U.S. Press Reaction to the fall of the Weimar Republic, 1929-1933: A Failure of Narrative

A Failure Of Narrative: A comparative analysis of the New York Times and American media at the dawn of Nazi Germany, 1929-1933

In 1933, as the world watched, the last vestiges of the flimsy democracy that was the Weimar Republic were swept away by Hitler. This event did not happen secretly or with indifference. Despite the multitude of problems that plagued the rest of the world—from the sweep of communist and totalitarian governments springing up to the collapse of the global economic order—the rise of Nazi Germany was watched intently, derided and applauded at the same time. This mixed reaction, a reaction of not exactly knowing how to feel, was met doubly in America. It is easy now to look back upon the rise of Nazi Germany with the hindsight of one who knows what comes after, it is the sort of feeling one gets upon re-watching a particularly suspenseful movie—one knows what is going to happen, one expects it, yet they root so valiantly against it, hoping that at the very last instant the conflicted hero will choose good, not evil. It is therefore hard for us to look back upon the public of the 1930s and not write a revisionist history where America always condemned the Nazis and the nation was always gearing to fight another great war for democracy. The true narrative is far more murky and conflicted.

      If the conflicted aura of the time demanded a view towards Germany that both condemned and applauded it, then the journalistic narrative surely reflected that. As Deborah Lipstadt wrote in Beyond Belief, “The press may not determine what the public thinks, but it does influence what it thinks about. If the media pay particular attention to an issue, its importance is enhanced in the public’s eyes, and if the media ignore something, public reaction will be nil…”[1] To this end, this paper examines the coverage of the rise of Nazi Germany as reported by, specifically, The New York Times, and more generally, by the United States media as a whole. The purpose of this is to determine the accuracy of the newspapers’ reportage and determine the subject matter and angles that were most often taken by the reporters.

The journalism of the time did not fail in its coverage of the major events of the fall of Weimar Germany and the rise of Nazi Germany, often reporting minute stories such as court cases involving minor National Socialist players and small gains in party representation in the Reichstag. Rather, the papers generally failed, in different ways, to ascertain the larger meaning of the events they covered and wildly underestimated the validity of Hitler’s influence and the staying power of the movement. 

The newspapers, in the beginning, often accepted the predominant idea that the Nazis and Hitler were generally the tool of Alfred Hugenberg and his Nationalist party, and assumed that once integrated into the power structure, the Nazis would be tempered in their extreme ambitions and move towards the middle. In addition, the American media put far too strong of an emphasis on the ability of President Hindenburg to steer the course of Germany, framing his continued election returns as indicative of a general confidence in the Weimar Republic, as opposed to confidence in his personality as a famed war hero. Despite the reportage of various violent outbursts by Nazi party members, such stories were generally marginalized, given little notice and often taken as a separate issue from party leadership, despite the inflammatory messages that party leadership often spoke. American journalists generally saw the Nazi movement as an expression of the economic downturn that had befallen Germany and expected the movement to collapse quickly at the sight of any economic rebound, a gross underestimation of the movement’s power in the government and among the people.

The American media generally framed the narrative of Germany in the years 1929-1933 within the context of an American democracy. They failed to prepare American readers for the peculiar nuances of the German parliamentary system and the consolidation of German power under the Chancellorship. There was a predominant belief that democracy would prevail, and this bias obscured the American coverage.

The period covered in this study begins in December 1929, when a referendum was cast to introduce a “Law against the Enslavement of the German People,” a law that would formally renounce the Treaty of Versailles. This referendum reflects the beginning of the National Socialist movement in mainstream politics, as the referendum was largely the combined work of Alfred Hugenberg and the Nationalists and Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists. It continues with the appointment of Wilhelm Frick, the first Nazi to become a minister in the German state in January 1930 and then the great Nazi election wins in the Reichstag in September 1930.  We follow with an examination of the media coverage of the presidential elections in March and April 1932, which pitted Hindenburg directly against Hitler, and the July Reichstag elections. Finally, we bring us to the fall of Chancellor von Papen and then Chancellor von Schliecher, which brought the appointment of Hitler to the Chancellorship.  The study ends with March 1933, around the passage of the Enabling Act, at which point Hitler had risen to the position of Chancellor and exercised totalitarian control over Germany. 

Newspapers dominated the media landscape in the 1930s, with a majority of Americans receiving their news through these outlets. The United States, unlike many countries, did not have a national paper and so most received their news through the dailies that were local to their city. It was around this time that papers began to be consolidated into chains so as to expedite the newscycle and improve bottom lines. The major newspaper chains were “Scripps-Howard, Gannett, Hearst and Cox…”[2] The major wire services that provided the majority of the international news for the dailies were the Associated Press, United Press, and the International Press. Only three major papers maintained their own international wire services, which were then distributed nationally: the New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, and the Chicago Tribune.[3]

The newspaper empire of William Randolph Hearst and the parallel Scripps-Howard Empire constituted a majority of the reading public. Hearst’s acquisitions reached “an audience of three million on Sundays and perhaps twice that on weekdays.”3 All told, the Hearst Empire had twenty-nine newspapers in seventeen cities; Scripps-Howard maintained twenty-four newspapers in twenty-three cities. However, the New York Times was the closest thing to a national paper that existed in the United States. The paper maintained a circulation of 400,000-500,000 daily, more than any one paper owned by either Scripps-Howard or Hearst.[4] In addition, this does not take into account the many papers that shared the Times international cables such as The Boston Globe and others. As Robert Ferrell put it, “no other paper in the United States and perhaps the world, prints so much news every day.”[5] However, it should be noted, that nearly half the newspapers in the United States used the Associated Press for international reportage.

