Associated Press and the Nazis

Last week’s revelations in the national and Israeli press that Associated Press (AP) had ”co-operated” with Joseph Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry during the 1930s and 1940s was astounding. The German historian, Harriet Scharnberg, discovered that photographer SS-Oberscharführer Franz Roth of the Propaganda Ministry, whose work regularly appeared in the Völkischer Beobachter, the Nazi party daily, was also employed by AP. Was this the price that AP had to pay in order to remain in Nazi Germany?

Scharnberg’s research indicates that AP agreed to observe the Schriftleitergesetz (the Editor’s law) which promised not to publish material that would be detrimental to the regime. Unlike the New York Times, AP did not shut up shop in Nazi Germany.

AP, like many other agencies, had initially resisted Nazi demands to dismiss their Jewish employees. AP’s Louis P. Lochner was able to rebuff the Propaganda Ministry’s request but, with the consolidation of the regime, the pressure intensified. Lochner instead transferred his Jewish staff out of Nazi Germany for their own safety.

In contrast, the then Manchester Guardian in this country was outspoken in its coverage. A few weeks after Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933, it reported:

“The worst excesses here in Berlin occurred on 9 March, most of the victims living in the Grenadierstrasse. Many Jews were beaten by Brownshirts until the blood streamed down their heads and faces and their backs and shoulders were bruised. Many fainted and were left lying on the streets and were picked up by friends or passers-by and taken to hospital. A man and his wife walking together were both beaten and robbed.”

The Guardian was soon forced to close down its operation in Germany. The Times, however, was more general and circumspect. There was a widespread German belief that The Times was the “official” voice of the British Government. Many Nazi officials saw a Jewish conspiracy in all this – after all, Times reversed spelled “Semit”.

Hitler’s foothold in AP became crucially important during the period of American neutrality, 1939-1941.

On the outbreak of war, the Nazis were keen to create a positive reception in the US to the German military advance through Europe. The spin was that, like their fathers before them during the First World War, they were chivalrous and honourable fighters who attempted to keep civilian casualties to a minimum and respected the customs and traditions of the countries they found themselves in. So rather than indicate the brutality of the invasion of Poland in September 1939, AP provided a photograph of a German honour guard at the tomb of Józef Piłsudski, the founder of modern Poland, in Kraków.

The latent Nazi desire was actually to eliminate all Jews and Poles from the city. More than 50,000 Jews were subsequently expelled and the rest interned in a ghetto. Academics from the Jagellonian University were sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau. Yet religious sensitivities were assuaged for a wider public by publishing a respectful photograph of the revered Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Scharnberg has argued that AP’s co-operation allowed the Nazis, ”to portray a war of extermination as a conventional war”.

Following the German invasion of the USSR in the summer of 1941, Goebbels instructed the Propaganda Ministry to highlight ”the Bolshevik threat”. The Soviets obligingly murdered tens of thousands of prisoners as they retreated. In Lvov in the Ukraine, then in Poland, Joseph Stalin’s NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) shot or bayoneted up to 4,000 inmates. Roth was called in to photograph the dead and the barely living. His photographs appeared not only in the German media, but also in the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Constitution. Scharnberg even suggests that Hitler personally selected which of Roth’s photographs should be published.

The British press was also dependant on AP during this period of war. Even so, the relative success of the Nazis in placing their photographs in the American media undoubtedly worried the British authorities that they would lose the battle for hearts and minds. Yet they too practised their own censorship at home and cultivated a different imagery abroad – for example, playing down Jewish suffering in British propaganda which was directed at the Middle East.

Cyril Radcliffe, who was director-general of the Ministry of Information in Britain, was amazed to note the sudden proliferation of Nazi-placed photographs in the American media. Britain, a bastion of resistance in Europe after the retreat from Dunkirk, was highly dependent on US assistance. Many in the UK were concerned that the United States would sink into a deeper isolationism. Photographs promoting a kinder, more civilised Germany were a method of distancing the average American citizen from the tragedy unfolding in Europe – and ultimately for keeping the US out of the war.

Yet AP was less compromised when stationed in authoritarian countries allied to, but not occupied by, Germany. In Romania, for example, a Jewish editor of Journalul, Alex Coler, supplied the AP journalist, Robert St. John, with detailed information each day about the fate of the Jewish community. Code names were instituted to bypass the Romanian censor.

Scharnberg’s research has also indicated the unscrupulous nature of Stalin’s USSR. It is significant to note that, when Germany occupied the Ukraine in the Second World War, it authorised the publication of virulent antisemitic cartoons in Ukrainian language periodicals. Such cartoons – albeit adapted – were utilised to project anti-Zionism and delegitimise Israel in Soviet publications in the 1960s.

Significantly, AP has removed Roth’s photographs from its website. Yet the questions remain:

Should news agencies and journalists compromise their core beliefs when operating in totalitarian states? Is it better to enter into a Faustian pact with the devil so that some light might be shed, rather than the total darkness that the regime desires? Should the plight of the few be illuminated at the expense of the many?

Was AP’s collaboration with Goebbels’ ministry no more than a professional opportunism to be a sole source of news or a noble attempt to publicise at least a small part of the horror that Jews in their multitudes were experiencing?

Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet and writer, was unequivocal when it came to manipulation in dark times.

For him, there was no grey area. “There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent”.

Jewish Chronicle 8 April 2016

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