Beyond Belief
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Beyond Belief

The American Press And The Coming Of The Holocaust, 1933- 1945

Deborah E. Lipstadt

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eBook - ePub

Beyond Belief

The American Press And The Coming Of The Holocaust, 1933- 1945

Deborah E. Lipstadt

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About This Book

This most complete study to date of American press reactions to the Holocaust sets forth in abundant detail how the press nationwide played down or even ignored reports of Jewish persecutions over a twelve-year period.

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Dateline Berlin: Covering the Nazi Whirlwind

As soon as the Nazis came to power, they began to institute antisemitic measures. Although the first antisemitic laws were not promulgated until early April 1933, from the earliest moments of Hitler’s rule in January 1933 violence against Jews in the form of Einzelaktionen, or “individual” acts of terror and brutality, was an inherent facet of German life. Boycotts of Jewish shops were conducted by the Nazi storm troopers. Jews were beaten and arrested; some were killed and others committed suicide. When the Nazis strengthened and consolidated their rule in the March 5, 1933, elections, outbreaks against Jews increased in intensity. American Ambassador Frederic M. Sackett, who was then preparing to retire from his post, wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that democracy in Germany had been the recipient of a “blow from which it may never recover.”1

The First Reports of Persecution

Though the press had not previously ignored Hitler’s antisemitism, most of the early reports stressed Nazi action against communists and socialists. It was only after the intensification of the attacks in March that the press began to focus explicit attention on the Jews’ situation. Typical of the vivid press reports sent by reporters on the scene was that by the Chicago Tribune’s Edmond Taylor, who provided readers with a stark description of the “unholy fear” prevailing among German Jews.
On the nights of March 9th and 10th, bands of Nazis throughout Germany carried out wholesale raids to intimidate the opposition, particularly the Jews . . . . Men and women were insulted, slapped [and] punched in the face, hit over the heads with blackjacks, dragged out of their homes in night clothes and otherwise molested. . . . Innocent Jews . . . ‘are taken off to jail and put to work in a concentration camp where you may stay a year without any charge being brought against you.’ Never have I seen law-abiding citizens living in such unholy fear.2
Taylor’s depictions of the systematic persecution faced by Jews and those deemed “opponents” of the regime eventually resulted in his expulsion from Germany. H. R. Knickerbocker, the Berlin correspondent of the New York Evening Post, who was also forced to leave Germany because of official opposition to his reports, provided a similar appraisal.
Not even in Czarist Russia, with its “pale,” have the Jews been subject to a more violent campaign of murderous agitation . . . . An indeterminate number of Jews . . . have been killed. Hundreds of Jews have been beaten or tortured. Thousands of Jews have fled.
Thousands of Jews have been, or will be, deprived of their livelihood.
All of Germany’s 600,000 Jews are in terror.3
As the news of antisemitic activities reached this country, newspapers in cities large and small responded angrily. The Pittsburgh Sun decried the “acts of revolting cruelty . . . [which] have been committed.” The Poughkeepsie News saw a “tide of Nazi fury” engulfing German Jews and inflicting great “bodily violence” on them. The Toledo Times believed that conditions in Germany were characterized by an “abuse of power, . . . unrestrained cruelty, . . . suppression of individual rights, . . . violent racial and religious prejudices.”4 A midwestern paper was horrified by the reports of “beatings, torture, murder.” According to the Nashville Banner, sentiment in the United States was “solidified in condemnation of Hitler’s atrocious policy.” The New York Times simply wondered how a nation could “suddenly go mad.”5
But the persecution of the Jews constituted only one small segment of the story of Nazi Germany and was never the central theme of the reports about the new regime. News of political upheavals, Hitler’s jockeying for control, the Reichstag fire, the March elections, and the violence perpetrated by groups such as the storm troopers against communists and socialists took precedence. Rarely was news of the persecution of the Jews handled by journalists, particularly by those who viewed the situation from the safety of the United States, as an inherent expression of Nazism. This failure to see Nazi antisemitism as a reflection of the fundamental principles of Nazism was to have important consequences for the interpretation and comprehension of the news of the persecution of European Jewry.

