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The Liberal Media Always Fails Against Fascism
Why legacy media institutions, like the New York Times and the Washington Post, fail historically at confronting fascism.
On February 17th, 2017, the Washington Post, one of my country’s chief papers of record, changed their slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. It was updated in their online masthead immediately, and added to print copies of the newspaper a week later. The reaction was mixed. A writer for ProPublica called it “awesome”. At South by Southwest a few weeks later, New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet compared it, mockingly, to an ad for “the next Batman movie”.
But fears that the U.S. was lurching towards some new authoritarian crisis brought with them a substantial surge of new paid subscribers to both the Post and the Times. A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, used some of that money to run a commercial at the 2017 Academy Awards, warning the nation’s most connected celebrities that “The truth is more important now than ever”.
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Both slogans depict a view of legacy media that news media executives want to push: an embattled fourth estate as a bulwark to fascism and corruption. Very little evidence supports this claim. The 21st century has seen an unprecedented global expansion in news media. There are more people now working as “journalists” of some kind than at any previous point in history. And yet Freedom House, a D.C.-based nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, calculates that over the last sixteen years the number of people living in societies that are considered “free” has declined by 25.7%.
The decline was initially sharpest what they refer to as “authoritarian states”, like Belarus and Syria. But in recent years it has increasingly impacted nations with long, stable democratic traditions. These countries also happen to have the largest, and most active news media sectors. Editors from prestigious publications like the Times and the Post talk a lot about the importance of objectivity. But Gallup continues to register American trust in the media at or near record lows. Last year was the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media was higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.
These facts are not divorced from the actions of the editors and publishers of great legacy media companies. Roughly a year after the Post changed their slogan, they accepted an editorial from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the authoritarian leader of Turkey, who currently imprisons more journalists than any other world leader. His op-ed bore the title; Saudi Arabia still has many questions to answer about Jamal Khashoggi’s killing. The Times meanwhile has continued to run a blistering series of irresponsibly sourced articles about transgender healthcare, helping to fuel a right-wing eliminationist crusade against trans people.
When both GLAAD, a queer advocacy organization, and several thousand New York Times contributors wrote letters complaining about this, management dismissed their concerns. They weren’t being “objective” enough. Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger did make a personal statement when one of his reporters was allegedly spit on over this issue. The murder of Brianna Ghey, a transgender 16-year-old in the U.K., did not merit a direct comment from Sulzberger.
This thing you’re about to read was written by me, initially, for a speech I was asked to give at the Oxford Union over in England. The broad topic they asked me to speak on was ‘how fascist movements arise within democratic society’. That is a broad topic, and given my limited time I chose to focus on the response of legacy liberal newspapers to fascist movements in history.
The reality one finds when analyzing the efficacy of liberal press in Weimar Germany, pre-Mussolini Italy, and the United States in the 20s and 30s, is sobering. Rather than being opponents to fascism, these publications were, at best, ineffectual witnesses to disaster and, at worst, the enablers of nightmares.
We’ll start with Italy, in the period from the war’s end in 1918 to Mussolini’s March on Rome near the end of 1922. This is generally broken up by historians into two eras: the red years, which saw a powerful working class movement arise and engage in revolutionary activity, and the black years, which saw a fascist counter-movement boil up in response and eventually seize power.
Ararat Gocmen from Princeton has done the most accessible analysis of how liberal newspapers and pundits responded to both these periods. Gocmen primarily analyzes La Stampa, probably the most influential newspaper for Italians who broadly sympathized with social democratic politics, and Italian Illustration, a weekly paper more geared to the upper-middle class center left.
The ‘red years’ were characterized by two large scale attempts at a General Strike, the first of which occurred in 1919 and was centered around protesting the involvement of Allied governments in the Russian Civil War. Neither paper supported the strike, claiming a general solidarity with labor but complaining that a strike would destroy Italy’s “collective wealth”. This two-day strike, they argued, would have “damaging effects ... on the national economy” and “would be a disaster for all ... bourgeois and proletarian alike.”
Meanwhile, Italian Illustration’s coverage focused more on fears about Communism in Russia, and connections between the Italian, Russian and Hungarian socialists. La Stampa, with its more working class readership, focused on the disruption the strike would cause. Italian Illustration attacked the strike movement for its purported ties to more radical socialists, then doing battle in the east.
In September 1920, the Federation of Metalurgical Workers, or FIOM, ceased negotiations with factory management after being refused a new wage agreement. To avoid a strike, and the economic consequences therein, workers occupied factories and defended them from their employers with “red guards”.
Writers for Italian Illustration were immediately dismissive, describing the laborers who occupied their own factories as “little boys [playing] shopkeeper, grocer, salesman, [and] sailor”. The occupations were fundamentally a childish thing, evidence of the “infancy of a [naive] new society [that mimicked] the toils of grown-up society.”
The occupations sparked a violent reaction from Italy’s far-right street movement. Fascist gang attacks on workers and occupied factories grew increasingly common, alongside police raids. This created a sense of constant paranoia within the red guards, as Mussolini’s squadristi’s took to carrying out what they called “punitive expeditions” against labor organizations. Historian Angelo Tasca describes them as treating the murder of workers as “sport”.
Despite this, La Stampa and Italian Illustration were united in treating the fascist violence as secondary to the problem of organized labor. Red guards had provoked gunfights by their very existence, workers had fueled fascism by taking action against their employers. The real victims in all this, as liberal columnist Renato Simoni cried, were middle class liberals forced to deal with disruption: “Oh how tragic is the life of the poor bourgeois in Italy!” he wrote in September of 1920.
While this was going on, liberal papers treated Mussolini’s rise as concerning, and the fascists as problematic, but also less of a direct threat than the excesses of the far left. A degree of fear may also have stopped larger publications from taking a more active role in the struggle for the reins of Italy’s government. During the first half of 1921 fascists destroyed 17 left-wing newspapers and printing presses.
In the summer of 1921, various left-wing armed organizations and leftist war veterans formed a unified militia to combat the fascists, the Arditi del Popolo. We know today that these people were organizing a defense against Mussolini during almost the last moment when any defense would have been possible. I want to read a paragraph here from Gocmen’s piece:
“La Stampa’s coverage of the arditi del popolo’s demonstration in Rome aimed to delegitimize the newly formed workers’ self-defense group, doing so in a manner reminiscent of the newspaper’s condemnation of the red guards that were active during the factory occupations of September 1920. La Stampa emphasized the combativeness of some of the workers who were present; for example, the royal guards had no choice but to arrest “the most quarrelsome and hotheaded” of the demonstrators. Additionally, while describing instances of violence involving “a young man struck with a blow to the head falling to the ground” or “a manual laborer struck and [with] his hands on his bloody head,” the newspaper employed the passive voice and thus obscured the direct agency of the policemen and fascist squadristi in the events.”
The problem of journalists assigning an active voice to the violence of one group and a passive voice for the violence of another is still with us. The day before I finalized this article, The Atlantic published a particularly reckless article about the ‘dangerous’ ‘new’ anarchist movement in the U.S. It made lurid reference to the shooting of an armed fascist gang member in Portland by anarchist Michael Reinoehl, claiming that police were forced to later shoot Reinoehl in self-defense.
She failed to mention that later evidence showed Reinoehl did not fire at officers when he was shot at dozens of times. She also neglected to note that President Trump bragged about the killing as a political assassination. Such facts were as inconvenient to her as the attacks by Mussolini’s squadristis were to the editors of La Stampa.
The main thing the Italian liberal press were guilty of was treating radical left-wing organizing as if it was fundamentally outside of acceptable lines, while treating the fascists, and their violence, as understandable, perhaps inevitable. Stampa blamed “anarchists and communists” for arming themselves, thus forcing the fascists to arm themselves. The fascists, it promised, would have happily handed over their guns, if the Arditi del Popolo had not given “fascism a motive to cry provocation”.
By late 1921, much of the liberal middle class saw protests and organizing by workers as the primary cause of fascist violence. This resulted in what historian Angelo Tasca called “philofascism”, on behalf of many middle-class liberals. We can see this in the reaction of writers for Italian Illustration to the August 1922 general strike.
In their eyes, the economic disruption justified right-wing violence, which provoked “a broad and immediate consensus in public opinion” for the fascists. The paper glowingly celebrated “blackshirts replacing workers on train platforms and public services”. Renato Simoni wrote that the failed protests of ’22 “has enabled fascism to demonstrate its merits.”
Now the Italian liberal press was larger than these two papers. But historians like Adrian Lyttelton will argue that sympathy to fascist aims was a common reaction for liberal papers reporting on the chaos of the early 20s. This doesn’t mean that there weren’t liberal papers that opposed the fascists as consistently as left-wing papers, but it does mean that many of the most influential writers on the center-left showed what you might call a bias towards normalcy that could accommodate fascist violence, but not organized labor.
We can get a little more context into the thoughts and decisions of this kind of newsman by pivoting over to Weimar Germany, and the Ullstein publishing house. It was founded in 1877, just a few years after the birth of the modern German state, by Leopold Ullstein, the son of a paper merchant. By the time the Weimar years rolled around Ullstein was the single biggest name in German print media. They put out newspapers, magazines and books, a dizzying array of what we now call “content”.
The Ullstein’s were a politically progressive Jewish family, and as a result much of what they published was reflexively liberal in its outlook. They were an early target for the Nazis, who described them as “Jewish press” influencing German minds. The Nazi tract, “The Press as a Jewish Instrument of Power” published in 1920, focused an entire chapter on Ullstein.
German communists, of course, hated Ullstein too, albeit for different reasons. Like most publishing empires it made its money from ads. Consumer culture was a new concept in post-war Germany, and Ullstein cheered it on with publications like ‘Tempo’, which devoted large illustrated sections to which products people should buy to make the most of their weekends, also a new concept.
As a result it’s not surprising that most Ullstein papers reflected a political allegiance broadly tied to the German Democratic Party, or DDP, which had helped write the Weimar constitution. The one major break Ullstein had with the DDP was over the value of unionization. Corporate spokesmen emphasized the positive relations between management and labor at Ullstein, one Ullstein’s owners felt would be ruined by unionization or regulation.
Ullstein publications fell into a version of the same trap that befell Stampa, claiming support for organized labor except for when it actually organized. Meanwhile it was hesitant, initially, to report on the Nazis, due in part to a fear of feeding into Nazi myths of Jewish control of the media. This was a problem faced by the other large Berlin-based media company, Mosse, which was also owned by a Jewish family.
Conservative mass media did not suffer from the same problem. The August Scherl company, purchased by Alfred Hugenberg in 1916, owned one of the largest papers in Berlin as well as one of Germany’s first news wire services. Hugenberg was also a far-right political activist and politician, and he felt no compunction against using his papers to espouse an anti-democratic agenda. He was not anti-Semitic in a way that rose above the background level of the era, but he was perfectly willing to work with Adolf Hitler to further his own ends.
The two started collaborating after the death of Chancellor Gustav Stresemann in 1929. This was after an election in which the German National party had lost a bunch of seats. He was willing to work with Hitler, and use his papers to try and launder their reputation to more mainstream German conservatives.
Meanwhile Ullstein, the largest liberal publishing house in the country, was hesitant to embrace anything beyond a tepid support for the center that mostly focused around vague reverence for “democracy”. The Nazis were depicted as objects to be mocked, and scorned, but not a serious threat to the future of the system. Franz Ullstein, who was one of few mainstream journalists to spend real one-on-one time with Hitler in this period, saw him as “a poor fanatic, a pitiful man”. It was impossible that such a man could be a real threat to German democracy.
This caused a serious debate. Heinz Ullstein actually yelled at the editorial department for mocking the NSDAP. He wanted them treated like a serious party. So did Carl Jodicke, an assistant to Ullstein’s GM, who wrote a white paper arguing that the Nazis were a “movement for political freedom and economic justice”. As a liberal publisher, Ullstein opposed the party’s anti-democratic politics, but Jodicke warned them against getting caught up in the “politics of petty details”, like reporting on “assaults of ‘evil’ Nazis” on peaceful protesters.
The very best investigation of this I’ve found is the book ‘Moderate Modernity’ by Jochen Hung. It focuses on the Ullstein company and one of its most popular papers, Tempo. Hung writes:
“To be able to compete with Nazi propaganda, the Ullstein papers had to change their tune, Jödicke claimed. Instead of touting lofty ideals of individual freedom and democracy they had to follow a resurgent patriotism, which strongly emphasized the “welfare of the whole community” instead of the individual and worked with emotions instead of reason and skepticism, as this was the only way to gain influence with the masses. The temporary curtailing of civil rights and democracy was inevitable in this time of crisis, he argued. Shouldered with their daily struggle, the people did not care much for the “‘luxury’ of freedom” at the moment anyway. As he showed in a later memorandum, Jödicke was clearly fascinated by the Nazis. The core principle of the movement, he argued, was a “return to universally accepted, non-debatable, unchangeable forms of life instead of general relativity.’”
Jodicke argued that the Nazi movement’s “simplicity” was what gave it the ability to grab hold of and guide the masses. Their primitive slogans of hate and vengeance were more effective than the wonky policy arguments of the German State Party, who Ullstein had backed earlier. The company’s pivot away from directly critiquing Nazi violence caused Gershom Scholem, a Berlin-born Jewish philosopher and writer, to call Ullstein “one of the most dishonest and misleading” media companies in Germany.
As Hitler neared power in 1931 and 1932, Ullstein pivoted to position itself as loyal to the political machine of Paul von Hindenburg. Their hope was that he might maintain some semblance of Democratic civil society in the face of Hitler’s rise. This was, in hindsight, a dogshit call.
Now there were journalists, and papers, that published serious exposes on Nazi crimes. In the 1928 election season Social Democratic papers published stories claiming Hitler had been bribed by Mussolini in exchange for ending the German claim to South Tyrol when he took power. Hitler sued over the matter and the libel case ground forward until 1932, the subject of heavy reporting all the while. Likewise, when Hans Litten subpoenaed Hitler over the stabbing of two workers by SA men, and questioned him on the stand about incitements to violence in Nazi propaganda, reporters dutifully brought the trial to millions of German living rooms.
It didn’t matter. Kurt Tucholsky, one of Weimar’s most influential journalists, noted morosely:
“The prestige of large democratic newspapers, or artists, and of liberal associations in fact bears no relation to their actual power,”. Kurt saw them as functionally toothless in the face of what he called: “power of reaction—always there and working more skillfully and, above, all, less respectfully”.
Tucholsky’s words drip with exhaustion, hopelessness, which matched his oft-expressed elitist belief that every German outside of Berlin was a “philistine”. But there were journalists who strove to activate people. One was an American columnist, Dorothy Thompson, who called Nazism a “repudiation of the history of western man, of reason, humanism and a Christian ethic”. Thompson joined members of the foreign press corps, like William Shirer, who had begun to see warning the world about Hitler as a moral imperative. Shirer would later report on the annexation of Austria at substantial personal risk.
But the men who ran Ullstein took a different tactic. To keep Hindenburg happy, they began to run articles supporting the military, and rearmament. They dropped their support of liberal Democratic parties. And they hired Hans Schaffer, the former State Secretary, to reform their coverage of the Nazis. Now to Schaffer’s credit his stated goal managing the paper was to turn it into a formidable weapon of resistance to the Nazis. But his method of doing so was flawed beyond belief.
His idea was that, if Hitler only had to try and govern, the gridlock of the Weimar system would wear him down to a nub. So Schaffer supported, and made sure his columnists supported, the attempts of the von Papen and von Schleicher government’s to create a coalition government with the Nazi party. He saw the Ullstein papers as having a valuable role to play, acting as “loyal, but critical opposition” to make clear the incompetence of the Nazis.
It would be an understatement to call this a catastrophic miscalculation. Schaffer did see himself as protecting Democracy, though, even though he had to support the authoritarian Papen government to do so. As a result in 1932 he directed Tempo, Ullstein’s most popular publication, to devote more and more page space to the street fighting between Nazis and their opponents. Both sides were presented as functionally equivalent since they ignored the laws of the state.
On New Years Eve, 1932, Tempo published a political cartoon that embodied the fundamentally naïve way it depicted German society. The cartoon showed a tired woman, Mother Germany, tucking her “problem children” into bed and hoping they’d get along next year. The “problem children” are depicted as Iron Front anti-fascists, Communists, and Nazis.
In the decades since Hitler’s rise to power different historians have posited a variety of suspicions for why the Weimar press failed so miserably as a guardian of democracy. Kurt Koszyk, who published an exhaustive three volume study on the German press in 1972, blamed a lack of internal freedom at news publications. The financial needs of owners, who profited by selling ads, always came before quality reportage. Modris Eksteins, who authored a study on the German Democratic press, titled ‘Limits of Reason’, broadly agreed with this conclusion.
Liberal editors, often in conflict with their owners, did spend the period from 1930-1933 trying to shore up a general support for the concept of democracy. But this was increasingly divorced from any actual political advocacy beyond urging readers to get out and vote. No other solution to the Nazi problem was floated. We are all broadly familiar with what happened to German democracy after 1933. Ullstein, and publishers with Jewish owners, were nationalized and aryanized by the Nazi state. Interestingly, the Nazis kept the name. They were pragmatic enough to see it as a good business decision.
And this brings us to my people, the Americans.
In some ways the U.S. media responded to the rise of Hitler and Mussolini worse than German or Italian media. This was due in a degree to simple distance; fascism was seen by many as a foreign ideology and not an immediate threat to the United States. But sympathy played a role as well. Many of the wealthy men who owned large publishing houses saw Communism as a rising threat, and Italy as a bulwark against the USSR. Within days of the March on Rome the Birmingham Age-Herald, a major Alabama paper, described Mussolini as looking “like a movie star”.
Much was made of the fact that actual movie stars seemed to find him magnetic. In February of 1927, Motion Picture Magazine published a picture of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, both major stars, doing a fascist salute in honor of their new friend Mussolini, who they’d met the year before. Rudoph Valentino, an Italian-born star known as the “Great Lover” by Hollywood press, was often compared positively to Il Duce.
If celebrity culture was the first vector by which most Americans dipped their toes into fascism, mainstream political reporting was not far behind. The Saturday Evening Post published Mussolini’s autobiography as a serial starting in 1928. They described the “Fascisti movement” as “rough in its methods”, but praised it for halting the radical left. Similar tributes came in from the Chicago Tribune. The New York Times credited fascism with bringing Italy back to a state of “normalcy”.
One of relatively few journalists to write objectively on Mussolini for American papers in this early portion of his reign was John Gunther, who profiled him for Harpers. His piece is an interesting historical document for its takes on Mussolini, but absolutely critical for its insights into the way the international press functioned around dictators:
“Interviews, Mussolini knows, are the best of all possible forms of propaganda; thus he is so lavish with them. Most newspaper men-and their editors-cannot resist the flattery of conversation with a dictator or head of a state; once they have been received by Mussolini or Hitler they feel a sense of obligation which warps their objectivity. It is very difficult for the aver-
age correspondent to write unfavorably about a busy and important man who has just donated him a friendly hour of conversation.”
Someone interested in drawing more modern parallels here might bring up the case of Maggie Haberman. Her work for the New York Times reporting on the Trump White House was praised by many liberals, even though Trump’s people often saw her as providing positive PR. Haberman was criticized back in 2022 when she published a much ballyhooed book about Trump, which included a quote from the former President promising not to leave office after his defeat in 2020.
Many people felt that Maggie withholding this information just to maintain her access to Trump, and to sell her book, was unethical. Haberman’s people, for their part, claim she shared this with her editors at the Times, who apparently decided it was not newsworthy.
