The Illustrierter Bacillus

While looking through his parents’ attic our writer finds the May 14, 1942, issue of the Nazi party propaganda paper Illustrierter Beobachter. Nobody has any idea how it got there. A look between the pages.

Last month I was in my parents’ attic, sifting through boxes of old books and files, when I came across a browned, slightly tattered copy of the Illustrierter Beobachter. The newspaper, one of two Nazi party press organs, appeared in news kiosks and on front-door steps across Germany from 1926 to April 13, 1944, about a year before V-E Day. I know a thing or two about the Illustrierter Beobachter, having studied German history in college. What I can’t explain is how it ended up in my parents’ attic.

While its sister paper the Völkische Beobachter (People’s Observer) focused on news and criticism, with little in the way of graphics and entertainment, the Illustrierter Beobachter (Illustrated Observer) was quite the opposite—marketed toward the less educated and more easily malleable ranks of the German public, it banked on short stories, photo spreads, and popular histories to reinforce party ideology. The Illustrierter Beobachter was pure propaganda, one of the Nazis’ most effective weapons in keeping the masses in line.

In a certain sense, it shouldn’t be too surprising to find a Nazi newspaper in my parents’ attic—after all it is, like most suburban attics, overflowing with stuff. And I mean ‘stuff’ in the most generic, all-encompassing sense of the word, the accumulated detritus of 17 years, two boys, and a strange cross between WASPish frugality and a seemingly genetic disposition to pack-rat-like collecting—in short, anything and everything that passed through my family’s hands eventually found its final home in the attic.

Nevertheless, no one in my family can account for the newspaper’s appearance. My father has no idea where it came from, nor does my mother. Neither of my grandfathers were ever in a position to meet up with it—one served in the FBI, and so spent World War II stateside; the other served in the Pacific. Like a long-dormant virus, I imagine it passing from host to host, getting picked up inadvertently in a library, passed on with a stack of Southern Livings, and slowly making its way to a cardboard box in Nashville. I brought it back to New York with me, and I keep returning to it, at once both disgusted and fascinated.

The cover is a full-page photo of Hitler and Mussolini meeting outside Salzburg, flanked by a scrum of Wehrmacht generals. The masthead features a swastika carried by an eagle. Inside there are more photos of the two leaders, as well as a two-page spread showing recent German victories along the Eastern Front (at the time this particular issue appeared—May 14, 1942—the Wehrmacht was still doing all right against the Soviets). There are some choice shots of dead soldiers (all Russians); on the next page there are photos of a squad of Germans taking advantage of a sauna found near the Karelian Front, in northern Russia.

But while the paper has its share of war imagery, the majority of the content is decidedly non-military. Most of the paper is taken up by stories—the fourth installment of ‘No Day without Gina,’ by Rudolf Dortenwald, the first half of ‘The Spirit of Today,’ by Hanns Geck, and a serialized biography entitled ‘Cavour: A Life of Italy’s National Unity,’ by Edmund Kauer. Thomas Mann these are not; they’re not even Ernst Jünger. The plots are thin, the pacing didactic, the characters so plain many don’t even have names. Not surprisingly, they press Nazi themes of German purity and feminine subservience, but above all they distract: they don’t discuss the war, or politics, or even the party.

Then there are the ads. Three different spots for three different brands of razors. Mercedes brand shoes. Memphis cigarettes—still a popular brand in Austria today. A small item that reads ‘New! Stop Smoking Now.’ An ad that asks ‘Why a men’s girdle?’ (‘Because,’ it goes on, ‘it makes you slimmer and tighter immediately, and it helps massage away fat’). There are ads for foot powder, radios, makeup, detergents—all the trappings of mid-century industrial society.

The back page is a photo essay featuring a playful German shepherd named Prinz and his fearless companion, a three-month-old kitten named Skippy. There’s a shot of Prinz carrying Skippy in a basket he holds in his mouth (the caption reads ‘A gallant knight’); another of Skippy, white with a black tail, on her hind legs batting at Prinz’s open mouth with her front paws (‘Prinz lets his little friend do anything to him’). The juxtaposition between Prinz and Skippy on the back and Hitler and Mussolini on the front is almost too much.

The paper is banal, though not in Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ sense, in which Eichmann could see himself as a mere railroad engineer as he directed the trains toward Auschwitz. It is pure banality, a diversion full of fancy razors and furry animals. The stories may have made readers laugh, or cry, but what they most certainly did not do is remind them of the terrible war going on just outside their borders.

In May 1942 deportations to Auschwitz were going into high gear. In Warsaw violence was erupting as the Germans tightened their reins around the ghetto. At Sobibor more Jews were gassed that month—36,000—than at any other camp during any other month. And yet the vast majority of Germans knew none of this. For them, the war was dead Soviets, it was photos of their gallant Führer, it was light-hearted scenes of German soldiers emerging from a sauna. It was only years later that they—and the world—learned what was really going on during that month.

Which is why, perhaps against my better judgment, I am going to hold on to my copy of the Illustrierter Beobachter. Part of me wants to burn it; seemingly from nowhere it appeared in my attic, and I’m reminded of the last page of Camus’ The Plague, ‘that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves.’

But I will keep it because I also want to be reminded. To be forced to remember that while we will hopefully never see another regime like the Third Reich, there will always be governments willing to distract, manipulate, and lie to their citizens. I want to look at the pictures of Hitler and Mussolini, smiling broadly, and know that for many people those images were enough to convince them that the Führer was doing no wrong. I want to remember that just because my daily paper says all is going well, reality may say much differently.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen