Early Warning: The Role of the Media
Deborah Lipstadt: I would like to begin by examining the question of press coverage of genocide in the context of the Holocaust. This panel, I would contend, is dealing with two distinct but inter-related concepts or questions. The first concerns the question of the news of atrocities, i.e. how much news was or is available to the general public. The second addresses the question of public responses to the news. How inclined was the public to accept the news as true, dismiss it as false, or believe it was propaganda designed to arouse opposition to the enemy and to cast the enemy in the worst possible light.
As news of the atrocities in Nazi Germany began to emerge in 1933 the American public was incredulous. In papers stories appeared concerning local tourists returning from Nazi Germany to report that everything was quite peaceful and that they had not witnessed any of the outrages being disseminated by the wire services. As time progressed many Americans categorized the stories of persecution as rumors, branding them as “war stories” or “atrocity stories.” They recalled their World War I experiences when they were fooled by these kind of stories. This, they felt, entitled them to dismiss the newer spate of stories. Their attitude could be best characterized by the children’s ditty, “fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.”
Today, as we witness outrages in Europe and Africa, the situation is dramatically different. It is, in fact, diametrically opposed to the 1930s. Then people dismissed the stories because they would not believe them to be true. Today, people don’t pay attention to the stories because, though they know them to be all too true, they are bored by them. They have heard, read, and even seen them occurring previously in another country or on another continent. With a shrug of “here we go again,” many simply turn the page.
An essential aspect of American press coverage of Nazi Germany’s persecution of the Jews is rooted in the fact that the story endured for twelve years. The more it was reported, the less attention it got. This, of course, is not unique to Nazi Germany. It is true of most news stories. The most disturbing news quickly becomes old news. As a result, some of the early acts of persecution, which were not as severe as subsequent acts, got much more coverage because they constituted “new news.” In Nazi Germany’s case this meant that an act of beating could receive more attention that subsequent killings.
From 1933 through the end of 1941 American reporters were on the scene in Nazi Germany. But they faced a variety of obstacles which prevented them from providing readers with the complete story. From the outset of the Nazi regime, long before the war began, many reporters were already wary about how they covered Nazi Germany. In Berlin Diary, Bill Shirer voices his concerns about getting kicked out of Germany. Getting kicked out of a country was not a good career move.
Unlike today, you did not return to find book contracts and speaking engagements waiting for you. Instead you might well be relegated to covering City Hall. Moreover, one did not want to be removed from the scene of the most compelling foreign news story. Consequently, there was a great deal of self-censorship. Reporters were generally quite careful about the information they included in their stories. Many were also afraid—legitimately so—that what they wrote could endanger the well being of their sources. The last American reporters left Germany after Pearl Harbor when they were exchanged for German reporters and other civilians who had been stranded in this country. Despite their “incarceration,” (they were held in conditions akin to house arrest), they still had access to information. When they returned in May 1942, they described what was being done to the Jews as an “open hunt.”
Reporters engaging in dispatching news regarding Jews also faced an obstacle put in place, not by the paper, but by officials of Allied governments. Take for example the experience of Bill Lawrence, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times. He had participated when Soviet authorities gave reporters a tour of the newly liberated Kiev. They took them to Babi Yar, site of the famous massacre. Lawrence was extremely skeptical about Soviet claims that thousands of people were murdered there.
He conveyed his doubts to his readers: “on the basis of what we saw it is impossible for this correspondent to judge the truth or falsity of the story told to us.” Though he saw blood and pieces of bone and heard from eyewitnesses, he could not bring himself to believe that the Germans massacred thousands of Jews at this site. However, when he arrived at Majdanek in the late summer of 1944, his skepticism has vanished. Now he believed what he saw and he saw plenty. He sent back a report detailing the destruction which has taken place at this site. He included descriptions of massive warehouses containing the clothing, glasses, and shoes of the murdered victims.
Shortly after his report had been received and published by the paper, Lawrence received a telegram from Edwin James, Managing Editor of the paper, inquiring why, if most of the victims had been Jews, Lawrence had not mentioned that fact in his report. Lawrence replied that he had mentioned it. This was, Lawrence later wrote, his first indication that the Soviets were editing the cables he was sending to the paper. When he confronted them they claimed that they did so because “some antisemites...might feel that if the victims were Jews, the murders were justified.” Lawrence dismissed it as a rather “lame explanation.” It was, in fact, a harbinger of the Stalinist post-war antisemitism which would soon engulf the Jewish community of the USSR.
Lest we believe such action could only be taken by Soviets, we should note that shortly thereafter, when the War Refugee Board was about to release statistics on the number of victims at Auschwitz, the Pentagon inquired whether they had some statistics available about massacres and atrocities which did not concern Jews. High ranking officers at the Pentagon believed that news of the death of Jews would not evoke sympathy for the victims or hostility towards the perpetrators. The Pentagon never publicized the information in its armed service magazines.
