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Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

This month sees the publication of a new book about an interesting and surprisingly under-researched subject.

Will Wainewright’s Reporting on Hitler (Biteback, 2017) is the story of the British press corps in Nazi Germany before 1939 as they watched a society losing its grip on civilisation, and faced editors and proprietors back home who did not want to hear the truth.

Looking back at Hitler, what we see first is necessarily the genocidal warmonger, the icon of evil. But in January 1933 he was the strange little man with the talent for exploiting hatred and self-pity who rose from being a labourer to the Chancellery, and still a ‘party leader among party leaders’.

He was regarded as a ‘picturesque’ and eccentric figure but the worldly-wise knew how it would turn out. Hitler would be the front man, the demagogue who could control the masses, while the flinty old nationalist conservatives would steer the ship.

The Berlin stock market seemed entirely unruffled by Hitler’s accession to power. Those unnerved by the prospect of a Nazi Chancellor were reminded that the government was a coalition, the nationalist politicians were an experienced group not given to hysteria, and although it could take office thanks to the abstention of the Centre Party it did not have an overall majority in the Reichstag.

As the Times pointed out in February, the Hitler who talked about creating a new Germany had allied himself to ‘the most stubborn residue of the old regime’ – conservative aristocrats, monarchists, and the pillars of big business – and it was likely that the government would be essentially a Nationalist one rather than a Nazi enterprise.

“Herr Hitler’s strength is in his hold upon the people, among whom he enjoys the sort of popularity often accorded to a film-star but seldom to a statesman. For the present it can be understood that he thinks it best to continue to play his more familiar role.”

From the Daily Telegraph:

“Not from this Government will come the vaguely Socialistic semi-Fascist Dictatorship, the attack on banks and bourses, the anti-Jewish pogroms which are the nearest approach to anything definite in the Nazi outlook.”

Within a couple of days it was clear enough to working journalists in Berlin that the purveyors of such reassuring mock-sophisticated interpretations had underestimated Hitler’s cunning and ruthlessness.

New elections were called. The Nazis used the power of government to unleash a rapid, confusing onslaught of change aimed at taking control of the police and weakening other sources of authority including the states that made up federal Germany, the media, rival political parties and the law. Institutions and the norms of decency and shame comprehensively failed.

At the end of 2015 I read Alex Preston’s novel In Love and War, about a young Englishman in Fascist Italy. I was wondering how the author went about capturing, without descending into absurd caricature, a very different time in which people fervently believed – to an extent that would seem ridiculous in our age of irony and cynicism – in ideologies that now seem obviously absurd or evil.

The world of the 1930s seems less far away now. In October 1933 a journalist wrote that ‘people have lost all faith in economic experts, bank presidents, and financial pundits. They have been fooled so often with false prophesy that the only opinion they value is their own.’ The Mail’s end-of-year review regarded 1933 as a strange, enervating time: ‘It has been a year of clamour and climax. Its action has moved with the speed and contrast of a news reel.’

Throughout the first months of the Nazi regime the German public and the foreign press were distracted by official conspiracy theories and fake news about ‘Red Plots’ and attempted coups. Chancellor Hitler’s election campaign strategy, as the Times noted:

“…is to make no pronouncement of policy in the ordinary sense of the term, but to proclaim a political creed, to impose it with all the resources of official power upon the whole nation, and to denounce, malign, and thwart its opponents, open or supposed.”

The hot take ‘Hitler as prisoner of the nationalists’ was quickly replaced. The new wisdom was that the Hitler of government was different from the Hitler ranting on the platform. Hitler encouraged this view when talking to foreign diplomats and journalists, and was surprisingly good at insincere moderation and telling interlocutors what they wanted to hear:

“The aim of our struggle for the German nation in foreign affairs is none other than to give our people honour and equality, and to co-operate honestly in avoiding bloodshed in the future which we former soldiers of the world war could only regard as a new catastrophe for a Europe gone mad.” (As reported Daily Mail 3 January 1934)

People wanted to believe this was the real Hitler. Hitler’s withdrawal from international institutions like the League of Nations and the Disarmament Conference in 1933 reflected his dislike of talking shops like the dysfunctional parliaments of pre-war Austria-Hungary and post-war Germany; bilateral agreements such as the pact with Poland in January 1934 were much more effective.

If one pointed out the frightening contents of Mein Kampf with its celebration of war and race hatred, one would be accused of being naïve – that was just campaign fluff from nearly a decade ago and not to be taken seriously, yet alone literally.

The Nazis were thin-skinned and humourless towards criticism in the foreign press from the beginning. Hermann Goering, no less, was infuriated when the local newspaper in Gothenburg wrote in early February 1933 that ‘it is incomprehensible that the politics and the press of the world should be compelled to occupy themselves with this figure. Hitler is an insult.’

