Current Affairs

How Horrific Things Come To Seem Normal

Coverage of Hitler’s rise gives moral lessons for our time…

The first mention of Adolf Hitler in the New York Times was on November 21, 1922, buried on page 21. From the headline, one could almost have thought the article was about a cabaret singer or literary celebrity: “NEW POPULAR IDOL RISES IN BAVARIA.” It was not until the fifth sub-headline that the Times mentioned that Bavaria’s new pop idol, in addition to raising a “gray-shirted army armed with blackjacks and revolvers,” was “anti-Red and anti-Semitic.” In the body of the article, the Times correspondent frankly portrayed Hitler’s militarism, acknowledging the tendency of his group to “beat up protesting Socialists and Communists.” But, it said, there are multiple perspectives on Hitler: “[He] is taken seriously by all classes of Bavarians… he is feared by some, enthusiastically hailed as a prophet and political economic savior by others, and watched with interest by the bulk.” Most of the article was spent documenting Hitler’s gifts as a political organizer, noting that “in addition to his oratorical and organizing abilities, has another positive asset: he is a man of the ‘common people,’” who had won the Iron Cross, which for “a common soldier is distinctive evidence of bravery and daring,” and “he is credibly credited with being actuated by lofty, unselfish patriotism.”  

The Times did not dwell too much on Hitler’s agenda, because “Hitler’s program is of less interest than his person and movement,” commenting that he promotes “half a dozen negative ideas clothed in generalities.” Toward the very end, the NYT did make clear that primary among these negative generalities was a murderous loathing of Jews. But, the correspondent said, this was probably just bluster:

The keynote of his speaking and writing is violent anti-Semitism… so violent are Hitler’s fulminations against Jews that a number of prominent Jewish citizens are said to have sought safe asylum in the Bavarian highlands… But several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitism as a bait to catch followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line… A sophisticated political observer credited Hitler with peculiar cleverness for laying emphasis and over-emphasis on anti-Semitism, saying: “You can’t expect the masses to understand or appreciate your finer real aims. You must feed the masses with cruder morsels and ideas like anti-Semitism. It would be politically all wrong to tell them the truth about where you are leading them.”

Reading the New York Times’ coverage of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the progress of the Holocaust is a useful and sobering exercise. If you want to understand how atrocities can be normalized, ignored, and downplayed, and how anyone could “not know” facts that should have been obvious to everyone even at the time, browsing through the NYT archives can help. The Times was not the British Daily Mail (which was openly pro-fascist). It was then, as it is now, a liberal paper, owned by a Jewish family. But, partly because liberal naivete about political reality made it harder to perceive threats that socialists and communists saw all too well, and partly because the Times’ owners didn’t want to be seen as being somehow biased toward Jews, the Times was timid about accurately portraying the Nazi menace.

The failure of the Times to report on the Holocaust itself has been widely documented, and is the subject of an entire book, Buried by the Times. The Times reviewer of that book admitted that the paper “was seriously negligent throughout that period,” burying stories about the killings of Jews in the back pages and never giving them space or significance proportionate to their moral importance. The reviewer, however, also partly defended the paper, pointing out that (1) it was not alone in doing this and (2) it could not have known what was going on, because what happened was unprecedented:

[Buried by the Times’ worst failing is] its handling of exactly what people knew and understood in the 1930’s and 40’s as the Nazis drove Jews to their deaths. Concentration camps were nothing new; they’d been around throughout history. Death camps — the Nazis’ contribution to modernity — were unheard of, and the extent of the killing could not have been fathomed… How could Sulzberger or any other newspaper executive have comprehended the extent of what was happening in Europe?

That argument is highly plausible, and is often invoked when people or institutions are rebuked for their failures: It’s easy to say now that you should have known, but at the time… The phrase “Monday Morning Quarterback” and the word “ahistorical” are sometimes used. But this argument is not self-proving. It’s reasonable to think it might have been impossible to know. The question is whether it actually was. One reason to doubt it is that the New York Times actually did report on all of the facts that its reviewer said were impossible to comprehend. It just treated them as insignificant.

