A type of `blindness'. Why the US press failed to uncover the Nazi Holocaust

Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945, by Deborah E. Lipstadt. New York: The Free Press. 370 pp. $19.95. It has been over 40 years since the end of the Holocaust, the Nazis' campaign of genocide against the Jewish people. Yet with each passing year, interest in the Holocaust continues to increase, not decrease, and today there are many books, articles, films, and plays about that demonic period.

Deborah Lipstadt's meticulously documented study (nearly a quarter of the book is footnotes) is a significant contribution to this growing and important field of inquiry. Dr. Lipstadt, a UCLA history professor, carefully analyzes the American press's response to the Nazi ``War Against the Jews'' as it unfolded from 1933 to 1945. She charges that the overwhelming majority of the American press failed in its ``mandate'' to adequately inform readers about the Holocaust.

The author demolishes the widely believed myth that the press had little real knowledge of the tragic events as they happened, and as a result, it was unable to tell the full story of the Nazi mass murders of the Jews until after the war. Sadly, she finds, the truth is just the opposite.

``What did the press know and when did it know it?'' is a basic question of ``Beyond Belief.'' Lipstadt shows that the American press had access to a surprisingly large number of accurate first-hand reports even during the war. Many American newspapers printed stories about Nazi anti-Jewish activities, including the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938 and the deportations of Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps. There were even stories about the Warsaw ghetto's armed uprising in 1943.

But the author asserts the press was either unable or unwilling to fully understand and report the depth of Nazi anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism was not a secondary issue, but rather it constituted a central, perhaps the central, core of all Nazi domestic and foreign policy. The ``Final Solution'' was not a result of Nazism -- it was Nazism.

Lipstadt calls the American press's ambiguous and ambivalent reaction to the Holocaust the ``yes, but'' syndrome:

Yes, bad things may be happening, but not as bad as reported. Yes, many Jews may be victims, but not as many as claimed. Yes, many may have died, but most probably died as a result of war-related privations and not as a result of having been murdered. Yes, many may have been killed, but not in gas chambers. Yes, some Jews may have died in death camps, but so did many other people.

Lipstadt carefully analyzes the stories the press printed (or did not print) about the Nazis' constantly escalating campaign against the Jews. Her extensive survey includes large city dailies, small-town papers, weekly news magazines, and official US Army publications. She not only studies the actual content of the articles, but also their length, and where the stories appeared in each paper.

Newspaper accounts of Nazi mass murders were often placed next to such minor stories as weather reports and fashion news. It is Professor Lipstadt's contention that the placement of a Holocaust story deep on an inside page often blunted an article's impact. Much of the American press treated the Holocaust with a combination of skepticism, apathy, and, finally, boredom.

Prof. Raul Hilberg, another Holocaust scholar, has called this type of reaction a ``functional blindness,'' and Lipstadt attributes the American press's ``blindness'' to several factors. In the 1930s and 1940s, she explains, there was a national fear of being duped by anti-Ger man propaganda. During World War I, many Americans felt they had been misled by the false reports of German ``corpse factories'' in Belgium. As a result, the reports of Nazi atrocities were often dismissed as untrue or wildly exaggerated. There was also the human inability to grasp the enormity of the Nazi ``Final Solution.''

In addition, American editors generally discounted the value of any account given by a victim of Nazism. Such accounts were usually labeled as ``self serving'' in nature. There was even an unwillingness by some US editors to trust the accuracy of the stories written by their own European-based reporters.

The American press, claims Lipstadt, while affirming its own editorial independence, often reflected the official US government position. That position minimized, at best, or eliminated, at worst, any public mention of the uniqueness and specificity of Jewish suffering at the hands of the Nazis. The European Jews were usually called ``Nazi victims,'' ``war refugees,'' ``camp inmates,'' ``oppressed people,'' or members of the ``occupied population.'' There was also the deeply held belief that the rescue of Europe's Jews could come only with a military victory over Germany. To even speak of rescuing Jews during the war seemed to be a weakening of the national commitment to ``total victory'' and ``unconditional surrender.''

The author of ``Beyond Belief'' is ``loath to accept'' one other possible and troubling explanation for the inadequate press coverage of the Holocaust: American anti-Semitism. Nevertheless, Lipstadt does acknowledge that ``many government officials, members of the press, and leaders of other religions behaved as if Jewish lives were a cheap currency. . . . The press was more outraged over Lidice (a Czechoslovakian village whose residents were massacred by the Nazis) . . . than it was over any similar action against Jews.''

Lipstadt has her heroes and villains from the period. The former group includes only a handful of liberal dailies and magazines, and interestingly, William Randolph Hearst. In 1943, Hearst publicly called for the immediate rescue of the Jews, claiming: ``This Is Not A Jewish Problem, It Is A Human Problem.''

Despite her extensive research, I wish the author had interviewed some of the people who were the editors of America's newspapers in those tumultuous years. Why did so many of them dispute the accuracy of their own reporters' stories? Why did they apparently soften their coverage of the Holocaust, a 12-year event that was so clearly ``hard news''? Did the editors feel any US government pressure about their coverage of the Holocaust? Such interviews would have greatly enriched the book.

Nonetheless, ``Beyond Belief'' is indispensable for anyone who seeks to understand the evil that was the Holocaust, and how the American press reported that evil to its readers.

At the end of her book, Lipstadt seems stunned, exhausted, and saddened by her findings. And so, too, is the reader: The press had access to a critically important and unprecedented story. Yet it reacted with equanimity and dispassion . . . and apathy. Both the ``Final Solution'' and the bystanders' equanimity are beyond belief.

A. James Rudin, a rabbi, is the American Jewish Committee's National Interreligious Affairs director. He is the author of ``Israel for Christians: Understanding Modern Israel,'' and a co-author of ``Why Me? Why Anyone?''

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