Yesterday's News: Media Framing of Hitler's Early Years, 1923-1924

By Katherine Blunt
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |


This research used media framing theory to assess newspaper coverage of Hitler published in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post between 1923 and 1924. An analysis of about 200 articles revealed “credible” and “non-credible” frames relating to his political influence. Prior to Hitler’s trial for treason in 1924, the credible frame was slightly more prevalent. Following his subsequent conviction, the non-credible frame dominated coverage, with reports often presenting Hitler’s failure to overthrow the Bavarian government as evidence of his lack of political skill. This research 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.

I. Introduction

The resentment, suspicion, and chaos that defined global politics during the Great War continued into the 1920s. Germany plunged into a state of political and economic turmoil following the ratification of the punitive Treaty of Versailles, and the Allies watched with trepidation as it struggled to make reparations payments. The bill — equivalent to 33 billion dollars then and more than 400 billion dollars today — grew increasingly daunting as the value of the mark fell from 400 to the dollar in 1922 to 7,000 to the dollar at the start of 1923, when Bavaria witnessed the improbable rise of an Austrian-born artist-turned-politician who channeled German outrage into a nationalistic, anti-Semitic movement that came to be known as the Nazi Party.1 American media outlets, intent on documenting the chaotic state of post-war Europe, took notice of Adolf Hitler as he attracted a following and, through their coverage, essentially introduced him to the American public. This research examines the way the American press portrayed his early activities in an effort to understand why Americans either recognized his political potential or considered his actions those of an insignificant extremist who was merely an irritant to the Weimar Republic and an oddity to the Western world.

This research uses media framing theory to assess newspaper coverage of Hitler published in The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Washington Post between 1923 and 1924. Nearly 350 articles contained at least passing mentions of Hitler, and of those articles, about 200 offered substantial information about his activities and influence and warranted closer examination. An analysis of the selected articles revealed “credible” frames that emphasized Hitler’s persuasive and oratorical ability, popular support, military capability, diplomatic efforts, influential relationships, and, in some cases, the illegality of his actions. It also revealed “non-credible” frames that undermined his credibility by focusing on his non-German citizenship, artistic background, lack of popular support, lack of military capability, political impotency, and, in other contexts, the illegality of his actions. Prior to Hitler’s trial for high treason in 1924, however, the credible frame was slightly more prevalent than the non-credible frame. After his conviction in the spring of that year, the non-credible frame dominated coverage, for reports often presented Hitler’s failure to overthrow the Bavarian government as evidence of his lack of political skill and frequently emphasized his Austrian heritage and his artistic background as proof of his supposed incompetence.

II. Theoretical Context

The power of mass media to inform public opinion has fascinated scholars for decades. Grounded in cognitive psychology and sociology, media framing theory offers a way to determine how the organization and content of media texts and images affect cognitive processing of information. Goffman, who pioneered the framing method, posited that individuals employ a multitude of frameworks, or “schemata of interpretation,” to “locate, perceive, identify and label a seemingly infinite number of concrete occurrences defined in its terms.”2 Though Goffman didn’t focus exclusively on media effects, his work demonstrated that frames exist within language and communicating texts. Other champions of the framing approach, including Gitlin and Tuchman, used Goffman’s conception of frames to determine how news media provide a sketch of reality for media audiences.3 From their seminal works grew media framing theory, a theory that acknowledges media’s effect on the masses while taking into account the factors that influence individual interpretation. Like other social constructivist theories, it attempted to strike the middle ground between the hypodermic and minimal effects models. Several subsequent studies determined the particular effectiveness of news frames related to sociopolitical issues,4 leading Gamson and de Vreese to argue that news media “dominate the issue culture for most people on most issues” and contribute to the shaping of public opinion and political socialization.5 Operating on this assumption, Gamson and Modigliani defined frames as interpretive packages that give meaning to an issue and emphasized the complexity of the process by which journalists and individuals construct meaning.6 Entman further clarified the meaning of media frames by defining them as aspects of a perceived reality that are made salient to the receiver in a communicating text.7

This study employs Pan and Kosicki’s linguistic approach to determine the presence and prevalence of certain frames within the articles included in the analysis. Comprehensive and objective, the linguistic approach analyzes the syntactical, scriptural, thematic, and rhetorical dimensions of news text and is well suited for inductive frame analysis. Although the selection of newspapers may seem somewhat narrow, it is possible to gain ample insight into the national discourse using these sources. Daily newspapers reached more than 22.4 million people in 1910, and the number continued to grow as World War I drew to a close, illustrating both the popularity and pervasiveness of print journalism.8 Of the three dailies included in this study, The Times offered the most coverage of Hitler and Europe in general. Its weekly and Sunday circulation numbers reached 327,275 and 499,924 in 1920, and each grew by several thousand by 1930.9 The Monitor had achieved a daily circulation of about 120,000 at the start of the 1920s, and the number increased throughout the decade.10 Though The Washington Post failed to achieve the same influence during the course of the 1920s,11 The Post, as well as The Times and The Monitor, carried stories provided by wire services, including the Associated Press and United Press International. The Associated Press expanded the size of its network during the first decades of the twentieth century, and by 1920, it supplied news to about 1,200 newspapers.12 At the same time, United Press International had 745 newspaper customers.13 The three papers’ coverage, combined with the wire service reports that reached readers nationwide, provided a broad sample of news coverage of Hitler during the 1920s. This research builds on Henson’s study of American and British news coverage of the National Socialist party between 1922 and 1933 and takes into consideration the historical arguments put forward by Lipstadt, Leff, and Klein, particularly those relating to American anti-Semitism and The Times’ willingness to cover news of Jewish persecution.14

III. Historical Context

During the 1920s, mentions of Hitler appeared largely within coverage of two related issues: the fall of the mark, and the French occupation of the Ruhr, an industrial zone in western Germany that supplied fourfifths of Germany’s coal and steel after Poland laid claim to Upper Silesia.15 The American press took particular interest in Germany’s economic state; as the mark fell, many questioned whether Germany could continue to pay its war debts. In fall 1922, Germany was already struggling to make payments, and that winter, it defaulted on timber deliveries, causing the French Premier Raymond Poincaré to order the occupation of the Ruhr in January 1923. Workers there declared a general strike, further devastating the German economy, and the government’s campaign of passive resistance was met with arrests and deportations carried out by the French.16 The occupation dealt the final blow to Germany’s ailing economy. An economic depression, along with widespread anger at the Allied nations and the Weimar government, gave rise to a number of extremist factions that spanned the political spectrum. Hitler’s National Socialists were generally regarded as one of many groups that wished to repudiate the Treaty and restore Germany’s former power, and he appeared most often in articles regarding Germany’s economic and political stability.

On January 2, 1923, a lengthy analysis by Lincoln Eyre, then a Central European correspondent for The Washington Post and The New York Herald, began on the first page of that day’s Post edition. The article listed and explained in detail four overarching issues that threatened to destabilize the fledgling Weimar Republic: anti-republicanism, inflation, the occupation of the Ruhr, and a rise in the price of food and fuel.17 Eyre’s story can be classified as an issue story rather than an action-oriented story, for he cited a number of different events, sources, and propositions in an effort to support his hypothesis that a host of political ills plagued Republic and undermined its strength.18 He dedicated two subsections to political unrest in Bavaria and Hitler’s emergence as a leader “foremost among the anti-republican agitators.” In Bavaria, he wrote, hundreds of thousands of people were joining political and military associations in an effort to destroy democracy across Germany. Inspired by, but not altogether similar to, Mussolini’s blackshirts, he wrote that these extremists could be called fascisti “for the want of a better term.” He cited an instance where 7,000 armed men marched in military formation under protection of the Bavarian government to the applause of the Bavarian populace, a demonstration that could be explained “only as a move toward reactionary revolution.” Using the anecdote to segue into a brief description of Hitler, Eyre wrote that he had “openly proclaimed the intentions of his cohorts some day to pit themselves against the forces of the republic if resistance is offered to his dictatorial aspirations.” He noted that Hitler’s “fascisti” were intertwined with a number of militarist and monarchist groups both secret and “legal.”

Contained in Eyre’s analysis are many of the frames and subframes that appeared in articles involving Hitler and his party throughout the duration of the decade. To assert that “hundreds of thousands” of Bavarians wished to destroy the republic quantifies support for Hitler and Hitler-like factions while simultaneously undermining the political potency of his specific organization, one intertwined with a number of other groups. Eyre’s hesitancy to fully employ the term “fascisti” and his use of quotations when describing such reactionary factions as “legal” suggests Hitler and his followers were quasi-Fascist, quasi-legal militants who enjoyed some popular and governmental support but could potentially undermine the stability of the republic and its ability to pay the reparations outlined in the Treaty of Versailles.

A number of rhetorical structures constituted subframes of the credible and non-credible frames, including quotations, quantification, context, metaphors, lexical choices, exemplars, depictions, and catchphrases.19 Articles that supported the credibility frame examined Hitler’s politics more frequently than they explored his personality or tendencies, and articles that supported the non-credible frame examined his personality, habits, and sanity about as often as they explored his political ideas. Of course, these frames are not mutually exclusive; issue stories, such as Eyre’s, demonstrate how both can exist simultaneously within a given text. But a dominant frame emerged from most articles that warranted analysis, particularly action stories.20

IV. Hitler as a Non-Credible Political Power

On January 4, 1923, another lengthy analysis of the political turmoil in Bavaria appeared on page four of The Post. Written again by Eyre, this issue story differed slightly from that published on January 2. In his lead paragraph, he noted that Bavaria was “literally infested with political and military organizations, animated by animosity toward the republican regime and all it represents, including the acceptance of the Versailles treaty.”21 With this, Eyre implicitly identified Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party as one of many groups of extremists vying for power and influence, but in a subsequent paragraph, he again asserted that the party was “foremost among antirepublican groups.” Eyre dedicated nearly half of the article to coverage of Hitler, who he called the “most outstanding figure today in Bavaria, if not all of Germany.” Hitler, he wrote, was “a sign painter with a gift for demagogic oratory, limitless energy, and an education self-acquired but extensive.” He likened him to a German Mussolini, one whose followers possess the same “fanatical patriotism” and potentially the same amount of political strength as the Italian fascist party. However, he tempered that assertion by noting that a fascist uprising in Bavaria would not likely spread throughout the rest of Germany. As this was an analysis, rather than a brief, subsequent paragraphs both reinforced and qualified subframes introduced in Eyre’s initial description. He quantified the strength of Hitler’s forces as nearly 100,000 and wrote that “there is no doubt whatever” that Hitler is backed by certain industrialists, including Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, and Hugo Stinnes, a German mining magnate and founding member of the conservative German People’s Party, illustrating the range of people to which the party supposedly appealed and suggesting that Hitler had fostered connections with some influential individuals. After twenty minutes of Hitler’s “vocal incendiarism” at a party meeting in Munich’s Hofbrauhaus, Eyre observed, his audience was so inflamed it probably would have followed him to Paris and back.

Such descriptions attest to Hitler’s popular support, military capacity, influential relationships, and oratorical skills, but ultimately, the non-credible frame dominated the story. Eyre’s depiction of Hitler as a “sign painter” with a “gift for demagogic oratory” suggested a certain superficiality that undermined Hitler’s political efficacy, and Eyre later wrote under the subhead “Hitler a Trick Orator” that “his foes say he is a shallow demagogue whose ruthless lack of scruple is a danger to the community. The truth seems to be that he is a mob leader par excellence, an opportunist who has sensed the spirit of the moment and many [sic] yet make it carry him far, but who is without that constructive genius requisite to lasting political achievement.” The lexical choices used in these descriptions — “demagogue,” “shallow,” “mob leader,” “opportunist,” “trick orator” — may have discredited not only Hitler’s political intelligence but also that of his followers. Eyre mentioned he made a call to Hitler’s headquarters, a “suite of dingy rooms in a café,” and was greeted by “lowbrow” party adherents, further discrediting the party’s influence.

Eyre’s analyses demonstrate how both frames can exist, to some extent, within a single article, for he produced some of the most explanatory coverage of Hitler that appeared during the 1920s. Shorter articles allowed for fewer nuances and often contained just one of the two frames. A Monitor editorial published March 13, 1923, explored the Nationalist movement in Bavaria, the “home of peasant proprietors” who remain “boorish, superstitious, good-natured, and politically backward element[s] of Germany.”22 In this “milieu,” the editorial argued, the National Socialists were able to gain influence under the leadership of Hitler, a “Viennese decorative painter imitating the mannerisms of Benito Mussolini.” In this context, the reference to Hitler’s artistic background seems to discredit his success, and use of the word “imitating” suggested he had less political wherewithal than his supposed Italian counterpart. The notion that he gained a following among the “politically backward” further eroded his credibility.

Other articles discounted Hitler’s influence almost entirely. A review of an analysis of the “European situation” by Max Kemmerich, a German author, published in The Post in May 1923 predicted that Hitler would soon lose control over his party.23 In response to Kemmerich’s assertion that Germany was on the brink of civil war between the extreme right and the extreme left, the writer noted that Hitler’s “fascisti” movement was believed to be dying because the nationalists had decided that “an excitable little person of insignificant origin is not worthy of the leadership of such a movement as nationalism has grown to be.” The nationalist movement, according to the article, had “become a veritable Frankenstein that will probably wipe Hitler off the political map in the near future.” The allusion to Hitler’s Austrian nationality detracts from his political credibility, and the depiction of him as “little” and “excitable” may have helped to support the notion that he was defenseless against the larger nationalist movement. The subject of Hitler’s citizenship surfaced again the following month in The Times as part of a series of updates about the situation in Germany. The brief stated that Hitler had become a Bavarian citizen by naturalization. An Austrian by birth, it said, Hitler had been made “the target of considerable ridicule because of his posing as the exponent of 100 per cent Germanism,”24 a statement that may have undercut reports of his prominence in the nationalist movement.

Articles consistent with the non-credible frame appeared intermittently throughout the first half of 1923 and increased in prevalence at the end of September when Chancellor Gustav Stresemann ended passive resistance in the Ruhr and authorized the resumption of reparations payments. Anticipating revolt from both sides of the political spectrum, Stresemann had President Friedrich Ebert declare a state of emergency, which placed executive power in the hands of Minister of Defense Otto Gessler and Reichswehr Chief Hans von Seeckt.25 Bavaria responded by declaring its own state of emergency and appointed Prime Minister Gustav von Kahr state commissioner with dictatorial powers. Much coverage of the shift conveyed the idea that Kahr’s appointment severely limited Hitler’s political power.26 A Times editorial published September 29 went as far as to argue that Hitler’s “reactionary Bavarians” had been quieted for the time being, and that the “rantings of the blond Aryan chosen people who represent the German variety of Fascism can hardly offer much attraction for any large portion of the population.”27 October saw a similar rise in the number of articles that supported the non-credible frame.28 An analysis that appeared on the front page of The Times’ special features section on October 14 described in great detail the economic and political turmoil Germany faced. Anne O’Hare McCormick, then a foreign correspondent who covered the rise of Mussolini and other European affairs, wrote that German citizens would “follow any leader, like Hitler in Bavaria, who promises any change, but what they really want is a brave, upstanding, ruthless, ultimatum-breathing autocrat like Mussolini. . . . Hitler is no Mussolini, either, and his attempt to organize Bavaria on the Facista plan lacks the drama, poetry, the sheer physical courage and daring that swept the Italians into power.”29 This description contrasted Hitler and Mussolini, thereby contradicting the “Bavarian Mussolini” catchphrase so often used in articles that supported the credibility frame.

