“There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth, and to shame the devil,” U.S. commentator Walter Lippman once said. How then, did the U.S. media cover a man responsible for some of the most evil and heinous acts in recorded history: Adolf Hitler?
Press coverage of the German dictator defies a simple and neat summary, as the U.S. media was not, and has never been, a monolithic entity and coverage of Hitler naturally changed over time. Nonetheless, some patterns can be discerned from a cursory glance at the early years of Nazi rule.
Upon Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, some U.S. news outlets did not see a devil, but rather, much needed stability being brought to a country that had been in economic and social upheaval since before the Great War.
Hitler and the Nazis were providing a “dark land a clear light of hope,” according to a 1933 dispatch by the Christian Science Monitor that was cited by the American historian Dr. Rafael Medoff (“The American Papers That Praised Hitler,” The Daily Beast, Dec. 20, 2015). CSM praised, at its outset, Nazi rule for bringing order; quite literally for making the trains arrive “punctually.”
The U.S. press baron William Randolph Hearst was quoted by Putzi Hanfstaegnl, an early Hitler backer, about his purported views on the Nazi rise to power. According to the Aug. 23, 1934 issue of The New York Times, Hearst said that Hitler’s “Germany is battling for her liberation from the mischievous provisions of the Treaty of Versailles…This battle, in fact, can only be viewed as a struggle which all liberty-loving people are bound to follow with understanding and sympathy.” Although Hearst’s publications initially published articles by Hitler and his fellow fascist Benito Mussolini, the businessman, and the empire at his disposal, would eventually become a critic of Nazi rule and an advocate for their Jewish victims.
Other U.S. newspapers, despite evidence to the contrary, including the virulent antisemitism easily discerned in Hitler’s writings and speeches, nonetheless sought to look for moderation in the new Nazi regime.
As Medoff has pointed out, the Berlin bureau chief for The New York Times, Frederick Birchall, claimed that there was a “new moderation” in the political atmosphere after Hitler took power. Similarly, The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin stated in a Jan. 30, 1933 report that “there have been indications of moderation” by Hitler.
Elsewhere, some journalists displayed a tendency to underestimate the objectives of the new authoritarian regime.
The Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist, Hubert Knickerbocker, was one of the more perceptive members of the press to cover Nazi Germany. As detailed in Andrew Nagorski’s 2012 book Hiterland, Knickerbocker—in contrast to many of his colleagues—was one of the first to record rising anti-Semitism and to note it’s centrality to Nazi ideology. Yet, when it came to Nazi war aims, in 1933 Knickerbocker believed that, “The odds are too great against Germany for anyone but a mad German to consider making war now against France and her allies. Contrary to a considerable body of opinion abroad, it may be positively asserted that there are no madmen running Germany today.”
But as Ian Kershaw noted in his two-volume biography of the German dictator, Hitler’s rhetoric and Nazi ideology itself had begun to emphasize the need for Lebensraum (living space) from the late 1920s onwards.
Some outlets had been misreading Hitler long before he came to power. For example, The New York Times, in a Nov. 21, 1922 article claimed, “Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded.” “He was,” they assured readers, “merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes.” What The Times missed of course, was that anti-Semitism was central to the Nazi movement’s “political purposes.”
Long after Hitler became the Führer—after he enacted the Nuremberg Laws, dispossessed Jews and opened concentration camps—The New York Times would, in at least one article, proceed from the minimization of his ideology to outright hagiography. As my CAMERA colleague Gilead Ini pointed out, a 1939 New York Times Magazine article entitled “Herr Hitler At Home In The Clouds,” failed to critically detail Hitler’s policies, opting instead to record that the dictator “makes no secret of being fond of chocolate,” that he “likes an after-breakfast stroll on his mountain” and, perhaps most absurdly, that “Hitler can be a good listener.”
Perhaps one reason for this puff piece—and for the failings of those before it—is the access that journalists gained by not asking critical questions, be they of their own misperceptions or of Hitler himself. Indeed, the Nazis often curtailed press access after an unfavorable story, as Nagorski noted in his book.
This is evidenced in papers across the Atlantic as well. As the editor of The London Times, Geoffrey Dawson, told his Geneva correspondent H.G. Daniels on May 23, 1937, “I do my utmost, night after night, to keep out of the paper anything that might hurt their [German] susceptibilities. I can really think of nothing that has been printed now for many months to which they could possibly take exception as unfair comment (William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster, 1959).”
Unfortunately, the press giving antisemitic regimes the benefit of the doubt did not end in the Führer bunker.
Some in the media have insisted that the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood—both entities committed to, among other things, the destruction of the Jewish state of Israel—are “moderate.” And some journalists have displayed a tendency to minimize Iran and the Brotherhood’s antisemitism. For example, in a June 23, 2012 Op-Ed “Not-So-Crazy in Tehran,” Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times insisted that Iran couldn’t be a police state because “Iranians are irrepressible.”
To Kristof, the presence of a Jewish member in Iran’s parliament implied that the authoritarian regime—the chief sponsor of U.S.-designated terror groups committed to Israel’s annihilation—couldn’t possibly be as antisemitic as some claimed. On July 18, 2012—a little more than three weeks after Kristof’s article—a suicide bomber with ties to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terror group, murdered five Israelis and a Bulgarian bus driver at the Burgas airport in Bulgaria.
The press was not alone in underestimating and misreading Hitler and the Nazis, but it is worth noting that the media influences policymakers, as well as the general public. The conceits that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was merely for political purposes, that his objectives were not expansionist in nature, proved to be costly. Not only for the Jewish people, but for the estimated 27,000 people who died, on average, everyday from the spring of 1939 until the war’s end.