The date is January 28, 1932. Haaretz' correspondent in Berlin, Gershon Savitt, reports from the courthouse. In the defendant's chair is Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi party, who is facing a libel suit filed by his former friend, Walter Stennes. A year before his appointment as chancellor of Germany, Hitler is still not very well known to Haaretz's readers.
In the article, "Hitler up close and personal," he emerges as an exotic figure, somewhat peculiar. "I must note right away that the impression Hitler makes is immeasurably better than expected," writes Savitt. "He is 46, but looks younger. Incidentally: he is a bachelor. Self-satisfaction and self-confidence are apparent in his movements; he acts and feels as if he himself is a 'star.' Because the world's eyes are now turned upon him and this pleases him."
The Mandate-era Hebrew press watched with wonder mixed with concern at the unprecedented political phenomenon that surfaced in those years in Germany: the rapid gains of the Nazi party until it took over the government.
Ilana Novetsky-Bendet, a doctoral student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is researching the Hebrew press' attitude toward events in Germany from the time of the emergence of the Nazis as a significant political force, until World War II. In Bendet's master's thesis, which covers the period up until Hitler's rise to power, she found that the Hebrew press showed an interest in and followed the growing strength of the Nazis as early as the late 1920s. However, the papers in Palestine had trouble discerning Hitler's political power and the centrality of the racist component of the party's ideology.
"The more the party's electoral power increased, the greater the interest in it," says Bendet, whose mentor for her doctoral thesis is Prof. Moshe Zimmerman. "But hardly any of the papers grasped the severity of Nazi anti-Semitism."
There were seven newspapers operating in mandatory Palestine at the time, and each one of them represented a different party or political line: Davar was the Histadrut labor federation paper; Hapoel Hatzair was the Mapai paper; Haaretz was the liberal paper; Hatzofeh was the paper of the religious; Haboker was the paper of the general Zionists; and there were a few other papers associated with the revisionists, including Doar Hayom, Hazit Ha'am and Hayarden.
The information from Europe they received came primarily from news agencies, and occasionally from trains that relayed the reports from Cairo to the land of Israel. Some of the papers also employed writers in Germany, most of them Russian Jews who immigrated to Germany in the 1920s, and who occasionally also reported for other papers around the world. According to Bendet, some of these writers remained in Germany even after the Nazis' rise and left only in the mid-1930s.
"The heroes of the most recent elections to the Reichstag are, undoubtedly, the Communists," wrote Yeshayahu Klinov in Haaretz following the July 31, 1932, elections, when the Nazis became the biggest party in the Reichstag.
After the November 6 elections that year, when the Nazis were slightly weakened, Haaretz - under the editorship of Moshe Glicksman - declared "the end of Hitler's career." An analysis published in the paper on November 11 stated: "Hatred of Israel, with all the appeal it has for darkened masses at a time of emergency, is not negotiable currency in Germany: this nation has absorbed too much culture to be able to agree to discriminate against citizens who live in the same homeland."
On December 7, the paper declared: "Hitler no longer has any hope of becoming the sole ruler in Germany, at most there is a chance that the Nazi party will earn only a few crumbs of power."
The shortsightedness of the Hebrew papers can be understood in light of the uncertainty and political chaos prevailing in the German political area during those months. According to Bendet, the information that arrived from Germany about the complex intrigues and political contacts between the different parties was partial, because the talks were secret.
"When Hitler was appointed chancellor, it was a complete shock to all the papers," she says. "Almost everyone trusted President Hindenburg because they said he despises Hitler and would not allow him to assume power. They didn't believe that the rules of the game could change so quickly."
In the doctoral thesis she is now writing, Bendet reviews to what extent Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community) society understood the essence of Nazi fascism after its rise to power, and how the Yishuv assessed the chances of another outbreak of war, and its results. Bendet says the only journalist who did discern the Nazis' strength was Itamar Ben Avi, the son of Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the editor of Doar Hayom.
"Itamar Ben Avi was not shocked by the Nazis' rise to power, because before then he already said that Hitler will in the end achieve what he wants."
Most Hebrew papers were stunned by the party's quick takeover of the institutions of power, and the racist persecution of Jews enacted in Germany. Many described the racist regime as "a return to the Middle Ages."