Reports documenting growing political unrest in Bavaria and other parts of the Reich marked the beginning of November.30 By November 5, rumors that Hitler might stage a coup in Bavaria and then march on Berlin began to circulate. But a number of articles suggested that such claims should not be taken seriously.31 The Times wrote that the “Bavarian rumblings have a suggestion of stage thunder” and that government officials in Berlin were “disposed to dismiss the Bavarian troop concentrations on the Thuringian border and the Fascisti’s threatened advance on Berlin as a typical Hitler bluff and are informed that the units there constitute what they call the ‘rag-tag and bob-tail’ of Hitler’s youthful guard.”32 The descriptors used here — “stage thunder,” “typical Hitler bluff,” “rag-tag and bob-tail” — contrast the notion that Hitler posed any real threat, and in this context, “youthful guard” may have connoted inexperience. But Hitler was not bluffing about his intentions. On the evening of November 8, 1923, Hitler and his storm troopers charged into the Buergerbraukeller in Munich where Kahr was reading a manifesto against Marxism to a crowded hall while Otto von Lossow, commander of the Bavarian Reichswehr, and Hans Ritter von Seisser, former chief of the State Police, stood by. With 600 armed men behind him, Hitler jumped onto a table, fired his revolver at the ceiling, and announced that the Bavarian and Reich governments had been overthrown and that he would form a new government with Ludendorff, a prominent World War I general who secured German victories in several major battles. He forced Kahr, Lossow and Seisser into a private room and attempted to persuade them to join his efforts to create a new Bavarian government. Nonetheless, the three men refused to cooperate, and when the meeting in the main hall began to break up, they managed to slip away. Hitler was arrested two days later.

American media correspondents descended upon the chaos. For days, Hitler’s failed coup was featured prominently on the front pages of The Times, The Monitor, and The Post. Once the dust settled, the number of articles that portrayed Hitler as politically impotent increased as the number of articles that portrayed him as a legitimate political force decreased, signifying that the putsch indeed constituted a tipping point in American media coverage of his rise to power. More than half of the November 10 front page of The Times carried articles that described the putsch and speculated on its implications for Germany and its neighboring countries. Brown, in a full-column article, wrote that in the aftermath of the “craziest farce pulled off in memory” Hitler and Ludendorff were “down and out and thoroughly discredited, even if they should get light sentences for treason.”33 He reiterated this point in a later paragraph by stating that the “amateurish and abortive putsch . . . clears the air and definitely eliminates Hitler and his National Socialist followers as well as Ludendorff.” Brown noted at the end of the article that the bulk of Bavarians considered Hitler and Ludendorff to be “interlopers, outsiders, and non-Bavarians,” and he had used the term “rebellious outsiders” to describe the pair in an earlier paragraph. He argued that the failed coup gave power to the “real reactionaries” of Bavaria, a Catholic and monarchist state. “Now that Hitler and Ludendorff are removed, the real show has a chance of starting on clean lines,” he wrote in conclusion.

Brown’s article contains several subframes found in a large number of articles and editorials published after the putsch, many of which ran in The Times. The depictions of and lexical choices used to describe Hitler (rebellious outsider, non-Bavarian, interloper) and his failed effort (craziest farce, amateurish, abortive) called into question his political legitimacy and wherewithal and, to some degree, his sanity. The supposed contrast between Hitler and the “real reactionaries” of Bavaria may have further delegitimized his political power and supported the idea that he was “thoroughly discredited.” The Monitor ran an editorial on the same day that supported the idea that Hitler and his followers were rather anomalous in Bavaria. Though the piece did not speculate on whether his prominence would endure, it distinguished his National Socialist party from the more powerful conservative elements in a state where political change depended largely on the peasantry and the Catholic Church. Bavaria was not at heart “revolutionary,” the editorial claimed, and that it had become “the base of two such ill-matched leaders as Gen. Eric von Ludendorff, the former chief of the German army staff, and Adolf Hitler, originally a Viennese scene painter but now an imitator of Benito Mussolini, results from exceptional circumstances.”34 The editorial noted that Hitler’s band — composed mainly of Munich students, Bohemians, adventurers, and young commercial employees — had weak roots in the Bavarian countryside, where the peasantry subsided, a point reiterated in The Times at the beginning of January.35 The subframes found within The Monitor editorial echoed those found within the paper’s March 13 editorial. Again, the reference to Hitler’s artistic vocation likely undermined his political credibility, and the depiction of him as an “imitator” suggested he didn’t naturally possess Mussolini’s political prowess. The depiction of his followers as young (students, commercial employees) and non-Bavarian (Bohemians) supported the “rag-tag and bob-tail” and “non-German” descriptions found in articles previously discussed. The “non- German” subframe continued to proliferate that month.36