For instance, the first time the name “Auschwitz” was mentioned in the paper was on July 3, 1944, in a story entitled “Inquiry Confirms Nazi Death Camps: 1,715,000 Jews Said To Have Been Put To Death By Germans.” The story reported that international organizations had “confirmed reports of the existence in Auschwitz and Birkenau in upper Silesia of two ‘extermination camps’” where “Jews are shipped” to be “eradicated.” Front page news, one would hope? More like “midway down page 3.” The front page headlines that day:

MAYOR WOULD TAX ALL RENTS TO END SUBWAY DEFICITS

Simple Money Order Will Be Issued Soon

OPA RAISES PRICES ON COTTON ITEMS, THIRD OF OUTPUT

And the big story of the day:

ALL RAIL LINES TO MINSK NOW CUT

The Times had reported on the unfolding Holocaust well before 1944. In November of 1942, the paper published a story with the headline “HIMMLER PROGRAM KILLS POLISH JEWS: Slaughter of 250,000 In Plan To Wipe Out Half of Country This Year Is Reported.” Every fact was reported: “Old persons, children, infants, and cripples among the Jewish population of Poland are being shot, killed by various other methods, or forced to undergo hardships that inevitably cause death… Only 40,000 October ration cards had been printed for the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, where the population last march was 433,000….[The Poland plan is] ‘the first step toward complete liquidation.’… Only the young and relatively strong people are left alive as they provide valuable slave labor.’”

This report, in which every horror of the Holocaust was laid out for the world to witness, was so important that it made it to page 10. The front page that day was devoted to: the Battle of Stalingrad (important, admittedly!), “EXTORTION CHARGED BY MAYOR IN ROW OVER STIRRUP PUMPS,” “TWO THANKSGIVINGS FOR PACIFIC TROOPS,” and “PRESIDENT WARNS PRODUCTION CHIEFS TO RECONCILE AIMS.” (Out of 23,000 front-page stories between 1939 and 1945, 11,500 were about World War II itself but only 26 were about the Holocaust.) This means that even in 2005, the New York Times was printing fabricated Holocaust history, suggesting that its writers and editors didn’t know about extermination camps, when the obvious truth is that they didn’t care.

That may be hard to accept: It couldn’t possibly be true that decent American liberals, or the Jewish owners of a major newspaper, could look at the plain facts of the Holocaust and think a mayoral row over stirrup pumps was more newsworthy. But it’s important to acknowledge that this was the case, and to try to makes sense of it and understand why. If we think that the media’s failure during the Holocaust was a failure to “follow the threads and assemble the big picture,” there’s not much to explain: As an unprecedented crime unfolds, we can only cast limited blame on journalists who weren’t quick enough or savvy enough to sift through the lies and find the truth. If, on the other hand, the news was blaring from the pages of the newspaper, we have evidence of something far more disquieting: the possibility for ordinary Americans to passively stand by and watch the slaughter of millions of innocent people. (The Holocaust is not the only example of this kind of after-the-fact obfuscation of the state of knowledge. In my book Superpredator, I show how Bill Clinton has twisted the facts of the Rwandan Genocide, insisting that his administration was unaware of the scale of what was happening, when the facts of the genocide were actually being reported in major newspapers as they occurred. Once again, it’s so hard to admit that one could be indifferent to something like this that one has to insist one wasn’t aware.)

How does one simply glance past the slaughter of millions? It’s easy: Overlooking the suffering of others is our default setting. People are abused, tormented, and oppressed every day, and while many of us like to think we’d intervene if a crime were occurring before our eyes, when it’s occurring far away, we have an impressive capacity to put it out of mind. The more different and distant other people are from ourselves, the more difficult it is to stimulate empathy for their pain. During the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Americans were far more moved by the suffering inflicted on their own soldiers than Vietnamese and Iraqi families; the Vietnam War Memorial does not list the name of Vietnamese individuals, after all, even though millions of them died as the result of our war. That may seem to make sense, but it only makes sense because of nationalism, and the belief that it’s natural and acceptable to care more about “our” people than theirs. (For more on American indifference to Vietnamese suffering, see my article on the Vietnam War in Issue 12 of Current Affairs.) My colleague Brianna Rennix and I have written about how little attention the American media pays to horrific violence in Mexico, because Mexican lives simply do not matter very much to Americans. You might be fine with that, but it’s an important part of the explanation for why the Holocaust became just another “poor foreigners being killed” story in the back of the paper.

