When I was in college, taking upper division at Cal State University Northridge (a place of no particular fame or note, other than being one of those public unis which used to provide a fair education at relatively low cost) I had a lot of time between some of my classes, and spent many hours in the stacks of the Oviatt Library. On discovering the microfiche newspaper archives, squirreled away in the basement, I undertook a project to read, or at least skim one of them – every daily issue from 1935 to 1945, on reels that covered two weeks at a time. I had already skimmed many of the bound periodicals of the weekly news magazines available – Time, Life, Newsweek and the like – because I had an interest in the period, they were available and what better way to agreeably pass the time between classes? (Both carried the comic strip Terry and the Pirates, which I found fascinating.) I wound up with the Chicago Tribune, after a trial of the Los Angeles Times, because the pages of the Times were scanned from side to side on the reels of microfiche, which made me slightly motion-sick to skim at speed, whereas the Tribune pages were scanned from top to bottom.
It took me the best part of an academic year, to go through that eventful decade, and it was a fascinating excursion into a past that then was just barely out of reach. It was like looking at history through a keyhole, day by day as it was experienced by people at the time, as the Depression ended and world war crept closer and closer. All they knew, as Will Rogers observed, was what they read in the papers. This discussion last week at NeoNeocon, on how German and Austrian Jews tried to escape the Nazi Holocaust brought this excursion to the past to my mind again. On a number of scattered occasions, during the late 1930s and into the war years, there were news stories in the Tribune (and I presume similar stories in other contemporary newspapers) about Nazi atrocities and the persecutions of German and European Jews; stories which later were proved, upon Liberation in the spring of 1945 to have been completely accurate, if understating the extent to which the Nazis took genocide. Invariably, within days of such stories appearing, there would be a chorus of letters to the editor, in tones ranging from outraged to cautionary, advising a whole dusting of salt when it came to so-called atrocity stories in time of war. Don’t fall for obvious propaganda, the authors of such letters advised. Remember how we were fooled by tales of German atrocities in Belgium the last time around.
Although the German Army had in fact, routinely committed what now are accepted as war crimes in invading Belgium in 1914, it later emerged that the most floridly operatic atrocities were inventions or gross exaggerations – and most Americans who were old enough to remember such stories and having been convinced of German frightfulness – were infuriated at having been fooled. Conventional wisdom among many Americans in the inter-war years was that we had been suckered into a war which really hadn’t been any of our business to start with; and this was reflected in those letters-to-the-editor. Don’t fall for the propaganda. We won’t get fooled again.
Of course, when Germany was liberated and British, American and Russian troops found the extermination camps, the skeletal survivors, the crematories, the mass graves and all the records of what had been done to Jews, Roma, Slavs in the interests of the Nazi final solution, people realized that it had all been more horrific than the most demented anti-Nazi propagandist had ever come up with in the wildest flight of their imagination. Still, I wonder to what degree American skepticism about Nazi persecution of Jews before and during the war emerged from memories of being taken in, once before, by claims of atrocities which later proved to have been gross exaggerations. It’s the old cautionary lesson taught in the story of the boy who shouted ‘wolf’ once too often; when the wolf really appeared, no one believed him. Now that our National Establishment Media has falsely cried ‘wolf’, ‘Russian collusion’, ‘racism’, ‘insurrection’ and ‘deadly epidemic’ so many times over the last year and more … when and if the wolf really appears, who is going to believe them at all?
Discuss as you wish.