Guest Commentary

Learning from the Nazis’ rise to power, through the eyes of U.S. newspapers

On Nov. 10, 1938, The Kansas City Star’s front page alerted its readers to a new crisis overseas. Alongside the news of the Turkish president’s death and of American novelist Pearl Buck being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, a headline blared: “Nazi Hate Burns.” Multiple subheadings informed readers of the Kristallnacht attacks the previous two days. Throughout Nazi Germany, which included recently-annexed Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia, Jewish shops had been destroyed, synagogues scorched and homes looted. Thirty thousand Jewish men and boys were rounded up and sent to concentration camps, told they’d only be released once they promised to immigrate elsewhere. Few countries, however, welcomed Jewish refugees.

The noose was tightening. And although residents of Kansas City could not have imagined that the Nazi regime and its collaborators would turn to mass murder within three years, it was clear then that Europe’s Jews were in serious danger. “Jews Believe They May Be Compelled to Leave the Country,” one Star subheadline warned.

Last week, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., opened a new exhibition, “Americans and the Holocaust,” which examines the United States during the 1930s and 1940s, and the breadth of American responses to Nazism, World War II and the Nazi-sponsored genocide of European Jews.

A major part of the new exhibition concerns news itself: As the Kristallnacht coverage in The Star indicates, “Americans and the Holocaust” corrects the common misconception that Americans did not know or were indifferent to the threats Nazism posed to German Jews and to world peace.

Museum historians could never have found this nationwide coverage on our own. Two years ago, in preparation for the exhibition, we launched a crowd-sourcing project, “History Unfolded.” Museum staff asked students, teachers, librarians and history buffs across the country to research their local newspapers and determine what kind of information their community could have found about Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

With the help of hundreds of students and dedicated volunteers, the museum built an extensive online archive of American newspaper coverage of key Holocaust events, including more than 15,000 submissions from every state. Each article is important historical evidence.

The “History Unfolded” database shows that as soon as Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor, American newspapers reported on the new Nazi regime’s economic, social and physical attacks on Jews. On April 2, 1933, The Star reported on antisemitic boycotts in Germany, printing the article alongside four large photographs of German crowds and Nazi stormtroopers. The caption read, “Imperialistic Atmosphere Reigns Again in Germany as the Nazis Assume Control of Government.”

Headlines do not always translate into readers taking action. In 1933, one-third of America’s population subscribed to a local newspaper, but 25 percent of the American workforce was unemployed. At the time, Nazi Germany’s persecution of its own citizens was considered a question of national sovereignty, and President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration decided not to issue a formal diplomatic protest.

Five years later, however, reports of the Kristallnacht attacks appeared in American newspapers nationwide. And some Americans, including in Kansas, took action. Undergraduates from at least 200 colleges and universities raised money to aid refugee students, many of whom were Jewish and in need of student visas to enter the United States. The 200-person student body at McPherson College, a small Christian school in McPherson, Kan., raised $250 (about $4,500 today) to support a refugee student. An aid worker wrote, “The student body of the College has raised this money at some sacrifice, since it is not a wealthy school, and they are looking forward to the arrival of a German student.” Eighteen-year-old Tom Doeppner, German-born and targeted by the Nazis for his Jewish heritage, gratefully accepted the scholarship and traveled from the Netherlands to safety in the United States. He loved Kansas, and after graduation, joined the U.S. Army, fought in World War II, and spent his career in the military — all thanks to McPherson students, who read the newspaper and took action.

The “Americans and the Holocaust” exhibition reveals that the students at McPherson College were an exception in America at the time. Although many here knew about the threats of Nazism, there was not a groundswell of national action, given concerns about the Great Depression, immigration, national security, and war — as well as a culture of antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and isolationism.

There are still many more stories, like McPherson College’s, to uncover. “History Unfolded” will continue to collect newspaper articles until at least 2021. Interested students and citizen historians should visit newspapers.ushmm.org to learn how to participate.

Rebecca Erbelding is a historian and an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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