Even as horrors exposed, AP news agency kept secret pact with Nazis

BERLIN — When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, American correspondents in Germany left. Most reporters had already undergone difficult years of reporting under the Nazis, and major foreign photo agencies had already departed earlier, following the 1934 “Editors Law,” which stipulated only Aryans with proven loyalty to the regime could work as journalists.

The Associated Press photo department, however, stayed. According to archive material recently unearthed by German historian Harriet Scharnberg, the AP kept working under the auspices of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda and employed Germans — among them one of the most prominent SS photographers, Franz Roth.

The discovery was published last year. Now, German researcher and fellow at the University of Vienna’s history department, Norman Domeier, found documents that reveal more about the full extent of the cooperation.

“You would think that with the entry of the US into the war there would be a final cut,” said Domeier. “But the surprising thing is, there was no cut. The German AP company continued working, in agreement with their New York office. They simply continued.”

Between 1941 and 1945 — when the Nazis were systematically murdering Europe’s Jews and the US and Germany officially became enemies of war — the Associated Press and the German regime exchanged tens of thousands of pictures.

It was a deal that gave the news agency a competitive advantage over others. And the Nazis used the pictures they received from overseas for their own propaganda purposes — Hitler himself had them regularly delivered to his office, according to a letter Domeier found in a US archive.

The Associated Press photographs the third anniversary of National Socialism's accession to power in 1933 widely celebrated throughout Germany on Feb. 11, 1936. At noon, Adolf Hitler assembled 25,000 of his oldest stormtroop comrades in the Lustgarten in Berlin. (AP Photo)

In the 40-page letter, a former German AP employee named Willy Brandt — not to be confused with the German chancellor — reports about the cooperation. Dated 1946, it was addressed to the former Berlin AP bureau chief Louis Paul Lochner. In an attempt to acquit himself, Brandt confesses to the secret exchange of pictures with his former boss. Brandt describes the special photo press department called “Buero Laux,” organized jointly by the Nazi Foreign Office and the SS, which took over the former AP photo agency and absorbed its employees.

Asked about the “Buero Laux” by The Times of Israel, the Associated Press media relations director replied in an email that the AP photo agency was usurped by the Nazis and that “AP did not cooperate with the Nazi regime.” It is a statement, however, that has seemingly been disproven by the historic evidence.

An Associated Press photograph shows some of over 132,000 members of the Hitler youth assembled at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, Germany on May 1, 1939 (AP Photo)

In his 1946 letter, Brandt writes that he traveled to Stockholm twice to meet an AP correspondent whom he knew from Berlin AP bureau times. Domeier points out that the Swedish picture agency “Pressens Bild” was used as a cover-up for the exchange of photos, which were sent through Sweden.

From the AP’s point of view, there is no problem with this exchange, which it says was authorized by the US government.

But who authorized it, and to what extent? Was it Franklin D. Roosevelt himself? These are questions that, in the meantime, remain unanswered.

Cover of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda book, 'Juden in den USA' or, 'Jews in the USA,' which contains photos taken by the AP. (Courtesy Scharnberg)

As the AP wrote to The Times of Israel, “The Associated Press carefully vetted the images it received and distributed a portion to its global customers based on their news value and timeliness, rejecting propaganda. The images, which gave the public views inside Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied countries while war was raging, were captioned to make clear their German origins.”

Yet the images selected for exchange, of course, reflected the Nazi narrative of historic events. They were taken by members of the SS — which goes unmentioned in the captions. Their selection for publication in the foreign overseas press was a strategic act of propaganda by the Nazis.

In his letter, Brandt quotes the head of the photo department, SS-Lieutenant Colonel Helmut Laux, as having said, “Considering existing circumstance, it is definitely an advantage to the German cause if a German picture is established in the neutral foreign press at all. (…) We’ll offer these pictures to AP first, for which they will send us their own material.”

The research about which pictures were used on both sides, where they were published and how they were sourced is only just beginning. Since Laux was the personal photographer of Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, it would seem that photos of Nazi leaders — portraying them as heroes — found their way into American newspapers.

Photocollage cover of 'Der Untermensch' ('The Subhuman'), a 52-page SS pamphlet that used images taken by the Associated Press (Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin)

On the other side, for example, Domeier found an AP picture published in the German weekly Berliner Illustrierte Zietung in 1942. It shows an Allied flag parade in Algiers after American troops landed in North Africa. The original, still on sale in the AP archive today, includes a British flag. In the 1942 German publication, the British flag was blotted out so as to fit to the caption “And so England’s glory is passing,” and support the narrative that England and France were giving in to a new American empire.

Harriet Scharnberg (Courtesy)

How did the exchange of pictures contribute to shaping the public’s view of historic events? What motifs are shown, and how? And what is omitted when dictators are the ones determining the photographic narrative?

While historians still search to find answers concerning the post-1941 period, Harriet Scharnberg from Halle’s Martin Luther University has argued that the AP’s cooperation with the Hitler regime before 1941 allowed the Nazis to “portray a war of extermination as a conventional war.”

Furthermore, in the 1930s the Nazis used AP photos for widespread anti-Semitic publications. In “The Jews in the USA,” the Associated Press is the number one photo source. In the SS-training booklet “The Untermensch,” (“The Subhuman”) AP ranks third as the provider of photos, and in Hans Hinkel’s “Jewish Quarters of Europe” it is second.

At present, AP is working on a review of the company’s operations during the Nazi era. No answer was given to the question of when AP would open its archive completely to independent researchers.

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