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Vincent Sheean

1899 - 1975


The son of William and Susan MacDerrnot Sheean, James Vincent Sheean was born in Pana, Illinois in December 1899. Red-haired and freckled, Vincent—as he was known—was a bookish child and absorbed himself in studying German and French. At the age of seventeen he enrolled at the University of Chicago, where he became a reporter for the Daily Maroon. Three and a half years into his university career his mother died, forcing Sheean to leave the University. He took a job with the Chicago Daily News, which lasted only a couple weeks. Disgusted with his luck, he went straight from the office of the editor who fired him to the train station—with no luggage and little money—and traveled to New York.

In Manhattan Sheean worked for the Daily News, a tabloid unrelated to the paper he had recently left. This time, however, Sheean fared better. He took to spending much of his free time in Greenwich Village—drinking and carousing with Village radicals, though, and soon became restless. In the spring of 1922 he sailed to Paris and that fall—as Mussolini’s Black Shirts were taking over the streets—visited Italy. Sheean soon returned to Paris, took a job as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and became one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drinking buddies. As a roving reporter, he traveled to Switzerland and the Rhineland. Sheean also went to Madrid and London, and returned to Rome to report on the antics of the Duke. Eventually, he went to Morocco to interview the popular rebel Abd el-Krim. That adventure led to the writing of Sheean’s first book, An American Among the Riffi.

           Sheean managed to be present at some of the most important events of that time. He toured China—where he met Madam Sun Yatsen during the early days of the Communist revolution—and crossed the Soviet Union, where he sympathetically witnessed the unfolding of Bolshevism. Sheean saw the Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem in 1929, as well as later the German reoccupation of the Ruhr Valley and the Italian conquest of Ethiopia. In 1935 Sheean married Diana Forbes-Robertson, daughter of the English actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson. The two often traveled on assignment together and later collaborated in writing books. After the beginning of the London Blitz the couple worked to find homes for English children in the United States, where they also sought refuge from the Battle of Britain. Vincent Sheean once told an interviewer that his reputation for being in the midst of the news arose because of his “ardent sympathy for the downtrodden.”

When he and his wife had fled from the Battle of Britain to Bronxville, New York, Vincent Sheean had expected to return to England in March 1941. A serious housefire in February of that year, however, kept Sheean in the United States long enough to rewrite a pending novel, Bird of the Wilderness. Eventually, he went to England on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post. In England he found a summer job teaching U.S. history to British schoolteachers. Afterwards, he spent two months in the Dutch Pacific islands, India and China reporting on the war for the New York Herald Tribune.

Sheean returned to the United States after his Asian assignment and resumed writing novels. The 1946 publication of his third work, This House Against This House, coincided with his divorce with Diana Forbes-Robertson. Three years later Sheean published Lead Kindly Light and remarried Forbes-Robertson in London. The couple had two daughters, one of whom became a London actress.

In 1951 Sheean wrote The Indigo Bunting, a tribute to Edna St. Vincent Millay, his friend who met a sad end. While going on to publish additional novels, Sheean also produced non-fiction accounts of Gandhi and Nehru. His bestselling Dorothy and Red told of the disastrous marriage between his friends Dorothy Thompson and Sinclair Lewis, while his Personal History consisted of his own revised memoirs.

As he had before the war, Sheean continued to witness famous historical events unfold. He innocently went to India in 1947 to find out “something about life’s meaning, purpose and significance”; three days later he watched as a Hindu fanatic assassinated Gandhi.

           Sheean died of lung caner in May 1975 in Arolo, Italy, where he and his wife had lived for many years.


The Sudetenland

Long before becoming an angry dropout in Vienna and his Fascistic politicking days in Munich, Adolf Hitler based his ideological worldview almost exclusively on the concept of “race.” Like many others in late-nineteenth-century Europe, he did not question the theory of distinct and unequal racial groupings or the assumption that Northern European “Aryan” peoples surpassed all other races in superior intelligence and worth. Naturally, Hitler’s fanatical racism demanded that after coming to power he would strive to reunite all “Germans”—regardless of nationality—into a single German empire. While he respected Swiss military might and needed access to the unshakeable Swiss banks too much to seriously consider invading the Teutonic districts of that Alpine land, he lusted early in his career after the “little Germans” in Austria and he longed to stretch Germany’s borders to include those ethnic Germans who lived in western Poland and in what was known as the “Sudetenland” in neighboring Czechoslovakia. Hitler trusted that once united, the Germans would take their “rightful” place as the eternal, invincible master-race rulers of the world.

