I'd like to share with you an excerpt from William Shirer's famous book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer, a newspaper reporter who lived in Berlin throughout the 1930s and into the early years of World War II, recounts how startled he had been at the ease with which German propaganda managed to fool an ever-more gullible German public. What follows is Shirer's description of the headlines of German newspapers during August, 1939, during the final days leading up to Germany's wholly unprovoked invasion of Poland:
In Berlin [...] a foreign observer could watch the way the press, under Goebbels' expert direction, was swindling the gullible German people. For six years, since the Nazi "co-ordination" of the daily newspapers, which had meant the destruction of a free press, the citizens had been cut off from the truth of what was going on in the world. For a time the Swiss German-language newspapers from Zurich and Basel could be purchased at the leading newsstands in Germany and these presented objective news. But in recent years their sale in the Reich had been either prohibited or limited to a few copies. For Germans who could read English or French, there were occasionally a few copies of the London and Paris journals available, though not enough to reach more than a handful of persons.
"How completely isolated a world the German people live in," I noted in my diary on August 10, 1939. "A glance at the newspapers yesterday and today reminds you of it." I had returned to Germany from a brief leave in Washington, New York and Paris, and coming up in the train from my home in Switzerland ten days before I had bought a batch of Berlin and Rhineland newspapers. They quickly propelled one back to the cockeyed world of Nazism, which was as unlike the world I had just left as if it had been on another planet. I noted further on August 10, after I had arrived in Berlin:
Whereas all the rest of the world considers that the peace is about to be broken by Germany, that it is Germany that is threatening to attack Poland... here in Germany, in the world the local newspapers create, the very reverse is maintained ... What the Nazi papers are proclaiming is this: that it is Poland which is disturbing the peace of Europe; Poland which is threatening Germany with armed invasion...By Saturday, August 26, the date originally set by Hitler for the attack on Poland, Goebbels' press campaign had reached its climax. I noted in my diary some of the headlines.
"Poland, Look Out!" warns the B.Z. [cft note: Berliner Arbeiterzeitung] headline, adding: Answer to Poland, the Runner-Amok [Amokläuffer] against Peace and Right in Europe!"
Or the headline in Der Fuehrer, daily paper of Karlsruhe, which I bought on the train: "Warsaw Threatens Bombardment of Danzig—Unbelievable Agitation of the Polish Archmadness [Polnischen Groessenwahsn]!"
You ask: But the German people can't possibly believe these lies? Then you talk to them. So many do.
The B.Z.: "Complete Chaos in Poland—German Families Flee—Polish Soldiers Push to the Edge of the German Border!" The 12-Uhr Blatt: "This Playing With Fire Going Too Far—Three German Passenger Planes Shot At by Poles—In Corridor Many German Farmhouses in Flames!"
On my way to Broadcast House at midnight I picked up the Sunday edition (August 27) of the Voelkischer Beobachter. Across the whole top of the front page were inch-high headlines:
WHOLE OF POLAND IN WAR FEVER! 1,5000,000 MEN MOBILIZED! UNINTERRUPTED TROOP TRANSPORT TOWARD THE FRONTIER! CHAOS IN UPPER SILESIA!There was no mention, of course, of any German mobilization, though, as we have seen, Germany had been mobilized for a fortnight.
The truth is a beautiful thing, even when it stings a bit. Do you suppose that the great William Shirer was spinning in his grave during the whole Weapons of Mass Destruction deception/embarrassment, which was aided and abetted by our American—putatively free, democratic—press?
I think it's fair to say that Shirer, like many in America's longstanding tradition of democratic patriots and truth-tellers, would be disappointed. He expected better of our elected leaders. We, unfortunately, have seen far too much arrogance and corruption among our leaders and their corporate handlers to reasonably hold the same expectation. But we can work hard to rebuild a genuine American republic in which future generations might reasonably expect it, just as Shirer did.