Whiter Washing

Richard J. Evans

  • Journalists between Hitler and Adenauer: From Inner Emigration to the Moral Reconstruction of West Germany by Volker Berghahn
    Princeton, 277 pp, £35.00, December 2018, ISBN 978 0 691 17963 6

Under the Weimar Republic newspapers and magazines flourished as never before in Germany. Contrary to Volker Berghahn’s claim in Journalists between Hitler and Adenauer that the press had enjoyed ‘a good deal of tolerance’ under Bismarck and the Kaiser, the imperial German state had come down hard on the newspapers, especially those on the left; no editor of a Social Democratic daily, it was said, was worthy of the name unless he had been sent to prison at least once for lèse-majesté (criticism of the Kaiser), or Beamtenbeleidigung (insulting a state official). Censorship became even stricter under military rule during the First World War. Article 118 of the Weimar constitution, passed in 1919, after the fall of the Kaiser’s regime, changed all this. It explicitly guaranteed the freedom of the press, stating baldly: ‘There is no censorship.’

From left to right, Paul Sethe, Marion Dönhoff, Hans Zehrer.
From left to right, Paul Sethe, Marion Dönhoff, Hans Zehrer.

By the mid-1920s Germany had more than four thousand daily or weekly newspapers and another three thousand more specialised periodicals. Every town and city had its own papers, and some of them, such as the Frankfurter Zeitung or the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten, were regarded as authoritative abroad as well as in Germany itself. Every paper had a feuilleton or cultural section; art, literature, music and film flourished not least because of the well-informed and opinionated reports and debates carried in newspapers and magazines. But, as Modris Eksteins showed in The Limits of Reason (1975), the industry was supporting too many barely profitable titles, and so ran into financial trouble in the Depression, enabling businesses like the chemical company I.G. Farben to buy up shares. I.G. Farben acquired a large stake in the Frankfurter Zeitung and altered the paper’s political position, moving it to the right. As Bernhard Fulda concluded in his study of Press and Politics in the Weimar Republic (2009), newspaper ownership didn’t always bring the political dividends it seemed to promise: the press baron Alfred Hugenberg was unable to prevent the almost complete collapse of support for his right-wing nationalist party, the DNVP, just as the liberal press couldn’t stop votes migrating from the liberal parties to the Nazis in the early 1930s.

Trying to shore up the republic during its early, crisis-ridden years, the government introduced post-publication censorship. In the early 1930s, press freedom was threatened further as rule by decree became the norm: Chancellor Brüning suspended the publication of newspapers for brief periods of time on 284 occasions, while his successor, Franz von Papen, banned 95 in a considerably shorter time, half of them publications run by the Communist or Social Democratic Party. Such precedents made it easy for the Nazis to ‘co-ordinate’ the media when they came to power in 1933. Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had long condemned what he called ‘the lying Jewish press’, and within a few weeks, the Nazis had closed down the Social Democratic Party’s outlets (it printed more than two hundred newspapers in 1929, with an overall circulation of 1.3 million), occupied more than fifty Communist Party newspaper offices, and arrested and imprisoned thousands of journalists, printers and editors. The Editors’ Law of 4 October 1933 gave the Nazis total control over the press. Behind the scenes, huge pressure was put on newspaper publishers to sell to Nazi-owned companies. A thousand or so papers had been closed down or merged by 1936, when the Reich Leader of the Press, Max Amann, declared: ‘We have freed the newspapers from all ties, particularly personal ties that hindered or might hinder the accomplishment of their National Socialist tasks.’ Meanwhile, Goebbels issued instructions to the papers every day, outlining what they could or could not print. The major news agencies were also under his control, and so the press became increasingly uniform. By this point, more than 1300 Jewish, liberal and left-wing journalists had been barred from working. All journalists and writers had to belong to Goebbels’s Reich Chamber of Literature in order to be allowed to publish. By 1935 at the latest, not only liberals and left-wingers but also Jews were excluded from membership.

Opposing the Nazis in print had serious consequences. Fritz Gerlich, editor of the Münchner Neueste Nachrichten in the 1920s and a Munich Sunday newspaper in the early 1930s, was a conservative Catholic who continually attacked Hitler. ‘National Socialism means: enmity with neighbouring nations, tyranny internally, civil war, world war, lies, hatred, fratricide and boundless want,’ he wrote on 31 July 1932. Gerlich was arrested the following March and sent to Dachau, where he was murdered during the Night of the Long Knives on 30 June 1934. The SS notified his wife by sending her a package containing his bloodstained spectacles.

There was also the well-known case of Carl von Ossietzky, whose reporting exposed the military’s secret rearmament programme in the late 1920s; his anti-Nazi polemics led to his arrest after Hitler’s seizure of power. He was brutally treated in a series of concentration camps. A Red Cross official who visited him in November 1935 described him as ‘a trembling, deadly pale something, a creature that appeared to be without feeling, one eye swollen, teeth knocked out, dragging a broken, badly healed leg … a human being who had reached the uttermost limits of what could be borne.’ Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the same year, but died in hospital in 1938 as a consequence of what he’d endured. He was still under police guard.

Many hundreds of journalists fled the country, from Theodor Wolff, editor of the liberal daily the Berliner Tageblatt, a man admired even by Goebbels for his elegant prose, to Egon Erwin Kisch, self-styled ‘raging reporter’, who literally jumped ship in Melbourne after being refused entry to Australia because of his communist sympathies (he broke his leg after falling five metres). Kisch, like many others, received hostile treatment from the authorities in more than one country, and ended up in Mexico; Wolff was arrested in France in 1943 after the Germans took control of the unoccupied zone, but died in hospital before he could be transported to Auschwitz. Other exiled journalists tried to scrape a living in countries they didn’t know, often producing low-circulation and not very profitable papers and magazines in which they continued to express their opposition to Hitler.

Some of these exiles returned to Germany after the war was over, and a number of them went back to their old careers. But now they had to work with the journalists who had chosen to stay in Germany. The ones who stayed are the subjects of Volker Berghahn’s new book. It focuses on three West German journalists, who, Berghahn claims, were ‘anti-Nazis’ under the Weimar Republic and ‘opposed Hitler’. They ‘lived, often quite dangerously, under the Hitler dictatorship’, and ‘continued to keep their distance from the regime’ throughout the Third Reich. Two of them had links to the 1944 conspiracy to kill Hitler. Their independence, he says, enabled them at the end of the war to see that Nazism had destroyed German ethical values, and to take a role in the moral reconstruction of the country.

Do these claims stand up to scrutiny? To begin with, it is hard to see how Berghahn’s first subject, Marion Dönhoff, fits in. Born in 1909, she was a member of the East Prussian aristocracy who had no involvement in journalism before the end of the war. Although she had known some of the aristocratic plotters of 1944 socially, there is no evidence that she was involved with the plot itself. The Gestapo interrogated her after the plot failed but couldn’t find any incriminating evidence. To describe her tangential involvement, as Berghahn does, as ‘active resistance’ is going too far.

Forced by the advancing Red Army to flee westwards (her estates are now part of the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad), after the war she devoted much of her time to defending the reputation of the plotters, whom she saw as providing a moral model for German society, by virtue of the aristocratic Prussian values she believed them to embody. However, as Stephan Malinowski showed in his brilliant book about the German aristocracy and the Nazi Party, Vom König zum Führer (2004), most of the German aristocracy were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler, who they thought would restore the position they had lost at the end of the First World War. Dozens of studies of the military-aristocratic resistance to Hitler show that it was based on anti-democratic and elitist values. Dönhoff praised Hitler for ending unemployment (he achieved this through rearmament and conscription), and backed compulsory national service along the lines practised by the Nazis. Desperate to recover her East Prussian estates, she campaigned for German reunification on the borders of 1937 and refused to recognise the legal existence of the Polish territory established by the Oder-Neisse line or the incorporation of her estates into Russia. None of this was particularly helpful to the moral reconstruction of West Germany.

Berghahn’s second subject is Hans Zehrer, a well-known journalist in West Germany in the 1950s. Under the Weimar Republic, as editor of the magazine Die Tat (‘The Deed’), he criticised Hitler for trying to win power through the ballot box, proposing instead the establishment of a dictatorship that would bypass the moribund parliamentary system. He praised the Enabling Act, passed on 23 March 1933, for creating the legal basis for such a dictatorship. It would, he wrote, help the government to ‘exterminate’ liberalism and carry out ‘cleansing actions’ in the civil service. It was time, he wrote, for the ‘depoliticisation’ of the masses and rule by the elite. Independent voluntary associations should be closed down or taken over by the state.

Since this is exactly what Hitler was doing, it hardly seems accurate to speak, as Berghahn does, of Zehrer’s ‘opposition to Hitler’. ‘Germany’s fate today,’ he declared, ‘is called Adolf Hitler.’ In April 1933, in the Tägliche Rundschau, he condemned the ‘Golden International’ of ‘Jewry, Money and Trade’ and called for the ‘removal of Jewish influence from the key institutions of the nation’. Anyone who considered this unjust, he added, should remember that ‘raison d’état can never be humanitarian.’ Zehrer’s prewar writing is discussed in Peter Köpf’s Schreiben nach jeder Richtung (1995) about the postwar West German press. Berghahn, however, doesn’t mention this book, and indeed seems almost completely ignorant of previous work in his field. He fails to overturn the verdict of another standard work, Die Herren Journalisten (2002), by Lutz Hachmeister and Friedemann Siering, who conclude that Zehrer ‘did everything’ to push the Nazis into power. As Ossietzky wrote, he ‘out-Hitlered Hitler’ as a propagandist for the new order.

As a supporter of Kurt von Schleicher, the former Reich Chancellor murdered on Hitler’s orders in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934, Zehrer, Berghahn claims, feared for his life, and went to live on the remote North Sea island of Sylt. But was he right to be afraid? In fact, Sylt wasn’t as remote as all that: it was a popular holiday resort and the Nazis knew where to find him – and nobody put his name on any murder list. Nor was he banned from writing. In 1938 he returned to Berlin. He got a job with a publisher, which produced many books by Nazi authors, all of them approved by the regime’s censors; he joined the Reich Chamber of Literature, as required by law. By this time it had been purged of Jews. Just to underline his obedience, Zehrer agreed that his Jewish wife should emigrate to London. He didn’t go with her: that would mean, he said, ‘that I would be going over to the Jewish side, and I say no to that!’ He divorced her. In 1943, he joined the Luftwaffe, staying there until the end of the war.

Returning to journalism after 1945, he briefly became editor of the new Hamburg-based daily Die Welt before local Social Democrats pointed to his pro-Nazi past and had him replaced. After the paper was taken over by the rising newspaper magnate Axel Springer, however, Zehrer – whom Springer knew from Sylt – was reappointed. Had he learned his lesson and become an advocate of a democratic Germany? The evidence is against it. Even Berghahn speaks of the ‘continued disdain of the masses’ evident in his writings. Zehrer spoke out in favour of German reunification, attacked Adenauer for his policy of Westbindung – tying the German Federal Republic to the West – and advocated a ‘third position’ for Germany between East and West. The only hope for Germany in the coming ‘epoch of cruel civil wars’, he wrote, was to overcome ‘the gullibility of the masses’ through rule by an elite. It is hard to resist the conclusion of his biographer, Ebbo Demant, that he had abandoned almost none of the hostility to democracy that had led him to support Hitler.

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Berghahn indulges in special pleading in order to present Zehrer as a force for good: he supported Hitler because if he didn’t he might have been killed by the Nazis, and he joined the Luftwaffe ‘for self-protection’. Neither claim is backed by any evidence. But this pales before Berghahn’s attempt to rescue the reputation of his third subject, Paul Sethe. Born in 1901, Sethe worked for a conservative regional paper in communist-dominated Solingen in the 1920s, penning attacks on ‘imported Western democracy’. Although, according to Berghahn, Sethe was ‘opposed to Hitler’ in 1932, he often wrote about the possibility of bringing Hitler into a national government. Berghahn finds ‘veiled hints of disapproval’ of Hitler in these editorials, but they are so veiled as to be invisible. Sethe urged the Catholic Centre Party, which had enough seats to block the Enabling Act, to vote for it so that communists could be destroyed ‘with unlimited violence’ (the concentration camp at Dachau opened the day before the vote). He celebrated Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1933 with praise for ‘the great unifier of the nation, whom the best among us have awaited for a long time’. Hitler, he wrote, had already ‘secured for himself a place of honour in the Hall of Fame of our Volk’. It is hard to understand why Berghahn finds it ‘difficult to penetrate Sethe’s thoughts’ during this period, let alone why he thinks Sethe ‘clearly did not welcome’ the creation of a one-party Nazi state.

Sethe’s support was rewarded in 1934 with his appointment as editor of the Frankfurter Zeitung, a formerly liberal paper that was respected abroad and therefore used by the Nazis to sway international opinion. As an official of the Propaganda Ministry explained in 1936, ‘the style of the Frankfurter Zeitung is deliberately maintained in such a way that it counts abroad as oppositionally tinged, since it’s the only paper with whose help we can achieve something, indeed already have.’ The paper thus was allowed to print occasional veiled criticisms of Hitler and the dictatorship. Berghahn claims that Sethe’s review of a book on Ivan the Terrible was one instance: in fact it’s clearly about Stalin.

