazi bully boys in the streets. A few evenings before, in this very bar, he said, he had seen a Jewish-looking man get drunk and slash his throat with an old-fashioned straight razor he had pulled from his pocket.
The former chancellor himself, Ed said, was under arrest: nobody knew where. No formal announcement of what had happened to Schuschnigg was ever made by the German government, so far as I know. The former Austrian chancellor simply disappeared into limbo. Eventually I spent some time ascertaining his fate.
On Hitler’s orders Schuschnigg was arrested on the morning of March 11, a few hours after he had been forced to resign, and he was kept under house arrest until May 28. He was then transferred to Gestapo headquarters at the Hotel Metropole in Vienna, where he was incarcerated in a small room on the fifth floor for the next seventeen months.
There, with one towel issued to him weekly—ostensibly for his personal use—he was forced to clean the quarters, washbasins, slop buckets, and latrines of his SS guards. During his first year as Hitler’s captive, he lost fifty-eight pounds. There followed more years of solitary confinement and then of life “among the living dead,” as he described it, in concentration camps.
His diary of May 4,1945, however, noted a happy ending: “At two o’clock this afternoon, alarm! The Americans! An American detachment takes over the hotel. We are free!”
The next morning Murrow left for London. I myself hurried to the hospital to see Tess. Her condition, one of the doctors confided, remained critical. We still had to face the possibility, he said, of a blood clot from the phlebitis—only time would tell. Tess had gone to the hospital expecting to stay a week at the most. She had been there nearly a month now.
I tried to put my worries aside by working. I did a special broadcast on how Vienna had changed during the week I was away. But I could not really give an accurate report. The Nazis had clamped down a temporary censorship on our broadcasts. I realized that I must move my headquarters to a neutral spot as soon as Tess was out of the hospital.
What one now saw in Vienna was almost unbelievable. The Viennese, usually so soft and sentimental, were behaving worse than the Germans, especially toward the Jews. Every time you went out, you saw groups of Jewish men and women, on their hands and knees, scrubbing Schuschnigg slogans off the sidewalks and curbs as jeering Storm Troopers stood over them and taunting crowds shouted insults. The SA and SS were picking hundreds of Jews off the streets or hauling them out of their homes to clean the latrines in the barracks and other buildings that had been seized. Foreign Jews or foreigners whom the Nazi thugs fancied looked like Jews also were seized and put to work at menial tasks.
John Wiley’s wife happened to be a Polish Jew. She dared not leave the legation for fear of being picked up and put to “scrubbing things.”
Tess and the baby finally got home from the hospital on April 8. Even though Tess’s spirits rose, her condition did not improve, and she still could not walk. The doctors were baffled. Finally one of them stumbled on what was wrong. New X rays revealed that metal objects, apparently surgical instruments, had been left inside her after the emergency Cesarean operation. It would be best, the doctors said, if they were removed by the obstetrician who had performed the operation. He was still in hiding, but I managed to locate him. He did not want to risk appearing at the hospital, for which I did not blame him. He agreed, however, to do it in a safe place.
I found a convent in the Wienerwald a mile or two down the Danube that had a clinic and whose good Sisters of Mercy agreed to accommodate us for the operation. In the dead of night we drove out with our doctor. He did find an instrument that he had left behind. From that day on Tess made a steady, if slow, improvement.
In the excitement and confusion of her medical crises and of my professional ones, we had neglected to name our beautiful little daughter. We now corrected this. We named her Eileen Inga.
Murrow and I had agreed that as soon as Tess recovered enough to travel, I would move my headquarters to Geneva, where I would be free to broadcast and organize news programs without interference from Nazi officials.
Our departure from Vienna turned out to be more harrowing than we had anticipated. We had to get out by June 10, since Tess’s Swiss visa expired on that date. Tess still insisted on using her Austrian passport, which was no longer good. Foreign women who married Americans did not thereby acquire American citizenship. She refused to apply for a German passport, which all Austrians who traveled abroad were now forced to have. With the help of the American legation I was able to obtain a special permit from the German authorities for her to leave.
We felt exhilarated at the prospect of escaping on the morrow from this now Nazi land. I was on my guard, though. It was not so easy to leave Austria. The Gestapo was on the prowl, not only for Jews and dissident Austrians but also for foreigners who might be trying to get their money out in violation of the currency laws.
About noon, Tess, the baby, a young Austrian woman coming along as nurse, and I drove out to the airport. Inside the building I explained to the Gestapo chief that Tess was too weak from recent operations to stand up, and that I would go over her exit permit and the inspection of her baggage with him. On entering the waiting room, I helped Tess lie down on a bench and asked her not to move.
