Commentary Magazine


Beyond Belief, by Deborah E. Lipstadt

Reporting the Holocaust

Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945.
by Deborah E. Lipstadt.
Free Press. 370 pp. $19.95.

When Generals Eisenhower and Patton arrived at Ohrdorf, one of the first concentration camps to be liberated by American forces at the end of World War II, they insisted that their troops view the entire camp. Later, standing among the decaying bodies and naked, skeletal prisoners, Eisenhower addressed his men: “I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place. We are told that the. American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

Eisenhower's words touch on what has become a central issue in the study of the Holocaust: the inability of many Americans during the war years to believe the stories of German atrocities. Indeed, as Lucy S. Dawidowicz has pointed out, historians of the Holocaust have lately shifted the focus of their inquiry from Hitler's war against the Jews to America's response to it. Could the United States have saved Jews condemned to extermination? Did the State Department suppress information about Germany's anti-Semitic policies? Did President Roosevelt consciously decide not to act on behalf of Europe's Jews?

Deborah E. Lipstadt, who teaches Jewish history at UCLA, is representative of this shift. In Beyond Belief, a careful study of the Amercan press from Hitler's ascension to power to the final liberation of the camps in Europe, she examines how American editors and reporters treated news of Hitler's anti-Jewish legislation, the deportation of the Jews, and, as the story unfolded, the systematic extermination of European Jewry.

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The record of the press that emerges from this study is dismal and pathetic. On the basis of her survey of dozens of American newspapers and prominent magazines of opinion, Professor Lipstadt is able to show that most reports of Germany's campaign against the Jews were greeted with skepticism, treated as secondary news items, or, in some cases, not reported at all.

Professor Lipstadt is careful not to issue an across-the-board condemnation of the press. There were, she points out, many publications—the New York Post, PM, the New Republic, and the Nation among them—that consistently gave prominence to reports of Nazi persecution of the Jews, and whose editors urged the American government to act on their behalf. These, however, were the exception. The majority of the American press, as she demonstrates, deemphasized stories of Jewish persecution. When such stories were featured they were often “universalized,” so that Jews became “Poles” or “Ukrainians.” In other cases, stories were simply buried in the back pages of the news section, or, as in accounts of the destruction of the Hungarian Jewish community, were positioned adjacent to comic strips or beneath wedding announcements.

The New York Times, despite its relatively extensive coverage of events, comes in for Professor Lipstadt's harshest criticism, because smaller papers often emulated its decisions and what happened at the Times had consequences for American press coverage in general. Between June and December of 1942, when reports of the Nazi decision to implement the “Final Solution” were first reaching Britain and the U.S., the Times carried only one front-page story on the subject. When, in that same year, eyewitnesses to the concentration and extermination camps managed to escape to England, the Times cast doubt on their testimony by describing them as individuals who said they were eyewitnesses.

In the fierce debate over how much the United States could have done to prevent the murder of the Jews, Professor Lipstadt makes her own view clear. The first sentence of Beyond Belief reads: “During the 1930's and 1940's America could have saved thousands and maybe hundreds of thousands of Jews but it did not do so.” She also makes clear her assessment of the role of the press in that failure. Had the press been more responsible in its reporting, had it stressed the urgency of the situation in Europe, it would, she argues, have so galvanized the American people that they in turn would have brought pressure on their government to act.

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Professor Lipstadt certainly makes a strong case in Beyond Belief for the proposition that the American press was delinquent, and therefore partly responsible for the public's ignorance of what was happening and its skepticism about stories of gas chambers and mass graves. She also presents some evidence—as others already have done—of deliberate attempts within the State Department and some other government agencies to suppress confirmed reports of the Nazis' intentions. Yet in the nature of things she is able to offer very little evidence that a more responsible press would have been able to influence government policy. Indeed, such a claim would appear most difficult to sustain.

These days, of course, many people insist that the press can change the course of history, but such people usually turn out to be journalists. In fact, purportedly serious studies of the power of the press are themselves a recent phenomenon, reflecting our contemporary preoccupation with the media. In this sense, Professor Lipstadt is a thoroughly contemporary historian. She accords to the press of the 1930's and the 1940's a degree of power and prestige that only the press of today dares to arrogate to itself. From this exaggerated assessment of press power a disturbing thesis emerges, namely, that the failure of the press to report on Jewish suffering was directly responsible for the decision of our government not to alleviate that suffering and, conversely, that the government's apparent lack of compassion was but a reflection of the indifference shown by the nation's newspapers. Thus, she writes, the failure of the U.S. to save Jewish lives “was a cumulative and collective failure. The press was ultimately as culpable as the government.” Such assertions not only misjudge historical reality but distort the nature of the press. A naive observer might be forgiven for believing that the press guides government policy; for a scholar to chastise the press for failing to do so is folly.

No one would deny that the press exerts an enormous influence on public opinion, shaping the way people view events and even setting the agenda of public debate. But it is a large leap from there to holding the press responsible, as Professor Lipstadt does, for the decisions made by the public or the government. Today, in the light of Vietnam and Lebanon, the notion that the press could ever function as an arbiter of policy in wartime seems especially untenable. Despite advances in technology, unlimited financial resources, and unprecedented access to sources, the news from Vietnam and Lebanon was distorted, reporting was sensationalized and politicized, and the public was misinformed. Perhaps what is most illuminating about Beyond Belief is its demonstration that the press acted no more responsibly under Roosevelt than it does under Reagan.

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In the end we come back to the question of why, when evidence of extermination was available, was this evidence not given the prominence it deserved. In 1945, when the press finally did have access to the camps in Europe, editors and correspondents who had previously regarded all stories of a Final Solution with suspicion piously cried that what they now saw was “beyond belief.” But was it really beyond belief? Since 1933 Hitler's intentions had been evident, in events—riots, boycotts, deportations—witnessed by thousands. By 1943, innumerable accounts of mass executions and of deserted Jewish ghettos had reached the U.S. Beyond Belief, despite its misdirected attempt to hold the press responsible for American policy, is nevertheless a grim and valuable reminder of the fallibility of the press in the discharge of its first responsibility—reporting the news.

About the Author

Daniel Casse is a senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C. communications firm.




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