WSJ, Apr. 8, 2022
“None of the other publishers were as blatantly pro-Nazi, but Ms. Olmsted shows—through her industrious forays into and judicious use of the archives, correspondence and secondary literature—that all of them were racist and anti-Semitic.”
As the dictator sent his occupying forces across a neighboring country’s borders, the international press was outraged. Most of it was, anyway. One major American outlet’s reaction was, in essence: There’s nothing to see here. “After all,” it said of the autocrat, “he’s occupying his own territory.”
No, that’s not some present-day talking head holding forth on Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Rather, it was the New York Daily News in 1936, after Adolf Hitler occupied the Rhineland. The comment was by no means an isolated one. In “The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler,” Kathryn S. Olmsted places it more or less in the middle of a remarkable and shameful history. Her subjects are Lord Rothermere of Britain’s Daily Mail; Max Beaverbrook of the Daily Express, which vied with the Daily Mail to be the biggest-selling newspaper in the country; Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune; Joseph Patterson of the Daily News; his sister, Eleanor “Cissy” Patterson, of the Washington Times-Herald; and William Randolph Hearst, who controlled 28 American newspapers. Together, this group’s publications reached some 50 million Americans and 16 million Britons every day.
Ms. Olmsted documents how, throughout the 1930s and even into the ’40s, these proprietors, who controlled both the editorial and news content of their papers, consistently and purposefully minimized the Nazi threat and opposed American or British intervention against it. Indeed, she writes, they “generally supported” Hitler’s goals “as they saw them—order, anti-communism, ‘racial purity’ and Anglo-Saxon domination.”
Although Ms. Olmsted explores fascinating alliances among the group—Hearst and Cissy Patterson, for instance, and Beaverbrook and Joseph Patterson—they were far from uniform in their positions or methods. The most notoriously pro-German and anti-Semitic was Rothermere, born Harold Harmsworth, who in 1934 praised Britain’s homegrown Fascists in a bylined article titled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” He was an early cheerleader and apologist for the Nazis, writing in 1933 that they needed to control the “Israelites of international attachments” who were “insinuating themselves into key positions in the German administrative machine.” The following year, he traveled to Munich and filed a story about the magnetic new leader who had “given Germany a new soul.” He went on: “By what force has this land been lifted from a despondent, discouraged, disregarded condition to its old place in the front rank of the Great Powers? HITLER. That is the whole answer.”
None of the other publishers were as blatantly pro-Nazi, but Ms. Olmsted shows—through her industrious forays into and judicious use of the archives, correspondence and secondary literature—that all of them were racist and anti-Semitic. Probably the worst on the American side was McCormick. Ms. Olmsted writes that, on his orders, “Tribune news stories identified Jews by their original, non-Anglicized names—as in ‘David K. Niles (whose real name is Nayhus)’ or ‘[Walter] Winchell’s real name is Lipschitz.’ Tribune editorial cartoons regularly gave Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers hooked noses and swarthy complexions. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter (the ‘dwarflike Vienna-born former Harvard law professor’), and adviser Samuel Rosenman, among others, appeared in Tribune cartoons whispering secrets behind their hands.”
The Daily News was not far behind—bizarrely, since it was based in a city with a massive Jewish population. After the violent pogrom known as Kristallnacht occurred in Germany in 1938, the paper editorialized that “plenty of people just now are exercising their right to dislike the Jews.” The animus was explained, at least in part, by the “racial faults” of “Old World Jews” and the tendency of Jews to be “too slick.” In Britain, the Daily Express’s response to Kristallnacht was to advise against provoking the Nazis: “Take counsel in the age-old saying which has now indeed become a commonplace: ‘Least said, soonest mended.’ ”
“The Newspaper Axis” has a bit of the feel of a retroactive suspense story: As the aggressions of Germany, Italy and Japan continued through the decade, how long would it take for these owners to realize what was going on? A pretty long time, it turns out. In May 1938, Rothermere assured his readers that Hitler had a great sense of “the sanctity of the family.” He wrote: “There is no man living whose promise given in regard to something of real moment I would sooner take.”
The following year, Joseph Patterson traveled to Germany and, in a signed article dated Aug. 1, 1939, assessed the prospects of war. Its headline read, “REICH UNREADY: Peril of War in ’39 Grows Less.” Precisely one month later, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began.
It isn’t a sin, mortal or venial, to be wrong. Nor is isolationism necessarily an illegitimate foreign policy. The moguls described in this book certainly didn’t think so. Beaverbrook embraced the venerable idea of “splendid isolation.” “The policy for Britain is plain: no more truck with the foreigners,” he wrote in 1933. “No more European trammels on our freedom. Backs to the Continent and faces to the Empire!” And Hearst, professing, as Ms. Olmsted describes it, “a refusal to participate in the ‘squabbles’ among Europeans,” embraced the phrase “America First,” putting it on the front-page nameplates of many of his newspapers.
Yet the press barons pursued these ideals in bad faith. As Ms. Olmsted writes, “They demonized liberals and internationalists, they invented and spread conspiracy theories, and they encouraged Americans and Britons to view everyone who did not think as they did as an ‘alien.’ ”
That list is a sadly familiar one, and although “The Newspaper Axis” is a first-rate work of history, it is also quite timely. As Ms. Olmsted reminds us, and as we witness today, the legacy of the press barons lives on in the strident shouts “for empire, for the ‘white race,’ and for Britain and America First.”
Mr. Yagoda, an emeritus professor of journalism at the University of Delaware, is the author of “About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made.”
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