Why Americans did not believe in the holocaust while it was happening

At a time when the Nazis were systematically eliminating every Jew they could get their hands on, the American press missed or downplayed this truly big story. In her book, “Beyond Belief”, Deborah Lipstadt explains how this happened. First of all, they should not have missed it, according to American reporter Sigrid Shultz. Shultz says “All one had to do was to go to one of the waiting rooms of the railroad stations in eastern Berlin and listen to Black Guards [SS] arriving from or leaving for the front. They seemed to enjoy describing how they had locked Poles and Jews into cellars and then thrown hand grenades through windows left open for the purpose.”

There were many other sources and methods of finding out the truth, but they were not trusted or used. The New York Times as well as other papers did not trust sources who tried to tell them what was going on. For instance, when the Germans announced that they had killed 480 civilians in Lidice, in reprisal for the murder of the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich, The New York Herald Tribune observed that this was not the product of the “terrified imagination of a refugee or [the] invention of an angry propagandist. It is the official announcement of the Nazi radio.” That, they did trust.

Another explanation for why Germans were trusted more than the Jews and the Polish government in exile was that the number of victims claimed by Polish and Jewish organizations could be dismissed as too immense to be plausible. Also, the press often missed the point that the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi ideology, and tried to explain that the Jews were just scapegoats, or even a sideshow to make the German’s own privations seem mild by comparison, or that persecution was going on for various other incorrect reasons that they speculated on.

The U.S. and British governments were no help in getting the truth exposed. In July 1943 Foreign Office officials were still complaining about Polish and particularly Jewish groups’ use of these stories to “stoke us up” and force the government to “waste a disproportionate amount of … time in dealing with wailing Jews.” State Department officials felt similarly.

Much of the American public did not believe the atrocity reports. William Shirer was an American reporter in Germany, and he wrote in the Washington Post in March 1943 that the public had an attitude of a “silly sort of supercynicism and superskepticism” which persisted despite the fact that there was “no earthly reason” for people not to believe. When Shirer was in Berlin, “most of the Americans who visited Germany in the early Nazi days used to say: ‘The Nazis can’t really be as bad as you correspondents paint them.” Shirer found the persistence of disbelief particularly odd in light of the fact that the Nazis had themselves admitted the truth of some of the atrocities and that many others had been committed in public view. In January 1944, Arthur Koestler wrote in the Sunday New York Times Magazine that public opinion polls in the US showed nine out of ten average Americans dismissed the accusations against the Nazis as propaganda lies and flatly stated that they did not believe a word of them. American soldiers often did not believe in Nazi atrocities either. Saturday Evening Post editor Edgar Snow related how an American flyer who had just returned from bombing the German lines emphatically stated that “he didn’t believe all that ‘propaganda’ about Nazi brutality.” Moreover, soldiers argued, there was no real difference between the Axis and the Allied forces. “They say they are fighting for an ideal and they are ready to die for it, and that’s just what we’re doing.”

Some critics even argued that photos and films of the camps were being released to make the American feel vengeful against the Germans.

As late as 1944 eyewitness accounts–particularly those of victims–were not considered irrefutable evidence even if they came from independent sources and corroborated one another.

Doubts even persisted even at the end of the war after American soldiers, reporters, editors, publishers, and members of Congress had seen camps and after the Army Signal Corps screened a movie on the atrocities in American theaters. Soldiers who had taken pictures of what they saw found that some people still thought their pictures were propaganda. One G.I. who was at Dachau told his parents what he saw “and they didn’t know what the hell I was talkin’ about.”

A very partial excuse for this disbelief was that In the first World War, there were indeed lies about German atrocities. So Americans did not want to be fooled again. Also the American and British governments did not want to host Jewish refugees, and so it became Allied policy to refer to “political refugees” and not Jews, or to Nazi victims by country of origin and not again as Jews.

So ultimately, a big story was missed by the newspapers, despite a whole lot of evidence for it, and the American people did not realize the truth when the truth might have helped save some people.


The source for this page is the book: Beyond Belief by Deborah Lipstadt

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2 Responses to Why Americans did not believe in the holocaust while it was happening

  1. Ken says:

    Oh, shut up, you liar.

    • gidmeister says:

      Could you elaborate? Are you saying there was no holocaust? Are you saying Americans believed in the holocaust? Can you document or prove your assertions? I bet not. Don’t tell people to shut up. Dictators do that.

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