By coupling clever political manipulation with the threat of gross force, Hitler annexed all of Austria without firing a single shot on 12 March 1938. Soon afterward he turned his attention to obtaining “legal” possession of the Sudetenland. Milking on-going frictions between the Czech and Slovak peoples and the minority German population (which formed 20% of Czechoslovakia, but a third of the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia), he announced in September of 1938 that Germany demanded the “return “ of all Czechoslovak lands where at least fifty-one percent of the population considered itself “German.” Citing exaggerated charges of political oppression of the Sudeten Germans, he promised that war would soon erupt in Europe if his demands were not granted.

With vivid memories of the butchery of the last World War close in mind, Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain trekked to Germany to avoid another widespread Continental war through the negotiations he promised would ensure “peace in our time.” While the French—established allies of Czechoslovakia since its independence from the Hapsburg empire in 1918—more shamefully disregarded the long-standing treaties and alliances it had made with Prague in return for political favors and support, the British government more actively gave away Czechoslovakia’s autonomy and future. Arguing that the country was too “remote” to risk infuriating the already-rageful Fuehrer, Chamberlain agreed with France’s Prime Minister Edouard Daladier literally to sign away possession of the Sudetenland to Germany. “If we have to fight it must be on larger issues than that” the British Prime Minister rationalized. Adding that it was a “quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing,” Chamberlain defended what basically represented the failure of the western European democracies’ last chance to stop Hitler’s ambitious, horrific expansion.

Although a faithful representative of France’s interests east of the Rhine, Czechoslovakia’s President Eduard Benes soon found that both the British and the French would offer no support should his country take on the Nazi monster by itself—as it had considered doing should the restless giant spill over the heavily fortified German-Czechoslovak frontier. Devastated by the collapse of the unadmirable Petite Entente he personally had designed and championed since 1918, Benes later told his fellow Czechoslovaks regarding the Munich Agreements, “This case is unique in history: our friends and allies have imposed on us such terms as are usually dictated to a defeated enemy.”

Shortly after Hitler had executed his artful Anschluss of Austria, the world realized he meant what he had said in Mein Kampf and turned its attention to Czechoslovakia, correctly speculating that it stood next in line as the proving ground for Nazi foreign policy. Journalists rushed into Prague hoping to report on the drama which was sure to unfold over the following months. Among those who came to observe and report, Vincent Sheean and his English-born wife Diana Forbes-Robertson arrived to witness the growing political tension in Czechoslovakia. Although they came to Prague early in the summer expecting a crisis of some sort, what they would watch transpire would confound even their most fantastic imaginings.

Early on Wednesday evening, 21 September 1938, Vincent Sheean returned to Prague, having spent the day in the Sudetenland. He found that loud speakers posted throughout the city had just announced to the Czechs and the stray Slovaks living in Bohemia that under pressure from London and Paris, the government in Prague had accepted the German dictator’s demand for a revision of the two countries’ border. Although they knew that President Benes had been handed an ultimatum shortly after midnight that morning by the British and French foreign ministers, the people wondered what would happen now that their country’s allies actually had delivered them into Berlin’s hands.

Sheean pushed his way down the city streets at dusk through the endless crowd that had assembled to monitor political developments. He observed a “general feeling of disillusionment, distrust and unease.” As he later recounted, “I saw women weeping convulsively, men with set, silent faces, boys standing in groups singing.” Because his British-marked car evoked hostile jeers from the betrayed Czechoslovaks, he soon left it parked at a garage and continued on foot. He found that “Traffic in the vast [Vaclavske] square had ceased, for the crowd had suddenly grown so enormous that it filled the whole area from wall to wall. The trams had come to a stop as islands in the crowd, and there were too many people for the police to disperse without violence.”

While the masses thronged the city center, Sheean surprisingly found that the mostly-peaceful demonstration lacked any organization: “there were no flags, no marchers, no shouts in unison. All that came later. For the moment it seemed as if the population of Prague had merely turned out into the street, stunned and grief-stricken, for lack of anything better to do.” He clearly saw that the shock of Britain’s, but moreover France’s abandonment of the young democracy had left the people in shock: they had no idea what to do next. “They moved aimlessly, here and there” he noticed, “without direction, most often without speaking.” It was, indeed, a very sad day. Years of nationalistic Czech and Slovak hopes crashed on the sharp rocks of political expediency. In response, the people openly mourned.

Walking further among the crowd, Sheean searched the people’s faces for signs of their often-despondent reactions. “The young ones took to singing patriotic songs” he said, “most of them melancholy in cadence, the old songs of the Bohemian people who were now condemned again to serfdom.” Hearing “plangent chords” of what he thought came from Smetana’s Libuse play over the loud speakers as he passed through the gathered crowd, like the Czechoslovaks he watched, Sheean fully realized the significance of the moment. He later wrote: “Never have I seen an assembly of people so instinctively moved to grief. Hope was to revive again later, and again to be betrayed, but on that Wednesday, September 21, the sure instinct of the people perceived the whole tragedy at once and mourned over the passing of their nation.”

Later, the demonstration slowly split into “semi organized forms.” After about an hour Czechoslovak national flags appeared and the young people solemnly marched off to the Czechoslovak National Parliament, their arms locked, singing patriotic Bohemian anthems. Laborers—who had appeared straight from the factories still wearing overalls—marched through Vaclavske Namesti and to the Parliament, also. “Men and women of all ages and classes, in every sort of costume” joined them. In front of the Parliament building, groups of women gathered and demanded “We give you our sons. Give them arms!”

Sheean marveled as the marching, singing and passionate cheering continued for hours. He estimated that between four and five hundred thousand people—half of the city’s population—had filled Prague’s streets. “Many thousands of these people” he reiterated, “were weeping all through the night. I even saw a policeman in tears” he noted. Although the German press described the demonstration the next day as a “Red riot in Prague,” Sheean maintained that it was completely peaceful and fitting the political crisis. “Those who witnessed it, in whole or in part” he said, “know that it was a truly spontaneous expression of the grief of a people; in years of experience of such matters I have never seen anything like it... The cry of the people of Prague on that night was from the heart.”

Finally leaving the demonstration and returning to the Hotel Ambassador, Sheean found his wife in tears—“tears partly of sympathy and partly of shame. Any English or French person who was in Prague on that night” he assumed, “must have suffered as she did.” As someone from the United States, Sheean reported “Three different English correspondents, at different moments on that evening, congratulated me bitterly on being an American.” While at times he questioned Washington’s reactions to events in Europe that year, he conceded “I knew what they meant.” When he went to bed at three o’clock the next morning, Sheean observed “there had been some diminution in numbers, but the demonstration was still going on. It was still going on the next morning at a quarter to ten, when I got up.”

For some ten days the people’s reactions reverberated through Prague, as did the political maneuverings of President Benes, who was forced to form a new cabinet. After the demonstrations on Wednesday evening and Thursday, however, an air of “unnatural calm, of tense and expectant waiting” overtook the Czechoslovak capital. Then, on Friday evening the twenty-third, the Prague regime announced a general mobilization. Easily out-matched by Germany’s intimidatingly strong Wehrmacht, the adament Czechoslovaks dug trenches, observed strict nightly blackouts, distributed sandbags and gas masks, devised elaborate evacuation plans and prepared as best they could to meet the formidable wrath of Hitler. People stockpiled food, blankets, candles and what under normal circumstances would be considered camping gear. As it waited for German bombers to arrive and level the country’s cities, the populace braced itself for the assault from the German Goliath. During this time, Sheean gathered that “The Czechs apparently believed, like the Spaniards, that it was better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.”

By now all communication between Czechoslovakia and the rest of the world ceased, as all telephone and telegraph lines passed through German-controlled Berlin or Vienna. Isolated both physically as well as politically, the Czechoslovaks helplessly waited for their fate to be decided for them. Recognizing that nothing further could be done—for the time being—the people bade their time. In wonder, Sheean recounted that “Under the most terrific stress, facing an ordeal so unprecedented that it was impossible to imagine it with any exactness, the inhabitants of Prague went about their business in discipline fashion... The resolute calm with which these things were done deserved that abused and abusable word, heroic. Men went to the war” he said, “women took their places at work; that was all.”

Finally, on 30 September Prime Ministers Chamberlain and Daladier signed the formal surrender of the Sudetenland to the Germans in Munich. In spite of the wishes of the Czechoslovak people and their government, Czechoslovakia’s “allies” had carved up the country and offered a huge slice of its territory to Hitler. Ultimately, however, he would not be satiated with only a partial victory, for Hitler coveted the rest of the country as well, for he wished to use it as a stepping stone to world domination.

After the act of betrayal had been completed, Benes had resigned to the forced partitioning of his beloved Czechoslovakia and the Germans received confirmation that they could occupy the Sudetenland unopposed, the Sheeans drove out on an early-October morning into the contested territory to observe the transfer of it to German control. Accompanied by the U.S. American reporter Walter Kerr, the three set out for Carlsbad to witness Hitler’s arrival in that provincial city. Reaching the ancient spa resort, they found a town and a region awkwardly shifting between regimes. Noting that the Czechoslovaks retained possession of the area until half an hour before the German army was to thunder in, Sheean later said “The whole procedure of transfer was very curious indeed: I doubt if anything of the kind has happened often.” He remarked that “all those who might have objected to the German victory (i.e. Jews, intellectuals, Social Democrats and other Germans as well as Czechs) were no longer in the conquered areas,” leaving the Nazis to enter to “the unfeigned rejoicing of a whole population—that is, such population as was left.”

The Sheeans had ventured to Carlsbad two nights earlier to find it “bedecked with swastikas, alive with the agitated and happy movement of a people who thought themselves ‘liberated’ by their change of masters from bad to worse.” Contrary to rumor, however, Hitler was not yet ready to visit the newly acquired Sudetenland, so they returned to Prague. On the drive that night, they encountered insightful German collaborators who warned that Czechoslovak guards were “murdering everybody who moved along the road, that passage was impossible.” The anxious reporter recalled “We drove as slowly as we could, with our dimmed lights, expecting a shot to be heard at almost any moment.” Despite the false scare, they returned to Prague safely.

On the morning that the little delegation again set out to witness the German dictator’s pompous show of victory in the land of the “liberated” Sudeten Germans, they stopped at the Horse’s Neck, a roadside inn for a quick breakfast. Proceeding on their way, at nearby Buchau they saw their first swastika that day hanging from a farmhouse. Buchau represented “the frontier of the areas surrendered to Hitler by Chamberlain; it was an ordinary Bohemian village with a mixed population, Czechs bearing German names and Germans bearing Czech names, a muddle and confusion of races like most of those villages.”

Shortly after leaving Buchau, “down one of those beautiful fertile slopes which are characteristic of the Bohemian countryside” they found “a brick farmhouse which had anticipated the Fuehrer’s advent by sticking up a swastika, even though the Czech army was still in possession of all this area for another day.” In Buchau itself they had seen “more evidence of preparation for the Fuehrer’s visit, although at the time we did not know what it was. This was a sort of maypole with evergreens on it, lying alongside the road, which was later to become a triumphal arch.”

           After Buchau the road from Prague to Carlsbad seemed to be once more in good repair. Earlier, in anticipation of a German invasion the Czechoslovak army had barricaded it, dynamited several bridges and prepared “every sort of improvised difficulty in case this road might have to be defended against the invader.” By now, however, it had been made clear again, making the rest of the drive to Carlsbad unimpeded. Although the road no longer was obstructed, driving through the Sudetenland the Sheeans soon encountered another kind of distraction. “The Czech army, retreating down the road, dispirited and not in good order, let us pass with only the cursory glances at our documents. We went through a kind of continuous mob of them of all the different varieties, eating their breakfast and slogging along home. They were an unhappy and beaten lot” Sheean thought, “beaten without having had the chance even to fight.”

When the Sheeans and Kerr returned to what was perhaps the Sudetenland’s most symbolically important city at about nine o’clock, they rolled into a Carlsbad giddy with expectation of the Fuehrer’s appearance. Passing over the hill overlooking the town they saw the “first real signs of the joy of the German population at their annexation to Germany.” The Sudeten Germans were draping swastikas “on nearly every house, at the windows, on the roofs and on the doorways.” Sheean noticed that the exuberant Germans had placed ladders against the houses “so that the inhabitants could put the swastika as high up on the facade as

possible.” He continued “Men, women and children greeted our car as it passed with the Fascist salute and shouts of ‘Heil Hitler!’” He complained “This annoyed us all a good deal, but there was nothing much we could do about it except ignore it.”

Descending down the winding road into the town center, the Sheeans and Kerr saw two “great Jewish charitable institutions,” a hospital and a home for the elderly. The hospital staff had securely boarded up the building “without a sign of life and without a swastika on it.” The home, on the other hand, seemed still occupied—“by whom” Sheean pondered “I do not know”—and swastikas hung from its windows.

