The day American Jewish organizations put Hitler on trial in front of the crowds at Madison Square Garden.
itler’s eyes are curiously childlike and candid... His voice is as quiet as his black tie… He has the sensitive hand of the artist.”
This description of the Nazi dictator, which was written by a New York Times reporter in Germany in July 1933, was all too typical of American press coverage of Hitler during his first year in power.
The front-page article, “Hitler Seeks Jobs for All Germans,” presented the Nazi leader in sympathetic terms and provided him with a platform for long statements justifying his totalitarian policies and attacks on Jews.
The writer, Times correspondent Anne O’Hare McCormick, gave the Nazi leader paragraph after paragraph to explain his actions as necessary to deal with Germany’s unemployment, improve its roads, and promote national unity. McCormick lobbed the Nazi chief softball questions such as “What character in history do you admire most, Caesar, Napoleon, or Frederick the Great?”
The Times correspondent also described Hitler’s appearance and mannerisms in a strongly positive tone: Hitler is “a rather shy and simple man, younger than one expects, more robust, taller... His eyes are almost the color of the blue larkspur in a vase behind him.”
It was this sort of kid-gloves treatment of the Fuhrer that convinced American Jewish leaders they needed to do something dramatic to expose the Nazi leader’s true nature. Eighty years ago this month, they found a way: they put Hitler on trial in Madison Square Garden.
elatively little was known in America about Hitler when he first came to power, in January 1933. Some prominent newspapers rushed to print with unduly optimistic predictions.
An editorial in the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin claimed that “there have been indications of moderation” on Hitler’s part. The editors of the Cleveland Press asserted that the “appointment of Hitler as German chancellor may not be such a threat to world peace as it appears at first blush.”
At the White House, officials of the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged such thinking. They were quoted in the press as saying that they “had faith that Hitler would act with moderation compared to the extremist agitation [i]n his recent election campaigning...” They based this belief on past events showing that “radical” groups usually moderated once in power.
The news from Germany in the weeks following Hitler’s ascension to power contradicted those optimistic predictions. Professor Stephen H. Norwood of the University of Oklahoma, author of The Third Reich and the Ivory Tower, who is completing a book about American and British responses to Nazism during the early years of Hitler’s rule, told Mishpacha: “Several of the Western commentators most informed about German affairs reported in 1933 that Hitler’s policies and the Nazis’ savage anti-Semitic street violence had transformed Germany into a death trap for its 600,000 Jews. They considered it unlikely that German Jewry would survive beyond a generation.”
There were reports of hundreds of Jews beaten in the streets, jailed without charge, tortured, sometimes killed. Government-orchestrated violence and intimidation were used to force Jewish judges, attorneys, journalists, university professors, orchestra conductors, and musicians out of their jobs. Legislation dismissed Jews from all government jobs and banned them from a whole range of professions, from dentistry to the movie industry. The government even sponsored a one-day nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses, with Nazi storm troopers stationed outside Jewish-owned stores to prevent customers from entering.
President Roosevelt refrained from making any public statements about these attacks. “Had Roosevelt chosen to highlight the plight of the Jews, there is no question the American press also would have followed suit,” Laurel Leff, professor of journalism and Jewish studies at Northeastern University, told Mishpacha. “Presidents set the news agenda to a large extent, particularly on foreign affairs. This tendency was even more pronounced in Roosevelt’s case because he understood journalists so well and manipulated them so effectively.”
Professor Leff notes that at Roosevelt’s press conference on March 24, 1933, a reporter asked whether any organizations had asked him to act in connection with the “reported persecution of the Jews over in Germany by the Hitler government.” Roosevelt replied that “a good many of these have come in,” and they were “all sent to the secretary of state.” Says Professor Leff: “There was no follow-up.”
Hitler on Trial
That sort of journalistic whitewashing drove American Jewish organizations to seek dramatic new ways to expose the nature of Nazism and keep the plight of German Jewry in the public spotlight. In early 1934, the American Jewish Congress announced that it would sponsor a mock trial of Hitler before “the High Court of Humanity,” in New York City’s Madison Square Garden. Numerous prominent nonsectarian groups, including the American Federation of Labor, the American Civil Liberties Union, and Actors Equity, quickly signed on as cosponsors.
German officials were furious. Two days before the trial, German foreign minister Konstantin von Neurath summoned the American ambassador in Berlin, William Dodd, to demand that the US government intervene. Dodd said that if the Germans had raised the issue earlier, “it might have been possible for Roosevelt to dissuade the leaders from such a demonstration on the ground of hurting relations between our two countries.” But now it was too close to the date of the event to do anything.
The trial, called “The Case of Civilization Against Hitlerism,” was held on March 7, 1934. An array of major public figures took part. A former secretary of state, Bainbridge Colby, served as presiding judge, and Samuel Seabury, a prominent attorney, was the lead prosecutor. The Nazi German ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, was invited to appear as defense attorney for Hitler, but he ignored the invitation.
