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The New York Times’ ‘Nazi Correspondent’

As Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany and then embarked on his program of world conquest and mass extermination, The New York Times’ Berlin bureau chief was busy slanting the news in his favor

by
Laurel Leff
June 03, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original image: Getty Images
‘New York Times’ coverage from September 1933Tablet Magazine; original image: Getty Images
Tablet Magazine; original image: Getty Images
‘New York Times’ coverage from September 1933Tablet Magazine; original image: Getty Images

At the outbreak of the Second World War, The New York Times bureau chief in Berlin, Guido Enderis, was known to sit in the bar of the city’s famous Adlon Hotel spouting “a loudmouthed defense of Nazism,” eventually provoking another reporter to complain to the Times’ publisher: “Isn’t it about time that The New York Times did something about its Nazi correspondent?”

But the Times had no intention of doing anything about Enderis. In fact, it valued his close connections to the Nazi government, as it had throughout the 1930s. All American newspapers found reporting in Nazi Germany difficult. The government tightly controlled information and harangued and threatened reporters who managed to publish what it didn’t like. The Nazi regime also didn’t hesitate to use its strongest weapons—banning a newspaper from distribution in Germany, kicking a reporter out of the country, or denying a reporter’s reentry. As a putatively “Jewish-owned” newspaper, The New York Times considered itself a special target. Bureau chief Enderis’ job therefore was “administering reasonably soothing syrup” to Nazi officials, as another Times reporter put it.

Yet, Enderis’ actions weren’t purely strategic and their consequences were grave. Throughout the 1930s, Enderis helped steer Times coverage to play down Jewish persecution and play up Germany’s peaceful intentions. He kowtowed to Nazi officials, wrote stories presenting solely the Nazi point of view, and reined in Times reporters whose criticism he thought went too far, shaping the news in favor of a genocidal regime bent on establishing a “Thousand Year Reich.”

Other New York Times reporters, most conspicuously Walter Duranty—who deliberately minimized the Soviet famine that took millions of Ukrainian lives in the 1920s—have become notorious for misreporting the news, once time had passed and archives had opened. Enderis, however, has remained largely under the radar. I wrote about him in my 2005 book, Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper, but Enderis’ personal perfidy likely got lost in the transgressions of his employer.

To be clear, the Times had no agenda to bolster Nazism. In fact, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, the Times publisher during most of the Nazi era, detested Hitler and advocated U.S. intervention to stop German aggression. Nor was Enderis a Nazi collaborator—a charge that should be leveled carefully, given that Nazi propaganda services actually enlisted American correspondents.

Instead, what crippled the Times coverage of Hitler and the Nazis was a timidity and deference to authority born of being an institution controlled by Jews who desperately wanted to fit into WASP society. Rather than run the slightest risk of being tossed out of Nazi Germany and causing a ruckus over its Jewish ownership, the Times let a figure like Enderis—a pitiful ally of some of history’s greatest villains—lead its Berlin bureau during its most consequential decade.

Guido Enderis acquired an affinity for Germany at a young age. Born in Chicago in 1874, he moved as a child to Milwaukee, a city with a large German American population. Enderis’ father founded one German-language newspaper there and headed advertising for another. A third German-language paper sent the younger Enderis to Berlin in 1916, after stints as a reporter for two Milwaukee newspapers. The following year, Enderis joined the Associated Press wire service in Berlin, and developed a reputation for his “intimate knowledge of Germany and German personalities.” A decade later, The New York Times hired him for its Berlin bureau, naming him bureau chief in 1930. Enderis was 56, never married, and prone to wearing loud suits and bright red ties.

From the beginning, Enderis’ journalistic deficiencies were apparent. Enderis “has a ponderous, wordy style that is often so vague that we have to change his dispatches to let the reader know what he means,” wrote one editor, who also wrangled with his “weird words and dictionary phrases.” Enderis, who fought every alteration in his copy, retorted: “the improvement volunteered at the other end afford no impressive evidence of superior literary acumen.” Given how impenetrable his published prose remained, Enderis might have had a point. Enderis’ reporting was no better. He was too credulous, whether the result of intention or ineptitude, to be a good journalist.

