The American press and the Holocaust

As early as 1933, American newspapers and magazines began illustrating accounts of the ways in which Jews were being persecuted in Germany. However, many claimed that what was reported concerning Nazi actions against the Jews was exaggerated or fabricated. This was due in part to American skepticism and cynicism of the press stemming from the First World War. Lipstadt (1986) argues that the way the American press reported the First World War had a great influence on the way the American public viewed reports of World War II (p. 8). The American public was aware that the U.S. government used the press for propaganda in World War I and therefore was distrusting of its reliability. Lipstadt (1986) notes, “Propaganda proved that any story could be created; consequently every story was now open to doubt” (p. 8). However, printed media was the way in which most Americans received their news. President Roosevelt was reported to have read eleven to sixteen newspapers daily (Lipstadt, 1986, p.4).  Because of its importance in American life, there is no doubt that the press had a direct influence on the ways in which Americans viewed the Holocaust.

 

American anti-Semitism

In order to understand the role of the American press during the Holocaust, one must first understand the American ideological climate of the 1930s and 1940s. America was still recovering from the Great Depression and Hitler promised to galvanize society, revive the German economy, and build a sense of national pride (Abzug, 1999, p. 51). His ideology was appealing to many who were frustrated with America’s economic situation. Anti-Semitism also played an influential role in how Americans reported and viewed the Holocaust. Anti-Semitism was a part of American culture. In the 1920s, Henry Ford published the anti-Semitic pamphlet, The International Jew, and throughout the 1930s Father Coughlin became one of the country’s most influential men with his anti-Semitic radio program.  Julius Streicher, the founder of Germany’s popular anti-Semitic newspaper, Der Stürmer, owned anti-Jewish pamphlets from as far away as Wichita, Kansas (Abzug, 1999, p. 48). During this time, American Jews were subject to admissions quotas, job discrimination, and exclusion from housing and public accommodations (Abzug, 1999, p. 52-53).  In an April 1938 poll, 60% of Americans agreed that the persecution of European Jews was either entirely or partly their own fault (Lipstadt, 1986, p. 47). Many Americans sympathized with Nazi ideology that Jews were “different,” therefore the early reports of laws and decrees limiting the rights of German Jews were not of great interest to many Americans and did not seem to be exceedingly harsh. Americans read about the war, but as, Abzug (1999) notes, the fate of the German Jews was but one aspect of the news (p. 51). Lipstadt (1986) also explains, “…the persecution of the Jews constituted only one small segment of the story of Nazi Germany and was never the central themes of the reports about the new regime” (p. 15). And once the United States became involved in the war, many Americans were more concerned with news from the Pacific than the fate of the European Jews.

The images below show some examples of printed American anti-Semitism.

Photo credit: USHMM / National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia. Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005182&MediaId=1062

Photo credit: USHMM/National Museum of American Jewish History, Philadelphia. Retrieved from http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005182&MediaId=1061

 

Doubt

When American newspapers and magazines did cover news of the war, the reports were often moderated by editors, publishers, or even the reporters themselves. The United State government did not want to become too involved in German affairs, so publishers avoided printing information that would be considered inflammatory or incendiary. Lipstadt (1986) explains, “Yes, the American press was outraged at Germany’s behavior, but nonetheless it was convinced that it must remain out of European affairs (p. 111). Doubt and skepticism about the validity of the atrocities that were reported stemmed from the sheer uniqueness of it all. Editors sometimes ignored their correspondents’ reports and some reporters injected their own doubts of the reliability of the information into their reports, especially regarding news of massacres and gas chambers (Lipstadt, 1986, p. 140). The news coming from Europe was so incredible, it was hard to believe. Lipstadt (1986) argues, “it was almost more rational to dismiss [the news] as untrustworthy than to accept it as true” (p. 139). As time passed, news of Jewish persecution became a familiar topic (old news) and many papers increasingly placed these reports in the inner pages of the papers.

Lipstadt argues that the American people were hindered by barriers of belief. The way the American press reported the atrocities, along with deep-rooted American xenophobia and anti-Semitism, had an effect on the way news reports were received. Lipstadt (1986) notes that the way in which the information was relayed enabled many people to categorize it as unverified rumors spread by unreliable sources (p. 142).

 

Summary

The way in which the American press reported the Holocaust helped to shape the way in which both contemporary analysts and future scholars will understand German behavior (Lipstadt, 1986, p. 40). The American press did not highlight the reports of Jewish persecution, omitted key pieces of information, and included various disclaimers, thus influencing the information received by the American public.

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