From Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications VOL. 6 NO. 1
Yesterday's News: Media Framing of Hitler's Early Years, 1923-1924
V. Hitler as a Credible Political Force
The French occupation of the Ruhr on January 13, 1923, was just the event Hitler needed to arouse the nationalist and anti-foreign sentiment so central to his party’s agenda. From the outset, journalists covering the effects of the occupation noted that the sheer quantity of Hitler’s forces demonstrated both his political appeal and a real, widespread contempt for the French occupation.45 At the end of January, Hitler attracted the attention of the writer of “The World’s Great Capitals,” a weekly feature in The Monitor. The paper devoted half of its “This Week in Berlin” subsection to Hitler’s growing popularity. According to the article, his appeal to both the masses and the middle class enabled him to carry out his “real intentions, which are, in the words of the Fascisti, the overthrowing of the present democratic regime to make way for a dictatorship after the fashion of Signor Mussolini in Italy.”46 Emphasis on his wide appeal, coupled with the comparison of his plans to those of Mussolini, contradict the non-credible subframes that cast doubt upon his influence and his similarity to the Italian dictator.
As tensions in the Ruhr intensified, an “illegality” subframe emerged in several articles that supported Hitler’s credibility. At the end of January, The Times reported the situation caused by the occupation had entered a “critical phase,” for the French had taken measures to separate the Ruhr from the rest of Germany.47 In spite of the Bavarian government’s orders for him to lie low, Hitler proclaimed that nothing would stop him from launching an attack on those he called the “enemies of November 9, 1918,” and that he “did not give a damn” whether the government or the police liked it. The article noted that “the Munich government, which once encouraged Hitlerism, is now, according to a correspondent of the Catholic Germania, actually frightened at it, for it has penetrated all public offices, even the police and the army, and may prove stronger than the Cabinet itself.” The attribution of quotes to Hitler and facts to the German correspondent constituted a syntactical framing device that heightened the credibility of the information presented and the depiction of Hitler as a forceful leader who had little respect for the law. Other articles presented similar observations.48
As Hitler’s prominence increased, The Times and other papers published a number of articles that affirmed Hitler’s immense persuasive and oratorical abilities, perhaps one of the most impactful subframes that supported Hitler’s credibility. On January 21, The Times’ special feature section carried an article headlined “Hitler New Power in Germany,” a syntactical framing device that explicitly affirmed Hitler’s credibility as a political power. The piece was an account of one of Hitler’s speeches according to a correspondent for the conservative Kölnische Zeitung (Cologne Gazette). A reporter for a conservative publication in the Ruhr area likely harbored a biased perspective toward Hitler and his followers, but regardless, The Times carried his full description of the meeting and published nothing to qualify or contradict his observations. While sitting in a meeting hall waiting for Hitler to arrive, the correspondent took note of his neighbors. On his left sat “an old aristocrat, a general in the World War,” and on his right sat a Munich worker whose “honest eyes alone redeem his desperate face.”49 The worker told the correspondent that he had once been a committed Communist, and that “only through Hitler [had] he learned to feel himself a German.” The hall erupted in applause when Hitler entered and took the platform. Unimpressed at first, the correspondent initially found Hitler’s ideas unremarkable and similar to those held by many prominent government officials. But gradually, he wrote, “one is gripped as much by his strictly logical construction as by what one may almost call the overpowering strength of his conviction... In astonishment I note that the condescending look of the old General on my left is gradually making way for an expression of wrapt [sic] attention... and at every slight pause in the speaker’s address, [the Communist] roars his approval with all his might.” After a two-and-a-half-hour speech, the general and the communist walked “fraternally” to a table to enroll in the National Socialist Party. “No college instructor can excel this man in the unshakeable logic of his construction or the power of his conviction,” a professor told the correspondent as they exited the hall. The thematic and rhetorical structures found within this action story support the credible frame first introduced in the headline. Thematically, the piece contained a great number of the journalist’s observations and quotes from Hitler’s followers. Many of his observations contained rhetorical elements that supported the overall theme of the piece, most notably the juxtaposition of the old aristocrat and the former communist. Two men that once occupied opposite ends of the political spectrum were able to walk “fraternally” to enroll in the same party, a demonstration of Hitler’s wide appeal.
The three subframes discussed above — strength of forces, illegality, and persuasive abilities — provided a foundation for news coverage found throughout the rest of 1923.50 The prevalence of each subframe depended on the situation in the Ruhr, the political environments in Bavaria and Berlin, the health, or lack thereof, of Germany’s economy, and, come late September, Hitler’s proposed plans to overthrow the Bavarian government. On Sedan Day, a holiday commemorating Germany’s victory in the 1870 Battle of Sedan, political rallies held in Nuremberg on September 2 allowed Hitler to issue a call for “revolution, bloodshed, and a dictatorship” to a crowd of 200,000 assembled by Ludendorff,51 and when Stresemann ended passive resistance in the Ruhr at the end of the month, Hitler continued his call for revolution. As Bavaria entered a state of emergency and Kahr assumed the role of state commissioner with dictatorial powers, Hitler “demanded civil war in Germany” and called for fourteen mass meetings, leading some to anticipate “at least a little bloodshed,” if not war, according to an article in The Times.52 Another Times article that appeared the same day explained that it had long been considered “only a question of time” before Hitler and his reactionary followers sufficiently centralized their power to overthrow the Berlin government, an event the Munich press had long foreseen.53 In an effort to mitigate the chance of an uprising, Kahr forbade all fourteen mass meetings.54 Hitler professed his intent to ignore the order, claiming it was his right to “act as he saw fit,” supporting the idea that he considered himself above the law.55 The next day, the front page of The Post carried a photo of Hitler, “Germany’s stormy petrel,” that showed his head and shoulders.56 The two-column photo was the first image of Hitler to reach the United States in an American newspaper and accompanied an article that cited a “military source” who said his strength was serious. Hitler could raise 10,000 men easily and equal the strength of the German government, according to the article, but had lost some followers as a result of the national government’s efforts to curtail his plans of revolt. Though reports of actions taken by both the Berlin and Bavarian governments may have tempered the American perception of the threat Hitler posed, the quantification of the strength of his forces coupled with the publication of his photo likely added a tangible quality to the nature of his influence in Germany. At the end of the month, The Washington Post ran a standalone photo depicting Hitler at a demonstration in Nuremberg attended by 50,000 of his supporters, again illustrating his movement in a way readers could see and understand in terms of size and power.57 The Monitor, perhaps in response to readers’ increased interest in Hitler and his activities, secured an interview with the “Bavarian Mussolini” and published it, along with a description of his headquarters, on the front page of the October 3 paper. The correspondent noted that Hitler had “a potential armed strength not to be taken lightly and which the writer is informed Dr. von Kahr does not regard lightly.”58 The next day, The Times reported that The Daily Mail sent a correspondent to Hitler’s headquarters and found that his party of “dangerous fanatics” had “plenty of rifles and machine guns,” despite an apparently lack of a clear ideology, suggesting that Hitler and his supporters had the physical and mental wherewithal to accomplish their goals, if not a cohesive means of doing so.59
November opened with reports of Hitler’s storm troopers and other militant groups amassed at the Thuringian border, perhaps with the intent to march on Berlin, and on November 5, rumors of a putsch surfaced.60 Three days later, the rumored putsch materialized. News of the coup dominated the front pages of American newspapers for days. Much of the initial coverage either explained the chronology of the event and its aftermath or speculated on whether Hitler could retain any influence in the wake of his failure. Though many articles asserted he could not, some supported the credible frame by describing and sometimes quantifying the support he managed to maintain after the putsch.61 An Associated Press article that appeared in The Times a week after the conflict reinforced the idea that Hitler retained at least some semblance of power during his confinement to the Fortress of Landsberg, a prison about thirty-six miles outside of Munich, where his guards had been “selected for their powers of resistance to [his] magnetic personality.” The article stated that “everyone who had had the Bavarian fascist leader under close observation agrees that he radiates a personal influence that his almost hypnotic.”62 The lexical choices used here — “magnetic” and “hypnotic” — along with a number of firsthand observations of his oratorical giftedness bolstered the “persuasive abilities” subframe found throughout earlier coverage of his activities and later coverage of his trial in 1924.
Reports regarding Hitler’s whereabouts and activities appeared infrequently in December, and articles that appeared in January 1924 generally supported the non-credible frame. But by mid-February, reports that Hitler maintained a strong base of followers despite his imprisonment resurfaced and continued to appear throughout the spring. Hitler and Ludendorff continued to be mentioned in association with the formation of new nationalistic and anti-Semitic groups, and it was rumored that Hitler’s remaining followers would attempt another putsch if he was tried for treason.63 A lengthy issue piece that appeared in the Sunday magazine section of the February 17 Times explained in great detail the appeal Hitler’s party and other nationalistic organizations held for thousands of German youth. The journalist, Joseph Gollomb, opened the piece by noting that both Matthias Erzberger, a key figure in the signing of the 1918 armistice between the Germans and the Allies, and Walter Rathenau, a key figure in the signing of the 1922 Treaty of Rapallo, had been assassinated in plots orchestrated by young German students. In regard to the assassinations, he suggested the incidents weren’t unrelated, but in fact “the ripe fruit of what is being inculcated today in the minds and hearts of threequarters of a million children and adolescents, the generation which in ten years will be Germany’s teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, civil servants, public officials, and political leaders” — a foreboding observation, given the strength Hitler had amassed by 1934. Gollomb recounted his visits to a number of German high schools, where he observed teachers — many of whom deeply resented the Republic — attempting to teach despite a dearth of books, shabby school supplies, and meager salaries. The Weimar flag was conspicuously absent from the walls, Gollomb noticed, and history lessons tended to emphasize nationalism and the greatness of pre-War Germany, a set of beliefs many of the children’s parents harbored as well. Outside of the classroom, thousands of military officers rendered jobless by the shrinking of the Germany army were “professionally engaged in recruiting youths in the cause of monarchy,” according to the article. These former officers guided “the spirit and the propaganda of the Hitler swastika chapters” and other nationalistic groups deemed illegal by Republican officials. Though not explicitly related to Hitler’s party, the incidents noted in the lede suggested that German youth — many of whom pledged allegiance to the National Socialists — saw violence as a means of accomplishing their goals, much like the older leaders of the nationalistic parties they joined. In this sense, the German youth seemed to disregard the laws enforced by Republican authorities, emboldened by anti-Republican teachers, parents who had fallen on hard times since the end of the war, and military officials who continued to “guide the spirit and propaganda” of Hitler’s party, despite his isolation from the public sphere. This depiction of youthful National Socialists stood in stark contrast to the depiction of the young “rag-tag and bob-tail” that constituted Hitler’s guard just prior to the putsch, a shift that likely bolstered Hitler’s credibility and suggested these youngsters could and would follow him and other nationalists for years to come.
Journalists who covered the opening of Hitler and Ludendorff’s trial in Munich on February 26 witnessed a confident, seemingly imprudent Hitler who enjoyed widespread support from many who attended the event. From the outset, the trial proceedings invariably favored Hitler. Neithardt, who chaired the fivejudge panel, identified with the patriotic fervor of the National Socialist cause, and a journalist who witnessed Hitler’s first speech in the courtroom heard one judge exclaim, “What a tremendous chap, this Hitler!”64 Hitler took full advantage of the panel’s leniency. He appeared in a suit adorned with his Iron Cross, First Class, rather than prison garb, and he frequently launched politically loaded questions at the defendants.65 Because the panel showed reluctance to interrupt Hitler’s testimonies, the trial quickly became a means for him to disseminate his ideas and rally his followers, who flocked to the proceedings daily. In the United States, events of the trial often constituted front-page news.
The American correspondents in attendance cabled home reports that supported the credibility frame by highlighting Hitler’s lack of concern for the possible legal consequences of the November putsch and the oratorical tactics he employed upon taking the stand.66 As the trial progressed, it became increasingly evident that a great number of Bavarians were actively demonstrating support for Hitler. In mid-March, The Post ran a blurb from The New York Herald that reported swastika jewelry had become “all the rage as a feminine adornment” since the beginning of the trial. The writer had noticed “an increasing number of noblewomen [had] been attending the sessions wearing elaborately fashioned brooches, necklaces and chatelaines of hand-carved gold and silver in the form of a ‘hakenkreutz,’” an emblem “used to designate the Hitler fascista troops.”67 The piece reinforced the idea that women, too, had become politically involved in Hitler’s cause, and the fact that these were “noblewomen” who could afford hand-carved jewelry suggested the National Socialist party no longer appealed exclusively to those whose bank accounts had been ravaged by hyperinflation. Hitler and Ludendorff defended themselves in court one last time on March 27, and each played off the other in a way that earned them a standing ovation from the Bavarian audience members.
Hitler’s supporters grew more vocal as the trial neared an end. Three days before the court was expected to issue a verdict, T.R.Ybarra, the top reporter in The Times’ Berlin bureau, reported riots and parades in Munich led by bands of Hiterlites that had “secretly organized” by “masquerading as sport and social associations.”68 These bands, “ready for troublemaking,” had “managed to offset the consequences of suppression of the Government of the Hitlerite newspapers by organizing a highly efficient news and courier service, whereby all members of the secret bands are kept thoroughly informed on anti-Government activities of their leaders.” Ybarra noted that the “seriousness of the situation” in Munich could have been gauged by the fact that an ardently anti-government and pro-Hitler newspaper sold between 30,000 and 50,000 copies each day, “an enormous sale for a city of Munich’s size, each edition being snatched up by eager Munichers the moment it appears on the street.” If Hitler and Ludendorff were not acquitted, Ybarra reported, violent action would be expected. The “secret organization” of the bands, as well as their ability to obtain information about Hitler and maintain a popular news service, suggest that Hitler not only enjoyed widespread support, but also enabled his bands to operate above the law, just as he appeared to do. The quantification of pro-Hitler newspaper sale figures reinforced the credible frame.
The court’s verdict thrilled Hitler’s supporters and enraged the Republicans, for the Weimar Constitution stipulated life imprisonment as punishment for high treason.69 American correspondents observed that many Germans considered Hitler’s light sentence a joke and a victory for the anti-Republicans.70 The reports made clear that despite his conviction, Hitler’s followers saw light at the end of the tunnel and continued to pledge their support. Reports of Hitler’s popularity continued to appear throughout May.71 At the end of the month, The Times reported that one of Hitler’s admirers had interviewed him at Landsberg. At the prison, according to the article, the visitor found “postcards on sale everywhere with Hitler’s picture and evidence of the prisoner’s immense popularity with the inhabitants.” The interviewer called Hitler “a man who some day will be reckoned among the greatest of his people,” confirming that Hitler managed to maintain an enormous amount support at the beginning of his prison term.
But the number of articles that supported the credibility frame decreased significantly throughout the remainder of the year. Starting in June 1924, reports on the National Socialists’ activities focused more heavily on Ludendorff than on Hitler, suggesting Hitler held a secondary position within the party.72 Aside from the occasional report that Hitler’s party had gained followers or staged some kind of demonstration, regular readers of the three papers would have had little reason to believe Hitler remained influential after his release from prison in December 1924, due at least in part to the upturn in the German economy during the second half of that year. Inflation had eased, the Dawes Plan had been implemented, and the French had begun to relinquish the Ruhr.73
By the end of 1924, it became clear that Hitler no longer factored prominently into American media coverage of the political situation in Germany. A man who had appeared regularly on the front pages of The Times, The Post, and The Monitor prior to his conviction in April 1924 generally appeared only in the middle and back pages of each paper for the remainder of the year. The shift in frequency and placement of his coverage accompanied a shift in the nature of his coverage. Though credible and non-credible frames appeared simultaneously in 1923 and 1924, Hitler’s front-page news status during those years added additional weight to the credible frame, characterized by its focus on his political capabilities. But after 1924, articles about Hitler and his activities almost always supported the non-credible frame, often characterized by its focus on his sanity and his non-German citizenship. The shift from political to personal frames helps to explain why Americans may have regarded Hitler as a political nonentity in the mid-1920s and provides insight into the way American media cover foreign leaders before and after a tipping point — one or more events that call into question their political efficacy.
This analysis shows that readers of The Times, The Post, and The Monitor during 1923 and 1924 would have had little reason to regard Hitler as a credible political power following his failed beer hall putsch. Though credible and non-credible frames often appeared side-by-side in all three papers during the two-year period of study, the non-credible frame generally appeared more frequently than the credible frame, especially in in the wake of his trial for treason in spring 1924. Though media framing theory emphasizes the role frames play in an audience’s understanding of a given news text, it also acknowledges that interpretation varies between individuals, thereby rendering it impossible to conclude that all readers regarded Hitler as a political nonentity by the end of 1924. But the methodological breakdown of the frames within the 200 articles included in this study revealed differences in rhetoric, structure and frequency that lent greater emphasis to the non-credible frame and likely had significant impact on American public opinion of Hitler in the 1920s. At the end of the decade, when his party entered into municipal elections and began laying the groundwork for his takeover the chancellorship in 1933, the American press would have had to reorient its coverage of a man who would one day trigger World War II and reevaluate his significance for readers who had long forgotten the goals of his movement.
This author is thankful to Dr. Copeland, A.J. Fletcher Professor at Elon University, for the advice he provided throughout the research and writing process. The author also thanks the reviewers who offered constructive feedback on this article.