During the 1920s and 1930s, American press officials had to determine what was the best way to cover the ascension of fascist dictators in Germany and Italy. It was clear, at the time, that these leaders were gaining power through acts of racism, anti-constitutionalism, and the inciting of violence. Should the press have published stories that detailed how the new dictators were beyond commonly accepted definitions of normal, or should they have portrayed them as legitimate leaders whose will is a perfect reflection of the society?
Mussolini had declared himself the Italian leader for life by the year 1925, and while he was not even close to what might considered American, he was featured in more than 150 newspaper publications between 1925 and 1932. The interesting thing about these features was that they didn’t take a negative tone. Instead, they only seemed neutral or, at best, bemused. Many actually portrayed the dictator in a positive light. It was as if the press was trying to bring normalcy to incredibly anti-democratic ideals that went directly against American values.
At the time, there were some journalists who rejected the idea that Mussolini and his policies should be praised. One journalist published a piece that detailed how Mussolini had used his strange popularity with the American press to manipulate his image in the United States.
The fact that Mussolini had such great success in the early part of his dictatorship was due directly to the normalization efforts set forth by the American press, and that point of view continued into the 1930s when Hitler started to gain power. For a long time, the press even referred to Hitler as ‘the German Mussolini’. Some scholars believe that Mussolini paved the way for Hitler to reach the massive level of power that he eventually amassed with his Nazi party.
The American press didn’t seem to take Hitler serious at first. Many publications called him a joke, comparing him to Charlie Chaplin and stating that his nonsensical speeches and obvious insecurities would prevent any real danger.
Hitler gained the seat of Germany’s Chancellor in 1933, which was less than two years before he would go on to seize control over the German government entirely. During that two year period, press outlets in the United States estimated Hitler would either be removed from power by traditional politicians, or he would have no choice but to abandon his ideologies in favor of a more popular public image. The press didn’t see any of the red flags that foreshadowed the horrors of Hitler, or they simply didn’t want to see them.
Once Hitler started with his famous dictatorial activities, American journalists refused to report on the majority of it for fear of losing access to Germany. For instance, one broadcaster saw his son beaten by German brownshirts when he failed to salute Hitler, and the broadcaster for CBS didn’t report the incident. Another reporter was transferred out of Germany after he wrote a story regarding the seriousness of the German situation in 1933.
It wasn’t until far into the 1930s when the American press realized they had underestimated what Hitler might do. Some even went so far as to publish stories recanting their previous opinions regarding the German leader in the hopes they could raise alarms wherever they could.
No society would purposefully elect a dictator, yet it has happened numerous times throughout history. Dictators always present themselves as an alternative to the oppressive nature of the government, and they work to position themselves as reflections of the national will of the people, even if that reflection is entirely false. In 1935, when one journalist wrote about how such a lesson could be applied to the United States, she said that if America ever elected a dictator, it would be a man who champions the traditional American values while secretly working under his own agenda.