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Edward R. Murrow Broadcast from Buchenwald, April 15, 1945

Edward R. Murrow Broadcast from Buchenwald, April 1945
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Courtesy of CBS News and the National Archives and Records Administration; Photo: Public Domain

Few journalists have had greater professional success than Edward R. Murrow. He began a career in radio during the 1930s, when the medium was still new and had not yet gained the same respect as newspaper reporting. Murrow helped to change that by putting together a remarkable team of broadcast journalists who reported on breaking events in Europe prior to and during World War II.1 

By the time World War II broke out in 1939, radio had become a medium for entertainment, news, and propaganda.2 At that time in the United States, roughly 110 million people—about 90 percent of the population—tuned in to the radio an average of four hours per day. Audiences throughout the world were glued to their radio sets, eager to learn what was happening on the battlefront.3 Radio waves carried human voices reporting the news of the day with emotion and immediacy. Changes in communication technologies allowed broadcast journalists to get their stories out more quickly to their audiences—often ahead of newspapers.

Because the United States remained neutral at the start of the war, American correspondents could report from the wartime capitals. Sometimes they even reported from Europe's battlefields. But like other news services, broadcast journalists faced many challenges in getting their stories out. Censorship became more strict throughout the world for both newspaper and broadcast journalists. In countries such as Nazi Germany, scripts had to be approved by government censors before airing. Reporters had to gain approval from government and military officials in order to visit the front lines.4

Like many reporters, Murrow risked death during bombing raids and broadcasts from the front. He reported from the rooftops of London buildings during the “Blitz,” when Germany’s air force—the Luftwaffe—heavily bombed the British capital in an effort to force the United Kingdom to surrender. Listeners in America could hear the chilling sounds of bombs and anti-aircraft fire. After the entry of the United States into the war, Murrow took part in roughly two dozen raids over targets in Germany, witnessing for himself the terrible destruction unleashed by Allied bombers.

Murrow’s broadcasts from London cemented his reputation as a first-class journalist and helped to build American support for Britain's war against Nazi Germany. Like many other CBS reporters in those early days of the war, Murrow supported American intervention in the conflict and strongly opposed Nazism. He had witnessed the flood of refugees fleeing German-occupied Czechoslovakia and had helped German Jewish intellectuals find jobs in the United States. On December 12, 1942, Murrow took to the radio to report on the mass murder of European Jews.

More than two years later, Murrow recorded the featured broadcast describing evidence of Nazi crimes at the newly-liberated Buchenwald concentration camp.5 Murrow had arrived there the day after US troops and what he saw shocked him. Murrow returned to London shaken and angry. One colleague later recalled that “the smell of death was on his uniform."6 His experience was so traumatic that he delayed his report for three days, hoping to maintain some sort of detachment. On the day of the broadcast, April 15, 1945, Murrow appeared to be trembling and filled with rage by the time his segment ended. He later informed a fellow radio broadcaster that he was overwhelmed by the tragedy. The sight of hundreds of children’s shoes had completely unnerved him.7

This team included William L. Shirer, Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, and Richard C. Hottelet, among others. On this topic, see Stanley Cloud and Lynne Olson, The Murrow Boys: Pioneers on the Front Lines of Broadcast Journalism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996). 

For more on propaganda in the United States during the war, see the related Experiencing History collection, Propaganda and the American Public.

For more on radio journalists during World War II, see Gerd Horten, Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda During World War II (Ewing, NJ: University of California Press, 2003).

To receive permission to report on these events, reporters had to agree to omit locations and specific information that might prove beneficial to the enemy. Euphemisms often replaced more concrete language. News that potentially weakened public morale or spurred panic or fear had to be removed from reports. Enemy intelligence officers and propagandists also carefully combed through foreign news to gain useful information. For more, see Richard Collier, Fighting Words: The War Correspondents of World War II (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990), 34–35.

Murrow wasn't the only American who traveled to Buchenwald to witness the horrors of the camp firsthand. American Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam also visited Buchenwald in April of 1945 in an effort to deliver a report on Nazi atrocities that had occured there.

Alexander Kendrick, Prime Time: The Life of Edward R. Murrow (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1969), 278–279.

Joseph E. Persico, Edward R. Murrow: An American Original (New York: Dell Publishing, 1988), 227–231.

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Permit me to tell you what you would have seen and heard had you had been with me on Thursday. It will not be pleasant listening. If you are at lunch, or if you have no appetite to hear what Germans have done, now is a good time to switch off the radio for I propose to tell you of Buchenwald. It is on a small hill about four miles outside Weimar, and it was one of the largest concentration camps in Germany, and it was built to last.

As we approached it, we saw about a hundred men in civilian clothes with rifles advancing in open-order across the field. There were a few shots. We stopped to inquire. We’re told that some of the prisoners have a couple of SS men cornered in there. We drove on, reached the main gate. The prisoners crowd up behind the wire. We entered. And now, let me tell this in the first-person, for I was the least important person there, as you can hear.

There surged around me an evil-smelling stink. Men and boys reached out to touch me. They were in rags and the remnants of uniforms. Death had already had marked many of them, but they were smiling with their eyes. I looked out over that mass of men to the green fields beyond, where well-fed Germans were ploughing. A German, Fritz Kersheimer, came up and said, 'May I show you around the camp? I’ve been here for ten years.' An Englishman stood to attention saying, ‘May I introduce myself? Delighted to see you. And can you tell me when some of our folks will be along?’ I told him, 'soon,' and asked to see one of the barracks. It happened to be occupied by Czechoslovakians. When I entered, men crowded around, tried to lift me to their shoulders. They were too weak. Many of them could not get out of bed. I was told that this building had once stabled 80 horses. There were 1200 men in it, five to a bunk. The stink was beyond all description. When I reached the center of the barracks, a man came up and said, 'You remember me, I am Petr Zenkl, one time mayor of Prague.' I remembered him, but did not recognize him. He asked about Benes and Jan Masaryk. I asked how many men had died in that building during the last month. They called the doctor; we inspected his records. There were only names in the little black book, nothing more—nothing of who had been where, what they had done or hoped. Behind the names of those who had died there was a cross. I counted them. They totaled 242, two hundred and forty-two out of 1200 in one month.

As I walked down to the end of the barracks, there was applause from the men too weak to get out of bed. It sounded like the hand-clapping of babies, they were so weak. The doctor's name was Paul Heller. He had been there since '38. As we walked out into the courtyard, a man fell dead. Two others–they must have been over 60–were crawling toward the latrine. I saw it, but will not describe it.

In another part of the camp they showed me the children, hundreds of them. Some were only six. One rolled up his sleeve, showed me his number. It was tattooed on his arm. B-6030, it was. The others showed me their numbers. They will carry them till they die. An elderly man standing beside me said, 'The children–enemies of the state!' I could see their ribs through their thin shirts. The old man said, 'I am Professor Charles Richer of the Sorbonne.' The children clung to my hands and stared. We crossed to the courtyard. Men kept coming up to me to speak to me and touch me, professors from Poland, doctors from Vienna, men from all of Europe. Men from the countries that made America.

We went to the hospital; it was full. The doctor told me that two hundred had died the day before. I asked the cause of death. He shrugged and said: 'Tuberculosis, starvation, fatigue, and there are many who have no desire to live. It is very difficult.' Dr. Heller pulled back the blanket from a man's feet to show me how swollen they were. The man was dead. Most of the patients could not move.

As we left the hospital, I drew out a leather billfold, hoping that I had some money which would help those who lived to get home. Professor Richer from the Sorbonne said, 'I should be careful of my wallet if I were you. You know there are criminals in this camp, too.' A small man tottered up, say, 'May I feel the leather, please? You see, I used to make good things of leather in Vienna.' Another man said, 'My name is Walter Roeder. For many years I lived in Joliet. Came back to Germany for a visit and Hitler grabbed me.'

I asked to see the kitchen; it was clean. The German in charge had been a Communist, had been at Buchenwald for nine years, had a picture of his daughter in Hamburg. He hadn’t seen her in twelve years, and if I got to Hamburg, would I look her up? He showed me the daily ration: one piece of brown bread about as thick as your thumb, on top of it a piece of margarine as big as three sticks of chewing gum. That, and a little stew, was what they received every twenty-four hours. He had a chart on the wall; very complicated it was. There were little red tabs scattered through it. He said that was to indicate each ten men who died. He had to account for the rations, and he added, 'We’re very efficient here.'

We went again into the courtyard, and as we walked, we talked. The two doctors, the Frenchman and the Czech, agreed that about six thousand had died during March. Kershenheimer, the German, added that back in the winter of 1939, when the Poles began to arrive without winter clothing, they died at the rate of approximately 900 a day. Five different men asserted that Buchenwald was the best concentration camp in Germany; they had had some experience of the others.

Dr. Heller, the Czech, asked if I would care to see the crematorium. He said it wouldn’t be very interesting because the Germans had run out of coke some days ago, and had taken to dumping the bodies into a great hole nearby. Professor Richer said perhaps I would care to see the small courtyard. I said yes. He turned and told the children to stay behind. As we walked across the square, I noticed that the professor had a hole in his left shoe and a toe sticking out of the right one. He followed my eyes and said, 'I regret that I am so little presentable, but what can one do?' At that point, another Frenchman came up to announce that three of his fellow countrymen outside had killed three SS men and taken one prisoner.

We proceeded to the small courtyard. The wall was about eight feet high. It adjoined what had been a stable or garage. We entered. It was floored with concrete. There were two rows of bodies stacked up like cordwood. They were thin and very white. Some of the bodies were terribly bruised, though there seemed to be little flesh to bruise. Some had been shot through the head, but they bled but little. All except two were naked. I tried to count them as best I could, and arrived at the conclusion that all that was mortal of more than five hundred men and boys lay there in two neat piles.

There was a German trailer, which must have contained another fifty, but it wasn’t possible to count them. The clothing was piled in a heap against the wall. It appeared that most of the men and boys had died of starvation; they had not been executed. But the manner of death seemed unimportant. Murder had been done at Buchenwald. God alone knows how many men and boys have died there during the last twelve years. Thursday, I was told that there were more than twenty thousand in the camp. There had been as many as sixty thousand. Where are they now? As I left the camp, a Frenchman who used to work for Havas in Paris came up to me and said, ‘You will write something about this, perhaps?’ And he added, 'To write about this, you must have been here at least two years, and after that–you don’t want to write any more.'

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Courtesy of CBS News and the National Archives and Records Administration
Photo: Public Domain
RG Number 1995.148.1
Date Created
April 12, 1945
Duration 00:10:39
Edward R. Murrow
Buchenwald, Germany
Sound Recording Type News Report
How to Cite Museum Materials

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