During the 1930s, thousands of Americans traveled to Nazi Germany. Many came as tourists, reporters, exchange students, or diplomats.1 From 1944 to 1945, many more Americans came to Germany as soldiers fighting to defeat Nazi Germany.2 These experiences all differed greatly. In the first years of the Nazi era, US citizens witnessed firsthand examples of the persecution of Jewish people and others deemed to be “enemies” by Nazi authorities. Those who arrived in 1945 saw the evidence of horrific crimes in liberated concentration camps.
In 1938, Helen Baker and her husband Ross traveled to Austria, shortly after it was annexed by Nazi Germany. In Vienna, she witnessed a boycott of a Jewish business and learned about the impact of anti-Jewish policies. She recorded some of these experiences on film with a home movie camera. Leon Bass, a Black soldier in the (then segregated) US Army, entered the liberated Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald. What he saw there—death, starvation, and the traumatic impact on the surviving prisoners—left him with unforgettable memories that he only later recounted in oral testimonies and public lectures.
In contrast to these moving accounts by ordinary Americans, there were other US citizens who tried to shape public opinion about Nazi Germany by using their talents as journalists, photographers, and filmmakers. Unlike private citizens, they faced a different set of challenges. In the 1930s, Americans were eager for news about the Third Reich, and a position reporting from Nazi Germany was a prized assignment for any ambitious reporter. However, German authorities in Joseph Goebbels’s Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and the German Foreign Office wanted to make sure that what journalists published was positive.
Under Nazi rule, German media was heavily censored. Each day, the German press chief issued secret instructions on what stories German journalists could report and how they were to be reported. Those who violated these guidelines could lose their right to report and publish—or even be sent to a concentration camp. American reporters in Nazi Germany were well aware of how the domestic press was restricted, and they sometimes took risks to use informers or other unofficial sources in their stories.3
While foreign correspondents did not have to follow German press regulations, they faced other challenges and dangers. American writer Dorothy Thompson had published a highly critical piece on Hitler before he came to power, and she was expelled from Germany in 1934.4 An American print and broadcast journalist named Richard C. Hottelet was arrested in Berlin and imprisoned for several months in 1941 before being sent out of the country. Sometimes, foreign correspondents had to wait until they were safely out of Germany to write their stories. German diplomats stationed in the United States kept an eye out for negative reports about Germany and reported back to Berlin.
Throughout the 1930s, American journalists published books and articles that informed US audiences about antisemitic discrimination in Nazi Germany. Some offered critical perspectives, while others depicted the regime’s new race laws in a positive light. W. E. B. Du Bois, one of America’s best known Black writers and civil rights activists, wrote a series of articles for Black American readers that addressed racism and antisemitism in the Third Reich. From a vastly different perspective, Lothrop Stoddard, one of the loudest advocates of "racial hygiene" in the United States, published a book including his observations on aspects of Nazi race law.
American journalists were permitted to work in Nazi Germany after the outbreak of World War II in 1939. However, the entrance of the United States into the war in December 1941 posed new difficulties for reporters. Even before the outbreak of war, many had left the country due to hostility from German authorities. Now, American civilian and military censorship shaped what could be reported from the front. More often than not, journalists chose to censor themselves. Female writers and photographers confronted gender discrimination because US military authorities felt the battlefield should be off-limits to women. Nevertheless, in 1945, pioneering female journalists and photographers like Martha Gellhorn and Margaret Bourke-White entered the liberated Nazi concentration camps and filed their stories with leading US magazines. Their reporting offered Americans at home a new understanding of the scale of Nazi brutality.
Reporters were not the only source of information on the thousands of Nazi concentration camps liberated by the Allies in 1944–1945. Prominent military and religious figures visited the camps in order to bear witness and expose Nazi crimes to the American public. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe—who toured the Ohrdruf concentration camp—hoped to inform the US public about the murderous cruelty of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. Similarly, the prominent Methodist clergyman, Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam, visited the camps to educate new generations of Americans about the terrible toll of war and racial hatred in Europe.
American witnesses to the crimes of the Nazi regime came to Germany for a wide variety of reasons. Journalists, photographers, and filmmakers were drawn by professional opportunities and a commitment to keeping Americans informed. Americans who traveled to the Third Reich as tourists or private citizens often documented the regime’s policies of repression and racial persecution. Members of the US military—deployed in Europe to defeat Nazism—became some of the first Americans to see firsthand evidence of Nazi genocide. Although they had different motivations and experiences, these American witnesses provided crucial facts and perspectives that helped shape their fellow citizens’ understandings of Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust.