The New York Times has an article today on the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s ascension to power, and how Nazism and the Holocaust remains in the center of German historical consciousness, though the article, oddly wonders why “Germany seems unendingly obsessed with Nazism.” Is there some other event in German history that Germans should be obsessed with? The death of Frederick Barbarossa or the Diet of Worms? I suppose a country so genuinely concerned with remembering their mistakes, as a way of measuring how far they have come, is unusual. Certainly the unambiguous way in which Germans have acknowledged the very worst in their national history is a standard against which other nations should be measured.
But this is a topic for another post. I am reminded that this is also the 75th anniversary of the Times' coverage of Hitler’s ascension to power. What is striking about it is their concern to minimize its significance. They did give the event a banner headlines, but seemed determined to take away with one hand what they gave with another, “Hitler Made Chancellor of Germany But Coalition Cabinet Limits Power.” This line of interpretation was continued in the notorious lead article, by the Berlin correspondent, Guido Enderis, which starts accurately enough “Adolf Hitler, leader of the Nationalist Socialist Party, today was appointed Chancellor of Germany” but has, in the 3rd paragraph, the single worst prediction and bit of news analysis in the august 150-year plus history of the New York Times, “the composition of the cabinet leaves Herr Hitler no scope for gratification of any dictatorial ambition.”
Perhaps there were political reasons behind this coverage, or just myopic reporting, but I suspect the Times was doing what it always tended to do; to turn down emotions a notch, and to try not to be swayed by events that seem to be dramatic, which often turn out to be, in Daniel Boorstin’s term, “pseudo-events” hyped to the hills when the real story is actually somewhere else.
The Times got this spectacularly wrong, but I think skepticism in the face of seemingly transformative events is generally justified. One cannot but remember the “everything is changed” mantra that so widely circulated after 9/11, which referred to the new threat from Islamic terrorism, or a new sense of national unity, overcoming the debilitating effects of irony, or something along these lines. These stories were over-hyped, and served to cloak the real news that was emerging in post- 9/11 America, the stealthy planning of an aggressive war by the Bush administration.
But sometimes, everything does change, as when Yeats wrote of the 1916 Irish rebellion that “all changed, changed utterly” (though his famous line about a “terrible beauty” being born in reference to the IRA strikes me as a horrible aestheticizing of violence.) And in fairness to the New York Times, an appropriate headline for Hitler’s ascension to power would have been impossible to write on January 31, 1933. An accurate headline would have to read something like “Hitler Made Chancellor of Germany; The Single Most Catastrophic Event in the History of the World; All is Changed, Changed Utterly.”