The Gestapo chief, a German of—I soon saw—limited intelligence but unlimited sadism, was not only skeptical but also suspicious. If the woman was my wife, why did she not have an American passport? Patiently—I was determined to keep my cool until I got safely out of this country—I explained the American law. So then the lady was Austrian! my tormentor cried. All Austrians had to have German passports.
I asked him to look closely at the exit permit, stamped by the main Gestapo office in Vienna. This, thank God, impressed him. But then he reverted to character. Tess, he said, would have to stand up, like all the other passengers, to assist in the baggage inspection.
I started to protest. I regretted by this time that I had not brought one of her doctors along to back me up, but it probably would not have made any difference. I began to raise my voice, whereupon my Gestapo man signaled a police inspector to take me away.
I was led into a small room, where two police officers went through all my pockets, frisking me from top to bottom. They then led me to another small room, adjacent. “Wait here,” they said. When I started to say I had to get back to my invalid wife to help with her baggage inspection, they closed the door in my face. I heard the lock turn. Five, ten, fifteen minutes. It seemed like hours. By now it was certainly time for our plane for Geneva to leave.
Just then I heard Tess cry: “Bill, they’re taking me away! They’re going to strip me! Where are you?”
I pounded the door. Through the window I could hear and see the Swiss racing the motors of their DC-3, impatient at being held up. After what seemed an age, a plainclothesman unlocked my door and led me to a corridor connecting the waiting room with the airfield. I tried to get into the waiting room to find Tess, but the door was locked. Once again I heard the Swiss revving up their plane. They were probably leaving without us—I could not see the plane from the corridor.
“Hurry!” snapped an official. “You’ve kept the plane waiting.” I held my tongue and grabbed Tess.
She was gritting her teeth, trying to hold back her outrage. “They stripped me, the bastards!” she blurted out. “They tore off some of the bandages! The bitches!” I had never heard her curse before.
I grabbed her other arm. We pushed through the door leading outside. We hurried as fast as we could across the grass. The plane stood there, fifty yards away, both engines humming. I wondered what more could possibly happen in the next few seconds before we could clamber up the steps into that blessed plane. Then we were inside it, and it was lurching across the field, gathering speed for take-off.
We flew blind through thick storm clouds over the Alps all the way from Vienna to Zurich, the plane pitching and tossing in the turbulence. Tess was deathly sick. I thought four-month-old Eileen Inga would die. The nurse passed out. Then there was Zurich down there. Switzerland, sanity, civilization, freedom. The sun came out as we continued on to Geneva.
By the time the doctor at the hotel had put fresh bandages on Tess and we had had drinks and dinner, we felt revived.
“Why in hell did they strip you, those Nazi bastards?” I asked Tess.
“Bitches,” Tess corrected me. “At least they use women for such jobs. Tough little Hitler maidens from Germany.”
“But why? I told them you were all bandaged up from the operations.”
“They were looking for money,” Tess said. “They were sure we were smuggling a fortune out beneath the bandages. They didn’t believe us until they saw the mess.”
During the next days, as we began to settle down, smug, staid, stodgy, Calvinist Geneva, which had bored me in the days when I had had to tear myself away from Paris to cover the League of Nations, began to strike me as almost a paradise.
Ed Murrow flew down to Switzerland from London.
I remember a glorious June afternoon that year when Tess, Ed, and I took passage up the lake to Lausanne on a paddle steamer, the calm water bright blue, like the Mediterranean, the shores splashes of green, the Jura Mountains to the west a deep, smoky blue, the snows of Mont Blanc to the east pink in the waning sun. We sat on the deck after a late lunch, mellow from the mountain wine and air’s warmth, and talked and laughed and wondered. We basked in the peace of it, the tranquillity, the Alpine splendor, the freedom.
We stayed on in Lausanne by the lake a few days, Ed and I as American observers at a meeting of the European Broadcasting Union, of which CBS was an associate member. But there was not much work to do. Mostly we loafed, swimming, sailing, hiking up into the foothills of the mountains, eating well, imbibing the local wines, and chatting through the balmy nights. How carefree we felt! How young!
They were the last days of peace and quiet we would know for seven long years—until the three of us had slipped into middle age and gone through the wear and tear of constant threats of war, one after another, and in the end, like hundreds of millions of others, war itself, this time more terrible in its horrors than any other in the life of the planet.