At exactly nine o’clock they crossed the Muellerbrunn, the stream dissecting the center of Carlsbad. Just as they crossed it “the first carloads of German officers in uniform started to come across it from the other direction. They were cheered by a crowd which was, as yet, very small” Sheean recounted, “but they saluted with broad grins and reached out to take the flowers that were offered them by: the girls along the way.” Soon, as they moved into the town’s central square, the foreign visitors would see a reception like they’d never before seen.

Entering the Schmuckplatz, the square in front of the Carlsbad city theater, they found a place at the Hotel Goldenes Schild—the “Golden Shield”—as Nazi Party and propaganda functionaries had taken over the hotel where journalists usually stayed. Sheean explained that “All the other hotels in Carlsbad had been closed for about two weeks for lack of either guests or workmen [in the face of the impending invasion]. Some of them” he noted, “were now reopening—at least those of the Schmuckplatz—to afford places and food for the throng of visitors expected either as part of the Hitler show or as spectators at it.” The Goldenes Schild had reopened only that morning. Sheean found the proprietress comically obsessed with where she and her husband would find enough food stuffs, dishes and tableware for the expected masses. “They had a son” he added “who had just returned that day from across the hills in Germany somewhere: he had been a member of [the] ‘Freikorps’, that body of volunteer local Nazis who were never called upon to do any fighting beyond an occasional murder or assault on a Jew.”

The Sheeans ordered a second breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. Because of the disruption of food supplies since the recent crisis, Sheean received two rotten eggs in a row, leaving him without an appetite. Sitting near the restaurant window, however, he spied a strange sight. Out in the Schmuckplatz “A regiment of men, women and children had suddenly appeared and started uprooting all the plants, trees, rosebushes and other growing things in the...Municipal Gardens. What had been a formally planted garden was transformed under our eyes, in due course, into an open square.” The dumbfounded Sheeans and Kerr wondered “if this could be plain looting—whether the retirement of the Czech soldiery at seven o’clock had not left the town too unpoliced, so that industrious looters could not be prevented from taking what they pleased, even for firewood.” Seeing several German officers in the square, however, they soon realized that the “regiment” was simply “making room for a crowd for the Fuehrer to address.”

After their failed attempt to enjoy breakfast, the three curious visitors went on a walk around the busy town. As the SS already had confiscated and occupied the former police station “there were a good many gray-uniformed men of the regular army, as well as Brownshirts” to be seen. While Sheean had never liked the heavy-handed thugs Hitler made into uniformed guards, he found that they offered him a solution to the problem of where to park his car amidst the growing crowd. “I think I was aided” he confessed, “in this chiefly by a local Nazi who was influenced by the Great Britain license plate—that G.B. license plate which, cheered in German areas and jeered in Czech districts, showed so clearly who was the author of the present rearrangement of Europe.”

While in Prague Sheean had witnessed the most spectacular public outpouring of shared mourning and anguish, in Carlsbad he watched open displays of the opposite. He saw many people in the crowd who were “weeping for sheer joy. ‘This is the happiest day of my life,’ they told you when you gave them a chance” he said. Others, however, “had got mixed up in it by sheer accident... I saw two old ladies” Sheean reported, “walking along the street who had to stop and give the Fascist salute on one occasion... Both of these saluted perfunctorily, and one of them was obviously too puzzled either to know why she saluted or to do it halfway correctly. She flapped her right hand in the air” he laughed, “ as if she wished the whole thing—Fascism and Hitler and the rest of it—would go away.”

Despite the two flustered old women’s awkward stumbling through the new social etiquette, Sheean did not doubt the genuineness of “the natural enthusiasm of most in that crowd. They were glad of the annexation of this area to Germany: they were anxious to greet Hitler with as much adulation as they knew how to muster for him.” With any possible opposition having fled the area, Sheean realized that “none were left except those who were glad to welcome Hitler as the new master of Europe.”

The Sheeans and Kerr returned to the Hotel Goldenes Schild in time to watch huge trucks from the German propaganda office arrive to distribute swastikas and bring loudspeakers to be placed throughout the Schmuckplatz. “Great swastika banners were hung out over the balconies at the Municipal Theater” Sheean observed, “where Hitler was to speak.” On the Hirschensprung—the peak towering over Carlsbad—workers had painted a huge white swastika on pieces of wood arranged against a canvas background. Also, a swastika flag now stood alongside the sacred crucifix that had capped the mountain peak for many years.