A Times editorial published November 10 reinforced the non-credible frame and several of the subframes found within Brown’s front-page article that day, for it clearly portrayed Hitler as politically incompetent and directly questioned his sanity. The editorial writers expressed agreement with President Ebert’s declaration that the failed coup was “the work of lunatics” and called the effort a “crazy movement inspired and directed by persons better fitted for the comic opera stage than for a serious effort to overthrow the Berlin Government.”37 A December 2 article again highlighted the “comic opera aspects” of the putsch.38 As Hitler led Kahr, Seisser, and Lossow into a room adjacent to the beer hall, the article reported, one of his officers yelled to the crowd, “Stay here, gentlemen, and — drink beer!” The article’s headline and deck — the most powerful framing devices of an article’s syntactical structure39 — contained this purported utterance as well, and may have decreased the likelihood that readers would take seriously Hitler’s political intentions and influence.

A five-judge panel chaired by Georg Neithardt presided over Hitler and Ludendorff’s trial, which began in Munich on February 26. The proceedings afforded Hitler a considerable advantage over the prosecution, an indication of his political influence. But many press reports downplayed that aspect of the trial and focused more closely on Ludendorff, a well-known figure even beyond the German border, an angle that sometimes relegated Hitler’s status to that of a co-conspirator — or even a follower — of Ludendorff. Others paid greater attention to the derisive remarks launched at Hitler and Ludendorff by the prosecution, German newspapers, and certain political circles.40 The court issued its verdicts on April 1. Ludendorff was acquitted, and Hitler was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment in the Landsberg fortress with the possibility of parole after six months. Later that month, The Times published on the front page of its special features section a lengthy interview with Count Harry Kessler, a German economist, diplomat, and former Minister to Poland, who had been in the United States at the time. In the lede, writer Russell Porter acknowledged the “anxiety with which many people in America and Europe are looking forward to the Reichstag elections,” but noted that Kessler saw “no danger to either the German Republic or to the Dawes program for the economic settlement of Europe.”41 Porter wrote that Kessler, who resembled “the athletic type of golf playing American business man much more than the typical German diplomat or politician,” spoke “excellent English and has acquired the American viewpoint in many things.” Kessler, in the interview, asserted that the trade union movement and the Catholic Church dominated German politics and would not lend their support to an anti-Republican movement. The angle from which Porter approached the interview attests to the fact that Americans were largely concerned about the effect extremist groups might have on the stability of the Weimar Republic and its ability to repay its debt to the Allies. But the fact that Kessler, framed from the outset as an educated and knowledgeable source, saw little reason to fear political gains by the National Socialists and other groups likely tempered readers’ perception of Hitler’s influence. Porter’s comparison of Kessler to an American businessman who held an “American viewpoint in many things” probably reinforced Kessler’s credibility in the minds of most American readers.

In early July, it came to light that Hitler had ostensibly resigned as head of his party because he wished to use his time at Landesberg to work on a book (later revealed to be Mein Kampf), leading to reports throughout the summer and fall that Ludendorff, not Hitler, would from then on lead the National Socialist movement, which — along with other extremist parties — had been losing ground.42 On November 9, a year after the attempted coup, The Times’ magazine published an interview with Mussolini in which the Fascist dictator denied any association with Hitler and his party. “One of them, I forgot who, even came here and asked me to receive him,” Mussolini told the interviewer. “I refused, of course, to have anything to do with them.”43 The direct quotes from Mussolini regarding his perspective on National Socialism contradicted the “Bavarian Mussolini” catchphrase frequently used to describe Hitler during his political ascent in 1923 and likely served to undermine any credibility it may have conveyed. Hitler, who was released on parole on December 19, found the political climate much changed since his entrance into Landesberg. The Times reported that he left for Munich a “much sadder and wiser man” than he had been during the spring and that his behavior during his imprisonment had convinced the authorities that he, like his political party, was no longer to be feared.44 According to the article, “it is believed that he will retire to private life and return to Austria, the country of his birth.” The mention of his Austrian nationality again reinforced the non-German subframe and dealt another blow to his credibility as 1924 drew to a close.

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