Only one paper took a completely contrary position to Hitler's ascendance: Hazit Ha'am, the journal of the right-wing of the Revisionists. "If the segments of our people draw the appropriate conclusions from the Hitlerism, then we will be able to say that something good came out of a bad situation," the paper stated a few days after Hitler's appointment as chancellor.
The paper even praised certain foundations of the Nazi ideology, primarily its fight against communism: "the anti-Semitic husk should be discarded, but not its anti-Marxist inside," the paper's editors wrote of Nazism. The praise of Nazism stopped only after the intervention of Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who called for "a total end to this abomination." Around two years later, in 1935, Hazit Ha'am folded.
The newspaper headlines in the days after the burning of the Reichstag on February 27, 1933, and the passage of the law that granted Hitler dictatorial powers on March 24 clearly reflected the fear Nazism inspired: "A day of heavy boycotting of Germany's Jews. Goering came out of a mental institution to assume power!"; "Hitler will not budge from his position toward the Jews, says the German consul in London." "1933 is the darkest year in the last 500 years of the history of Germany and its Jews," the papers said.
"Will a general strike not break out? Will the German people really not rise up against the wild leadership of the barbaric dictator?" mused Davar two months after Hitler's rise to power.
But as the Nazi party established itself in power and radicalized its actions more, the papers recognized the severity of the threat. According to Bendet, "In the mid-1930s, when it emerges that Hitler is implementing the Nazi ideology and the race laws, there is growing concern that the Nazis will bring a tragedy upon Europe's Jews."
And nevertheless, until the late 1930s, most papers felt that the democratic superpowers would succeed in preventing war, and that the Nazis were primarily a threat to German Jewry. Even after the annexation of Czechoslovakia on April 14, 1939, Jabotinsky still promised in the newspaper Hamashkif: "In the place where the confidence in the surety of a 'European' war stars, that is where any threat of war passes. And the strongest of the strong and the brazen of the daring, will be deterred at the last minute - meaning, a 'European' war is not a possibility."
According to Bendet, "most of the papers here assumed that Germany was unprepared for war. They thought that there was more 'noise and ringing' there than any real threat."
However, after the annexation of Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement of September 1938, the papers started voicing fear about the fate of the young Yishuv in Palestine.
"When they see that the conciliatory policies of Britain and France capitulate before Hitler, they worry that the British will sacrifice them as well, the Nazis will reach the gates of the land of Israel, and the Zionist enterprise will collapse," she says. "The Zionist enterprise is the focus of their interest and they worry about that more than about European Jewry."
Is it possible to learn something about the ability to predict future threats from the newspaper forecasts of the Nazis' aims? According to Bendet, "it is possible to discern a certain tendency to suppress threats. On the other hand, it's no great feat to pass judgment after the fact. It's hard to predict what will happen in real time. Sometimes the papers say: we're not prophets."
Hebrew Hitler jokes
The Davar newspaper published a column called Be'vat Tzehok (With a Smile) that included jokes about current events. In the 1930s, some of the jokes featured were about Hitler and about Nazism.
b American: Medical science here has advanced 10 steps forward. Look, not along ago they amputated a man's right leg and made him a wooden leg - he ended up being one of the best soccer players.
Frenchman: And here not long ago a man's arm was amputated and they made him an artificial wooden hand and he's now one of the best pianists.
German: And here, one man lost his head in the Munich beer hall putsch. They say he now has a wood head, and he's one of the leading rulers. (April 21, 1935)
b Hitler once went to a magician-fortune teller and asked her to tell him what would happen at the end of his life.
Fortune teller: Am I allowed to tell you everything?
Hitler: Yes, on the contrary, tell me everything without any fear.
Fortune teller: I see that you will die on the eve of big Jewish holiday.
Hitler: If so, I'll cancel all of the Jews' festivals and holidays.
Fortune teller: Even so, the day after your death will be a big Jewish holiday. (May 5, 1935)
b A soldier from the strike forces assaulted a passerby on a Berlin street and repeatedly struck him with deadly blows. The victim started shouting: "Murder! Beating! Help!" A guard approached him and said: "I ask you not to talk too loudly about politics!" (August 2, 1935)
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