How the press soft-pedaled Hitler

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Click photo to download. Caption: Cartoonist Keith Temple, in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, echoed the naive but widespread belief in the West that conservative leaders in the German political and industrial communities would restrain Hitler's radicalism. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“There is at least one official voice in Europe that expresses understanding of the methods and motives of President Roosevelt—the voice of Germany, as represented by Chancellor Adolf Hitler.”

That incredible statement was the opening line of a flattering feature story about the Nazi leader that appeared on the front page of the New York Times in 1933, and was typical of some early press coverage of Hitler, who rose to power 80 years ago on Jan. 30.

Hitler’s ascent caught much of the world by surprise. As late as May 1928, the Nazis had won less than 3 percent of the vote in elections to the Reichstag, Germany’s parliament, and the Nazi party’s candidate for president received barely 1 percent of the votes in March 1929. But as Germany’s economic and social crises worsened, the Nazis garnered 18.3 percent of the vote in the parliamentary election of July 1930. They doubled that total two years later, becoming the largest party in the Reichstag. 

Negotiations between the Nazis and other parties then produced a coalition government, with Hitler as chancellor. The Nazis celebrated with a huge torchlight parade through the streets of Berlin on the night of Hitler’s appointment, Jan. 30, 1933.

A ‘moderate’ Hitler?

Relatively little was known in America about Hitler, and many leading newspapers predicted that the Nazis would not turn out to be as bad as some feared. 

An editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin on Jan. 30 claimed that “there have been indications of moderation” on Hitler’s part. The editors of the Cleveland Press, on Jan. 31, asserted that the “appointment of Hitler as German chancellor may not be such a threat to world peace as it appears at first blush.” 

Click photo to download. Caption: Jay Darling, cartoonist for the New York Herald-Tribune, suggested that German president Paul von Hindenburg had appointed Hitler chancellor in the expectation that the Nazi leader was not up to the job. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Officials of the Roosevelt administration were quoted in the press as saying they “had faith that Hitler would act with moderation compared to the extremist agitation [i]n his recent election campaigning... [They] based this belief on past events showing that so-called ‘radical’ groups usually moderated, once in power.”

A wave of terror

In the weeks following, however, events on the ground contradicted those optimistic forecasts. Outbursts of anti-Jewish violence were tolerated, and often encouraged and assisted, by the Nazi regime. 

In early March, for example, the Chicago Tribune published an eyewitness account of “bands of Nazis throughout Germany carr[ying] out wholesale raids to intimidate the opposition, particularly the Jews.” Victims were “hit over the heads with blackjacks, dragged out of their homes in night clothes and otherwise molested,” with many Jews “taken off to jail and put to work in a concentration camp.”

The following month, the New York Evening Post reported that the Nazis had launched “a violent campaign of murderous agitation” against Germany’s Jews: “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.”

The Hitler regime was determined to eliminate the Jewish community from German society. During the Nazis’ first weeks in power, violence and intimidation were used to force Jewish judges, attorneys, journalists, university professors, and orchestra conductors and musicians out of their jobs. 

A law passed on April 7 required the dismissal of Jews from all government jobs. Additional legislation in the months to follow banned Jews from a whole range of professions, from dentistry to the movie industry. The government even sponsored a one-day nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, with Nazi storm troopers stationed outside Jewish-owned stores to prevent customers from entering.

Click photo to download. Caption: This cartoon by Rollin Kirby, in the New York World, alluded to the Nazis' torchlight parade celebrating their rise to power. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.Hitler’s ‘sensitive hand’

Nevertheless, in July 1933, nearly six months after Hitler’s rise to power, the New York Times ran a front-page feature about the Fuhrer that presented him in a flattering light. For Hitler, it was a golden opportunity to soften his image by praising President Roosevelt as well as a platform to deliver lengthy justifications of his totalitarian policies and attacks on Jews.

The article, titled “Hitler Seeks Jobs for All Germans,” began with Hitler’s remark that FDR was looking out “for the best interests and welfare of the people of the United States.” He added, “I have sympathy with President Roosevelt because he marches straight toward his objective over Congress, over lobbies, over stubborn bureaucracies.”

The story was based on an interview with the Nazi leader by Times correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick. She gave Hitler paragraph after paragraph to explain his policies as necessary to address Germany’s unemployment, improve its roads, and promote national unity. The Times correspondent lobbed the Nazi chief softball questions such as “What character in history do you admire most, Caesar, Napoleon, or Frederick the Great?”

McCormick also described Hitler’s appearance and mannerisms in a strongly positive tone: Hitler is “a rather shy and simple man, younger than one expects, more robust, taller... His eyes are almost the color of the blue larkspur in a vase behind him, curiously childlike and candid... His voice is as quiet as his black tie and his double-breasted black suit... Herr Hitler has the sensitive hand of the artist.”

Click photo to download. Caption: Edmund Gale's cartoon in the Los Angeles Times invoked one of the best-known symbols of Germany, "Watch on the Rhine," a 19th century German patriotic song exhorting the public to defend the Rhine, Germany's longest river, from the country's enemies. Credit: Courtesy of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Whatever her intentions, articles like McCormick’s helped dull the American public’s awareness of the dangers of Nazism. The image of a pro-American moderate undermined the chances for mobilizing serious international opposition to Hitler during the early months of his regime.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, in Washington, DC, and coauthor, with Craig Yoe, of the forthcoming book “Cartoonists Against the Holocaust.”

Posted on January 17, 2013 and filed under Features, World.