How much information was available, at the time, about the Nazi Holocaust? If serious doubts remain about this question, Deborah Lipstadt's book answers them with massive evidence: the American press tracked the persecution of German and then European Jewry from beginning to end, chronicling in thousands of articles the murderous escalation of anti-Jewish policy. Few facts were ignored. Rummaging through a mountain of press clippings, scanning not only national newspapers and magazines but also the local and specialized press, the author shows how American journalists and news agencies brought into countless homes what the Nazis intended to be a deadly secret. When the erman army and the SS swept into the Soviet Union in June 1941, for example, they began a bloody massacre that eventually engulfed hundreds of thousands of Jews. Although no word of these horrors was supposed to leak out of Eastern Europe, first reports reached the American public in August. By October Associated Press reporter Louis Lochner confirmed from Berlin that the total elimination of Jews from European life was "fixed German policy" -- underway within the Reich and elsewhere.
Yet although the facts were reported, their scope and significance were not conveyed. There remains a curious discrepancy, pondered throughout this book, between the actual reporting of Nazi atrocities against Jews and the ways in which these stories were printed and discussed. Despite massive documentation, editors remained skeptical about what their own news columns and the wire services said. Often priding themselves on their own incredulity, journalists toned down what reached them from European sources, qualifying the magnitude and the ubiquity of mass murder. And even when the information was accepted, it was often buried in the back pages of newspapers, dulling the impact on the reading public. To illustrate: in November 1942, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Chairman of the World Jewish Congress, grimly announced that 2 million Jews had been murdered in an extermination campaign; both the State Department and the White House representative, Wise indicated, confirmed his sources. Although widely reported, Wise's horrible message was often downplayed or ignored. Major dailies did not treat the story prominently. The Los Angeles Times carried it on page 2, the San Francisco Examiner on page 5, the Washington Post on page 6, and the New York Times on page 10. The Atlanta Constitution ran the story on page 20, with the want ads and train schedules.
Interestingly, the British press seems often to have been more responsive to the horrifying news. According to Lipstadt English newspapers relayed accounts of the slaughter of the Jews with much more energy and persistence than did their American counterparts. English editorials called boldly for action against Nazi outrages in the latter part of 1942, while doubt and hesitation still tempered reporting in the United States.
How can we explain this response? The American press maintained a journalistic tradition of skepticism, conditioned by the press experience with inflated atrocity stories during the First World War. Americans hesitated to accept accounts that were second- or third-hand, especially when they came via the Soviets or squabbling European political agencies. Traditionally, Americans accented their own pragmatism, in contrast to ideologically inclined foreigners. "We are from Missouri," as Kenneth McCaleb of the New York Daily News said, "We have to be shown." For many Americans, moreover, it was hard to dislodge the notion that the Japanese and not the Germans were the real enemy and the real war criminals. Here the contrast with the British, bombed regularly by the Luftwaffe, was striking. In addition, of course, one can ascribe much to simple lack of imagination. No one before Hitler had embarked upon the task of destroying an entire people -- every living being identified as a Jew. This kind of assault upon innocents, explicable now only by probing the roots of the Nazis' pathological ideological obsessions, remained simply incomprehensible for most people, especially those who were thousands of miles from the battlefields of Europe or the Pacific. Newspapermen failed to grasp the full significance of the facts they encountered for the same reason that intelligence analysts often fail to digest the bits of information coming from agents in the field. In intelligence matters, as in journalism, as in much else in life, people believe what they are prepared to believe.
But even when all this s taken into account, we cannot ignore a measure of popular antipathy toward Jews that conditioned journalistic attitudes. Opinion polls taken during the war consistently reported a high degree of anti-Jewish feeling among the American public. Indeed, American anti-Semitism may never have been so intense as during the Second World War. According to Lipstadt, "surveys taken from 1940 to 1946 show that Jews were almost consistently seen as a greater menace to the welfare of the United States than were any other national, religious or racial group." In June 1944, as the Allies were about to liberate France, 24 percent of respondents believed the Jews a "threat" while only 9 percent felt this about the Japanese and 6 percent about the Germans. Journalists were often uncomfortable with the notion of a specifically Jewish victimization. They frequently intermingled the Jewish tragedy with the general fate of occupied peoples, and they commonly challenged Jewish accounts of the slaughter as motivated by self-interest.
All considered, news about the Nazi Holocaust was, in the apt title of this excellently-crafted book, "beyond belief." The information was there, but it was seldom understood. A final factor helps put the rest into perspective: an unfathomable indifference that many historians have seen at work in the Holocaust and whose destructive effects can scarcely be underestimated. Today, the author warns, we know that the systematic mass murder of millions is possible, and can occur without the rest of the world being perturbed. We may shake off one by one the prejudices of 40 years ago, but so long as basic indifference remains, new ones will take their place, and this history will be repeated.