Goering wrote to the editor that ‘as a true friend of the Swedish people, I see a serious danger to the friendly relations between the two peoples in mud-throwing of this character. Before further steps are taken I should like to be advised whether you intend to prevent such statements in future.’ Had electronic media been available in 1933, the editor would no doubt have received the threat through Twitter instead.

Soon, the foreign press was put under the Nazi press law that banned the circulation of what the regime deemed ‘obviously false news through which the vital interests of the State may be endangered.’ Honest reporting became increasingly difficult, although some brave journalists did manage.

On 13 March the Daily Telegraph published detailed and damning evidence about the violence that the Nazis had unleashed within Germany and ‘how essential an article of the Nazi political faith is the anti-Semitic terror’. It pulled no punches in its commentary on the findings; the violence in Germany was:

“…an orgy of terrorism which, if it cannot be checked by the Nazi leaders, begs fair to complete the economic ruin of Germany as well as to stain her honour unforgettably.”

The Telegraph also spoke up against the regime’s first steps towards official racism, denouncing the April 1933 dismissal of Jews from the civil service as ‘intolerable in a civilised society’.

The Express man in Berlin in the early 1930s was Sefton Delmer, a Berlin-born Australian who counted Ernst Röhm as a friend and accompanied Hitler on his 1932 campaign plane. Some of the British thought he was too close to the Nazis, while some Germans thought he was working for British intelligence.

Delmer’s Berlin dispatches have a playful ambiguity to them. In mid-February he took stock of what had happened under the ’21-day Chancellor’, and it is apparent that he had grasped the dark nature of Nazism, as he asked the reader to come with him for a walk on the streets of Berlin.

Young men in black uniforms and deaths-head caps roared around the streets on motorcycles, carrying items for government ministries or the SA – the original Nazi biker gang. The grip of the police state was tightening:

“The newspaper stall at the corner of our street, too, has rather a different appearance to that which it had three weeks ago. There are far fewer newspapers on sale than there were. The reason is that a large number have been prohibited by Hitler… I must not forget to tell you about the telephone. Did you hear that click in the receiver just now after I started talking to you?”

Delmer was transferred to Paris later in 1933 and after returning to Britain in 1940 showed once and for all which side he was on. He organised German language radio broadcasts targeted on German soldiers that on the face of it were pro-Nazi but actually material designed to undermine confidence, insinuating that while the soldiers were at the front their wives and girlfriends were sleeping with strapping young foreigners who had been conscripted into farm and factory work back in the Reich.

Pembroke Stephens followed Delmer as the Express man in Berlin. His initial work was nuanced but over-sympathetic to the German regime, as in his 30 January 1934 anniversary piece which noted achievements of the regime such as the ‘undoubted improvement in public morality’ since the decadent Republic, and that ‘Hitler has cleared the street corners of lounging youths and reformed their characters by hard months in the labour camps.’

Stephens professed admiration for Hitler personally, but the Nazis were ‘a cold and cruel movement’. The longer he stayed in Berlin the less he liked the regime – or the less inclined he was to play the game of appeasing the censors – and he was thrown out of Germany in June 1934. He died in November 1937, shot while covering the Japanese attack on Shanghai.

The Daily Mail’s correspondent Rothay Reynolds was one of the first journalists outside the Munich local press to take any interest in the Nazi party in the 1920s and was evidently distressed by their rise to power, comparing the April 1933 restrictions on Jews to the onslaughts the community had faced in the Middle Ages.

Reynolds managed to stay in post until 1938 but the editorial line of the paper under Lord Rothermere became increasingly pro-Nazi after summer 1933. The comment writer George Ward Price was a baleful influence, bringing scarcely diluted Nazi propaganda to the paper’s readership from autumn 1933 onwards.

The heavy hand of the newspaper proprietors eventually came down on the side of indulging the Nazis. Comment pieces written in London in late 1933 and 1934 mocked those who write about ‘what they call “the horrors of the concentration camps”’, proposed banning calls for a boycott of Germany, excused the purge of Jews from the Berlin legal profession, and thought we could learn something from German higher education policy.

Visiting comment writers, even when they were not pro-Nazi, were more easily bamboozled by propaganda than the Berlin-based hacks. The tone of British coverage therefore became more sympathetic to the Nazis as the regime became steadily more repressive, racist and threatening to the rest of the world.  Evil triumphed as good people were misled by mediocre people who believed themselves to be level-headed realists.

127 comments for: Lewis Baston: We can learn from how papers covered the rise of Hitler

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