If the news media won’t stand up for itself, how can it stand up for us?

There has been much hand-wringing and soul-searching by the U.S. news media over the past several days over the failure to predict the triumph of Donald Trump in the presidential election. This self-flagellation would better serve America and western democracy if instead it targets its failure to excoriate Mr. Trump for singling out for attack the journalists covering his rallies.

Since the election, we have witnessed a sinister spike in racist and anti-Semitic graffiti across the U.S.   We should not be surprised as the Trump campaign rallies exposed clear manifestations of these ugly prejudices, malevolent manifestations that should have been easily recognizable to the news media as during the rallies, the media, itself, was the target.  And with a frightening passivity, it seemed to accept this hate as the normal course of the news business.

Violence against journalists applauded by former baseball star turned politician Curt Schilling.

Violence against journalists applauded by former baseball star turned politician Curt Schilling.

Mr. Trump’s campaign events were often attended by members of neo-Nazi organizations as well as members of the Ku Klux Klan whose violent behavior was too often downplayed by the press. Indeed, Mr. Trump seemed to delight in pointing out individual members of the media to the raucous crowds, particularly targeting one woman journalist who at least twice had to be protected by the U.S. Secret Service from physical attack.

These threats of violence were accompanied by shouts of the venerable Nazi epithet of “lügenpresse” or lying press and chants of “Jew-S.A.” directed at the journalists.  One Trump supporter who shoved a black woman was identified as a prominent neo-Nazi who had tweeted “Guess what, Jews? We’re back.”  This viciousness was barely reported in the news media, if at all.

Democracy has been down this road before…and it always ends badly. In Weimar Germany, Theodor Wolff, the editor-in-chief of the great liberal newspaper the Berliner Tageblatt and Nobel Prize winner Carl von Ossietzky, editor-in-chief of Die Weltbühne were repeatedly singled out during the 1920s and 1930s by Nazis as members of the “lügenpresse apparatus”, barred from attending Nazi rallies and showered with death threats for their coverage of Hitler and his violent nationalist and racist movement. The Tageblatt was referred to by the Nazis as “das Judenblatt” because of Wolff’s Jewish heritage as well as that of the paper’s owners. In addition, the right-wing Hugenberg media empire repeatedly encouraged hatred of Wolff.

Theodor Wolff, editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt

Theodor Wolff, editor-in-chief of the Berliner Tageblatt

Von Ossietzky, the son of a minor Silesian nobleman, was an anti-militarist and pacifist who not only criticized the Nazis during the 1920s but also revealed the assassinations of liberal and leftist politicians by secret Freikorps death squads, and then exposed the Weimar Government’s secret rearming of the Reichswehr in violation of the Versailles Treaty. For this, he was convicted of treason in 1931 and sentenced to eighteen months in prison.

Carl von Ossietzky, German anti-militarist and anti-Nazi journalist.

Carl von Ossietzky, German anti-militarist and anti-Nazi journalist.

Ironically, both Wolff and von Ossietzky also had their share of misjudging Hitler’s future. Just before the September, 1930 elections, Wolff warned readers of the Tageblatt to not “overestimate the fairground party” and that after the election, even if the Nazis won a few more seats, they would remain a “society of incompetents” who soon will “fall from grace” and “Herr Hitler will fade into the sunset.”[i] Von Ossietzky wrote just before the same election: “The National Socialist movement has a noisy presence, but no future at all. The rather bizarre notion that Adolf Hitler had been called to save the nation is pure mysticism.”[ii]

And for his part, von Ossietzky also pointedly insulted Hitler. “A half-insane rascal”, “apathetic dunderhead” and a “nowhere fool” with a “big mouth” were some of the attempts to make the Nazi leader appear ridiculous.[iii]

Again, in the 1933 elections, Wolff’s lack of prescience was notable, claiming that Hitler’s only trophy from the election was a “fly impaled upon the tip of his sword.”[iv] A month later, the Nazis were in complete control of the German government.

On the night of Feb. 27, 1933, as a pretext they set fire to the Reichstag building and then arrested all the left-wing members of the government. That same night, Wolff, who had been warned that he was on a Nazi death-list, fled Germany and with his wife made his way to Nice, France. His writings were burned by the Nazis and in 1937 he was stripped of his German citizenship. In 1940, after Germany and Italy had invaded France, Nice was seized by Italy. In 1943, Wolff was arrested by the Italian secret police and turned over to the German Gestapo. Imprisoned in the notorious Sachsenhausen concentration camp, he was so ill that he was sent to the Jewish hospital in Berlin where he died.

Inmate von Ossietzky in Esterwegen concentration camp.

Inmate von Ossietzky in Esterwegen concentration camp.

Von Ossietzky was even unluckier, misjudging how quickly the Nazis would move against their enemies. On the same day Wolff fled Berlin, von Ossietzky was arrested by the Nazi-controlled police and held in “protective custody.” He was sent to the Esterwegen concentration camp where he was starved and brutally tortured. In 1935, a member of the International Red Cross who was visiting Esterwegen reported that von Ossietzky was “a trembling, deadly pale something, a creature that appeared to be without feeling, one eye swollen, teeth knocked out. Dragging a broken, badly healed leg…a human being who had reached the uttermost limits of what could be borne.”[v]

The anti-militarist von Ossietzky was brutally tortured and starved by his SS guards.

The anti-militarist von Ossietzky was brutally tortured and starved by his SS guards.

That same year, von Ossietzky was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. From prison, he accepted the prize despite threats from the Nazi government, which then forbade any German from ever receiving a future Nobel Prize. In 1938, he died in a prison hospital from the aftereffects of his torture and from tuberculosis which he had contacted at Esterwegen.

Modern democratic Germany has recognized the deep debt that nation owes Wolff and von Ossietzky.  Wolff is buried in the“row of honor” at Berlin’s Weissensee Cemetery.  In 1991, the University of Oldenburg was renamed the Carl von Ossietzky Universitat Oldenburg and the International League for Human Rights awards an annual Carl von Ossietzky Medal “to honor citizens or initiatives that promote basic human rights.”

They are also history’s reminders that it is the duty of news organizations in the U.S., the UK and all other democracies to ensure that members of the free press remain free from intimidation and attack for they are the wall between freedom and tyranny.   A wall that is now badly in need of repair and strengthening.

 

 

 

[i] Theodor Wolff: Der Journalist. Berichte und Lettartikel, ed. Bernd Sosemann , Dusseldorf, 1993. P. 273.

[ii] Von Ossietzky, Samlichte Schriften, ed. Barbel Boldt, Reinebek bei Hamburg, amburg, 1994, vol. 5, P. 435.

[iii] Ibid, pp 447, 453, 455.

[iv] Turner, Henry A., Thirty Days to Power: January, 1933, p. 65, London, 1997.

[v] Abrams, Irwin, “The Multinational Campaign for Carl von Ossietzky”, September, 1991.

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