It wasn’t just an empathy failure, though. We should also remember Sulzberger’s fear of looking too pro-Jewish. According to a former Times executive editor, he “went to great lengths to avoid having The Times branded a ‘Jewish newspaper,’” and “was cool to all measures that might have singled [Jews] out for rescue or even special attention.” We can glean something here about how the blind pursuit of “objectivity” can take you to perverse ends. This “fear of looking biased” is still present in the paper, and is one reason why it feels the need to produce warm coverage of Nazi sympathizers but will frantically edit coverage of leftists to avoid appearing to like them. One of the central objections that people on the left have to the Times is that because it wants to be fair to “both sides,” it ends up normalizing and humanizing truly atrocious people and actions. From “Let’s Say Something Nice About Donald Trump” to its coverage of Henry Kissinger (“Where did you get your suit?” and “Henry Kissinger: Sage or Pariah”—note that neither option is the correct answer) the ideology of objectivity produces results that are anything but objective, that turns matters of historical fact into subjects of contentious debate with multiple points of view. This doesn’t mean that the paper doesn’t report the historical facts. It means that because it lacks a clear moral vision, it mixes clear-eyed presentation of the facts with more “restrained” and “balanced” takes that end up muddying the truth and diminishing the significance of the outrages. (For example, one headline on the Philippines mass-murdering Rodrigo Duterte will be: “They Are Killing Us Like Animals.” Another: “Duterte’s Most Contentious Quotations,” as if a direct threat to massacre millions of people is accurately described as “contentious.” Or, see: “Bush Nostalgia Is Overrated, but His Book of Paintings Is Not,” which doesn’t actually mention the number of Iraqis who died in the Iraq War.)

If we go back to well before the beginning of the Holocaust, we can see what “not wanting to seem partial” did to coverage of the rise of Hitler. We’ve already seen the ridiculous article in which Hitler’s anti-Semitism was dismissed, with emphasis placed on his courage and patriotism instead. It’s important to note that in that article, the very first mention of Hitler in the paper, it was already very obvious that the “keynote” of Hitler’s speeches was his “violent” hatred of Jews, so violent that it was already causing Jewish Bavarians to flee to the hilltops in 1922. The fact that Hitler’s intentions were obvious and stated plainly from the beginning is worth keeping in mind. Another article from 1922 said that anti-Semitism had become “rife all over Bavaria” and that Hitler “parades primarily under the anti-Semitic banner.” Hitler’s “fundamental principle” is “anti-Semitism,” the paper reported in 1923. That makes it even more peculiar to read additional early coverage of Hitler that reads like this:

The new party demands that all Germans get together in a Pan-Germany on the basis of the right of self-determination of nations, the abolition of the treaties of Versailles and Saint Germain, colonies for feeding the German people, a sharp fight against the corrupting Parliamentary system, abolition of unemployment subsidies, State participations in the profits of big industries and enterprises, the creation of a healthy middle class, the death penalty for profiteers, the organization of a people’s army, the creation of a ‘German’ press, religious freedom and a fight against the Jewish-Materialistic spirit.

Sorry, what was that last thing again? (They did the same thing again in 1930.)

Or, look at this small item from the Times, from Jan. 1923, which manages not to mention the “violent” and terrifying anti-Semitism that the paper had previously written about:

Plenty of others from the early-to-mid-1920s are similar. They describe Hitler as the leader of the “Bavarian Fascisti” (at the time, still seen as an offshoot of Italian Fascism) but often mention the murderous hatred of Jews only in passing. A short article from 1924, after the Beer Hall Putsch, is called “Hitler Writes Book While In A Prison Cell,” and while it quotes an admirer promising that Hitler “will someday be reckoned among the greatest of his people,” and notes Hitler’s claim that he saved Germany from dictatorship, it says nothing about Hitler’s ideology other than that he “will soon be added to the list of political prisoners who have used their prison term to write books.” Another 1924 article, “Hitler’s Headquarters Are Described By Visitor,” is similarly focused on procedural aspects without interest in the ideological or programmatic substance. Many focus on issues we’d today call “horse race politics”: How are the fascists doing politically? Are they succeeding? Are they failing? Who are their central figures? What do people think of them? Those questions seem reasonable and important, but if they’re not paired with a strong moral sensibility, then one can lose sight of the actual human stakes of the political questions.

