by dmitri abrahams
Dmitri Abrahams looks at how the South African media reported on the Holocaust between April and November 1945. He suggests that the different reportage reflected not only the ethos of the publication and their stance on World War II, but also the deeply polarised thinking of the papers’ respective readership -- with regards to both the war as well as what was happening back home in South Africa.
THE liberation of concentration camps in 1945 and the revelation of atrocities committed by Nazi Germany caused major upset in South African society.
As a part of my dissertation on Holocaust memory in South Africa I analysed how the South African press reported on and understood the liberation of the concentration camps. The liberation of the concentration camps by Allied forces happened during an uncoordinated, chaotic period in which information emerged piecemeal. The press had already reported on the persecution and mass murder of European Jewry from at least 1942 so when the news of the liberation of the camps reached South African shores, they had some background with which to engage with the topic which suddenly flooded the pages of their daily and weekly newspapers.
From 11 April 1945 readers of the liberal and centrist newspapers (The Rand Daily Mail, The Cape Times, The Cape Argus, and the Sunday Times) were inundated by news reports of the concentration camps. Reports by international journalists and prisoners of war, along with photographs of the camps featuring victims, survivors, Allied soldiers and preparators were prominently displayed. These papers expressed their shock, horror and dismay at the scenes they were witnessing and encouraged their readers to bear witness to the atrocities committed in the camps. For example, the Rand Daily Mail stated under a photo of a victim “We regret the necessity of printing this picture, but we consider it our duty to do so for the public to gain the full picture of the Nazis cruelty.” A Cape Argus correspondent wrote “let every man, woman and child in the union see what a Nazi victory would have meant.” The act of ‘bearing witness’ allowed readers to see the barbarity of the nation against whom they had fought. The press believed that Germany as a nation was guilty of the crimes committed in the camps and the German public knew what was being perpetrated. In a country where support for the war had been divided, the camps represented irrefutable proof that the war had been justified. This sentiment would be repeated constantly.
Despite the importance placed on the revelations of the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany, the reports were never published on the front page of these papers. Rather, most of these newspapers published photographs with extended captions on the front page and then, in the dailies, continued the story on page 3, and pages 6 to 12 in the weeklies. The name of the camp appeared in the headlines. The editors may have done this to compel readers to look at the images and then turn to the relevant pages for more information. Their decision bore fruit as reader engagement was relatively high during this period. Many readers wrote letters to the editors, thanking them for publishing these images and implying that it was the South African public’s duty to look at these images to understand why the war was necessary and for the South African government to visit these sites and see first-hand the atrocities committed there.
The initial reports in most of the liberal press do not name any specific group of victims. Instead, the press referred to both victims and survivors of the camps by their nationality, as slave labourers, as anti-Nazi Germans or as political prisoners. For example, the Sunday Times published a photo from Ohrdruf, a subcamp of Buchenwald, with the following caption “Nazi SS Death camp…the courtyard was littered with the bodies of slave labourers.”
The reasons for the absence of more specific language can be explained by the fact that the press was working with an outdated conceptualization of a concentration camp established in the early and mid-1930s, when concentration camps primarily housed political prisoners. This misunderstanding was compounded by their focus on the camps in Western Europe, and not the main camps that peppered eastern Europe. This does not mean that the annihilation of European Jewry wasn’t spoken about during this early period. It was most often mentioned in connection with the San Francisco Conference at which the establishment of a Jewish state was discussed. The press cited the Holocaust as one of the main motivators for the establishment of a Jewish state.
As more information about the camps became available, the press did start naming specific groups of victims. For Jewish survivors and victims, the phrase used to describe what we know as the Holocaust went through several iterations. South African Jewish communal leaders were often quoted using a slight variation of “the murdered/martyred Jews of Europe”, whilst the liberal press was more likely to use “the massacre of the Jews.” From October 1945 onwards the “extermination of the Jews” was the phrase more commonly used by the liberal press, with the term “extermination” only used in relation to Jewish victims.
The press filtered the news of the camps through a local lens. Using images, film, eyewitness and parliamentary reports, the liberal press reinforced the image of Germany as the enemy, the necessity of the war, and to lambast the Nationalist Party’s support of Germany during the war.
