By now you’ve likely read Richard Fausset’s troubling New York Times’ profile of a “white nationalist and fascist” that tries to normalize and sympathize with its subject. You’ve also likely read the countless follow-ups damning not only Fausset’s article but also the Times’ tepid and inept response.
The profile attempted let ordinary details speak for themselves, and it opens with a description of a wedding registry: “On their list was a muffin pan, a four-drawer dresser and a pineapple slicer…Weddings are hard enough to plan for when your fiancé is not an avowed white nationalist.” But these ordinary details don’t contain meaning, they merely surround it. As Josephine Livingstone of The New Republic explains,
writers who simply represent (rather than report on) extremists leave rhetorical spaces open for Nazi ideology to flood in. You cannot let a Nazi hang himself, because he is the one left holding the rhetorical rope.
Fausset’s article wasn’t the Times‘ first attempt to transform racism into a personality quirk. From 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany, to his 1939 invasion of Poland, there was a significant movement both in the United States and worldwide to portray Hitler as a misunderstood genius whose everyday likability could better connect with the working class German people and lift the country from its post-war depression.
Magazines and newspapers like the Times of London, The New York Times, The Saturday Review (“Hitler at Home”) and even the American Kennel Gazette (“Hitler Says His Dogs are Real Friends“) were more interested in Hitler’s interior design sensibility, his gustatory preferences, and his love of German Shepherds. In 1936, Vogue toured Hitler’s chalet as part of a package showcasing the interior design of the homes of foreign rulers. (Federico Mussolini’s villa was also included). Their coverage of Hitler successfully peddled these themes of austerity, industriousness, and single-minded drive to the masses eager to believe in Germany’s rebirth.
In her 2015 book Hitler at Home, Despina Stratigakos, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Buffalo, catalogued numerous attempts to normalize the dictator, which started with the publication of The Hitler that Nobody Knows, a 1932 photo album that doubled as a behind the scenes peek into Hitler’s private life. With more than a hundred photographs taken by Hitler’s personal photographer, the book — which sold 400,000-plus copies by 1942 — meant to serve as a beacon proclaiming Hitler as the leader of the new Germany. But Stratigakos stresses the effect was a more insidious.
Until the turnabout in 1932, National Socialist publicists had diverted attention away from or suppressed stories about their leader’s private life. Yet even as they continued to fight reports that could harm Hitler’s reputation, the Nazis began to construct for public consumption their own version of the private individual. The image of “Hitler as private man” would now be reconfigured from a liability into an asset…Bildung and self-improvement, together with self-discipline, a strong work ethic, and modesty, formed the core moral values of the German middle classes. The components of the “good” Hitler were thus artfully assembled with an eye to courting this constituency of voters and persuading them to abandon their allegiance to [war hero and political opponent Paul von] Hindenburg.
Even the New York Times wasn’t exempt from indulging in Hitler’s spin. Laurel Leff, a professor of history at Northwestern University, published Buried by the Times in 2005, examining the ways the Times either ignored or inadequately covered the Holocaust, partially due to a distaste among the editors for Zionism. In October 1935, the Times magazine included a fawning profile of Hitler as an architect, featuring his remodel of a small Bavarian cottage and it’s transformation into the fortress of Berghof, which was shown completed on the cover of a May 1937 issue.
But perhaps the strangest Times article was, “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds.” Written by Hedwig Mauer Simpson, the wife of Stanley Simpson, a British journalist and Munich-based correspondent for the New York Times and Times of London (she was a frequent contributor to the The Associated Press and The Daily Mail)—he would be the first to report on the Dachau concentration camp, a piece that was ultimately turned down by the Times of London. A journalistic power couple within Munich, the Simpsons were among the first reporters to have early access to Hitler, and she was known for her ability to file several stories at once and under intense pressure.
In the article, Simpson rehashes worn troupes about Hitler’s vegetarianism, the long walks he enjoyed with his Alsatian dogs, and his love of the German people. The tick-tock of his daily routine is described down to the minute. Breakfast is at 9 am, lunch is served by “white uniformed butlers,” and dinner is promptly at 8 p.m., with the ladies of the Berghof in evening dress and Hitler in English tweeds. In a rare step back from the festivities, Simpson writes that the setting contains “all the elements of exacting bureaucracy and secret-police efficiency.”
The Times article was published on August 20, 1939, 11 days before Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Simpson would take one of the last peacetime trains out of Munich to London, and it appears she gave up writing following her departure from Germany. There is nothing in the article that suggests the chancellor, who “no makes no secret of being fond of chocolate,” has anything on his mind except the promise of an afternoon nap. Simpson clearly feels pampered and privileged to be in his presence. Whatever she felt on that last train out of Germany isn’t recorded here.
Longreads’ Catherine Cusick recently discussed why articles like Fausset’s and Simpson’s are dangerous: “Reporters and editors committed to covering this movement may not be able to feel their own hearts beating faster out of fear.”
Ordinary details can furnish a room, they can set a table, they can fill the time between hushed meetings of planned genocide or the quiet tapping at a computer, spreading hateful slurs to thousands of followers. If a writer can’t feel that fear, can’t show those feelings on a page, then all the reader is left with is Hitler at home.