At the height of World War II, the Associated Press made secret arrangements with an SS officer to obtain pictures taken by Nazi photographers that were distributed to American newspapers — a deal authorized by senior U.S. officials.
The extraordinary arrangement, which began in 1941 and ended with Hitler’s fall, is detailed in a lengthy internal report the AP released Wednesday morning. It comes several months after Norman Domeier, a German historian, discovered a letter describing the deal in the papers of AP’s then-bureau chief.
The report includes documents recently declassified at the request of AP’s management, including letters of approval from a wartime censorship office run by an ex-AP editor who reported to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As part of the arrangement, AP shared pictures of U.S. war operations and Allied advances, which were reviewed by Hitler and published in Nazi publications.
“With one known exception, the AP images that appeared in German publications through this arrangement were unaltered by the Germans, “ the report said, “but captions were rewritten by the Germans to conform to official Nazi views.”
U.S. counterintelligence agents unaware of the approval found “definite proof” that the AP was “engaged in operations coming within the purview of the Trading with the Enemy Act,” according to a document referenced in AP’s report. The case wasn’t pursued.
In an interview this week, AP officials strongly defended the arrangement, saying it was conducted in neutral countries, and that there was tremendous news value in offering its newspaper customers photos of Hitler and German military activities — even if the photos were taken by Nazis, who were expert propagandists.
John Daniszewski, AP’s vice president for standards and editor at large, said that the organization’s journalists “were doing their best to get out information that the world needed.” He defended the photos — they are still available for purchase on an AP website — by noting that blatantly staged propaganda was excluded and that AP’s captions made the Nazi origins clear.
But a review of photos published in American newspapers shows that wasn’t always the case.
The June 30, 1942, edition of The Washington Post carried a photo of Hitler shaking hands with ex-German officials, including one wearing a Nazi navy uniform. The photo credit is “Associated Press WIREPHOTO.” The photo was also published by Nazi magazine Berlin Rom Tokio, crediting Helmut Laux, the Waffen SS officer who made the deal with AP.
In 1944, American newspapers ran a photo from the same Nazi magazine, this time of Hitler shaking Mussolini’s hand shortly after an assassination attempt on German leaders. The caption in the New York Herald Tribune described the handshake as “according to the German caption accompanying this photo.” The photo credit is, “Associated Press radiophoto.”
There are hundreds, likely thousands, more.
In the Chicago Tribune: Hitler drawing on a map. The caption says it arrived “via Lisbon.” The photo credit is, “Associated Press wirephoto.”
In the New York Times: Hitler at a conference. The caption says, “This photo, received from Lisbon, is described as.…” The credit is “Associated Press.”
In the Boston Sunday Globe: Hitler chatting with a blinded soldier. The caption says: “Der Fuehrer is seen chatting with some of his warriors, including the man in black, blinded in combat. The photo comes from Germany via Lisbon.”
Daniszewski, the AP vice president, said that given the time period — a war, with censors on both sides — readers would have known that Nazis had taken the photos, even if those origins weren’t specifically described.
Asked why the captions distributed with the photos didn’t include references to Nazi or SS photographers, Daniszewski said, “It is easy to second-guess eight decades later, but we do not believe and did not find in our research any intention to deceive anyone about the German origins of these photos depicting scenes from the German side of the battle lines and inside Germany itself.”
But Nicholas O’Shaughnessy, a communications professor at Queen Mary, University of London and the author of a book on Nazi propaganda, said it was plainly apparent that the Germans had succeeded in finding a “direct route into the Allied consciousness through their propaganda.”
“It was extremely cynical of the AP to use these photos,” he added. “One tries to justify these things by saying the camera doesn’t lie. But Nazi cameras always lied. They were a colossal kind of fairy tale. None of these images are real. This is how Hitler wanted to be seen.”
The story of AP’s deal to swap photos with the Nazis began to emerge only recently, after Domeier’s visit earlier this year to the Wisconsin Historical Society, where the papers of Louis P. Lochner, the AP’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Berlin bureau chief, are collected. Domeier found a 1946 letter to him from a former German employee named Willy Brandt (not the former German chancellor).
“I have a confession to make, Chief,” Brandt wrote, “but don’t get a shock.”
Brandt describes the chaotic moments after Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941. Lochner and other American reporters were arrested and held for five months by the Germans. Brandt was also taken in by German authorities, several of whom were vying to get hold of the AP bureau and especially its photo operation.
Laux, described in U.S. Army documents as a “violent Nazi,” took control of what became known as the Bureau Laux. Photos were traded in Lisbon via diplomatic pouch with the help of another AP correspondent. A route through Sweden later emerged.
At least 10,000 photos went back and forth. Domeier was astonished.
“They had dealings every day with the Nazis,” he said. “That is something that needs to be explained.”
AP officials had already turned up evidence of the arrangement after Harriet Scharnberg, another German researcher, published a paper last year on an AP subsidiary’s employment — before 1941 — of a photographer with known SS ties.
As Domeier presented his findings in March to the German Historical Institute, the AP was preparing to release its own investigation.
Its findings turned up details that further startled Domeier.
What Brandt apparently didn’t know when he wrote his letter is that Lochner, the very person to whom he was describing the deal, had been a central player in it all along.
The AP’s investigation found that Laux was somehow aboard a train Lochner rode when he was deported from Germany.
“He had a proposition to make,” the AP report said of Laux. Lochner was receptive to the idea, telling him whom to contact within the Associated Press.
AP officials notified the U.S. censorship office of the deal on July 13, 1942. The office was run by Byron Price, a former AP executive editor, recruited personally by Roosevelt, according to the AP report. The report does not detail the Americans’ rationale for approving the deal, except to indicate that there might be “information value” to the backdoor relationship.
After the war, Price sent a letter to AP General Manager Kent Cooper praising the wire service and expressing “deep appreciation” for its “patriotic cooperation.”
In the years after the war, Lochner wrote several books about Germany, including his experiences covering Hitler, Germany and the war. A 525-page collection of his letters to his family was published in 1961.
Cooper also wrote a memoir of his time with the Associated Press, billed as “a history of the world’s greatest news agency and of the exciting career of the man who made it so.”
Neither of them mentioned the deal with the Nazis.
Read more Retropolis: