Silas Palmer Fellow Researches A Forgotten Foreign Correspondent And Journalistic Ethics In The Third Reich

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Karl H. von Wiegand (Left) after interview with Hitler in 1933
Karl H. von Wiegand (Left) after interview with Hitler in 1933 Source: Wisconsin magazine of history: Volume 41, number 4, summer, 1958
By Benjamin Goldstein

Journalists write the first draft of history, so the saying goes.  Even beyond their newspaper articles and reports, the shelves of journalism history at modern university libraries are dotted with the grandiosely titled memoirs of journalists of the 20th century. Sometimes these journalists even write the second draft of history; William Shirer, a foreign correspondent for Hearst Newspapers and CBS, made his name with Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.  Yet those journalists who failed to write their memoirs or books, end up relegated as authors of the first drafts and as mere footnotes in the subsequent drafts of history. 

Karl H. von Wiegand (1874-1961), the globe-trotting chief foreign correspondent of Hearst Newspapers from the late 1910s to 1961, whose unfinished and unpublished memoirs lie with the rest of his personal papers kept in the Hoover Institution Archives, exemplifies the fickleness of contemporary fame for journalists.  Dubbed “the dean of foreign correspondents” in his Time Magazine obituary, von Wiegand was a (now largely forgotten) major player on the early and mid-20th century Europe and world stages, reporting on nearly every major global geopolitical flashpoint between 1910 and 1961, including both World Wars, the Spanish Civil War and the Abyssinian crisis. He maintained close personal and professional associations with Hitler, Mussolini, and other fascist figures during the inter-war period. Von Wiegand was the first major U.S. correspondent to interview Hitler, in 1921, and the last, in an interview requested, organized and prepared by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry in 1940. The heightened access that his exclusive interviews and reports betrayed, combined with his isolationist newspaper magnate boss William Randolph Hearst’s alleged fascist sympathies, raise serious questions on mid-20th century journalistic ethics in Nazi Germany and the nature of the journalist as a political actor and mediator. 

Von Wiegand discusses with a Hearst official William Randolph Hearst’s policy towards reporting Jewish persecution stories. Source: Karl H. von Wiegand papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Von Wiegand’s personal papers, namely letters, telegrams, newspaper dispatches and unpublished manuscripts, discuss his associations (and the associations of other Hearst colleagues) with Hitler and other fascist figures.  They also grapple with the issues of reporting on such figures and their politics.  Von Wiegand and his colleagues, often struggled to balance the varied demands of editors and bosses back home with the logistical and political reality of reporting in the (often politically dangerous) field of inter-war Germany.  In correspondence with Hearst officials, von Wiegand complained about their demands for interviewing politicians made either inaccessible by politics or the Hearst Newspapers’ previous reporting.  Meeting strict deadlines for wire dispatches (while having communication-related expense cut) became difficult with increasing censorship and deliberate governmental withholding of sensitive information.  Requests to avoid (or, occasionally, to focus on) “atrocity stories” of anti-Semitic violence proved problematic for journalists trying to balance a moral compass, their professional reputation in Germany, and the demands from Hearst officials back home. 

A letter von Wiegand sent to his assistant where he describes his interview with Hitler on June 11, 1940 Source: Karl H. von Wiegand Papers, Hoover Institution Archives

Under these pressures, Von Wiegand, and his colleagues, ultimately reacted with a mix of rejection, negotiation and accommodation to the third Reich, wielding the journalists pen accordingly.  However, within the Hearst press generally and especially regarding von Wiegand, I have preliminarily charted a rough shift from rejection in the formative years of the third Reich to a mix of negotiation and accommodation towards the end of the 1930s.  Von Wiegand’s papers also allowed me to trace how the personal isolationist and nationalist ideologies of both von Wiegand and William Randolph Hearst aligned with shifting geopolitics to produce this conciliatory approach to Nazi Germany.  This approach manifested in von Wiegnad’s journalistic work, but more interestingly in his pseudo-political machinations in the European field.  These machinations culminated in von Wiegand’s interview with Hitler amidst the summer 1940 invasion of France; the interview, in which a personable, reasonable Hitler proclaimed “America to the Americans, Europe to the Europeans”, was (briefly) widely circulated in European diplomatic circles as Hitler’s olive branch to the Allies.  Von Wiegand’s papers, as well as digitized archival diplomatic material, make clear that the interview was designed for this expressed purpose, and that von Wiegand knew and (implicitly, if not explicitly) agreed to those conditions.  The interview represented the pinnacle of the convergence of von Wiegand and Hearst’s nationalist isolationism, their journalistic power and the geopolitical interests of the third Reich. 

This ongoing research will mix biography of the curious and adventurous figure of Karl H. von Wiegand with an analysis of the landscape of the political activities and ethics of foreign correspondents in the early-mid 20th century.  I would like to thank Sarah Patton and Elena Danielson for their wonderful help in working with the von Wiegand collection.  I would also like to thank the European Institute at Columbia University and Professor Victoria Phillips for providing the guidance and resources to begin this research.