In terms of magazines and periodicals, the most widely read included Collier’s, Harper’s, Life, Literary Digest, The Nation, Newsweek, The New Republic, Saturday Evening Post, and, of course, Time. Literary Digest, Saturday Evening Post, and Time were clearly the most widely read with a circulation around 1.5 million, 2.9 million and 355,000 in 1932 respectively. Thomas Maddox, in his piece “Red Fascism, Brown Bolshevism: The American Image of Totalitarianism in the 1930’s,” characterized the political outlook of American periodicals “based on the general outlook of each magazine on foreign and domestic affairs.” Maddox’s classifications characterize Nation and The New Republic as liberal. Moderate publications include Newsweek, Harper’s Monthly, Literary Digest and Time. As per publications this paper utilizes, Maddox characterizes only Saturday Evening Post as conservative.[6]

In 1929, Germany began to see the first effects of the economic recession, with the rise in unemployment. There was no shortage of news items regarding Germany during this time, with the New York Times alone publishing approximately 6,000 pieces during 1929 that make some mention of the country.[7] That is not to say that every piece was a full-fledged article. Many were full article, some were simply updates or blurbs, and many touched only tangentially. Given the large place that Germany held within Europe, regardless of their post-World War I political position, this is unsurprising. As the world economy fell into the tank, international business reports were common and, invariably, they often included Germany. However, politically, the majority of the coverage of Germany during this time focused on the Young Plan and war debts from the World War. The only mention that we find of Adolph Hitler or the National Socialists is in relation to the Young Plan, the “Liberty Law,” or Alfred Hugenberg, an influential German businessman and the leader of the Nationalists.

The Young Plan was an agreement first formulated in 1929 that was “an attempt by former wartime allies to support the government of Weimar Germany.”[8]  The plan was an extension of the Dawes Plan that sought to reduce the crushing reparations payments that were required of Weimar Germany. However, many Germans were opposed to the plan on the grounds that they felt Germany should not be required to pay reparations at all. This manifested in the supposed “Liberty Law” which was championed by a coalition headed by Alfred Hugenberg and Adolph Hitler. The law demanded a rejection of the Young Plan and provided “penal servitude” for an officer of the government who approved the payment of reparations. Under the law, even President von Hindenburg would have been subject to a penitentiary sentence.[9] The Reichstag decisively rejected the bill, as was expected, and even here, we see Hitler’s penchant for the theatrical. When the “Liberty Law” was first introduced in October 1929, the Times recognized the “ironic comic element” of the bill.[10] In these early appearances of Hitler in the American media, he is only recognized along with Hugenberg, a telling sign of how the Times, and subsequently other publications, viewed Hitler.

As has been noted, the majority of press coverage on Germany at this time concerned war debts. More so than any other publication, the Chicago Tribune fell on the side of support of Germany. The paper, which has been often criticized as being overly isolationist during this time, was actually extremely vocal on issues concerning Germany. The Tribune argued that if the United States fought the World War to “make the world ‘safe for democracy’, to destroy monarchical government,” then it did not make sense that the Weimar republic was saddled with the blame (and debts) from the deposed monarchy.[11] The Tribune likened the reparations to war spoils and criticized the British and French government for hardly giving the new German republic a chance to thrive. In an August 1929 editorial, the Tribune made known their great support for the new German nation, calling Germany “the most modern nation in Europe.”11

The American media recognized at this early time the reactionary forces present in the German republic. The Times in an editorial entitled “Hindenburg for Peace,” published in October 1929, noted the Hugenberg-Hitler faction and even went as far as to character the Fascists’ frustrations as “understandable.” However, it appeared that Hugenberg was the larger threat, as they only give lip service to Hitler, and go so far as to call Hugenberg “another of the would-be Napoleons of post-war Germany.”[12]  Edwin L. James, chief European correspondent of the Times, wrote in December 1929 of the growing socialist and communist forces throughout central Europe, and specifically Germany, noting Mussolini’s “friendly interest” in “the establishment of a neighboring Fascist state…”[13]

The American perception that Hugenberg was the force to be reckoned with in Germany continued, despite the failure of the “Liberty Law.” On December 15th, the Times ran a profile of the Nationalist leader that, like many stories of Hugenberg at the time, mentioned Hitler. One cannot help but read the profile and think that it could have just as easily been written about Hitler. Ybarra, of the Times, wrote, “[Hugenberg] is seeking to substitute for constitutional government in Germany a dictatorship patterned after that of Mussolini and the Italian Fascisti, with himself as dictator and the most rabid of German monarchists…”  Ybarra, however, quickly dismisses the possibility, noting that if the result of national plebiscite on the “Liberty Law” followed the predictions of “the great majority of the political wiseacres in Germany,” Hugenberg would be sent into “ignominious political oblivion.” Ybarra further paints him as the leader of the reactionaries against the German republic.”[14]