One of the ways of analyzing press coverage of the Holocaust is to compare the treatment of news of atrocities against Jews with that of atrocities against other people. I found a consistent pattern of Jewish atrocities receiving less coverage than that of other groups. For example, when the Czech town of Lidice was destroyed in 1942 as a retaliatory action by the Nazis, it received substantial coverage. In contrast, the same month the death of Jews received scant attention even though it involved massive killings. Frequently the New York Times, for example, would cover the news of a number of different atrocities in one story. Jews were by and larger relegated to bottom of the story even if a greater number of them had been killed than other victims. By the mid-1940s news of persecution of the Jews was an “old” story.
One of the reasons what we now call the Holocaust did not capture more attention from reporters, editors, publishers, and government officials was that they failed to grasp that antisemitism was so crucial for Nazi ideology. Antisemitism was not a means to an end for the Nazis. It was an—if not the—end itself. Reporters, government officials, and the average reader often comprehend why Jews were “always crying” about what was happening to their people in Europe when the same thing seemed to be happening to so many other people.
As long as they did not understand that antisemitism was not just a minor facet of Nazi ideology, but was central to it, and that getting rid of the Jews, in one way or another, was the natural result of that ideology they could not grasp that what was happening to the Jews was not a matter of war related privations. Nor could they comprehend that the fate of the Jews was fundamentally different from the terrible atrocities being committed against a spate of other groups.
The press covered the story in a way that made it either miss-able or dismiss-able. In other words, the news was there. The details were explicit. But it was easy to discount them or to miss seeing them at all. An example: On the front page of the Chicago Tribune in June of 1942 ere was a banner headline on the top of the front page that read:
Hitler Guards stage New Pogrom, Kill 258;
Massacred by Berlin Gestapo in Bomb Plot,
Families Herded for Deportation
The reporter clearly did not the Gestapo’s claims that the Jews had planed five time bombs all over Berlin, none of which, miraculously, had gone off and all of which, equally miraculously, the Gestapo had uncovered. The Jews had supposedly done this, the reporter noted with no small measure of incredulity, even though they had to wear a star and were kept off the main streets of Berlin. The story ended by noting that the Jews had been put on a train and sent to the “east.”
Two days later, in the same paper, a nine line article at the bottom of page six reported that the “Federation of Jewish Relief Agencies announced that twenty five thousand Latvian Jews had been killed” the previous summer. Two weeks later the headline on another short article on the bottom of page six, read: “Two Million Jews Dead, Victims of Nazis.” This report, from the World Jewish Congress, confirmed the existence of the death camps.
To sum up, on page one you have a report of the death of 258 and on page six reports of 25,000 and two million deaths. The explanation is self-evident: 258 victims is a much more believable number than 25,000 or, certainly, than 2,000,000. Moreover, the source about the deportation of the 258 was the Gestapo. If the Gestapo admitted that 258 had been arrested it probably was so. The sources for the other two stories were Jewish agencies. This illustrates yet another irony in the coverage of this story. When the source was the victim it was treated with greater skepticism than when the source was the perpetrator or a neutral agency. Readers who did not miss the two small articles might well have dismissed them as not reliable, reasoning that if the editors believe them to be true they would have placed them in a more prominent place in the paper.
There were other stories that, despite containing quite chilling information, were treated in a rather perfunctory fashion. For example, in the summer of 1944 the New York Times carried a story concerning the deportation of Jews form Hungary. Significant details were available by this time. The short article, which was appended to another article concerning the evacuation of Hungarian children from Budapest because of bombing campaigns, reported that Jews had been deported from various areas in Hungary and “will arrive in Auschwitz and Birkenau by this weekend” where, if previous schedules are adhered to, they will go “directly to the gassing halls...to expedite matters.” The most striking about this article is, of course, that it is in the future tense. This had not yet happened. It was about to happen.
Let me close by citing yet another story from the New York Times. It is, despite its brevity, one of the most powerful I confronted in my research. It was one of the few articles to appear on the front page of this paper. It appeared on April 22, 1943—which, we might note, happened to be during the middle days of the Passover festival. It was placed at the top of the page. The headline read: “SECRET POLISH RADIO ASKS AID, CUT OFF.”
Stockholm, Sweden April 21: The secret Polish radio appealed for help tonight in a broadcast from Poland and then suddenly the station went dead. The broadcast, as heard here said, the last thirty five thousand Jews in the ghetto at Warsaw have been condemned to execution. Warsaw again is echoing to musketry volleys. The people are murdered. Women and children defend themselves with their naked arms. Save us...”
When teaching or writing about the Holocaust I try to maintain a certain academic distance. In other words, I believe the facts speak for themselves and students do not need to be told something is “outrageous,” “horrible,” or “terrifying.” Moreover, I am opposed to advocacy teaching. Students should be left free to decide on their own what—if any—actions they will take as a result of the material they have learned in the course. However, I must admit that it is difficult to maintain such distance when reading this article—particularly its last two words—and knowing, as we now do, that virtually none of those people would be saved.
I keep wondering what would I have done had I encountered that article? Would I have turned the page or would I have tried to do something, however paltry that something might have been? Today, I fear, when most Americans encounter such news in relation to places such as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda or other sites, they simply turn the page. That, too, reflects a failure to learn the lessons of the Holocaust.