Reporting on Hitler: how foreign correspondents in Nazi Germany battled to expose the truth
The foreign press corps in Nazi Germany witnessed the brutal reality of Hitler's regime in the 1930s. But getting the truth out was far from easy, with hostile authorities threatening expulsion or worse, and proprietors at home reluctant to hear of Nazi excesses
The Taverne was an Italian restaurant in the heart of Nazi Berlin, owned by an amiable fat German and his slim Belgian wife. But it served as more than an eatery in the years of the Third Reich, doubling as a refuge where correspondents working for the international media would meet night after night to share stories and ensure each other’s safety.
Life became dangerous for foreign correspondents working in Germany as soon as Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor in January 1933. The Nazi regime made it clear that critical reports would not be tolerated, with propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels leading efforts to influence and pressurise the foreign press. The sources reporters had relied on for information started to fear for their lives. “I beg you not to let anybody know that you heard this from me, or it might get around and I should be arrested,” Rothay Reynolds, the Daily Mail’s bureau chief in Berlin, heard from one source soon after Hitler took power.
Hermann Göring, another of Hitler’s chief associates, invited foreign newspaper journalists based in Berlin to meet him early in 1933. Vernon Bartlett, one of the British journalists in attendance, recalled how Göring began an attack against the foreign press unlike any he had previously witnessed. Göring informed those present that he knew “not only what they sent in their telegrams and telephone messages, but also what they wrote in their private letters”.
It was not just the Nazis who made life difficult for these correspondents. Several British newspapers had owners or editors sympathetic to Hitler and the Nazis during the 1930s. Daily Mail owner Lord Rothermere believed the spread of Communism was a greater threat to Britain than the Nazis and felt passionately that a strong Germany under Hitler was necessary to form a “bulwark against Bolshevism”.
“Herr Hitler has won his majority cleverly,” the Daily Mail wrote in an editorial welcoming the result of the March 1933 election in Germany. “If he uses it prudently and peacefully, no one here will shed any tears over the disappearance of German democracy.”
Lord Rothermere’s beliefs put Rothay Reynolds in an exquisitely difficult position. Based on the ground in Germany, he saw how quickly life was changing for the worse. “In less than a month Germans had lost freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly,” he later recalled.
My research into Reynolds began as a family history project — he was a distant relation and worked, as I do, in journalism. It resulted in a book, Reporting on Hitler, which tells his story and sheds new light on the experiences of British journalists in Hitler’s Germany.
A conflict in perspectives
While Lord Rothermere’s infamous “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” comment piece in January 1934 celebrated the rise of fascists across Europe, Reynolds could see what Nazism meant for Germany: gangs of storm troopers ran wild, while Jews and many minority groups were oppressed. The lauded economic growth under the Nazis, which Lord Rothermere and other supporters celebrated, was built on sand.
The conflict in perspectives soon had consequences for Reynolds’s reporting. In April 1933 he filed a piece on the boycott of Jewish goods and services in Germany ordered by the Nazis (purportedly in retaliation for foreign criticism of the regime blamed by Hitler on the Jewish community). Reynolds ended his dispatch with: “The Angriff [a Nazi propaganda publication] says: The boycott was carried out in a way worthy of the German people.”
It did not appear that way in the Daily Mail. The words “The Angriff says” were omitted, altering the meaning of the piece. “The statement appeared as my considered opinion,” Reynolds later wrote. It meant The Angriff was able to subsequently report: “The Berlin correspondent of the Daily Mail says that the boycott was carried out in a way worthy of the German people.”
As the decade went on, Reynolds was sidelined by the Daily Mail, with more and more of the paper’s reporting on Hitler and the Nazis penned by G Ward Price, who was far more sympathetic to the proprietor’s support for the regime. As the decade progressed, Lord Rothermere’s support for the fascist movement cooled in Britain, where Oswald Mosley’s black shirts movement had proven a violent embarrassment. But he remained supportive of Hitler and later in the decade he and most British newspaper owners backed the government’s policy to appease the Nazis, despite the regime’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy.
This support led to more interference [with the correspondence of the foreign press in Germany], which was felt especially acutely by Norman Ebbutt of The Times. He was one of the most respected foreign correspondents in Berlin but feared that his editor at The Times, Geoffrey Dawson, was too sympathetic to Nazi Germany and supportive of appeasement. Ebbutt’s reservations were recorded in the diaries of his friend, the American broadcaster William Shirer: “Of late [Ebbutt] has complained to me in private that The Times does not print all he sends, that it does not want to hear too much of the dark side of Nazi Germany and apparently has been captured by the pro-Nazis in London.”
Expulsion from Nazi Germany
Despite the apparent interference, Ebbutt’s reports still irked the Nazis enough for them to expel him in 1937 (no Daily Mail reporter was ever expelled from Nazi Germany). Expulsion became a badge of honour among members of the foreign press as life in Nazi Germany darkened.
The first foreign correspondent expelled was Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the Berlin bureau chief of the Chicago Daily News. He had already angered the Nazis by publishing a critical book, Germany Puts the Clock Back, just before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Mowrer's criticism continued with the Nazis in power, which the regime found particularly infuriating due to his position as head of the Foreign Press Association. In September 1933, he was forced out of Germany after Nazi authorities warned him they would not step in if he was attacked by marauding storm troopers.
Noel Panter, the Daily Telegraph’s Munich correspondent, soon became the first British correspondent expelled. His crime had been to report on the militaristic atmosphere of a rally in Munich — an impression that the Nazis did not want conveyed to the outside world. Panter was arrested and after being held in prison for more than a week he finally arrived in Britain in November 1933.
“I was never so glad to see the white cliffs of Dover in my life,” he said. “I have never distorted news. All that I have done has been to tell the truth, which is sometimes unpalatable to certain people.” British Movietone News was there to record his arrival, with a colleague saying: “We are very glad you’ve maintained the proud traditions of British journalism in very difficult conditions.”
Philip Pembroke Stephens, a young correspondent on the Daily Express, was the second British reporter expelled. He revealed in more detail than other newspapers how Jews were being mistreated in the early days of the Third Reich. “New Hitler Blow at the Jews… German Jews are Facing their Darkest Days,” ran a headline to one of his pieces in May 1934. He wrote that German Jews are “friendless, persecuted and told by Nazi officials ‘the best thing you can do is to die’”.
After this report ran he was arrested by the Gestapo, held for days without charge and then expelled. In an attempt to intimidate him, his room in jail was decorated with pictures of decapitated men. “I was locked up like a beast in a cage behind high wire netting,” he wrote. It was with some relief that he finally returned to Britain.
The Manchester Guardian consistently printed some of the most vivid and revealing reports about life in Nazi Germany. While some newspapers — including the Daily Mail — simply printed Nazi denials of Jewish mistreatment, the Manchester Guardian's correspondent Frederick Voigt exposed the details, telling the full story. He was especially brave to do so, having returned to London from mainland Europe in 1933 amid rumours of a Gestapo plot to kill him.
In April 1936, he wrote the most revelatory piece yet published about the mistreatment of prisoners in German concentration camps. Though the camps were not yet the extermination centres they would become during the Holocaust, they were being used to hold and mistreat political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the regime, Jews included.
After taking testimony from eyewitnesses he offered several examples of the kind of punishment meted out to prisoners. “After 18 lashes he began to whimper. But the flogging went on until he lost consciousness,” Voigt wrote in an account of how one Jewish prisoner was treated. “There are no legal guarantees for those who fall into the hands of the Gestapo,” he added. “Many prisoners have been beaten to death, and many have died after lingering awhile as a result of their treatment.”
John Segrue, who worked for the liberal News Chronicle newspaper, earned the rare distinction of being expelled by the Nazis twice. He moved to Austria after being thrown out of Germany in the late 1930s but was not safe there, either. In 1938 Hitler ordered his Anschluss invasion of Austria, where the Nazis immediately began a vicious campaign of oppression against Jews in Vienna. Amid the violent scenes an SS officer mistook Segrue for a Jew and ordered him to help other Jews clean his car. Segrue obeyed, helping an elderly woman with the task.
He then returned to the officer and said: “I could not believe that the stories about your brutality were true. I wanted to see for myself. I have seen. Good day.” Segrue’s fearless attitude meant he did not last long in Austria; the Nazis soon expelled him for a second time. During the Second World War, Segrue was captured by the German army in the Balkans and died in a Nazi concentration camp. The Guild of Jewish Journalists later commended him for having “alerted the world to the true evil of the Nazi philosophy”.
What of Reynolds? As the 1930s progressed, his byline appeared fewer and fewer times in the paper until he left Germany at the start of 1939. The Nazi regime’s oppression of Jews went little mentioned until the bloody events of Kristallnacht in November 1938, when it became too dramatic for the Daily Mail to ignore. Though he was restricted in what he could write for the Daily Mail, Reynolds did his best to help. “Hundreds of victims of Nazi persecution and terror received from him material and moral support in an uneven fight with an evil system,” wrote his colleagues in the press pack.
Hitler’s decision to capture Prague and the rest of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 left Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement in ashes, and almost all British newspapers adopted an ardently anti-Nazi tone afterwards. British correspondents meeting in the Taverne, the last of whom were forced to leave in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, would have reflected on that fact with a wry smile. Their persistent criticism of the Nazis had been vindicated at last.
Will Wainewright is the author of Reporting on Hitler: Rothay Reynolds and the British Press in Nazi Germany (Biteback, 2017)
This article was first published by History Extra in May 2017.