Disbelief and inaction: press failure during WWII

By S. Parker Yesko

The press is in the business of packaging complex stories into neat parcels of information designed for easy public consumption. Often this means that the journalist quickly processes a multi-dimensional saga through flat narrative tropes. When a hurricane strikes, it’s a story of man versus nature. When famine or violence drives waves of residents from their homes in a distant land, it becomes a refugee crisis.

But what happens when a story defies all expectations? Sources speak of something horrible, but a deeply ingrained professional skepticism urges reporters to dismiss accounts that drift beyond the bounds of plausibility. What then, if you are one of those reporters?

In the introduction to Why Didn’t the Press Shout?, journalist Marvin Kalb says that, for most American reporters working during the Holocaust, disbelief translated into inaction.

“People simply could not absorb the monstrous dimension of the Nazi crimes,” Kalb writes. “During the war, the story was the prosecution of the war, the pursuit of an Allied victory. Journalists … were not geared for stories—quite fantastic stories—about millions of Jews being gassed and burned to death.”

Even in cases where a witness to the atrocity might have met a reporter’s burden of proof, a wartime editor would likely have demanded more rigorous corroboration than was possible or dismissed the story for its deviation from accepted narratives.

A 1941 Nazi newspaper on display at the House of the Wannsee Conference. The headline reads "England Under Pressure from Allies." (Photo by Alexandra Levine)

A 1941 Nazi newspaper on display at the House of the Wannsee Conference. The headline reads “England Under Pressure from Allies.” (Alexandra Levine/FASPE)

The irony is that Joseph Goebbels also was preoccupied with plausibility when he censored his own state-sponsored news services. Reich press chief Otto Dietrich attempted to publish premature reports of a Nazi victory on the Eastern Front, but Goebbels reined in the language of optimism.

According to German historian Peter Longerich, Goebbels “saw moods as having already slipped ‘almost into the illusory’ … and ordered the press to set a more realistic course.”

In coverage of the Nazi genocide on both sides of the Atlantic then, the truth became more or less immaterial. What mattered was what editors deemed the public capable of handling—which included neither the surreal horror of the facts of the Holocaust nor the aspirational delusions of German propaganda. Though the Allies and Reich had little else in common, their press coverage converged. The Germans exported a concerted campaign of misinformation; most Americans accepted it with little objection.

Today, undoubtedly, the press would have responded differently, but it is not clear how. The abundance of information on the Internet and the rise of clickbait have inured many readers to the unsightly and pernicious realities of the human condition. Newsmakers have developed a greater tolerance for stories that attract attention for their sensationalism.

Victims would have been able to document their persecution firsthand and provide evidence in the public forums of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. The graphic images and videos would have broken through the everyday Internet noise with relative ease. But whether they’d have been heard by people able to mold them into a coherent, multi-dimensional narrative isn’t certain.

Even the Jews who had themselves been victims of the early pogroms in Germany had difficulty comprehending the sadistic extremes of Nazi violence. Survivor Inge Deutschkron told us on Wednesday of her encounter with two Jews who had somehow escaped Auschwitz and managed to make it home to Germany.

At the time, Deutschkron was in hiding in a workshop for blind workers in Berlin. She’d witnessed the deportation of her friends and neighbors, but assumed they had been sent somewhere to work. When the escapees recounted the horrors of the death camps, Deutschkron and her companions simply could not comprehend them.

“They told us what was going on, but no one believed them,” Deutschkron said. “And of course, that’s why Auschwitz could go on.”


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