Ybarra’s analysis of Hugenberg’s power is not uncommon or even wrong at this time. Hugenberg was a major businessman and media mogul with the clout to push forward his policies. What is most interesting about Ybarra’s profile is his depiction of Hugenberg as “hand in glove with Adolph Hitler.”  Hitler would not have been unknown to American audiences even at this early point. While Hitler had hardly been featured prominently in the news, many would remember when, according to Ybarra, he captured “the world’s interest…by his mad endeavors to overthrow the German Republic with the aid of monarchistic firebrands…”[15]

In November 1923, the lead article of The Literary Digest featured “‘the bleak prospect’ of a ‘German Smash.’” Hitler was not mentioned in the article, although a picture of him was included with the caption, “‘the Grey-Shirt Leader’ who expected ‘his National Socialists to be the ‘the sledge hammer of Germany’s resurrection’.”16 Similarly, the November 1923 issue of Current History featured a short profile of Hitler by Paul Gierasch, who characterized Hitler as a “man of little education, of the smaller middle class.. A machinist, by trade, who was by no means a good speaker.” Several magazines covered the trial of Hitler and the Beer Hall Putsch including The Independent and Review of Reviews.[16] Review of Reviews had a circulation of 170,000 per issue, which we can characterize as the second tier of magazines (not quite as high as Literary Digest or Saturday Evening Post but certainly well within reach of Time).[17] While we cannot take this to mean that the majority of Americans knew who Hitler was at this point, astute readers and journalists certainly would.

1929 ended with what the Times called the “plebiscite fiasco” where less than 14 percent of Germans voted in favor of the “Liberty Law,” or around 6 million votes. The Nationalists (and therefore Hitler and the Fascists) were deemed “apologetic.”[18] While this seemed to be the waning of the power of Hugenberg, as was predicted by Ybarra, the Times seemed little prepared for the massive year that was in store for Hitler and the Nazis.

In 1930, the number of news stories, at least in the Times, remained somewhat constant. Again, Germany was featured in some 6,000 articles throughout the year.[19] This number may be inflated some given the suspect accounting and labeling the Times archive uses, but it at least serves as a point of comparison. The majority of these stories again have to do with business and economics, the most pressing topic being the subject of reparations. Among the headlines that covered Germany in the new year were “GERMANY IS LOOKING TO THE YOUNG PLAN,” “GERMANY EXPECTS AVIATION EXPANSION, ”GERMAN LOAN FIRST IN MINDS OF FRENCH,” “REICH ISSUES TERMS OF PAYMENTS TO U.S.” and “REPARATIONS IN 1930.” Though this is a small sampling, one can see that reportage of Germany was constant and generally framed in how it related to the United States. The Times was an American paper and thus its duty to its readership was to present events that would be of interest to them.  Much of the coverage was focused on the impending Young Plan and how Germany would react. As German repayment had an effect on the U.S. economy, which was in the midst of the recession, such coverage is to be expected.

There were also some 500 articles that made mention of the Reichstag and some 280 articles that made mention of President von Hindenburg (there is overlap in these numbers). As such, one can conclude that there was great interest in the goings-on of Germany during this time, not only economically but politically as well.  Around 200 articles make mention of Hitler or the Nazis with the number of stories peaking to 55 and 68 articles in the months of September and October.19 This was obviously due to the massive gains experienced by the Nazis in the September Reichstag elections.

The Times first full length article that mentions the Nazis and Hitler is the appointment of Wilhelm Frick to the post of Minister of the Interior and Education of Thuringia. The headline read, “HITLER MAN POLICE HEAD.” As is to become common in the Times and other papers’ coverage of the Nazis, all members of the party are associated directly with Hitler, with the National Socialists constantly referred to as “Hitlerites.” Such a tactic emphasizes to the public the nature of the party as a cult of personality, a particularly accurate portrayal of the party that is somewhat unusual in its adroitness. The press was not half so cutting in their analysis of Hitler’s political rise. In the article, the Times calls Frick a member of “the anti-Semitic, anti-Republican National-Socialist party.”[20] As one can see, the anti-Semitism of the Nazis was never disguised or unknown, even at its early stages, it was recognized.

The Times continued to report on Frick throughout the year, calling him the “bad boy of Germany.”[21] In a special cable published in late May, the Times reported on Frick’s attempts to instate “jingoistic” prayers for students at Thuringian schools. In early July, the Times reported on the court revocation of suspension handed down by Frick on a Socialist paper.[22]

Other mentions of Hitler and the Nazis came in the form of, again, opposition to the Young Plan. In an early February 1930 article “YOUNG PLAN DEBATE AROUSES REICHSTAG,” the Times associated Hitler with Hugenberg, going so far as to almost use the two parties interchangeably.  The Nationalists and the Nazis are constantly invoked together and the Times calls Hugenberg “their leader.”[23] The only other major mention of the Nazis is in regards to the fining of Dr. Josef Goebbels for “an insult to President von Hindenburg in an article published” in the National Socialist paper. The insult was a political cartoon featuring Hindenburg as a Roman Emperor with a flock of Jewish and Marxist ravens perched on his shoulders.[24]

Outside of these incidents, little mention is made of the National Socialists until we reach the coverage of the upcoming Reichstag elections. The day after the Reichstag was dissolved, the Times ran an article entitled “REPUBLICANS FEAR GERMAN ELECTIONS: SEE OPPORTUNITY FOR RADICALS AND REACTIONARIES…”[25] The Times viewed the event as nothing short of a “calamity,” noting that “The security of parliamentary government in Germany…have again been thrown into the crucible of post-war passions.”25 As astute as this observation might have been, it is in this article that we begin to see a trend that permeates the Times coverage (and, not coincidentally, the general American media coverage) of the end of Weimar Germany. There is a general belief in the ability of democracy to prevail over all other governments. Thus despite the dissolution of the Reichstag and Hindenburg’s use of Article 48 of the Weimar constitution, which granted him the ability to issue emergency decrees, the Times rejected the idea that the Nationalists (and therefore the National-Socialists, as the Times frequently portrayed the two as one and the same) would be able to create a “veiled dictatorship.”25 The confidence in Hindenburg’s leadership is another running motif that arises here, as the Times states that Hindenburg “would veto any misuse of [Article 48].”25

Much of the American press coverage of Germany during the summer concerned the upcoming elections. The press was not caught off-guard by the possibility of large gains for the National Socialists. However, the press did misinterpret the possible meanings of such a win, often misrepresenting the extremist gains to the American public as either not unusual or not important. In a Times article headlined “THE GERMAN ELECTIONS,” the paper deduced that despite the National Socialist gains, “The outstanding result of the elections promises to be a strengthening of the middle parties and groups that should easily counterbalance such Fascist gains…”[26] Similarly, in an article a few days later that predicted “Hitlerites” to quadruple their strength in the Reichstag, the paper sought to reassure American audiences. The cable read, “The German Fascists are not fundamentally opposed to the republic” and then stated the Fascists desire for “the abolition of the parliamentary system.”[27] How a party could not be opposed to the republic while supporting the abolition of its central instrument makes little sense.

In the second half of 1930, American magazines began to up their coverage of Germany and, with the focus being Hitler’s supposed gains in the Reichstag, a number of magazines ran profiles of the Nazi leader. Though the magazines correctly ascertained that Hitler was essential to understanding the Nazi movement, they were hardly uniform or consistent in their depiction of the man. Time described him as “a ‘demagog [sic]’ and as an ‘oratorical, Jew-baiting terrorist.’…The Literary Digest characterized him as a ‘slight, timid mild mannered man with a Charlie Chaplin mustache [who] grabs the world by the ear to roar about his plans.’” The Literary Digest further called him a “visionary” and a “madman” while The Reader’s Digest called Hitler “completely unimpressive” and said that he resembled a “‘Moravian traveling salesman’ with a ‘vacuous face’ who had ‘grown fat.’”[28]  

Perhaps what is most intriguing is Time’s summarization of Hitler’s “extraordinary program.” In contrast with the dailies’ assessment of the Nazi program, Time’s is surprisingly accurate. They concluded that Hitler sought to abandon reparation payments, restoration of colonies, socialization of all industry, created of a strong German army, annulment of the Versailles Treaty, expulsion of all non-Germans and the disfranchisement of all Jews.[29]

On September 14th, 1930, Germany went to the polls and the Nazis received their greatest jump in power, going from 12 seats in the Reichstag to 107. American media reported on the story vigorously and, despite the predictions over the summer of such a result, the press sought with difficulty to find a reason for the Nazis’ sudden prominence. The Times called it “one of the most upsetting developments of German post-war politics…”[30] They attributed the win to the support of “big industrialists” who would prefer to see a Fascist flag than a Communist one. They found Hitler to be a “political idol” for women and young voters. The Literary Digest, Time and The Saturday Evening Post all attributed the win to the support of female voters while The Nation attributed it to the middle class whose fortunes were “swept away in the period of inflation.” Reader’s Digest supposed a reasoning that was repeated often over the next year or so, a belief that the Nazi rise was due to the economic depression and that any alleviation of the depression would result in the disintegration of the movement.[31]

The agenda that Time reported on during the summer began to make the rounds after the September elections. The Times ran an article the day after the elections that repeated the Time assessment practically verbatim.[32] On October 29th, The Nation ran a similar article, as did The Saturday Evening Post on November 1st.[33]

The Tribune was the most adamant in its opinion about Hitler and the Nazis after the September elections. On September 16th, the Tribune declared that the Nazi seat increase could “hardly comfort anyone who believes that what Europe and Western Civilization most need at the moment is peace and stability.”[34] Again we see, however, how American faith in democracy dominated the press interpretation of events. The Tribune continued, “for Germany, we continue to have faith in republicanism…If any people in the world are fit for self government and popular institutions they are.”33

Reportage of Germany continued in earnest after the elections, with many stories focusing on the Fascists and Hitler. On September 21st, the Times ran a profile of Hitler that called him the “driving force in Germany’s Fascism” and referred to him as Germany’s “Duce.” The article went on to refer to Hitler as “the nation’s political clown” and noted, “the things he says are regarded by politically sensible people as pure ignorance and demagogy.” It even went so far as to suggest that Hitler might be “the author of a new war of revenge.”[35] However, despite the recognition that over 6 million Germans voted for the Nazis, the Times concluded that the “net result…should be to bring together the parties…in Germany standing for sobriety and the existing political order.” It even discounted the possibility of a dictatorship, saying that the necessary conditions are not present in Germany.[36]

American magazines were decidedly more pessimistic in their assessment of the Nazi movement in the last few months of 1930. The Literary Digest predicted “the guillotine scenes of the French revolution” should Hitler come to power, noting the violence that would be done to all of the opposition. The Nation noted that Hitler’s policies were “akin to those of a dictatorship.”[37]