A Drawing Back

When the first reports from Nazi Germany reached this country, Americans were incredulous. This was not the Germany of Beethoven, Goethe, and Schiller. The entire situation, not just that of the Jews, rang of chaos and confusion, revolution and upheaval. There were what the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times described as “wild rumors” that the Nazis planned to “massacre Jews and other political opponents.” The whole Jewish population in Germany was living, according to a London Daily Herald report which the Chicago Tribune reprinted, “under the shadow of a campaign of murder which may be initiated within a few hours and cannot at the most be postponed more than a few days.”6 In addition to these extreme reports, there were eyewitness descriptions by returning Americans of what the New York Times described as “atrocities” being inflicted on Jews. A number of Americans were among those who were terrorized and beaten. There was a striking difference between the United Press and New York Times versions of this story. The United Press described “three incidents alleged to have been perpetrated,” while the Times described “three more specific cases of molestation” about which American Consul General George Messersmith had complained to the German Foreign Office.7
Though the news that emerged from Germany during this initial period was not nearly as horrifying as that of subsequent years, a deep-seated American skepticism was already evident. In fact, some Americans were more skeptical about this news than they would be about news of far more terrible magnitude. Ignoring the fact that much of the news was based on eyewitness accounts, editorial boards lamented that the “stories which have trickled through cannot be checked and officially verified.”8
It was quite common to find papers and magazines which were convinced that the situation could not be as bad as the reporters contended. This, in fact, would become one of the recurring themes in the press coverage of the entire period: “Terrible things may be happening but not as terrible as the reports from Germany would have you believe.” The Los Angeles Times, which in mid-March carried exclusive reports of German persecution, a few weeks later told its readers that the “amazing tales of oppression” being brought from Germany by Americans who were visiting or living there were “exaggerated.” On March 26 the Los Angeles Times featured news of a Los Angeles physician who had visited Germany and claimed that the stories were incorrect.9 The New York Herald Tribune did the same on March 25. In a front-page story John Elliott of the Herald Tribune bureau in Berlin complained that while the situation of German Jews was “an unhappy one,” it was exacerbated by the “exaggerated and often unfounded reports of atrocities that have been disseminated abroad.” He dismissed ten cases of American Jews who had been “mishandled” as not an “accurate picture of the position of German Jewry under Hitler.” As proof he cited both the claims of German Jewish organizations that Jews were not being molested and the fact that he was personally “acquainted with members of old Jewish families in Berlin who were so undisturbed by the political change in Germany that they had never even heard of these deeds of violence against their co-religionists.”10 Another doubter, initially, proved to be Frederick Birchall, chief of the New York Times Berlin bureau, who in mid-March assured listeners in a nationwide radio talk broadcast on CBS that Germany was interested only in peace and had no plans to “slaughter” any of its enemies. He acknowledged that there had been persecution but believed that German violence was “spent” and predicted “prosperity and happiness” would prevail.11 (As the situation became worse, Birchall’s doubts would be totally erased.) On March 27, 1933, five days before all Jewish shops in Germany were subjected to a one-day nationwide boycott by the Nazis, the Los Angeles Times announced in a page 1 exclusive “German Violence Subsiding” and “Raids On Jews Declared Over.” The Christian Century, which would emerge as one of the more strident skeptics regarding the accuracy of the reports on Jewish persecution, called for a “tighter curb . . . [on] emotions until the facts are beyond dispute.”12
Other papers expressed their reservations less directly. One paper acknowledged with an almost reluctant air that there “seems to be evidence to support the charges [of brutality against Jews] in the main.” But it then reminded readers that “many of the cruelties charged against Germany in war propaganda were later proved not to have existed.”13 The Columbus (Ohio)Journal also associated these reports of “destruction of property, beatings and blacklisting” with the “exaggerated . . . stories the allies told about German atrocities during the war.” The link with World War I atrocity reports as a means of casting doubt on the current spate of stories was to become a common feature of the American public’s reaction to the news of the Final Solution. By the time World War II began, Americans had determined, according to Journalism Quarterly, “that they would not be such simpletons that they would be fooled again” as they had been in the previous war by the tales of German atrocities.14
The reports on Nazi brutality which appeared in the Christian Science Monitor were also decidedly skeptical in tone.15 In March the paper noted that the Frankfurter Zeitung had condemned as false the stories of the persecution of the Jews which had appeared in foreign newspapers. The Frankfurt paper was described as an “outstandingly outspoken” critic of the regime. The New York Herald Tribune’s John Elliott also cited the Frankfurt paper in his page 1 denial of reports that Jews were being molested. The implication was clear: if a newspaper which had been outspokenly critical of the government claimed that the brutality reports were untrue, then they obviously must be.16 The Chicago Tribune’s Taylor offered a very different assessment of the Frankfurt paper’s denunciation of the foreign coverage. Taylor pointed out that the paper was owned and edited by Jews and noted, not without a touch of sarcasm, that even though German Jewry was “living through the most systematic persecution known since the Middle Ages, and has had a fair taste of physical violence, by its own account it has seen nothing, heard nothing, remembered nothing.” To Taylor it was clear that this myopia was prompted by fear and not by a desire for journalistic accuracy.17 Similarly, the popular and widely syndicated columnist Dorothy Thompson, who visited Germany in March 1933, assured her husband, Sinclair Lewis, that the Jews’ situation was “really as bad as the most sensational papers report. . . . It’s an outbreak of sadistic and pathological hatred.” When she returned to the United States she repeated this theme.18
In sum the picture that was drawn in the American press particularly during these early days was a confused one. There was the question of the truthfulness of the reports. Once it became clear that the reports were accurate—though there were those who would never accept them as completely accurate—there was the question of what this meant. Were these attacks actually being perpetrated and directed by the Nazi hierarchy, or had they been inspired by the Nazis’ extreme rhetoric? Was this the result of Nazi government policy, or was it simply an outgrowth of the chaos which often followed a revolutionary change in government? Were these events “boyish tricks” perpetrated by overzealous Nazi enthus...

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