At about ten o’clock additional German trucks arrived in the Schmuckplatz, this time carrying infantry with machine guns. The hoods of the cars at the head of the procession bore flowers, while the soldiers wore flowers on their helmets and at the ends of their rifles. Sheean watched with disdain as “all the girls in the streets reached out eagerly to touch their hands as the trucks passed.” By a quarter to noon the German army displayed “the trooping of the colors, a drill performed with terrifying precision in goose step.” Just as he speculated “if any other troops in the world could perform a parade drill like the Germans when they are on their mettle,” Sheean noticed large and small German tanks rolling down the street along the theater—“named, in Carlsbad fashion, the Old Meadow.”

By this time the loudspeakers the Germans had erected announced Hitler’s movement from the Sudeten town of Eger to Carlsbad, “point by point, interspersing these bits of information with advice and orders to the crowd. The sound trucks and film cameras” he said, “were busy in all this from eleven o’clock on, and the scene was one they did well to take—it was, in fact” Sheean thought, “something like a movie to watch, and must have been excellent material for the sound film.”

A potential threat to the pageant, it had been raining intermittently that morning in Carlsbad. When the crowd opened their umbrellas at one point the emcee “admonished them about this, saying that the Fuehrer was on his way to them in an open car, unprotected against the elements, and that they should be prepared to endure a little rain while they waited for him.” As the paternalistic emcee promised that “Umbrellas will be raised the next time it rains,” the people laughed and collapsed their umbrellas. In addition, the emcee repeatedly cajoled the spectators to pack the square, claiming “There is room in the Schmuckplatz for fifteen hundred thousand people.” Sheean mused “I doubted if there were fifteen hundred thousand people in Carlsbad just then, unless all were brought in from all the streets leading to Eger: and in that case who would be there to line the streets and cheer the Fuehrer as he passed?”

Sheean noted that despite the emcees’ less than subtle manipulation, the Schmuckplatz did not fill quickly. Suspecting that the authorities in charge of crowd control wanted to guarantee that continuous crowds would stretch along Hitler’s arrival route, he granted that “it took a little careful management to make the available number of people look like the usual frenzied mob of Berlin or Munich.”

Having reserved rooms at the Hotel Goldenes Schild directly opposite the city theater, the Sheeans and Kerr moved from the square to their rooms to watch the impending spectacle. Sheean celebrated their good fortune at obtaining the rooms, as he maintained “there was no other place where we could have had a better view of the machinery by which the demonstration was worked up.”

At one-forty that afternoon music began to pour out of the loud-speakers. Ten minutes later “the booming voice of the chief announcer said very solemnly: ‘The Fuehrer is in Carlsbad’. From then on until the great man appeared in the square “ Sheean recounted, “the cheering was continuous. We could hear it starting afar off, out of sight, by the Eger bridge presumably, growing stronger as the cars surrounding the Fuehrer pushed their slow and would-be majestic way through the streets.” At exactly one fifty-four a sound truck “with the crank steadily grinding” entered the Schmuckplatz, followed by Hitler’s car. Sheean described the Fuehrer as “rigid in his long military coat and cap, his hand at the military salute.” Prompted by “cheerleaders scattered here and there,” the crowd began chanting in unison “Wir danken unserem Fuehrer”—“We thank our Leader.” Sheean reported that “This seemed to be the principal slogan of the day, and was chanted again and again both during Hitler’s speech and afterwards, alternating with the brief, savage barking noise of ‘Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!’”

At two o’clock sharp Hitler emerged from the theater onto a balcony overlooking the Schmuckplatz, “giving the Nazi salute and receiving it from the massed crowd in the square beneath. The applause—general now” Sheean noted, “not cadenced or organized, but an outburst of hysterical yells and howls—continued for exactly five minutes, after which Hitler turned it off by signaling with his hand. It stopped” he compared, “as a light goes off when you turn the switch.”

As the local Nazi leader and the first speaker, a Herr Frank, thanked Hitler for the people of Carlsbad, exclaiming with much emotion “you have taken us home, mein Fuehrer”. The people again began chanting in unison. “Wir Danken unserem Fuehrer.” Then, Hitler spoke.