In 1932, Frederick Birchall, the Times acting managing editor who had just assumed a new position as chief foreign correspondent, visited Berlin and reported back to the publisher-in-waiting Sulzberger. (Sulzberger’s father-in-law, Adolph Ochs, who was ill, held the publisher title until his death in 1935.) The bureau’s problems lay with its chief, Birchall concluded.

But Birchall, who had Sulzberger’s ear, didn’t recommend replacing Enderis. “He is incidentally an excellent office manager,” Birchall wrote Sulzberger. “Note that the Berlin Office expense including the salary list is down considerably, below a year ago.” Instead, Birchall suggested putting “a younger, more enterprising and picturesque man in just below him.” Which is what the Times did in early 1933, hiring 43-year-old Otto Tolischus, a German-born, American-bred wire service reporter. Birchall would pop in from time to time.

Had the news flow been anything like that of a normal foreign capital, this might have been a harmless arrangement. But on Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and Berlin became the center of the news universe. Hitler quickly disabled the legislature, opened concentration camps, booted Jews from government and university positions, and took over the domestic press along with all other media.

Rather than figuring out how best to cover these momentous events, Enderis began plotting how best to get in good with the new regime. The Times’ World Wide Photo subsidiary, a photo distribution service incorporated in Germany, provided an opportunity. In July 1933, Enderis phoned Birchall to suggest ways “to accord with the general tendency” of the Nazi government. Enderis advised changing the service’s name “to some nice Germanic form,” and firing its manager, Julius Bolgar, who “is of Jewish origin and, moreover, has borne himself in dealing with Nazi protests in a highly independent spirit.”

Alarmed, Birchall advised against “yielding to the pressure of these miserable fanatics,” and tried to persuade Enderis “with such emphasis as the good Lord would give to me.” Enderis insisted his recommendations be passed on to top management. Both Ochs, who was still nominally in charge, and Sulzberger sided with Birchall. Sulzberger shot back: “I’m sorry if this is disturbing to Mr. Enderis, but what in the name of Heaven does he think a jaw is for except to set it firmly when the occasion demands.”

The Times’ jaw soon proved a bit wobbly. Over the next two years, the Times allowed a Nazi shop cell to form in its subsidiary, didn’t stop a swastika flag from being flown on the building that housed the Berlin bureau, permitted its German employees to march in a May Day celebration of Hitler, and fired its Jewish photographers from World Wide Photo. When a scheme to hire “Aryan camouflages” to cover for the Jews who continued to toil behind the scenes didn’t work, the Times closed World Wide Photo.

Enderis wasn’t just meddling on the business side. “Scarcely an item has gone to The New York Times that he did not inspire, supervise and frequently edit,” Birchall wrote Managing Editor Edwin James in April 1934. Plus, Enderis continued to report and write his own stories, having more bylined articles during the regime’s decisive first year than Tolischus.

Enderis produced puffy profiles of leading Nazis. Joseph Goebbels, “head of Reich newly created Ministry of Propaganda and Popular Enlightenment,” has “been the outstanding go-getter for his party,” Enderis wrote in 1933. A year later, his ardor had not cooled. Goebbels is a “voluble but versatile master of Nazi ballyhoo” with “a gift of rhetoric,” Enderis wrote about a Goebbels speech exalting Jews’ banishment from the film industry. Enderis wrote lighthearted stories about “bachelors,” including Hitler, pushing “Nazis’ campaign for bigger and bigger families,” or about Hitler’s 50th birthday celebration that turned Berlin into “all motion, color, and noise.”

The biggest failing of Enderis’ early reporting—and Birchall’s, too—was reading into every move a Nazi drive toward moderation. Enderis’ articles assured: “Hitler threatening Nazi radicals”; “Government accepting counsel from moderate quarter”; “Hitler puts curb on zealous Nazis.” At the same time, the biggest failing of Enderis’ reporting throughout the Nazi era was to offer up, without hesitation or qualification, Nazi refutations of criticisms of the regime. When there were “charges abroad of atrocities in this country,” Enderis reported that “the government would not tolerate persecution of the Jews and had established no discrimination against them.” Enderis attributed this denial to “Captain Hermann Wilhelm Goering, Federal Minister without portfolio and commissarial Minister of the Interior in Prussia”—his breathless listing of Nazi titles being another sign of his fealty.

Enderis wrote again and again of Germany’s peaceful intentions despite its expansion into the Saar and Rhineland regions, annexation of Austria, and takeover of Czechoslovakia. “A peaceful, prosperous Europe was envisaged today by Chancellor Hitler in a speech before the Reichstag,” read the beginning of one such story. Enderis continued: “The tenor of the speech was self-assertive, yet free of aggressive emphasis, and it ended on a note that left full scope for diplomatic action or mediation. … If the tone of the speech can be accepted as a gauge, Herr Hitler sincerely desires a peaceful solution of the conflict with Britain and France.” Remarkably, Hitler delivered the speech and Enderis wrote about it five weeks after Germany invaded Poland and ignited World War II. It’s hard to know which took more chutzpah—for Hitler to say it, for Enderis to write it, or for the Times to publish it.

And then there are the stories that Enderis didn’t want to write, often about what was happening to the Jews. In 1933, Publisher Sulzberger asked for a story about the fate of Jewish scientists. Enderis delayed and delayed and then said it couldn’t be done. Managing Editor James prodded Enderis twice to write about the “Jewish reservation” near Lublin, Poland, that was to hold at least 1 million Jews. Enderis apparently didn’t reply, only feeding two paragraphs into a Times story out of Paris that “it was reliably learned” that Jews from Germany and Austria would not be sent to Poland.

Enderis’ reluctance to take on the regime’s evils and his willingness, maybe even eagerness, to believe Nazi denials came together in one telling story. “As you know we have been trying to get something on Nazi concentration camps without much success,” James wrote Enderis in March 1934. “I sent you a couple of clippings from British newspapers on the subject. I wish very much we could get some material like that.” Replying to James, Enderis pooh-poohed the camps’ significance. He explained that he had interviewed a prisoner in the Oranienburg concentration camp, Werner Hirsch, who made a “normal impression,” gave no indication of “maltreatment,” and reported he had gained eight pounds since arriving at the camp.

Enderis wasn’t the only Times correspondent covering Germany. Both Tolischus and Birchall had better, if hardly perfect, records in holding the Nazi regime accountable. That was by design. Birchall and Tolischus wrote more negative stories and Enderis assuaged any wounded sensibilities. Enderis was the reason the bureau wasn’t forced to close in 1935, Managing Editor James told Sulzberger. “This is a left-handed compliment from a news point of view,” James admitted, “but nevertheless there is something to it.”

Birchall in particular, who came and went frequently, each time needing the German government to sanction his return, depended upon Enderis. Recognizing that his stories about the 1935 Nuremberg laws that stripped Jews of German citizenship might upset the government, Birchall assured James that Enderis was “administering reasonably soothing syrup.” When Enderis heard that Birchall might have trouble entering Germany in early 1936, the two devised a plan for Birchall to write “some attractive nonpolitical piece that would be all up [the German government’s] street.” It apparently worked. Birchall was allowed in in time to cover that summer’s Olympic Games in Berlin. “I have frequently been a sore trial to Guido and undoubtedly have been accountable for some of his loss of sleep,” an appreciative Birchall wrote James in April 1934.

But Enderis seemed as intent on keeping the Times from printing things that upset the government, as he was on allowing the Times to keep printing. In September 1934, the Times published a cartoon depicting Hitler and the tombstones of Nazi leaders murdered in a party putsch the previous June. “And the Fuehrer said only death can us part,” the caption read. Considering the cartoon disrespectful to Hitler, incensed German officials wanted to ban sale of the Times. With the help of the American consulate, Enderis convinced the officials to back down. Enderis then addressed the real affront—publishing the “poisonous cartoon.” He pointedly reminded James “of the traditional custom which leaves the head of a friendly government immune from lampooning of such a malicious variety.” Whatever the Times editors believed, Enderis wrote, “the Fuehrer … in his triple capacity as Head of the State, Chief of the Government and Leader of his party … is the three-ply IT.”

Most news organizations in Berlin had to walk a fine line between reporting harsh realities and maintaining the ability to report at all. Many American correspondents were expelled. Many newspapers were banned temporarily. But it’s clear other Berlin correspondents thought Enderis stepped over the line (Third Reich chronicler William Shirer described Enderis as “minding the Nazis less than most”).

Once the war started in September 1939, even his Times’ supervisors grew concerned about Enderis’ sympathies. Ten days after the Germans invaded Poland, Birchall felt obligated to cable James to apply “screws” to Enderis who was “automatically expressing” the German position. If he can “only send propaganda they want printed, why pay transmission fee?” Birchall asked. Either the screws weren’t applied or they didn’t work: The Times published Enderis’ story about Herr Hitler’s sincere desire for peace a month later. 

An incident involving a story in another newspaper reveals Enderis’ attitude toward reporting on the Hitler regime during wartime. A November 1939 New York Herald-Tribune article described how some in the German military, including U-boat crews, were reluctant to wage an all-out war. At a press conference for the foreign press corps, the German spokesman denounced the story and the Herald-Tribune reporter. Enderis defended the spokesman. The story “hotly resented here,” Enderis cabled James, “liable have serious repercussions nature censorial restrictions all foreign correspondents who’ve been enjoying exceptional measure toleration accommodation reporting events.” Enderis followed with the news that the Herald-Tribune reporter had been expelled: “eye consider his uboat dispatch inexcusable blunder,” he wrote.

As Birchall’s British citizenship prevented him from functioning as a roving European correspondent once the war between Germany and Great Britain began, Enderis’ role in the Times’ bureau grew the more aggressive Hitler became and the closer America came to war. In March 1940, the German government informed Tolischus that his permit to remain in the country would not be renewed. That left Enderis and two recently hired, relatively inexperienced reporters in the Berlin bureau as Germany conquered most of Western Europe and began shipping Jews in the Reich and conquered countries to ghettos in Poland.

For the better part of a decade, Enderis’ appeasement of the Nazi government had been the subject of grumbling within the Times and among the Berlin press corps. In September 1940, it threatened to blow up into a full-scale scandal. While monitoring Nazi radio reports for the BBC, Warren Irvin, a former New York Times city desk reporter and part-time Geneva correspondent, noticed something unsettling—Nazi radio quoted The New York Times a lot. When Irvin checked, he discovered Guido Enderis’ byline on many of those stories. Irvin wrote Times publisher Sulzberger, imploring the newspaper to do something about “its Nazi correspondent.” If Sulzberger didn’t, Irvin warned, he would. “I don’t want to do anything to hurt my own paper, but I feel that loyalty to my country comes first, and if some action is not taken I shall feel compelled to publish these facts.”

Sulzberger brought the problem to James. “It is entirely understandable that, living for so long in the midst of the Germans, he has absorbed a certain amount of the German point of view,” James wrote. “It would be remarkable were it otherwise. There is no ignorance in the office here concerning this circumstance; it is fully realized.” But James added: “Mr. Enderis has been of signal service in keeping our bureau there going. Time after time he was able to smooth out difficulties into which some of our correspondents got.”

As for Irvin’s letter, James wasn’t sure what had provoked it. He noted that Irvin and Enderis had gotten into a fight when Irvin was in Berlin. James pleaded ignorance of the “merits except that Irvin drinks more than Enderis, who drinks very little.”

Still, James admitted there was something to Irvin’s concern. “I realize that the inferences are all against Enderis,” he wrote, “but I realize that if you fire him, or withdraw him from Berlin, that will close our Berlin Bureau.” James’ solution: keep Enderis on but have him write very little. “The less we had from him the better.” James also recommended threatening Irvin with a libel suit.

Sulzberger took the advice, warning Irvin that if he published “what you call `facts’” Sulzberger would sue for defamation and “give the reasons” why Enderis is a “useful and valued member of the Times staff.” Irvin wrote back: “what I call facts are facts. … Enderis has made no secret of his pro-Nazi sympathies.” Irvin added: “I don’t question the usefulness and value of Mr. Enderis to The New York Times. I DO question the right of the greatest American newspaper to maintain a pro-Nazi as its Chief Correspondent in Berlin in times like these.”

James carried through on allowing Enderis to write fewer stories. Before Irvin’s letter, James had complained that Enderis wasn’t producing enough, to which the bureau chief responded that he was swamped with “administrative details” and “coaching junior staffers.” After Irvin’s letter, James bragged about Enderis’ lack of productivity. In August, September, and October 1940, Enderis produced only 224 words, 1,440 words, and 338 words respectively, James practically crowed. During the same period, the other two Berlin reporters each published more than 50,000 words.

The absence of two experienced reporters and the silence of one hurt the Berlin bureau. The Times resorted to relying heavily upon the wire services. Of the 38 Times stories about the Jews that originated in Berlin in 1940 and 1941, 25 were from the Associated Press and United Press. This occasionally bothered James. In mid-November 1941, Propaganda Minister Goebbels laid out a 10-point charter for the Nazi campaign against the Jews, which the Times reported on page 11 from a UP account. James chided Enderis in a cable: “Upee twentyfour hours ahead you on Jewish story.”

The story reported Goebbels’ terrifying prediction. “In this historical showdown every Jew is our enemy, regardless of whether he is vegetating in a Polish ghetto or delays his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg, or blows the war trumpets in New York and Washington,” the story quoted Goebbels. “The current developments are fulfilling Adolf Hitler’s prophecy on Jan. 30, 1939, that the Jews in Europe would be exterminated if international finance succeeds in hurling the nations into a world war.”

The New York Times Berlin bureau was not there to cover the fulfillment of Hitler’s prophecy. The next month, Germany declared war on the United States and rounded up all American correspondents in Berlin—with one exception. The New York Times reported in a brief item that Guido Enderis was the only American journalist not arrested and detained in Bad Nauheim, a town six hours from Berlin. Three days later, the Times published another short story, seeming to ‘correct’ its previous story. “Guido Enderis of The New York Times, who is ill with bronchial trouble, has been allowed to remain under doctor’s treatment at his hotel, the Adlon.”

Enderis ended up joining the Times’ enlarged bureau in Berne, Switzerland, where he suffered a slight stroke and rarely came into the office. The only time Enderis’ name appeared in The New York Times in all 1942 was when the American legation’s secretary threw him a birthday party. Enderis picked up his pace in 1943, publishing 11 bylined stories, most based on articles in the German press that reflected the nation’s “gloom” as victory slipped away. At the end of the war, James worried about Enderis’ sympathies as he had at the beginning. “Disappointed and concerned tone your Goebbels story yesternight,” James cabled Enderis in October 1944 about an article suggesting Germany would be able to hold off an Allied advance.

The European war ended May 8, 1945. Enderis suffered a more serious stroke that year that left him paralyzed and unable to speak. He returned to Milwaukee, to which he had made only seven visits in the previous 30 years. When he died the following year, the Milwaukee Journal carried a front-page obituary. Guido Enderis “lived for his profession,” the obit declared, quoting his sister “Miss Dorothy C. Enderis.”

The New York Times, his professional home for 17 years, however, did not author its own obituary acknowledging the death of its Berlin bureau chief. It made do with a syndicated wire piece.

Laurel Leff is a Professor of Journalism at Northeastern University and the associate director of Northeastern’s Jewish Studies Program in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities. She is the author of Well Worth Saving: American Universities’ Life-and-Death Decisions on Refugees from Nazi Europe (Yale University Press, 2019) and Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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