'For most of it I have no words' - How journalists told the world about the Nazi Holocaust

Candles were set be lit across Britain today to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, which commemorates the estimated six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Second World War.

Two new books on how journalists covered World War Two shed light on how reporters tried to alert the world to the catastrophe unfolding in Germany in the 1930s and then exposed it both during and after the war.

Author of Reporting on Hitler, Will Wainewright: “A handful of British journalists living and working in the Third Reich, whose stories have been largely forgotten, had a better idea than most about Hitler’s hatred of the Jews. But they faced an intense battle to report the truth, which some of the colleagues in the press pack overlooked.

“The Propaganda Ministry of Joseph Goebbels put pressure on them to report in a pro-Nazi direction and the threat of expulsion hung darkly over all Third Reich foreign correspondents. At one meeting in 1933, foreign correspondents were told by Hermann Göring that the Gestapo was monitoring their phone-calls and private letters.

“Such restrictive conditions make the achievements of journalists who reported critically on the Nazis all the more impressive. Several members of the British press emerge as heroes of the period for doing more than others to reveal how Jews in Germany were being mistreated.

“In June 1933 Eric Gedye, who worked for the Telegraph, chose to focus on Nazi violence rather than economic changes. He described the ‘brutal beatings, killings, suicides of dismissed intellectuals, the lacerated backs, cripplings and ruined existences which have marked the triumph of Hitlerism’.

“Philip Pembroke Stephens, a young correspondent on the Daily Express, revealed in more detail than others 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. Stephens was one of the first British correspondents expelled from Nazi Germany.

“The Manchester Guardian’s Frederick Voigt had been a particularly vociferous critic of the rising Nazi Party. He returned to London soon after Hitler’s ascent to power amid rumours of a Gestapo plot to kill him.

“In April 1936 he wrote the most revelatory piece yet published about the treatment 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.

“He wrote: ‘There are no legal guarantees for those who fall into the hands of the Gestapo… Many prisoners have been beaten to death, and many have died after lingering awhile as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Gestapo.’

“John Segrue, who worked for the News Chronicle newspaper, earned the rare distinction of being expelled by the Nazis twice. He moved to Austria 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 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.’ 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 German camp. The Guild of Jewish Journalists later commended him for having ‘alerted the world to the true evil of the Nazi philosophy’.”

In Reporting War, Ray Moseley notes how broadcaster Edward R Murrow alerted radio listeners in the US to the genocide happening in Europe in 1942.

In one report he said: “One is almost stunned into silence by some of the information reaching London. Some of it is months old, but it’s eyewitness stuff supported by a wealth of detail and vouched for by responsible governments what is happening is this: Millions of human beings, most of them Jews, are being gathered u with ruthless efficiency and murdered…When you piece it all together…you have a picture of mass murder and moral depravity unequalled in the world.”

It wasn’t until April 1945, when the US army liberated the first concentration camps on German territory, that the full picture emerged.

Murrow himself reported from Buchenwald where he found stacks of naked bodies – around 500 men and boys – most of whom had apparently starved to death.

He told CBS listeners: “I have reported what I saw and heard, but only part of it. For most of it I have no words.”

In the British zone of operations Richard Dimbleby of the BBC was the first journalist to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp where 12,000 corpses lay unburied.

According to the Moseley book, the BBC initially refused to broadcast Dimbleby’s report without further sources to verify it.

“Dimbleby phoned London and warned that, unless the report went through, he would never broadcast again. His report, originally running to 14 minutes, eventually went on air in an abbreviated but still horrifying form.”

Dimbleby later revealed that he broke down five times whilst recording the report in which he said: “The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved in the awful ghostly procession of emaciated aimless people with nothing to do and no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them.

“A mother driven mad screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child and thrust the tiny mite into his arms and ran off crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.”

Dimbleby’s report can be heard on Youtube here.

Reporting on Hitler: Rothay Reynolds and the British Press in Nazi Germany, by Will Wainewright, is published by Biteback on 2 February 2017.

Reporting War, by Ray Moseley, is published by Yale.

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