by Thomas Siurkus
In “The A and P of Propaganda,” published in the academic journal Studies in Contemporary History, German historian Harriet Scharnberg reveals a previously unknown cooperation between the picture service of the Associated Press news agency and the Nazis—an association that the AP, in a statement responding to the Guardian story reporting on Scharnberg’s revelation, denies. Scharnberg’s article depicts an agreement between the New York-based news agency and the Nazi regime—one that allowed the AP to operate in Germany when other journalists were expelled in exchange for employing members of the Nazi propaganda division as reporters and photographers. Scharnberg also uncovered anti-Semitic publications that made use of AP images.
Moment spoke with Scharnberg about her findings and the AP’s response.
How did you discover the cooperation between the photo department of the Associated Press and the Nazi regime?
The findings are part of my dissertation about the representation of the Judenfrage (the Jewish Question) in the Nazi photo press. In the course of this research, I analyzed the photo production and distribution system in the Third Reich, too. The acronym A.P. often appeared in the sources—so often that I decided to collect them, wherever I found them—in picture credits, on the backs of pictures, in the records of the propaganda ministry. Nobody I asked was able to offer an explanation for that.
Soon after his takeover in 1933, Hitler began to pass anti-Semitic laws and restrict freedom of speech. How did this affect the foreign news agencies?
From the outset, there were clamors to fire Jewish employees. The agency chiefs in Berlin could withstand these clamors until 1934, when the Schriftleitergesetz (Editorial Control Law) came into effect. The law was one of the main instruments of controlling the press in Germany. It defined who was allowed to work as a journalist (schriftleiter) and also demanded that journalists have more loyalty to the state than to the company they were working for. The law also applied to subsidiaries of international companies. According to the law, journalists had to be Aryan German citizens. Jews were not allowed to work.
What were the reactions of the foreign agencies?
The foreign news photo agencies tried to protect their Jewish employees. At first they continued to employ them while conceding to the Nazi regime in other matters. However, the pressure became so intense that all foreign news agencies closed their German subsidiaries, except the Associated Press.
Why did AP stay as the only foreign news photo agency in Germany?
I’m not sure what the reasons behind this decision were, but through their stay in Germany, they acquired a unique position on the news photo market, which could have been attractive to the agency.
What advantages did the Nazi regime try to gain through cooperation with the Associated Press?
There are no records, such as a propaganda master plan, that explicitly state the intended role of AP. But you can infer the interests of the Nazis logically. The AP presence in Berlin kept a channel open for an exchange of photos between Germany and the United States, which worked in both directions until 1941. The photos were published in Germany as news-pictures, but also frequently—and especially when the relations with the U.S. declined—as propaganda pictures that contained anti-Semitic and anti-American connotations.
The other advantageous aspect of the cooperation was that the AP disseminated pictures in the world that were favorable to the Germans, without any visible German authority involved in this process.
Were there restrictions on what the AP staff was allowed to photograph?
In general, the Nazi regime didn’t enforce any restrictions. A photographer was able to photograph whatever he wanted, because the propaganda ministry had effective control mechanisms to prevent incriminating images from appearing in newspapers. In addition to the press-control law, any publication in the German press had to have a copyright note with the name of the photographer, so that the producer of the photo was traceable and could potentially be punished. That was quite effective, and therefore there were almost no photos in the newspapers that the Nazi regime disliked.
Did you find any differences between the photos published in Germany and those delivered by the AP abroad?
The only exception that I know of was the pogrom in November 1938. The former managing director of the photo service of the AP, Günther Beukert, explained after the war that he had smuggled some photos out of the country. The pictures didn’t show the events of Kristallnacht, but rather the damages on the morning after, especially destroyed Jewish-owned stores in Berlin. The photos were published in U.S. newspapers and are the only case that I know of where the American press printed pictures delivered by AP from Germany that were forbidden in German newspapers. German newspapers got the order to not print pictures of the damages of Kristallnacht.
Whether Beukert’s actions were based on loyalty to the agency, as he implies, is hard to judge. He argued that the Nazis threatened to arrest him, and yet he climbed the career ladder and became a censor for war pictures at the beginning of the war. Thus it’s difficult to assess whether the Nazis saw his actions as resistance.
In your article, you mention one of the leading press photographers of the time, Franz Roth. Could you explain the connection between him, the Associated Press and the paramilitary group known as the SS?
Franz Roth was indeed one of the leading photographers at the time. He had been employed at AP since the mid-1930s. In the 1940s, he became part of the SS propaganda unit. In 1940 and 1941, he was at the front lines and photographed on behalf of the propaganda ministry and AP at the same time. He delivered them the same pictures.
Was the AP aware?
AP is a huge company. The AP photo service in Berlin of course knew that its photographer was at the front lines as a member of the SS propaganda unit and delivered war pictures, especially because he wasn’t available to the agency for other services. I don’t know exactly what knowledge the head office in New York had at this time. Anyway, AP Images was able to identify a lot of Roth’s photos in its stocks recently. Obviously they were tagged by his name.
Why were German war pictures so in demand internationally?
The war pictures were so popular because they existed and others did not: In the first years of the war, until the end of 1941, no country that Germany was at war with was capable of bringing their press photographers as close to the front lines as the Germans. That meant that only the Germans were able to deliver pictures of the real war action.
When did the cooperation between the Nazis and the AP end?
The cooperation ended with Germany declaring war on the United States in December 1941.
The AP maintains that your work concerns a German photo agency of AP Britain—not the American AP—that was created in 1931. What do you think of these claims?
I was surprised to read that. I think it’s unlikely for two reasons. The AP photo service wasn’t expelled in 1939 with the entrance of Great Britain into the war, but in 1941, with the entrance of the United States. Second, the German photo service called itself officially Bilderdienst der Associated Press of America. In addition, even if the claim was correct, it would not challenge my findings in any respect.
What did hope to accomplish in publishing the article?
Clearly I wrote a research article, not an indictment. It is inspired by scientific interests—that is, to explore the unknown. I wanted to analyze the involvement of the AP Bilderdienst in photo production and distribution in the Third Reich, as it had been unknown even to experts and, as we learned recently, is interesting to many people.