In January 1934, Lord Harold Rothermere, the owner of Britain’s Daily Mail, filed a story from Munich praising Adolf Hitler. The article was published when Jews were being ousted from public life in Germany and the Nazi party had already established a large network of concentration camps across the country.
Rothermere assured his readers that stories of these atrocities were wildly exaggerated. The restaurants and hotels in Munich were bustling with German Jews during the festive season, and none “showed [any] symptoms of insecurity or suffering,” the British newspaper proprietor wrote. This was typical of the pro-Nazi line Britain’s Daily Mail continued to promote that year.
The Nazis needed to control the “alien elements and Israelites of international attachments who were insinuating themselves into the German state,” as Rothermere put it in another article he personally penned in July 1934. The Daily Mail also cheered on the British Union of Fascists — a party led by Sir Oswald Mosley in Britain that was notorious for its support of Hitler and for its anti-Semitic propaganda. “Hurrah for the Blackshirts,” read one infamous Daily Mail headline from January 1934.
California-based historian Kathryn S. Olmsted’s new book, “The Newspaper Axis: Six Press Barons Who Enabled Hitler,” profiles Rothermere and five other powerful media moguls in the Anglophile world on both sides of the Atlantic between 1933 and 1945, all of whom took a pro-Nazi editorial line.
“Lord Rothermere was a pro-fascist who had a deep sympathy for Adolf Hitler,” Olmsted tells The Times of Israel from her office at the University of California, Davis, where she chairs the history department.
As she writes in the introduction to her new book, “For years, Rothermere and his fellow press barons in both Britain and the United States pressured their nations’ leaders to ignore the menace of fascism.”
Olmsted dedicates a chapter to exploring how Britain’s Daily Mail, led by Rothermere, championed Hitler’s Germany throughout the mid- to late-1930s. The paper described Germany under Hitler “as one of the best-governed nations in Europe” and continued to boost Hitler’s popularity, even as the Nazis used terrorist tactics against their political enemies.
On March 5, 1933, the Nazi party won 44 percent of the vote, giving them 288 seats in the Reichstag. Less than three weeks later, with Nazi brownshirts intimidating all possible remaining political opposition, the Reichstag voted by the required two-thirds majority to give Hitler — via the Enabling Act — the right to make laws without the Reichstag’s approval for four years.
Many American and British journalists based in Berlin at the time described this as the beginning of the end for German democracy. The Daily Mail disagreed.
“No one here will shed any tears over the disappearance of Germany’s democracy,” the paper’s editorial declared shortly after the Nazis gained that historic mandate to govern by dictatorial decree.
Olmsted says that “The Daily Mail’s news stories [at this time] always betrayed a pro-Nazi bias and Rothermere’s reporters understood that their boss’s sympathies lay with Hitler.”
Nor, as the book makes clear, was Rothermere alone in that regard. Also possessing Nazi sympathies were Lord Max Beaverbrook, owner of Britain’s Daily Express, Sunday Express, and Evening Standard; Robert McCormick, who owned The Chicago Tribune; William Randolph Hearst, who owned more than two dozen newspapers and a syndicate wire service that had a monopoly on the American media; and brother-sister duo Joseph and Cissy Patterson, who ran the New York Daily News and the Washinton-Times Herald, respectively.
The newspapers owned by these six media moguls reached a combined audience of approximately 65 million daily readers in Britain and the United States. They regularly paid handsome fees to fascist leaders looking to promote their ideas to a global audience. William Randolph Hearst, for example, paid Hitler and other top Nazis an average of $1,500 per article — or $20,000 in today’s money.
William Randolph Hearst paid Hitler and other top Nazis an average of $1,500 per article — or $20,000 in today’s money
“By giving fascist dictators access to the American public and allowing them to present themselves as peace-loving champions of order, Hearst helped to normalize [fascism] for his 30 million readers,” says Olmsted. “These press barons did not just sell the news, they constructed it and lied as they reported events so they could make a lot of money and gain political influence, too.”
Olmsted says Britain’s Daily Express also showed little sympathy for the suffering of German Jews or concern for protecting universal human rights. Her book cites two prominent examples of the British newspaper, run by Lord Max Beaverbrook, promoting “xenophobic, nationalistic, imperialist, and anti-Semitic views.”
The events of Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, saw violent anti-Jewish pogroms break out across Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia. An article that appeared in the Daily Express shortly afterward sided with the Nazi aggressors. The headline of the article read “Looting Mobs Defy Goebbels,” and it went on to imply that German leaders were trying to stop the brutality of the anti-Jewish violence, rather than inciting it. “Take counsel in the age-old saying which has now indeed become commonplace: Least said, soonest mended,” the newspaper told its readers.
The Daily Express also sugar-coated an infamous speech Hitler gave in January 1939 in which he threatened to annihilate the Jews of Europe. The paper chose to report only parts of the speech, insinuating that it was, in fact, an olive branch offering of peace from Hitler to the rest of Europe. “Now we know that Hitler agrees with the Daily Express,” the editorial told its readers. “[Hitler] says that he expects there will peace for a long time.”
Olmsted says the paper did not overtly challenge Hitler’s antisemitism for two main reasons. The paper’s owner, Lord Max Beaverbrook, like Hitler, believed in the concept of a racial hierarchy, with Anglo-Saxons at the top. Beaverbrook also saw Britain as a self-contained empire rather than being culturally or politically attached to the European continent.
“Beaverbrook believed in a worldwide white nationalism and worried that opposing the Nazis would endanger the British Empire, and so Hitler’s rise to power did not concern him,” Olmsted says.
The pro-Nazi line taken by powerful media moguls on both sides of the Atlantic leading up to — and in some cases during — World War II has already been well-documented by several scholars, historians and authors. Olmsted’s book is the first of its kind, however, to document how British and American press lords worked together to delay and undermine the Anglo-American alliance against Hitler.
Olmsted says media scholars and historians have found it challenging to evaluate the coverage of these newspapers because some of them only digitized their historical content as recently as last year. There has, however, the historian admits, been immense research of both the Hearst press and the New York Daily News.
“I was interested in the transnational relationship between these press barons, but I wanted to look at how they influenced one another too,” Olmsted says. “Lord Max Beaverbrook and Joe Patterson, for instance, had a close correspondence where they tried to work together to promote isolationism in both of their respective [countries].”
This arose following a routine business exchange by letter in March 1935 between Beaverbrook and Patterson. Patterson then signed off the correspondence by declaring how “we are all very much alarmed here [in the United States] about the prospect of war in Europe.”
Beaverbrook responded by asking permission to print the last words of Patterson’s letter on the front page of Britain’s Daily Express. The British press baron then organized a private meeting in a London suburb where three British MPs spoke about the importance of Patterson’s isolationist message.
Isolationists advocated non-involvement in European and Asian conflicts and non-entanglement in international politics more broadly.
Joseph Kennedy was perhaps the famous and controversial isolationist of his era. His worldview was very much shared by these six press barons: War was bad for business, so Britain, Europe and the United States must avoid it at all costs — even if that meant compromising with Nazi Germany and turning a blind eye to their official antisemitic policies.
A bogus attempt to keep the United States and Britain out of any conflict with Nazi Germany saw Kennedy’s short-lived political career end in international disgrace. In the summer of 1938, then-US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Kennedy (who was then one of the wealthiest individuals in America) as the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom.
During his tenure in this high-profile diplomatic position, Kennedy continued to privately contact sycophantic journalist friends in the American press, asking them to write favorable articles about then-British prime minister Neville Chamberlain — especially in regard to his appeasing Adolf Hitler. This topic was explored at length in “The Ambassador: Joseph P Kennedy at the Court of St James’s 1938-1940,” published last year by British-American biographer, Susan Ronald.
Kennedy was also sympathetic to the Nazi party’s position on “the Jewish question,” and expressed antisemitic views during an informal private meeting in London in May 1938 with the newly-appointed German ambassador to Britain, Herbert von Dirksen. Kennedy promised to help improve the Nazi PR image immediately, especially within the Anglo-Saxon press. The upper echelons of the Nazi party were informed about this clandestine meeting — but Kennedy’s superiors in Washington were not.
Then, during the Battle of Britain in November 1940, Kennedy resigned. His controversial departure followed remarks made in the American press: “Democracy is finished in England,” he said. “And it may [well] be [finished] here [in the US].” The White House did not agree — nor did the State Department, the British government, or the British royal family. In October 1940, King George VI wrote in his private diary how “[Kennedy] always thinks in terms of dollars as against the terms of human feelings.” Kennedy never served or ran for any public office again.
The isolationists always fixated on this idea that it was the Jews who were trying to get the US and the UK into the war
“The isolationists always fixated on this idea that it was the Jews who were trying to get the US and the UK into the war,” says Olmsted, adding that an “Anglo-American analysis [of these six press barons] can help us better understand where isolationism comes from, how the term was used, and what it meant.”
“Joseph and Cissy Patterson, and Robert McCormick, for example, believed if the United States got involved in European [political affairs], it would end up losing a lot of its power and control over the rest of the world,” she says.
The historian believes these six press barons “helped lay the foundation for the nationalist, racist, and antisemitic Right” media landscape still prominent today in both Britain and the US. She points to numerous similarities between then and now, including the pervasiveness of headline-grabbing clickbait news stories that demonize liberals, “internationalists,” and other social and racial groups that don’t fit in with a far-right, all-white nationalist and populist political agenda.
“We can still hear the echoes of these six press barons today in the anti-European headlines of the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, and in the angry populism of Fox News and Breitbart,” says Olmsted.
“These toxic right-wing white nationalist movements have their roots in the 1930s,” she says. “But they continue to influence Anglo-American foreign policy today.”
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