In the year 1931, coverage of Germany remained at about the same level or increased slightly. According to the New York Times archives, there are around 8,000 articles that make mention of Germany, with a majority of full articles again covering such economic topics as reparations, foreign loans, and unemployment. Interestingly, only 114 of those articles concern Hitler or the Nazis.[38] Given the supposed rise of the Nazi party in the previous September, it might be expected that the press would cover the party more exhaustively. However, 1931 was not a particularly busy year for the Nazi party, with much of the fervor stirred up by their election wins dying down. Because of that, it may be unsurprising that the narrative the press presented was one of “Fascist decline.”[39]  In the early months of 1931, Time characterized the Nazi successes in the election as “a flash in the pan.”[40] The press viewed the Nazi stagnation as a result of the problems that occur when an extremist force based on the fervent support of 150,000 members has to attempt to maintain popular support. Time believed that Hitler “wished to maintain his party’s twelve million votes rather than surrender to ‘his gang.’” They intimated that his intention was to “moderate his policies” so as to gain Nazi participation in the next cabinet.[41]

The story of Nazism and Hitler in 1931 is one of conflicting storylines; one can never be sure exactly where the press stands.  In February 1931, Hitler ordered the Nazi party to withdraw from the Reichstag, an event that demonstrated the Nazis’ unwillingness to compromise. The walkout was seen as anything but a victory for the Nazis, with Time declaring it a “victory for Bruening.”40 Similarly, the Times characterized the presence of the Nazis in the Reichstag as “a lot of children with bad manners” and concluded that “what was five months ago a menace is beginning to take on the character of a burlesque.”[42]

In a June feature that profiled “Hitlerism,” the Times called Hitler a “showman” and declared that “the most outstanding feature of the Hitler movement is not the emergence of a powerful personality” but the “arts of mass-suggestion” or propaganda. The article describes the way that the Nazis have captured the mass imagination with their romantic propaganda, tacitly suggesting that the movement is all style, no substance.[43]

In an April article entitled “HITLER’S EBB TIDE,” the Times declared there to be a “Fascist decline” and decided that ““Sooner or later it was bound to bite in on German conscience and German pride that to permit the ugly head of anti-Semitism to raise itself in the country was to injure and degrade the German name before the world.”[44] Compare that with an article written only six months later, that declared, “Hitler stock is rising…”[45] Or an April 4th article that stated Hitler “has destroyed all hopes and fears of an imminent reactionary revolution.” That same article provided that the impression that Hitler was pursuing a moderate policy that might lose him much of his radical support but conceded he was still the leader of “the most spectacular movement in post-war Germany…”[46] Other prominent news stories reported upon included the arrest of Dr. Josef Goebbels, “Hitler Chief aide,” the end of Wilhelm Frick’s rule in Thuringia, and the declaration by Bruening that he would “CRUSH ANY MOVE BY ‘NAZIS.’”[47] 

Nazi failures in the Reichstag when combined with gains in local and regional elections probably contributed to the schizophrenic analysis of the Nazi successes by the press. However, in December, the tide began to swing again in Hitler’s favor and the news reflected this. As the Times put it, “Anticipation ranged from Hitler getting ready to take over power in the near future to Hitler ready to seize power at almost any moment.”[48] This fell in step with much of the reaction of American magazines. The Literary Digest conducted a survey of the German press that revealed “most editors believed the anticipated distress of the coming winter would bring Hitler to power.” Similarly, The Nation “was ready to declare there were only two ways out for Germany: ‘Hitler’s nationalism’ or ‘communism of the Russian brand.’”[49]

In 1932, coverage of German issues was again around the same level that it had been in 1931 and 1930, with approximately 6500 articles in the Times that mention Germany. However, in contrast to previous years, mentions of Hitler and the Nazis go up exponentially. There are over 1000 articles in the Times alone in 1932 that mention Hitler or the Nazis.[50] The American media focused on two issues as 1932 opened: “the reparations and debt issues and the ending of Hindenburg’s term of office.” According to a study done by George Hermann, where he surveyed over ten major dailies and twenty major periodicals, 75% of American news about Germany in 1932 was related to these two topics.[51] American opinion on these topics was divided and heavily dependent on the owner and head editors of the respective publications. Newspapers owned by William Randolph Hearst and the Tribune, owned by Colonel Robert McCormick, were both reputably isolationist. In their opinion, “the economic chaos in Europe belonged to the British and French government.”[52] The Tribune blamed Germany’s economic decline on the Treaty of Versailles, noting that the decline was not “an unforeseen consequence of the peace. It was provided for in the design.” McCormick’s Tribune lamented bitterly, “The victors wrung vast profits from the vanquished…we are now called upon, with contempt and rebuke to rescue Europe.” Around 29% of the coverage focused on Germany’s internal politics.[53] 

The press coverage of Hitler and the Nazis at this time is as schizophrenic as it was in the preceding months. There are two competing story lines: one of increasing Nazi power and one of the prevailing strength of Hindenburg and the idea that the Nazi movement had reached its zenith. In a January 12th editorial in the Times, the editorial board declared “a Hitler majority in the nation” to be “erroneous,” and added that it believed the “‘reservoir’ whence he has been drawing his votes is about exhausted.”[54] The Times opinion should be compared with the dominant press opinion that appeared after Bruening attempted to enlist Hitler in a move to extend Hindenburg’s presidential term. Hermann notes that the press commentary on Bruening’s move “gave the impression of Nazi strength.” A sampling of the headlines should suffice:  “HITLER TO DECIDE IF HINDENBURG STAYS,” (Daily Globe) “HITLER SITS IN JUDGEMENT OF VON HINDENBURG,” (Tribune) “HITLER SPURNS BRUENING PLEA,” (Free Press) and  “HITLER TO RULE ON HINDENBURG OFFICE TENURE” (Washington Post).[55]             Not all coverage of the event came to this dire conclusion. The Times coverage of the same event is decidedly less histrionic with headlines such as “BRUENING ASKS HELP OF HITLER” and “BRUENING TALKS TO HITLER.”[56]  It is interesting that as the rest of the media proclaimed Hitler’s growing power, it was the Times that discounted what would happen should he come into power. In “BRUENING TALKS TO HITLER,” the Times noted, “…For some past it has been indicated that Hitler’s intentions are not so extreme as his proclamations.”55 T.R. Ybarra in Collier’s supposed “[Bruening] had repeatedly forced the Hitlerites to a showdown and each time had ‘held the winning hand.” Collier’s believed that so long as Bruening remained in power, he would be able to block Hitler from power.[57]

An interesting caveat to the media coverage is the idea that much of the press used America’s experience as a “frame of reference…in commentary on German affairs.”[58] The Weimar democracy was extremely hard for Americans to understand even if they sympathized with it. As Hermann notes, it was not within the American experience to understand a democratic system that “had two parties that were ‘avowedly anti-democratic and anti-republican.”57 It hardly made rational sense for a political party to campaign for rule with the express “object of destroying the democratic system it is working through.”[59] Of course, post-war Germany was anything but rational.

Though the media coverage was consistent throughout the year, the next major event that the media focused on was the presidential elections to reelect Hindenburg. As has been noted, the American media had extreme confidence in President Hindenburg’s ability to stabilize Germany. As such, the narrative of the elections was framed in this pro-Hindenburg light. According to the Tribune, Hindenburg “represented the finest traits of the German character.”[60]  In consecutive editorials in the Times, the editorial board pitted Hindenburg as the last bulwark against Nazism with headlines such as “HINDENBURG AGAINST FACISM” and  “HITLER AGAINST HINDENBURG.”[61] The Times declared Hindenburg’s candidacy a “victory for the cause of peace and moderation in Germany” and put his platform as the “preservation of German unity.” The Times called a Hindenburg victory “a real step toward European stability.”60

When Hindenburg won the first election in March, the press coverage of the election consistently misinterpreted the meaning of the election results.  Hindenburg, merely by virtue of the prestige of his name, was always expected to win the election. What the press failed to grasp was what was portended by Hindenburg’s inability to win the election outright and instead force a runoff. According to Hermann, the Associated Press’s coverage (around 55 percent of the newspaper coverage) “gave the impression of republican forces holding a dominant position over those of extremism.”[62] Similarly, the Times reported, ““The result is accepted as the first step toward its elimination as a power political factor in Germany. It seems to indicate that the Nazis have reached their high point.”[63] The Tribune argued,  “A majority of German voters…supported a regime of moderation in internal and foreign affairs.”61 However, such an interpretation fails to elucidate why certain factions voted for Hindenburg.

The unity propagated by Hindenburg’s supporters blinded the press from exploring the various “contradictory reasons why the Social Democrats, Center and conservatives supported him.”61 Perhaps the largest oversight is that the combined opposition to Hindenburg (divided up between the Communist Thalmann, the Nationalist Dusterberg, and the Fascist Hitler) made up a majority of the German votes.61 Only the Pittsburgh Press seemed to recognize the danger in the election, as it wondered how many million votes might have gone to the opposition if only such a personality as Hindenburg was not a candidate.61

Despite the impressive showing by Hitler, it was a foregone conclusion in the newspapers that Hindenburg would prevail in the run-off election. The Times called it “humanly certain that President Hindenburg will win” and believed that “the numerical strength of Hitlerism” had been exaggerated.[64] Louis Lochner, writing for the Associated Press, noted that the German people voted “overwhelming for President Von Hindenburg” and to block “Hitler’s ambition.”[65] The Times further noted that the German people has a “sober facing of the facts” and a “firm sense of responsibility” guiding themselves.[66] This comes back to the idea among the American press that “of all nations in the Old World, [Germany] seemed to be the one which most resembled the United States.”[67] If that wasn’t enough, quantitatively, 58% of press commentary believed the Weimar republic would survive the internal political threats.[68]

Periodicals on the other hand were far more critical of not only Germany but also the American newspaper press. The New Republic “warned that the daily press had falsely ‘interpreted the present campaign as a decisive struggle between democracy and fascism’; any claim to Hindenburg’s victory as a turning point toward democracy ‘is premature, to say the least.’”[69] As Hermann notes, among periodicals, “there was neither the excessive praise of Hindenburg, nor the undue optimism as over the election results.”[70]   

Despite the narrative presented by the largest media outlets, there was a small minority of papers that were openly pessimistic about the direction that Germany was headed. The Times Picayune, on the elections:  “…the moderates have to face the unpleasant fact that the extremist gains were at their expense.” The Detroit Free Press bluntly stated, “The republican group have had their chance and failed.”[71]