Coverage of the Holocaust by the black press (The Bantu World, Ilanga, Umteteli wa Bantu and Inkundla ya Bantu) was sporadic with a few in-depth reports published during the first three months after liberation. Unlike the liberal press, no first-hand accounts were published during this period. When articles were published, they did not appear on the front page. Usually, they appeared as an editorial or on the pages for world news. All the articles on the camps, however, were inextricably connected to racial discrimination in South Africa and the dangers that fascism posed to black people, both locally and aboard. The discussion on the camps was used to highlight the persecution black people endured in segregationist South Africa, including similarity between discriminatory laws in Germany and South Africa. The editor of Ilanga, Lase Natal, stated it most clearly when he wrote “the same people who deplored and fought against the Nazis for the same evil legislate, practice and preach it to the maximum against the black people.” Whilst the black press was explicit that the Holocaust and what was happening in South Africa weren’t fully comparable, they hoped that knowledge of the Holocaust, and the war in general, would bring about significate change for black South Africans.
The black press published very few images from the camps. When photos were published, they were connected to the situation in South Africa and the continued need to fight against Nazism. The editor of the Bantu World wrote “if you get impatient at the progress being made for our people take a look at the image above for a moment and be reminded that had the Nazis not been defeated it could’ve been you laying in a common grave.” The Bantu World was also the only publication to print a photo of a survivor. The photo’s caption and the accompanying article seems to suggest that the paper wanted to create a more personal connection to the Holocaust for their readers.
The black press was also the only media to mention the Herero-Nama Genocide in connection to the Holocaust, stating that “before they turned their weapons against their own citizenry, they arrested, tortured and killed Herero and Nama men, women and children.” For the black press, one of the salient aspects of the Nazi’s genocidal plan was that they had persecuted, imprisoned and murdered not just their enemies but their own citizens.
Coverage in the Afrikaans press (Die Burger, Die Transvaler and Die Vaderland) of the liberation of the concentration camps was sporadic and limited. Unlike the other publications, at first, the Nationalist papers did not give credence to the reports coming out of Europe. As more information emerged from different sources, they were forced to respond. Despite acknowledging the reports as true, they intentionally obscured and diminished news of the camps by various means.
Die Burger, despite publishing some articles on the camps, obscured the news by placing these on the back pages of the newspaper. Another method they used was publishing trivial news in the middle of such a report. For example, in the middle of an article on Bergen Belsen by the British Parliament, they published an article on the price of butter in Pretoria. Until it was called out, Die Transvaler simply didn’t publish anything on the camps. The paper responded by saying that there were more important news events on which to report. Die Vaderland, the only Nationalist paper to publish photos from the camps, made their derision clear with headlines such as “Alleged Atrocities” and “the British said they saw this.”
All three Nationalist papers questioned the motivation of the Allies for publishing the reports and images of the camps. Initially they claimed that this was simply Allied propaganda designed to discredit Germany. When forced to confront that reports were true, they insisted that atrocities committed by both sides should be brought to light. Die Transvaler and Die Vaderland also distracted their readers by prominently publishing correspondence between Eric Louw, a Nationalist member of parliament, and Mr Karowsky, a Jewish reader, with Die Vaderland endorsing Louw’s call that any South African delegation should visit Russia and several sites in Europe to investigate atrocities committed by the Allies.
When it could no longer combat the mountain of evidence, the papers simply ignored the reports and focused on the suffering of the German people. Instead of publishing photos of the concentration camps, they published photos of destroyed historical sites in Germany, and, to elicit sympathy, published pictures of malnourished German women and children. When the liberal press and their readership were calling for the establishment of funds for survivors, the Nationalist papers, in contrast, supported the establishment of a fund to assist the German people.
The reportage of the Holocaust in the South African press reflected the ethos of the publication and their stance on the war. Undoubtedly it also reflected the polarised thinking of the papers’ respective readership, with regards to both World War II as well as what was happening back home in South Africa.
Dmitri Abrahams is an archivist at the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre and a postgraduate student in the Historical Studies Department, the University of Cape Town. This article is an extract from his dissertation on the development of Holocaust memory in South Africa. For his research project he analysed several newspapers from April - November 1945, with the highest circulation figures, marketed towards different racial groups in the country to uncover how the public consumed, engaged with and transmitted the news of the Holocaust.