Dusting Off First Drafts of History

As a foreign correspondent, I scoffed at the notion that my stories could constitute the first draft of history. But, if truth be told, I was inclined to believe it  particularly when I was reporting on events like the collapse of communism.

After researching my new book that tells the story of Adolf Hitlers rise to power through the eyes of American correspondents in Germany, I have been confirmed in the belief that this cliché about journalism is right on target. What most reporters may find surprising, though, is that the glaring mistakes in their first drafts of history are often more valuable than what they get right.

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems astonishing that the danger Hitler represented wasnt obvious to everyone, particularly to experienced foreign correspondents. Their many misjudgments prompt the question: How could they have been so wrong?

Take Dorothy Thompson, the most famous American woman foreign correspondent of her era. When she had the chance to interview Hitler in November 1931, she entered the room convinced she was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not, she wrote. It took just that long to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog. His eyes, she added, had the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics. In other words, he shouldnt be taken seriously.

Plenty of her colleagues made the same mistake. Some admitted that the first time they saw Hitler they burst out laughing since he looked like a comic figure with his jerky motions, bizarre appearance and bizarre performances.

Such snap judgments, however, can haunt a reporter. On a fast-breaking story, they are all too common. Few of us who covered the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe can honestly say we understood at the time how quickly the Kremlins empire would disintegrate. Future historians may judge many of our stories harshly. But those historians would be missing the point if they only looked at the scorecard indicating which reporters were right or wrong. The reason why some correspondents got it so wrong in their initial sizing up of Hitler also explains why the reports of their more perceptive colleagues were largely disregarded.

Even before Hitler took power, Edgar Ansel Mowrer of The Chicago Daily News was warning his Jewish acquaintances to get out of Germany. Few listened. Many Jews were initially reluctant to take Hitler seriously since, like Thompson, they could not imagine that the German people would follow him blindly. As for Americans, almost no one wanted to entertain the notion that they might be dragged into another conflagration in Europe.

In many cases, the records of reporters contained surprising twists. Hearst correspondent Karl von Wiegand was the first American journalist to interview and write a feature about Hitler, in November 1922, when the Nazi leader was still only a local agitator in Munich. Wiegand described him as a magnetic speaker having also exceptional organizing genius whose apostolic fervor was winning many followers. He concluded that Hitler might one day declare himself dictator of Bavaria.

But later Wiegand offered a prognosis as wildly off the mark as Thompsons. Impressed by Hitlers annexation of Austria and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he wrote that the German leader would not imperil those gains by embarking on a deliberately planned aggressive war. He made that prediction in the spring of 1939; on Sept. 1, Hitler triggered World War II with his invasion of Poland.

After examining this mixed record, I came away with heightened admiration for those reporters like Mowrer and CBSs William Shirer who were consistently right. And even for Thompson, who later more than made up for her famous misreading of Hitler with hard-hitting stories that led to her expulsion from Germany in 1934. But I could also now understand why she and so many others got things wrong at first.

Still, the reports that these correspondents may have been most eager to forget are precisely the ones that are the most instructive. Those first drafts of history help explain the real mystery of Hitlers rise: how he benefited from the unwillingness of so many to believe that he meant what he said when he was promising a Greater Germany and the extermination of those he labeled internal enemies, most prominently the Jews.

This is a lesson about the limitations of reporters, but also a cautionary note for those quick to stand in judgment: Dont be so sure you would have done better.