Back in the 1930s, New York Times correspondents made equally problematic judgements in their coverage of Hitler. Perhaps the most sinister example of this was the case of New York Times correspondent Frederick Birchall. Prior to Nazism’s final victory over Weimar democracy, he’d followed Hans Schaffer in what was called the “caged Hitler” theory, the idea that decent conservatives in government would moderate the future Fuhrer.
Birchall was one of a few New York Times Berlin Bureau correspondents who stayed on after the Nazi’s took power. He had a major influence on how Americans perceived the coming regime and so it had an impact when he made claims that there would be ”no extreme persecution of Nazi opponents” under Hitler’s regime because “there would be no advantage to the Government in unsettling Germany’s social structure.”
The Enabling Act of March, 1933 brought the Nazis something close to total power. Many Americans did find this deeply unsettling, and so with the Times’s consent Birchall took to the airwaves on CBS radio. He avoided any mention of the anti-Semitic violence that Nazis had engaged in since Hitler’s ascension, and instead told millions of Americans there was “no cause for general alarm”. He advised his audience to, “dismiss from their minds any thought that there would be in Germany any slaughter of the National Socialist Government’s enemies or racial oppression in any vital degree.”
Now while Birchall was optimistic about the Hitler regime, even he knew he could not defend the things he was telling Americans on CBS. But he justified this to his publisher, Arthur Sulzberger by informing him: “I conceived of the notion of making the broadcast a bait for a real live interview with Hitler, one which I have been vainly seeking.”
There was an immediate and massive backlash to this, led with particular fervor by a number of Jewish papers. None of them had the clout or reach of the Times, though, which for the next ten years failed to hire any men of serious skill to work its Berlin bureau. Much of this can be traced to the owner of the paper, Adolph Ochs, who wanted his reporters to conduct themselves like, quote, “an order of monks”.
One result of Och’s commitment to “impartial” journalism, as he saw it, was that most reports from Berlin during Hitler’s rise and the early years of the regime were little more than collections of quotes from various German newspapers. This became a particular problem when the Nazis began banning opposition papers and taking control of Jewish-owned publishing houses like Ullstein.
Ochs was himself Jewish, but he disliked the idea that the Times may have been seen as an “Activist” paper. Arthur Hays Sulzberger, effectively his heir as publisher of the Times, admitted privately that his lack of sympathy for Jews suffering under Nazism was rooted in the fact that he’d been “too fortunately born”. As early as the 1890s, Sulzberger and Ochs embarked on a quest to- in their words- “de-Jewify” the New York Times.
The current publisher of the New York Times is, again Arthur Gregg Sulzberger. On a related note, here’s a tweet from climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis about a conversation she had with a “top NYT editor”:
My focus on the Times in this is rooted in the fact that it was, and remains, the nation’s chief paper of record. And as a result of that we do have tremendous detail for how its journalist’s and editors saw the problem of rising Nazi power (this study by Gary Klein is a particularly good source on that topic). But I don’t mean to act as if that tells the whole story. Many local U.S. papers, particularly smaller Jewish papers, did a marvelous job of spreading detailed information about the first Nazi crimes.
Likewise, there were marvelous foreign correspondents in Germany who did dogged, courageous work exposing early Nazi atrocities. The problem was that, for years, influential papers like the Times refused to take their work seriously. The fear was, as always, bias. One of the best sources was the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which had been founded by an Austrian and provided early evidence of mass violence against German Jews. The Times rejected its reporting as not “neutral”.
They didn’t reject stories from the JTA out of hand, though. When the Agency happened to interview a source the Times considered credible, like Albert Einstein, they were happy to carry JTA wire stories. Einstein was one of the most popular public intellectuals of the early 20th century. When the JTA asked him for his thoughts on the 1930 German elections, he stated that the: "Hitler vote is only a symptom, not necessarily of anti-Jewish hatred but of momentary resentment caused by economic misery and unemployment within the ranks of misguided German youth."
The Times happily printed this, while continuing to avoid reportage on attacks by Nazi street gangs against Jewish Germans.