The Sheeans listened closely to Hitler’s speech. Although they could not understand all of it due to their general unfamiliarity with German, they were surprised by its uncharacteristically subdued tone. Sheean marveled “The speech on the whole was calm (for Hitler) and contained only one moment of the maniacal intensity which we expected.” Sheean claimed that one outburst came when Hitler pounded the balcony railing in front of him proclaiming “Dass ich hier ein Tag stehen wuerde, das hab’ ich gewusst!”—“That I would be standing here one day, that I knew.” Sheean added “the maniacal intensity was there in the statement, and everybody who heard it felt some kind of electric shock. There were some women in the crowd who fainted; I saw one carried out of the square and another brought into our hotel.”

Although its preparation had consumed the whole morning and early afternoon, the pageant ended by two thirty. Sheean and Kerr then rushed downstairs to eat and phone a report to their respective news agencies. After a short argument they decided to drive to Bayreuth—the nearest large town which happened to be in nearby Germany—because the telephone system in the Sudetenland continued to be wrecked since the crisis. Sheean admitted “It was a rash and almost idiotic idea to go there under such conditions, with a military occupation going on and a world war scare so recent that any foreigner must be subject to pretty severe scrutiny; but the nearest telephone in such cases is the nearest telephone, and go we did.”


First Impressions/Jewish Persecution

The threesome decided to drive through Asch, the Bavarian town Hitler had passed on his way to Carlsbad. They found it crowded on the Czechoslovak, “or rather on the newly Germanized side, but there was little enough traffic once we got into Bavaria itself. Here” Sheean remembered later, “we saw our first evidence of the confiscation of Jewish goods in the newly seized areas: a big truck from Carlsbad, belonging to a Jewish department store, was being driven into Bavaria with a lot of German soldiers in it.”

To their amusement, Sheean found that “At the frontier, which was now a frontier no longer, nobody knew just what to do with us. The Czechoslovak frontier was gone, the posts there deserted and the bars taken down, but the customs and other guards at the German frontier were still on duty.” Sheean presented to the Germans the required passports and papers for the car. Citing that there existed no reason for them to be detained, he expressed surprise when “the man who stamped our papers said we would have to go to the Gestapo in Bayreuth to get an Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung (a certificate of harmlessness or unobjectionability)” before they could return to Czechoslovakia.

When they reached Bayreuth Kerr successfully placed his report quickly. Sheean on the other hand tried to reach the North American Newspaper Alliance in London and the New York Times offices in Paris or in Berlin for hours, but to no avail. In frustration, a number of times he asked the manager of the hotel where they had stopped to eat and telephone to place the calls. Sheean eventually tried to complain to the operator himself “but the answer always was: ‘It hasn’t come through yet.’ I was getting so nervous with delay, and so mystified by it” Sheean recalled, “that I could hardly eat the excellent dinner provided by the Goldener Anker Hotel.”

Finally, Sheean left Diane and Kerr to eat their dinner and returned to the phone booth to ascertain why Kerr’s call had been connected so easily, but his simply would not go through. A voice he had not before spoken with came on the line, saying “Ah, so you were in Carlsbad today! You saw our Fuehrer, did you? Now wasn’t that fine! I hope you enjoyed that.” Sheean felt stymied by this: “Why should the operator care what I had been doing” he demanded, “and how could she know?” When he answered affirmatively to her rhetoric, she replied sweetly “That will be all right. You are sitting in a nice warm place, aren’t you, there in the hotel, with a good meal? You can wait. You will get your communication.”

Stunned and disarmed, Sheean returned to his companions yet they could barely believe his story. At ten o’clock trying once more—three and a half hours after Kerr effortlessly had reached Paris—Sheean finally resigned from reaching his news bureau and handed his press release to Kerr to call to his office in Paris: it went through in less than three minutes.

Realizing that Kerr had been reporting in Europe for less than a year and so was less likely to have a Gestapo dossier kept on him, Sheean conceded “These are the mysteries at work in Germany under the Nazi regime.”

So that they could return to Prague, the next morning the Sheeans and Kerr left the Goldener Anker Hotel and visited the local Gestapo headquarters. To his consternation Sheean discovered “Nobody in the Gestapo office knew what to do with us; they said it was unnecessary for us to have an Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung; that these were only for German citizens. But before we elicited this piece of information we had wandered through half the offices in the police station and talked to several officials who were just as puzzled as were.” At one point the authorities called the regional Gestapo headquarters in Nuernberg and thought the three Auslaender would have to travel there to secure the necessary papers.

