18 February 2017
The issue of what President Trump – with typical directness - calls ‘fake news’ has risen high in the policy agenda. The more sources of ‘news’ there are, the more difficult it seems to be to separate truth from falsehood. Ahead of the elections later this year, Facebook in Germany will soon flag ‘fake’ stories with the help of a factchecking agency, Correctiv. Stories found to be ‘fake’ will be flagged as ‘disputed’, with an explanation. Disputed stories will not be prioritised by the newsfeed algorithm and people will receive a warning if they decide to share them.
‘Fake’ news matters. In an increasingly postmodernist world, facts matter. In the UK we saw in the referendum the result of allowing ‘fake’ news to go unchallenged (remember the poster put out by Vote Leave days before the vote, suggesting that Turkey was ‘set to join’ the EU).
‘Fake’ news doesn’t just matter to the ordinary citizen. It matters to governments too. To ‘good’ governments because they need to have the facts to make good policy decisions (‘evidence-based policy’). To ‘bad’ governments because the ‘fake’ news that they disseminate must be exposed (think of the obsession of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei with Holocaust Denial).
At no time in recent memory did facts matter more than in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. What were Hitler’s true ambitions? How could they be communicated by people on the spot, without risking retribution? How could they be communicated to those who might be able to intervene? In the 70 years that have elapsed since the end of World War Two, much has been written on the theme ‘who knew and could anything have been done?’ See for example Walter Laqueur’s book published in 1981, ‘The Terrible Secret’ or ‘What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany’ by Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband, published in 2015.
So Will Wainewright’s book could not be more timely. It’s about the journalists with British newspapers who were in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s and the pressures on them – from proprietors who in some cases wanted to underplay the dangers of the rise of Hitler and from the regime itself, which had its own propaganda machine, headed by Goebbels, and which did not hesitate to expel journalists who incurred its wrath for revealing too much of the truth.
The book centres on one journalist in particular: Rothay Reynolds. Reynolds moved to Germany in 1921, to head up the Daily Mail’s office in Berlin. He returned to England in February 1939, age 66. He died in Jerusalem on 20 August 1940. How the book came into being is a story in itself. Will Wainewright was a journalist reporting on hedge funds. While researching his family history, his mother found a letter sent by Rothay Reynolds in 1939 to his second cousin. The letter described how Reynolds had returned from Berlin to write 'When Freedom Shrieked' which revealed the truth about life under the Nazis. The second cousin was Will’s great-grandfather. Will became fascinated by the challenge of telling the story of Reynolds and the other British journalists in Berlin.
In turn, I heard Will speak about the book on BBC Radio 4 on New Year’s Day and determined to get hold of it and review it. I knew that the Daily Mail had supported Hitler in the 1930s and having campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, I was well aware of the Mail’s bias towards Leave (possibly the worst example being when it described a High Court Judge as ‘openly gay’ in its front page article attacking as ‘enemies of the people’ the judges who ruled that Parliament needed to vote on triggering Article 50). I was eager to learn more about the Mail during the 1930s.
By 1923 Hitler’s status as a rising star in Munich led to a small amount of outside interest, though he was dismissed as irrelevant by most. In October Reynolds had an assignment in Munich and without an appointment, walked into the office of the Völkischer Beobachter, the newspaper of the National Socialist movement which Hitler, as leader, edited. After 45 minutes, Reynolds was shown into Hitler’s office.
Lord Rothermere assumed control of the Daily Mail after the death of his brother Lord Northcliffe in 1922. Within days of the 1930 election (when the National Socialists won 107 seats compared with 12 previously) Rothermere was praising Hitler in the Mail: ‘They represent the rebirth of a nation’ (but Rothermere denounced Hitler’s antisemitism). As a result, Hitler offered an interview which was carried out by Reynolds.
Why was Rothermere so supportive of Hitler? The answer is that he saw Hitler as a defence against Germany falling to the Communists. As Communism became entrenched in Russia during the 1920s, fears of its spreading rose. Rothermere was one of many critics of Communism and Hitler cunningly played on these fears. As Wainewright says, ‘Portraying himself as a ‘Bulwark against Bolshevism’ was enough, almost to the end of the 1930s, to outweigh many overseas fears about his virulent antisemitism.’ This is graphically illustrated in the book. The boycott of Jewish businesses began on 1 April 1933. The Mail simply printed the official denials that Jews were being maltreated. It was left to the Manchester Guardian to tell the truth. And Reynolds’ subsequent dispatch was totally altered in meaning, by editing out some crucial words.
But Wainewright shows that Rothermere was far from completely fooled by Hitler’s propaganda. In October 1934 he wrote to Neville Chamberlain (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) describing the Nazi leadership as 'dangerous and ruthless oligarchs'.
Although Reynolds is the central character, the book tells us about the other members of the group of British journalists who used to meet at the Taverne, an Italian restaurant in Berlin. There is Frederick Voigt of the Guardian for example. He was ‘resolutely critical of Hitler as the Nazis edged closer to power and moved to Paris a few weeks before Hitler was made Chancellor in January 1933’. His coverage of the Jewish Boycott and Brown Terror ‘caused outrage among senior Nazis, who dismissed the Guardian as a ‘dirty Communist rag’.’ Even in France Voigt was not judged to be safe; he left for London in December 1933, after the French Foreign Office warned of a death threat.
We learn too of other journalists who were intimidated out of Germany: the first was Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News in 1933. There followed Noel Panter of the Daily Telegraph, Philip Stephens of the Express, Eric Gedye of the Daily Telegraph and John Segrue of the News Chronicle who was expelled from Germany and then from Austria and died in a concentration camp, having been captured in Belgrade. And we learn of Reynolds’ friendship with Frank Foley, the MI6 station chief in Berlin, whose efforts to help Jews escape were recognised decades later when he was named ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem.
Will Wainewright writes with easy fluency. The pieces of a complex jigsaw fit together perfectly. His research is thorough and the book vividly conveys the pressures on those who were writing ‘the first draft of history’ of the inexorable rise of the Nazis. ‘Reporting on Hitler’ is a fascinating book which will be relished by anyone interested in how the events in Germany were communicated to the world, in an age when television was in its infancy and decades before the advent of the social media which are now so all-pervasive.