There is a tricky problem about the Internet. I’d love to fix it if I could. Let’s call it “Holocaust before breakfast.” You sit down for a cup of coffee and catch up on your social stuff, your various feeds, and suddenly, as happened to me a few days ago, you’re reading eyewitness reports about an abortionist at Auschwitz. Now you’re having coffee with Mengele.
Why not Holocaust before breakfast? Isn’t it good to shock people out of their complacency, to make them face the worst of human behavior and deal with the real story?
Of course it can be. But I’m not reading these Holocaust stories because I want to fathom human evil. I’m not shocked, because I’ve read thousands of pages about concentration camps over the last twenty years (my mother handing me Night at 14, saying “start here”). So I’m reading why? Because that link was the most evil, intense thing that I saw that morning, and I was drawn to it, and I clicked. I’m having coffee with Mengele for the worst, most sensationalistic of reasons.
MILLIONS KILLED. WORLD AT WAR. 17 PHOTOS OF CAPYBARAS RELAXING IN JAPANESE HOT SPRINGS. DISEASE KILLS MILLIONS. THE TAYLOR SWIFT / KORN MASHUP THAT NO ONE EVER ASKED FOR. ROMANS INVADE GAUL.
All of history is now my homepage. It’s a mess. So many paths lead back to Hitler, to mass death and extinction events. It blurs together. The Holocaust and the video from SeaWorld and the angry comment thread about people being too into bacon. We didn’t think about that part of hypertext—that so many of our garden paths would end in grim places. People hoped for Shakespeare.
Yet okay. I like the new world and humans are what they are. But I’ve had an idea for a while that I could slowly peck away at a moment in time, try to play that moment back, and see where it leads me. Maybe take notes about it. I can’t handle the Holocaust; it’s too big, and too evil, for me to know where to begin. But I was reminded, then, that there are two days of radio available—one from NBC, and one from CBS—from D-Day, June 6, 1944. So I’ll start there, with the very first audio file for NBC: The first 10 minutes of D-Day reporting. I don’t know much about D-Day. I know a certain amount from movies and osmosis. I’ve read a number of WWII histories. So I know that it’s unequivocally one of the big days of all history, and how it was planned. It looked like the picture at the top of this post. What has ever looked like that?
But mostly what I’m interested in right now is what it was like not to know. To have the facts slowly come to you, imperfectly. Which brings me to…
Source: 10 minutes (mp3) audio from D-Day from NBC
If you listen to that radio broadcast at first it feels like theater, like an Orson Welles prank. Music plays. At 00m16s it cuts off and a man tells you that the German news agency Trans-Ocean has announced the Allied invasion. There is shelling. The announcer keeps stuttering.
A minute after the announcement we’re back to the music. A somber piano. There is, I imagine, a huge cohort of engineers, running around, patching things into other things with long cloth-wrapped wires, saying:
“Go ahead, London.”
“Go ahead, New York.”
“We’re ready, New York.”
The MP3 file is tagged “0250"—a few minutes of audio before 3AM. Who was listening then? In New York apartments: Mothers nursing; the very old who have forgotten how to sleep; varied insomniacs. Did police cars have radio tuners? Cabs?
Having heard it what do you do now? The piano keeps playing. Why in God’s name they don’t just get on the radio and tell you what’s happening? Which they do at 03m50s. The music cuts off again. A plane has been lost. There are casualties. This was a country used to losing soldiers. It’s something a newscaster can just say and no one pauses, no one has to stop and take it in.
I was in a cab today, late for a meeting. The radio was tuned to a news station and a woman was talking with a hectic, hyper-sympathetic tone about a little girl who was bitten by a dolphin.
The biting had gone viral on YouTube. It sounded at first as if the dolphin had secreted her away to an undersea lair then tortured and eaten her, but in fact she’d leaned over to feed it and took a bite. This was at SeaWorld.
At night, hours later, but over 50 years ago, here is a man on NBC telling me in neutral tones about dead soldiers.
No one knows how many people will be killed, or maimed, or go missing. It’s 425,000 or so, but at the moment of the broadcast those people are still alive. They don’t know the details of Eisenhower’s plans—only a relatively few people do—or the urgent need for good weather, or the name “Operation Overlord.” The newscasters think Le Havre is being bombed but they’re not sure.
The NBC chimes play. A new broadcaster comes on around 07m30s and repeats what we’ve already heard. Allied sources will not confirm anything. The announcer reminds us that it could all be an enemy trick, that all of this is coming from Nazis. Nazis are a fact, not history. They are real and human and they need bread. Nazis broadcast things, own things, kill unbelievable numbers of people. The German news broadcast was recorded in London, a few hours ago. That’s all that’s known at this time. It’s not quite 3AM, Eastern War Time.