How much was known about Hitler before he came into power? How much was on the record about the nature of the Nazi regime in its early days? How pervasive was its anti-Semitism, and how much of that was documented long before the outbreak of the war? What was known about Hitler’s dreams of conquest? Was the Holocaust foreseeable?In all of us, there’s a tendency to believe that people would see things differently if only they knew the truth. This is an error. Following the news and sorting out the issues may be a requirement for responsible, ballot-casting citizenship; but it’s also a lot of work. For many people, the basic calculation is What are the odds that this is going to affect me personally? vs. How much trouble is it going to be for me to pay attention to this?
A common answer to all these questions has often been “We never knew….,” as if somehow the entire history of the Third Reich took place on a distant planet, unknown and unknowable.
Our aim is simple: To puncture this myth.
Our target audience: Anyone with curiosity about an unspeakable time.
The object of “We Never Knew” is to present a chronological account, in graphic form, of what we knew, and when we knew it. For illustration, we have chosen images off of book jackets from 1932 to 1943, taken from our own private collection. These are supplemented by a few posters and pamphlet covers from the same time frame. Most of the books were by widely respected (or at least widely known) authors, and were readily available to the English-speaking public at least. Some were international best sellers with a distribution of a million or more. Most of them were widely reviewed in the mainstream press. Just look at the sheer number of these images, and the steady, year-by-year drumbeat of warnings and exaltations: Three from 1932; three from 1933; five from 1934; three from 1935; three from 1936; one from 1937; six from 1938; six from 1939; one from 1940; one from 1941; one from 1942; and two from 1943. Only space considerations prevent us from showing many more. We did know what was going on.Now take a closer look at some of the individual images. The Dorothy Thompson book, I Saw Hitler, for example. Thompson, perhaps the most widely read American columnist of the 1930’s, interviewed Hitler before his ascension to power, and here is what the future Fuehrer proclaimed to the world in a book published in 1932: “The world belongs to the nordics…all that is not race, is dross.” No weasel words there. Or consider the documentary book, The Yellow Spot, whose jacket fairly screamed, “The Extermination of the Jews in Germany. The First Complete Documentary Study.” This in 1936, when Hitler’s dreams of conquest could have been aborted with relative ease. Or to take one of the Nazi images, look at the terror on the faces which are depicted on the 1938 post-Anchluss Austrian poster, Time to Get Out, which was part of the infamous, blood libelous exhibition, “The Eternal Jew.” Seen by millions of “good” Austrians and Germans. And also written up in the western press, including Life magazine, with a circulation of well over a million. No, we couldn’t have known.
For instance, in the areas actually attacked on 9/11, Manhattan and Washington D.C., Bush polled 16% and 11%. We’re natural targets, so we have to pay attention to this stuff. And since we do, we notice that when it comes to real homeland security, Bush has been the worst Preznit in American history. He used 9/11 as an excuse to go after someone who didn’t attack us. He welshed on his promises to the FDNY and NYPD. He fought and rejected all the post-event analyses and criticisms of how we went wrong and where we need to improve. He’s made the U.S. odious in the eyes of former friends all over the world. Overall, his performance on this issue has ranged from “completely ineffectual” to “appallingly counterproductive.”
When you live in NYC, you think about these things. However, I believe that a lot of American citizens who don’t live here have privately decided that the odds that they personally will get nailed by terrorists are low enough to ignore. What would a responsible take on the issues get them? Only the unpleasant realization that we live in a complex and dangerous world, and the obligation to pay attention to serious political analysis and news, and other troublesome things of that nature. It’s all very tiresome.
But if they’ve calculated that they themselves are unlikely to get crushed, fried, poisoned, etc., then the only real harm they took on 9/11 was that it scared the bejeezus out of them. The length of the period of universal sympathy for NYC which followed 9/11 is the length of time it took them to decide that they weren’t in line for their own catastrophes. After that, they reacted exactly like someone who’s just been badly frightened—all indignant self-righteous blustering anger, demanding that someone Do Something so they’ll never be frightened like that again, and blaming the victims for whatever it was they did to bring this on themselves.*
That’s a lot more fun than being scared. It’s a lot less trouble than doing something about it. Let reality try to stick you with the bill if it can.