An absolutely astonishing profile of Hitler was published in the Times in 1930. Published on the very same day as an article about how the Nazis were bringing anti-Semitism back to German politics, the profile was so flattering and complimentary toward Hitler as to seem almost intentionally pro-Nazi. Anti-Semitism is mentioned only once, as the last among his “inchoate mixture of ideas” that it is “doubtful… anyone can make much sense out of.” But while the profile dismisses Hitler’s beliefs and program as being unworthy of inquiry, it does have much to say about Hitler the man:

Like many other leaders of important political and social movements, Hitler is a man of the people, a carpenter by trade… Hitler is 41. He is of medium height, wiry, slender, with bristling toothbrush mustache, eyes spurting fire, straight nose, finely chiseled face, and a delicate complexion… His entire being breathes dynamic energy combined with a marked reserve. Four years in the trenches taught him to have no fear of death… It is to the young people… whose hearts and minds burn with a desire to play a part in the life of their country that Hitler and his oratory make their greatest appeal… The effect of Hitler’s eloquence and personality has been well described by a German who attended one of his early meetings in Munich. [The Times then quotes extensively from the flattering first-person account photographed above.]

This interest in the “personal” over the political would not even ebb after Kristallnacht, nor even in the weeks leading up to World War II: in August 1939, the Times published a profile of Hitler at home, entitled “Herr Hitler, At Home In The Clouds,” subtitle: “high up on his favorite mountain, he finds time for politics, solitude, and frequent official parties.” The “handsome” house “has seen many visitors of distinction,” and is “furnished harmoniously according to the best of German traditions,” with “beautiful common rooms, a large central hall,… and a long veranda with sliding class doors leading out onto the sheltered terrace.” We learn about Hitler’s preferred breakfast (“oatmeal porridge and prunes or wholemeal rye bread and honey”), his love of strolls through the mountains, his balance of work and leisure, and his habits with visitors:

Hitler sometimes takes a nap, or at any rate retires for a quiet hour of reading or thinking by himself. However, nap or no nap, the Fuhrer leaves his guests and everyday entourage to amuse themselves after their own fashion… [AFTER THIS THERE IS A LONG PART ABOUT HITLER’S TEA PAVILLION]… Hitler can be a good listener and seems to gather a good deal by letting American solo dancers or German film stars talk to him.

The Times was not alone in publishing stories about Hitler’s private life that declined to mention the “violent anti-Semitism” that was his “fundamental principle.” Life magazine and “even the American Kennel Club magazine [also] published lush, full-color spreads of Hitler’s domestic life.”

A few notable tendencies recur in Times coverage of Hitler during the 1920s and ’30s. It’s not that the actual facts aren’t reported: Almost all of them are there, somewhere in the paper’s pages. It’s that the presentation and emphasis is strange. For example, when Kristallnacht occurred, it made the front page, but the headline was strange: “BERLIN RAIDS REPLY TO DEATH OF ENVOY.” The subheadline was “Nazis Loot Jews’ Shops, Burn City’s Biggest Synagogue To Avenge Paris Embassy Aide.” (“Reply” is a very odd word to choose.) Or look at the way the Times presented the news that 5,000 people had been imprisoned at Dachau in 1933: “Interned men have no complaint of treatment—those who ‘behave’ to be freed after a month.” The body text quoted, without skepticism, the Nazi claim that some prisoners “will be released on probation after a month.” Here, we see another press tendency that persists to this day: printing government claims as fact, even though we know from experience that governments constantly tell lies.