Another member of the prosecution team was Arthur Garfield Hays, one of the most famous criminal defense attorneys of the era. Hays, who was general counsel to the American Civil Liberties Union, had been part of the defense teams in such high-profile cases as the Scopes Monkey Trial, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti (Italian anarchists accused of murder), and the trial of the Scottsboro Boys (nine black teenagers accused of assault in 1930s Alabama). Hays had also assisted in the defense of five Communists accused by Hitler of burning down the Reichstag, the German parliament building, in early 1934. Perhaps inspired by the Madison Square Garden event, Hays would later help organize a “Counter Trial” of the Reichstag suspects, in London, to present their case to the public.
Extraordinary security measures were implemented in and around Madison Square Garden because of rumors that Nazi sympathizers planned to infiltrate and disrupt the event. Two hundred police officers, stationed 20 feet apart, ringed the building. Members of the NYPD bomb squad were placed at the entrances. Another 125 uniformed policemen, and 40 plainclothes detectives, provided security inside.
News reports mention several minor disturbances, but no major incidents. Police broke up a scuffle in the lobby between two ushers and two men who made sympathetic remarks about Nazi Germany. Two men claiming to be German journalists were ejected after refusing to show their identification. More worrisome was a group of about 50 members of the anti-Semitic “Silver Shirts” group, who presented valid tickets and were admitted. Once they took their seats, however, they were surrounded by detectives and evidently caused no trouble.
At 8:30 p.m., before a standing-room-only audience of 20,000, an American Legion bugler blew taps and the audience rose for a moment of silence in honor of those killed in Nazi Germany. A “court crier” then opened the event by calling out, “Hear ye! Hear ye! All those who have business before this court of civilization give your attention and ye shall be heard.”
Twenty-one VIPs from various walks of life appeared as prosecution witnesses, each making a brief presentation and summarizing Hitler’s offenses in a particular area or against a particular group. For example, New York University president Harry Woodburn Chase spoke on behalf of the academic community. Catholic magazine editor Michael Williams represented American Catholic opinion. Dr. Lewellys Barker, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, addressed Hitler’s exploitation of the German medical profession. Gustavus Kirby of the American Olympic Committee focused on the exclusion of Jews from German sports. Editor Stanley High spoke about the mistreatment of writers in Nazi Germany.
Two witnesses appeared on behalf of “American public opinion”: New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and US Senator Millard Tydings, a Democrat from Maryland. The senator was well known for his interest in the plight of German Jewry. In fact, earlier that year, he had introduced a resolution instructing President Roosevelt to “communicate to the government of the German Reich an unequivocal statement of the profound feelings of surprise and pain experienced by the people of the United States upon learning of discriminations and oppressions imposed by the Reich upon its Jewish citizens.” Behind-the-scenes lobbying by Secretary of State Cordell Hull ensured that the resolution was buried in committee.
Only one of the 21 points in the indictment referred to Germany’s Jews. The emphasis was on Hitler’s suppression of civil rights and democracy in general. This was part of the strategy of the established Jewish organizations: seek allies beyond the Jewish community by arguing that Hitler was a menace to everyone, not just Jews.
Prosecution but No Defense
Since the German ambassador failed to respond to the invitation to participate, the mock trial concluded without any one representing Germany’s chancellor. A prominent local church leader, John Haynes Holmes, then took the stage to ask the audience to voice its opinion as to whether, on the basis of the evidence presented, Nazi Germany should be declared guilty of “having turned its face against historic progress and the positive blessings and achievements of modern civilization.”
Although the trial had lasted close to four hours, the New York Times reported that “at least 15,000” of the original 20,000-strong audience was still on hand and “roared their whole-hearted approval” of a “guilty” verdict. But one last bit of drama remained: a solitary shout of “No” was heard from a gallery not far from the speakers’ stand. Identifying herself as “just a woman who firmly believes in Hitler,” the dissenter “was surrounded rapidly by a confused mob, jostling and booing.” Police hustled her into a nearby restroom “and forcibly dispersed the angry anti-Nazi crowd that had followed her.”
The conclusion of the trial was not the end of the matter as far as the Nazi regime was concerned. A week later, the German ambassador in Washington, Hans Luther, called on Secretary of State Hull to personally protest “such offensive and insulting acts.” Hull replied that he hoped that both the American and German people would “in the future exercise such self-restraint as would enable them to refrain from excessive or improper manifestations or demonstrations.”
It was bad enough that the US secretary of state would treat the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews and a peaceful, legal protest against the persecution as comparable. But the Roosevelt administration’s interest in protecting relations with Nazi Germany did not end there. The American ambassador in Berlin, William Dodd, used his contacts with prominent Jews in Chicago to prevent a mock trial of Hitler from being held for a second time in that city. According to Dodd’s private diary, President Roosevelt personally “thanked me for checking the Chicago agitation.”
History on Repeat
“The phenomenon of Western leaders and journalists underestimating dictators did not end in the 1930s,” says historian Ronald Radosh of the Hudson Institute. “In our own time, Soviet leaders were wrongly depicted in the media as pragmatists who wanted to end the Cold War, Castro was hailed as a wise leader — especially by visiting Hollywood stars — and, most recently, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has been widely called a ‘moderate’ even as he brags at home how he has successfully played the United States.
“Sometimes it seems that few have learned the lessons that the past should have taught them.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 503)