Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust 1933-1945 <i> Deborah Lipstadt (The Free Press: $19.95; 370 pp.) </i>
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without government,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend, “I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” He understood that the public’s perception is shaped by the information available, and, therefore, a free press was crucial to the proper functioning of a democratic society. The reader of this well-researched study might well wonder whether there is not a darker side to the free press imperative. During the years of the Holocaust, most reporters and editors were incapable of fathoming the significance of a story of calculated government-sponsored mass murder and gave it short shrift. In this case, freedom of the press led to the concealment of truth rather than its dissemination.
Deborah Lipstadt documents how journalists anxious to maintain balance and objectivity placed the story that would come to symbolize the decline of the West on the back pages of their newspapers. They began by misunderstanding the centrality of anti-Semitism in Nazi cosmology. When information of the systematic murder process became available, they reported it but couched it in the skeptical terms they had been taught to use in such cases. Even when the camps were liberated and photos of thousands of mangled corpses confirmed the atrocity stories, the now apologetic press could not grasp and transmit what the “final solution,” the code word for the processed murder of millions, signified. Some still believed that the stories were an example of Jewish special-interest pleading.
In some measure, the failure of the press is understandable. The author points out that many Americans believed that they had been manipulated into entering World War I by British use of “gruel” propaganda. That is the reason the Gary Post-Tribune cautioned its readers not to be “deceived by our Allies into believing a lot of atrocity stories.” Moreover, the war news received natural priority and tended to mute the cry of special pain emanating from the ghettos and camps. It was heard only as background noise.
The nigh insurmountable problem for the press was to get the reading public to believe the unbelievable. The sheer incredibility and irrationality of what was being done in the name of the German people beggared the imagination. Instead, the stories became discreet atrocity tales that took their place side by side with Lidice, Katyn, the Bataan death march and Malmedy. A public saturated with such stories was unable to perceive that the stories concerning the Jews represented a new order of happening. What they were reading about was a high-priority government program to liquidate a people. The reading public resisted learning of such gloomy things, and the managers of the news understood that good news sold papers better than bad. “Newspapers are read at the breakfast and dinner table,” noted one publisher, “God’s great gift to man is appetite. Put nothing in the paper that will destroy it.”
Yet such concern for the sensibilities of their readers meant that publishers overlooked the historical significance of these stories that went beyond their sheer bloodiness. The state-sponsored liquidation of millions was being implemented by using the very industrial techniques and managerial ethos that enabled the West to dominate the world. Something had gone awry in the civilization of regnant Europe. It was consuming in fire a people who had in some disproportionate measure contributed to the very idea that Europe represented. This was no ordinary happening. Had Germany won the war, the liquidation policy would surely have gone beyond the Jews. It already had. Yet the failure of witness in the heart of Christian Europe, was almost total.
That failure is what “Beyond Belief” is about. The story of the witness to the Holocaust is qualitatively different from that of most other atrocity stories because the Holocaust witness had choice. He might have helped the victims or been indifferent to their fate or betrayed them. During those agonizing years, the first alternative was rarely chosen, and thereby hangs a tale. The failure went beyond governments. All the institutions created by society--the churches, the university, the legal system and on the international level, the Red Cross and the Vatican--failed adequately to respond to the crisis. Often they failed to perceive that there was a crisis. It is in that sense that the failure of the press was in some measure the cause of all other witness failures. This study fills in part of a puzzle that has been the preoccupation of researchers for almost two decades, the failure of the Roosevelt Administration, so concerned about human responses at home, to do what might have been done to save the victims of the Holocaust.
In Jefferson’s time, the press was full of libelous personal attacks from which he was not exempt. He had ample evidence that a free press was prone to trivialize the significant and glorify the banal. Yet despite its weaknesses, he insisted upon it. Perhaps he sensed that in a free society, the distillation of truth is not automatically assured, but it is essential to create the condition for its ultimate emergence.
This study serves as evidence that such re-examinations are possible. In lesser hands, it might easily have become an overheated brief against the American press. Lipstadt might even have argued that professors like herself should determine what is printed, the same as the philosopher-kings in Plato’s Republic. She does not do that. Instead, she has written a tempered, judicious account of the role of the press in a difficult period and has done it in lucid prose. Given the nature of the subject and the temper of the times, we can be thankful for that.