The general press narrative was such that the American reading public was not fully aware of “the extent of the German economic and political discontent.”[72]As has become standard in this analysis, Hermann asserted, “The sins of the press were actually ones of omission rather than commission, obtuseness rather than conspiracy.”71 Even at the end of April, the Times continued in their belief that the Nazis were not who they said they were. They accepted the argument of the German centrists that “once the Nazis participate in the government they will become more moderate at the same time their political ascendancy will be curbed…”[73]

When the Bruening government fell in June, the New York Times still did not adequately portray the danger that the government change portended or what the rise of Von Papen meant. A Washington Post headline captured what a more incisive press reaction looked like with “NAZIS HAIL FALL OF BRUENING AS CLINCHING RULE.”[74] Similarly, the Philadelphia Inquirer headline read “REICH FACES FASCIST RULE UNDER HITLER OR DICTATORSHIP BY REICHSWEHR.”73 The Times, by contrast, decided that the effects of the von Papen cabinet would “not prove to be so great as many will hastily predict.” They further pointed to Hindenburg as “a tower of strength.”[75]

Despite the up cropping of pessimism from some papers during the rise of von Papen, the Times narrative continued into the summer in anticipation of the upcoming July Reichstag elections.  As Hermann puts it, “Because of certainty in democracy’s capabilities to solve national problems, the strength of German reaction was not recognized until facts appeared in the headlines.”[76] The Times speculated “…it will be a big surprise if the result is not…a working majority in the Reichstag able to keep in power a firm and stable government.”[77] The Philadelphia Inquirer believed in a return to moderation owed to “good deal of common sense” which the “German people as a whole” possess.”[78] American periodicals “echoed the press predictions that the Nazis would fall short of gaining power.” Only the New Republic predicted “Nazi control of Germany via the election and the cooperation Hugenberg’s Nationalists.”[79]  

In the July 1932 elections, the Nazis, for the first time, gained a majority in the Reichstag. Despite this incredible development, the Times found that “…The outcome was neither indecisive nor disappointing if we take it that the principal issue was Hitler…the Fascist party failed by a wide margin to win the mandate for which it has been clamoring…”[80] They further declared Hitler “stopped” and found that “the role of Mussolini or Lenin is not for him.”

The July election results notwithstanding, the later months of 1932 proved abysmal for the Nazi party and the press portrayed this decline accurately, if only by coincidence that it fell into their dominant narrative. As Hermann put it, “Nazism seemed a disintegrating giant,’ not only to ‘sympathetic observers’ within Germany but also to a significant section of the American Media.”[81] The results of the November elections, which saw a drop in Nazi support, encouraged headlines by the dailies that supported the “disintegrating giant” theory. A sampling of the headlines read: “GERMAN VOTES END HITLER’S BID FOR POWER”, “NAZIS’ REICHSTAG POWER BROKEN”  and “GERMAN VOTERS STOP HITLER’S DRIVE FOR RULE.”[82] Frederick Birchall, writing for the Times, asserted, “The movement is at last in the retrogressive stage and the political significance of that in Germany is immense.”[83]

Comparatively, American periodicals were far more astute in their analysis of the state of Germany, with many agreeing with the Nation that “the Republic as a republic is finished.”[84] Time, however, “announced the results under the heading, ‘Hitler Tamed,” so one cannot call periodical reaction uniform.[85] However, the dailies’ insistent belief in the German republic did not go unnoticed by the periodicals. S. Miles Bouton, writing for American Mercury, exclaimed, “Every month for years American readers have been told that the movement had reached its highest point and begun to ebb. Every gain by the Hitlerites was followed by comforting assurances that now the last reservoir of their votes has been exhausted.”[86]

Though it is hard to criticize the media for misjudging the situation in Germany when the situation was not always so clear, the near-sighted nature of the dailies’ analysis was inexplicable. The New York Times repeatedly presented editorials and article slants that failed to see the writing on the wall. The Times failed to see the link between “Hitler’s strong showing against Hindenburg in March and again in April, the Nazi victories in the April Diet election, the implications of Bruening’s dismissal, the results of the July and November Reichstag elections, and the danger to democracy presented by Papen’s regime.”[87]

In the beginning of 1933, Germany was in a tumultuous state, far more than the previous years, if that can be said. In late January, Chancellor von Schliecher was ousted and it seemed to everyone that Hitler would get the post. The media reflected this with headlines such as “SCHLIECHER QUITS, HITLER MAY GET POST”, “HITLER PREPARING TO RULE IN GERMANY AS CABINET RESIGNS”; and “HINDENBURG URGED TO PUT HITLER IN CHANCELLORSHIP.”[88] The Times, however, missed the boat on the Hitler possibility. Though a subheadline read, “Rule by Hitler scouted,” they decided that Papen was the likely successor.[89] The event caught the media, both periodical and daily, off-guard. The Literary Digest ran two articles on events in Germany on February 4th, neither mentioned Hitler’s appointment.[90]

Even once Hitler took control as Chancellor, the Times and most of the rest of the media still held out the opinion that the republic was not in jeopardy. The Times believed that Hitler would be unable “to translate the wild and whirling words of his campaign speeches into political action” because of the cabinet that he’d been forced to accept.[91]  The Times further regarded Hitler as “the prisoner of von Papen, Hugenberg and the ‘Generals’ who will put the ‘soft pedal’ on extreme Nazi views regarding anti-Semitism, economics, and finances.” Scripps-Howard and the Hearst papers believed that Hitler’s appointment had already “served to sober and moderate the fiery Nazi chieftain.”[92] The Times-Picayune was in the minority when they observed that Hitler “will make an end of coalition ministries and conservative ‘checks’ [and] will hold and wield power,’ surrendering it to no one.”91

The end of this story is one we know well. Hitler quickly consolidated power, ushered in the enabling act, and the true narrative of the Nazis became quite clear. The media was caught flat-footed by Hitler’s quick-moving agenda. As the headlines came out in the coming months, it soon became clear how wrong the American media was. A sampling of headlines in February captures this: ‘HITLER REPRESSES REDS, PUTS CURB ON SOCIALISTS”; “HITLER CLAMPS MUZZLE ON PRESS OF GERMANY”; HITLER CABINET OUTS PRUSSIA DIET, PREMIER”; HITLER TO REMAIN IN OFFICE EVEN IF BEATEN, HE AVERS’”[93]

Finally, in mid-February, the Times seemed to finally realize the gravity of the situation. The editorial board declared “The process of forcibly converting republican Germany through the coming election into a National Socialist State…is proceeding at a pace that leaves many onlookers amazed and aghast.”[94] However, even after that declaration, the Times doubled back on that narrative. In a February 19 editorial, the Times found that “the very lions of agitation and demagoguery once in office have a way of roaring thereafter as gently as sucking doves.”[95] Even after the Reichstag fire in late-February, the Times was still adamant that Hitler would become a moderate and “there is no reason why he should invite trouble at least for the immediate future.”[96] A February 26th editorial asserted, “twenty million Germans are not going to submit to Hitler as the Italian people did to Mussolini.”95 The optimism (or was it blindness) that permeated the Times editorial board would not even accept Hitler’s danger after the Weimar flag was retired. They found that Germany would not “permit itself to play traitor to its own past and to the cause of civilization.”95

Time found that after two weeks in power, he had “‘reduced his opponents to a lower level of groveling fear’ than Mussolini had achieved in his first two years of power.”[97] The Nation was ready to declare in mid-February that “Germany’s ‘battle for democracy’ was lost…”

After the enabling act was passed in March, the press, aside from the Times, found the Weimar Republic to be dead and Hitler to be in full control. The Washington Post, in an editorial that often sounds like a eulogy, declared “Germany turns a completely new page in her history while all Europe waits in ominous silence the outcome of Nazi dictatorship…If Hitler carries out the policies he has been shouting from the house tops for several years a new European war may be expected.”[98] The Times editorial board was still stubborn in their belief that Hitler was not in absolute control. Managing editor Edwin James, who wrote a series of Sunday analyses, believed the Enabling Law to not be significant on the grounds that “the Reichstag had not invested dictatorial power in Hitler but rather ‘in the existing government.”[99] Even their headline (“HITLER CABINET GETS POWER TO RULE AS DICTATORSHIP…”) emphasizes the dictatorial nature of the government while failing to “convey the chilling implications of the law,” that Hitler was in sole control.98

The American press coverage during the period in Germany from 1929 to 1933 was extensive and detailed. The press did not fail in regards to their coverage of the facts and events. Instead, the press failed in its ability to correctly interpret events, understand long-term trends, and adequately convey to American readers the meaning of foreign events outside an American understanding. As put by George Hermann, the dailies failed to outline the rise of the authoritarianism of Bruening, von Papen, and Schliecher, thus making the rise of Hitler incomprehensible.[100] The press failed to demonstrate how the American understanding of democratic politics did not translate to the German system. Further, the American belief in the ability for democracy to overcome all problems and the press’s overconfidence in Hindenburg fully clouded their interpretation of events. American periodicals fared somewhat better in this regard; their slower news cycle allowed them the ability to analyze larger trends in the media and in Germany. Despite this, they were not numb to pervasive narrative of the news cycle. The largest offender in the news cycle was clearly the New York Times, who despite their status as “the Newspaper of Record” failed time and again to correctly analyze events, stubbornly following a narrative that was clearly wrong even as the events proved them so. A small minority of papers, Times Picayune and the Detroit Free Press among others, exemplified the best of the dailies, as they more adequately prepared their readers for the possibility of dictatorship in Germany. The dominance of the Associated Press in the foreign coverage for these smaller papers, however, again pointed their readers back to the dominant narrative, which, though not as bullish as the Times, was not as robust as it could have been, had their been more foreign bureaus among American newspapers.[i]

[i] For more information on the internal boardroom politics that played a part in the New York Times coverage during this time, see: Klein, Gary. "When the News Doesn't Fit: The New York Times and Hitler's First Two Months in Office, February/March 1933." Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly Spring 78.1 (2001): 127-49. Proquest. Web. Klein’s thesis uses the Times internal cables, as well as specific events and reporters to discover why the narrative fell the way it did. However, due to the limited nature of his analysis (It only covers February and March 1933), it seemed unwise to let his analysis color the larger research. In addition, Richard Shepard’s work, The Paper’s Papers (Shepard, Richard F. The Paper's Papers: A Reporter's Journey through the Archives of the New York Times. New York: Times, 1996. Print.) covers many similar topics, though he focuses primarily on the Times’ reasons for their coverage of Nazi anti-Semitism in the late 1930s. Laurel Leff’s work, Buried by the Times (Leff, Laurel. Buried by the Times: The Holocaust and America's Most Important Newspaper. New York: Cambridge UP, 2005. Print.) is similar but covers the topic into World War II.


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