There’s a certain naivete that runs through all of the coverage. There’s 1923’s “Hitler Virtually Eliminated,” then the 1924 headline  “Hitler Tamed By Prison.” That article is about Hitler’s release back into the wild, and says that Hitler “looked a much sadder and wiser man today” as he left prison. Although he was “once the demi-god of the reactionary extremists,” authorities were “convinced he was no longer to be feared,” and the Times said of his future: “It is believed he will retire to private life and return to Austria.” In 1930, in an article that was literally about how the Nazis were open, unrepentant anti-Semites who were riding the issue to political success, the Times reporter nevertheless concluded “there is no present basis for assuming that the Nazis will attempt to make anti-Semitism a militant issue in their legislative program.” Here’s a final tragic bit of wishful thinking from his appointment as chancellor in 1933: “The composition of the cabinet leaves Herr Hitler no scope for the gratification of any dictatorial ambition.”

We can, of course, say that these stories only look ridiculous in hindsight, now that we know the course of history. But the threat Hitler posed to Jews was never hidden. It was in our papers, but people didn’t look, and didn’t protest when the United States government turned Jewish refugees back to face their fate. More importantly though is the “fool me once” element: The people who penned these newspaper articles, and the people who read them, are almost all dead. I am not interested in blaming them, or even criticizing the New York Times in particular. I’m interested in pointing out what the moral failures of a prior era can tell us about how we should act in our own time, and what our blind spots might be.

For me, the central lesson in reading the Times’ coverage is that it’s very easy not to notice that you’re overlooking something horrendous, that your biases and lack of curiosity are keeping you from appreciating things as they actually are. And because this is the case, we always have a duty to investigate the world closely in order to find out whether we may be just as delusional as people from prior eras. The New York Times did not fail to cover the Holocaust adequately because the Holocaust was so “unfathomable” that it was impossible to believe. They failed to cover it because they weren’t concerned enough about the lives of European Jews. Auschwitz was buried next to the classifieds, because the liquidation of millions of disenfranchised minorities in a far-off country was not something people cared about or wanted to hear about. That’s the same reason they could print articles about Hitler that didn’t mention his ideas: They didn’t really think much about his ideas, they were more interested in process than substance, because they didn’t work through the implications of what he was saying, or the potential consequences for other human beings.

I don’t mean to analyze everything through the lens of the “left-liberal divide.” But the Socialists and Communists who protested Hitler in the early days and were beaten up by Brownshirts were under no illusions about what fascism was. And while you don’t need to be a socialist to see threats in the making, you do need to have a clear moral understanding of the world, and a willingness to label things what they are, rather than feigning objectivity and declining to use divisive and alienating language for fear you will look biased.

When it comes again, as it very well might, it will not look exactly like it did before. There won’t necessarily be swastikas, and there probably won’t be any goose-stepping. The victims are not likely to be the same; we are now, thank God, sensitive to anti-Semitism and its risks. The question, then, is what we aren’t sensitive to. What won’t we notice until it’s too late? What could get worse and worse, without clearly registering in many people’s minds as an atrocity? Which groups receive the least empathy? In our time, I am especially concerned by the way that “legal status” is used as a proxy for “being a full human person,” since laws themselves are only as humane as the people who happen to be writing and enforcing them. Obsessing over “legality” is very dangerous; as one protest sign I saw pointed out, the people who hid Anne Frank were breaking the law, while the people who killed her were following it. I can envision a world in which “noncitizens” become nonpersons, and nobody notices what happens to nonpersons because nobody sympathizes with those who do not follow the law. If you didn’t want this to be done to you, you should have obeyed. 

We are not in a time resembling 1920s Germany just yet. Hopefully, we will never be again. But if we ever are, a “never again” mentality means understanding how atrocities can be normalized, how moral blind spots can cause us to overlook terrible suffering, and how real objectivity does not just require a sense of superficial balance, but a deep understanding of what matters. The past is frozen in amber. We can’t go back and scream at those who were willfully blind to obvious crimes. But what we can do is try to look at our own era as we look at theirs, to think about what we’ll look like in retrospect, and to try to do what we wish those others would have done. And we can ask if future historians are looking at us across time, pleading with us and asking a question for which we have no good answer: Why didn’t you stop it before it started? Why did you wait until it was too late? 

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