Berghahn explains away Sethe’s wartime articles glorifying German military victories as enabling him ‘to avoid direct political comment’. He even excuses such pieces on the grounds that others in Germany were doing the same thing and that Sethe wrote ‘under conditions of censorship as well as the constant fear of arrest and imprisonment, and even death’, an excuse almost as threadbare as Sethe’s own postwar assertion that he was only obeying orders (or, as he put it, everything he did after 1933 ‘was enforced’). Alongside exculpatory speculation of this kind, Berghahn also indulges in misreadings of the evidence. Sethe’s attack on the late 19th-century liberal historian Theodor Mommsen’s opposition to Bismarck, to take one example, is misinterpreted as a criticism of Hitler (it was actually a criticism of Mommsen and, implicitly, of Hitler’s opponents). As the war went on, Sethe wrote article after article declaring that victory would bring about ‘the final ascent to higher ends’, at a time when the Nazis were bringing the extermination of Europe’s Jews to its terrible peak. He did not have to say such things. When the Frankfurter Zeitung, which was now owned by the Nazis, was closed down during the war – Hitler disliked the paper, despite Sethe’s praise of his actions – Sethe was given the choice of serving in the armed forces or working for the Nazi Party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter. He chose the less dangerous option, after a brief period in the army’s propaganda department, and wrote numerous articles urging his readers to continue the doomed struggle, though thousands of Germans were being killed every day resisting allied invasions.

After the war, Sethe worked for a regional newspaper and in 1949 became one of the founding editors of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which a number of leading positions were taken by staff from the old Frankfurter Zeitung. Like Zehrer, he supported reunification and attacked the policy of Westbindung. He became enough of an irritation to Adenauer, then head of the West German government, that his life at the paper was made unpleasant and he was eventually pushed out altogether. Berghahn’s special pleading in Sethe’s favour reaches a new low here: he has the journalist walking ‘along the Via Dolorosa’ under pressure from Adenauer. After this it comes as no surprise to find Berghahn praising Sethe for sticking to his principles and, Christ-like, following an ‘arduous path with many setbacks, disappointments and agonising decisions’.

Berghahn describes the behaviour of his subjects during the Nazi years as a form of ‘inner emigration’. This was a postwar concept used by the novelist Frank Thiess, who stayed in Germany under Hitler and published a number of officially approved books. Thiess was responding to a broadcast by Thomas Mann (who spent the period in exile in America) in which he said that everyone who lived in Germany between 1933 and 1945 was dishonoured by the horrific photographs that appeared across the world after the concentration camps were liberated. On the contrary, Thiess said, the only people who had a moral right to speak on these issues were those who had stayed in Germany. Mann said that all literary work published in the Third Reich should be pulped. Thiess countered that many of them were written in the language, however veiled, of criticism and resistance, that writers in Germany had experienced what he called an ‘inner emigration’. The term was quickly taken up by other writers who stayed put. Berghahn naively accepts it and applies it to people who made no effort at all to distance themselves from the regime.

During the postwar process of denazification, Germans who had worked for, or helped, the regime – and there were millions of them – scrambled for certificates showing they had opposed it. They were known as ‘Persil certificates’ (Persilscheine) after the detergent that claimed to wash ‘whiter than white’. Volker Berghahn has gone to considerable lengths to hand out Persil certificates to Nazi journalists such as Zehrer and Sethe. His book is a whitewash, based on distortion, manipulation, speculation and suppression of the facts. Moreover, when we look at the ideas his subjects purveyed in the early postwar years, we find all of them opposing Adenauer’s orientation to Western democracy and urging German reunification on the borders of 1937, including large swathes of what is now Poland. Berghahn suggests his book will help those who, like many of his students in America, have a crude, black and white view of the Third Reich to be more nuanced in their judgment. No one could object to this. But this book encourages readers to believe that it was all right to collaborate with, even to work for, a dictatorial regime that began by suppressing all freedom of expression and ended by committing mass murder on an unprecedented scale. At at time when freedom of the press is again under assault all over the world, journalists are being arrested or killed for telling the truth, and democracies are being undermined by strongmen and would-be dictators, this is not just misguided: it’s dangerous.