Over in France, excellent work was done by L’Humanite, the paper of the French Communist Party. It too was rejected for bias. There’s another interesting book about all this, Berlin, 1933, written by French media critic Daniel Schneidermann. I found an interview with Schneidermann in the New Yorker, from back in 2019, that contains a fascinating quote on what he called “activist journalism”, which he argues was the only journalism that responded ethically to the rise of fascism.
“Activist journalism,” Schneidermann writes, “journalism that subordinates the quest for truth to the quest for a truth that is useful to its cause, is the only journalism that, today, doesn’t have to feel ashamed about what it produced. . . . Everything reasonable, scrupulous, balanced, in my opinion, contributed to lulling the crowd to sleep.” But, he continues, “If I’d been a reader at the time, I probably would have quickly stopped reading after a few days, dissuaded by the bludgeoning.”
I think this is especially worth pointing out because the next period in American journalism regarding the fascists, the one that occurred from the late 1930s up to the start of the war, was much better. The rapid change in American attitudes towards isolationism in World War 2 is some evidence of this. But we also see it in the response of the populace, and the mainstream media, to domestic fascist groups like the Silver Shirts and the German-American Bund.
Here, at least, the outright sympathy of the Italian liberal press and the frightened tremulousness of the Weimar media were less present. When the Bund famously rallied in Madison Square Garden in 1939, reporters on scene for Bund clashes with anti-fascists wrote articles with titles like, “Nazi Advocacy of Roosevelt’s Death Charged” and “Seven are Injured at Nazi Rally …”
In an article several days after the rally, even the Times argued Bundists were “determined to destroy our democracy”. The paper’s editor later released a statement saying the Bund meant to “set up an American Hitler”. In this the Times, at least, was following in the footsteps of the American people, who’d by this point started taking the warnings of reporters who were quite biased against the Nazi system seriously.
As U.S. entry into World War 2 grew closer, the most influential reporting on the Nazis came not from the unbiased, monk-like reporters Ochs valued, but from foreign correspondents like William Shirer and Dorothy Thompson. Thompson’s most influential article was published in August, 1941, for Harper’s Magazine. It had the evocative title ‘Who Goes Nazi?’, and rather than purporting to be even-handed journalism, it instead presents the reader with a series of fictional characters from various backgrounds, all conversing at a dinner party, and asks the reader to predict which ones might “go Nazi”. It is to this day considered one of the most influential articles of the era.
I take some enjoyment in the fact that Thompson included a character in her article who was almost certainly based on Mr. Sulzberger.
“Mr. J over there is a Jew. Mr. J is a very important man. He is immensely rich—he has made a fortune through a dozen directorates in various companies, through a fabulous marriage, through a speculative flair, and through a native gift for money and a native love of power. He is intelligent and arrogant. He seldom associates with Jews. He deplores any mention of the “Jewish question.” He believes that Hitler “should not be judged from the standpoint of anti-Semitism.” He thinks that “the Jews should be reserved on all political questions.” He considers Roosevelt “an enemy of business.” He thinks “It was a serious blow to the Jews that Frankfurter should have been appointed to the Supreme Court.”
The saturnine Mr. C—the real Nazi in the room—engages him in a flatteringly attentive conversation. Mr. J agrees with Mr. C wholly. Mr. J is definitely attracted by Mr. C. He goes out of his way to ask his name—they have never met before. “A very intelligent man.”
Dorothy Thompson’s article still draws much hatred from conservatives today, who find it deeply unfair and biased. It was. Dorothy understood that fairness and objectivity do not fight fascism. There’s a good chance her prose will make you feel uncomfortable. It ought to. But I promise, if you read her article, you will at least feel something.
I am not half the writer that Dorothy was, so rather than attempt to wrap this piece up myself, I’m going to leave you with another quote from that essay:
“It’s fun—a macabre sort of fun—this parlor game of “Who Goes Nazi?” And it simplifies things—asking the question in regard to specific personalities.
Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes—you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success—they would all go Nazi in a crisis.
Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.
Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.”
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