As an U.S. American unused to merely submitting to bureaucracy, just as they were about to set off for the ancient city Sheean approached the Gestapo officials once more. “This time I went in alone and found that most of the officials were out to lunch. There was one man on duty” he found, “ a police officer, very military and heel-clicking type, who said to me, with a broad grin, ‘Why don’t you just go to the frontier and try to pass through? These are unusual times on the frontier and it might work. It isn’t very far, and if they turn you back you can return here and go to Nuernberg’.”

Following the sly bureaucrat’s advice, the Sheeans and Kerr drove to and passed through the frontier without incident. At the border the same officer who had said they must visit the Gestapo to obtain prerequisite papers now claimed “You should have told me that you belonged to the press.” According to him, journalists were not required to get permission.

Once the three travelers returned to the Sudetenland, “everything was different. Yesterday” Sheean mocked, “had been the day for flowers and jubilation; this was the day of tanks, armored cars, heavy trucks loaded with ammunition, staff cars, and a general movement of the German army to take possession of its prey.” He found the traffic from Franzensbad to be very heavy. “We had expected to be stopped and asked for papers” Sheean said, as the frontier guards had “warned us that a new motorcycle corps known as the Feldgendarmerie, with green arm bands, were patrolling the roads with orders to stop strange cars, and that we should show our papers and ask to be taken to press headquarters when this happened.” Instead of being stopped, however, when such patrols did pass “they always saluted us as if we had been members of the general staff and went whizzing on their way. My car was gray” he explained, “like most of the German staff cars.” He supposed that without stopping the car, there was no way to know it was not an official German army vehicle.

Sheean was not sure why he, Diane and Kerr encountered no problems back in the Sudetenland. He stated simply, “In any case among the strange things in those two days of wandering through a sort of no man’s land the like of which has seldom existed before, the strangest thing of all was that nobody stopped us or made the slightest attempt to find out what we were doing.” He continued “If we had had a machine gun, for instance, it would have been fairly easy to kill Hitler and his friends there on the balcony over the Schmuckplatz. Nobody searched us or asked us questions; there might have been lethal weapons in our one suitcase; but in any case we were allowed to circulate without let or hindrance. I began to think” Sheean recalled, “that the myth of German efficiency was a mere journalistic approximation, like so many other myths of the age.”

When they passed again through Carlsbad the Sheeans and Kerr found the town “was still bedecked in swastikas and was still in the state of hysteria that had descended on it the day before. The women and children” Sheean projected, “were, if possible, even a little more wrought up than on October 4, and at times the children risked their lives by rushing out into the road and yelling ‘Heil! ‘ with their hands raised in the Fascist salute. We had to swerve a couple times” he said in wonder, “to avoid such enthusiastic little idiots who took our car for a German one.”

Sheean found that “The hysteria died down swiftly after we left Carlsbad.” The farmhouses still flew swastikas from their windows and gables, but the procession of tanks and trucks had disappeared. Between Carlsbad and Buchau he saw only German footsoldiers, “stolid and good-natured, with bayonets fixed but without—apparently—any desire to interfere with our progress. At Buchau” he continued sarcastically, “we saw yesterday’s may-pole, which had become a triumphal arch at some point in the proceedings—two great garlanded poles with an arch of evergreen, swastikas and other tasteful bits of Nazi decoration.”

After Buchau, as the little troupe passed the last German soldiers, Sheean entertained for a moment a most unsettling vision. “Here I saw” he later wrote, “for one brief flash, a scene which seemed to me to indicate a state of mind. Two officers of the Wehrmacht were standing at the side of the road looking through field glasses at the further hills—the Czech lines and fortifications which had not been surrendered. They were laughing” Sheean conjured, “and there was something about the way they stood, looked, laughed and nodded that suggested a whole set of ideas.” In his mind Sheean imagined the two German army men saying to each other: “There they are, over there, secure behind some paper-mache fortifications that we can break through whenever we like. We have already taken more than anybody believed possible” he heard the invisible soldiers boasting. “We have only to wait a little while and we can take it all.”

            Indeed, Hitler occupied Austria in March of 1938 and the Sudetenland that September, each without any effective armed resistance. Having only in March of 1939 occupied what remained of Czechoslovakia, on 1 September of that year Hitler ordered the invasion of Poland and ignited what would become the second global war in less than twenty-five years to tear Europe apart. By May of 1940 the German army blitzed its way into the Low Countries and France—irrevocably engaging Germany in a state of “total war”—a war which eminated from the homefront, then eventually engulfed it as much as the earlier battlefront.

related letters from George F. Kennan on

Events in Prague

Tour of Nazi-Occupied Countries


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