H.R. Knickerbocker: Sounding the Alarm

Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker. Source: German Federal Archive/Wikimedia Commons

By Sonner Kehrt

Towards the tumultuous end of Germany’s Weimar Republic, Hubert Renfro Knickerbocker, an American journalist, asked a member of the National Socialist Party what the party would do if it came to power. He expected the man to reply with a lengthy response about party priorities, Knickerbocker recounts in his 1932 book The German Crisis. Instead, he writes, the man replied with just two words: “Keep it.”

Knickerbocker had come to Germany for psychology. He’d studied psychology at Columbia University, and while he worked as a reporter for several years afterwards, he moved to Munich in 1923 with the intention of continuing his studies. But he found himself sidetracked. In November of that year, Hitler and two thousand Nazis marched into Munich and attempted to seize power from the Weimar Republic government. The “Beer Hall Putsch” failed, and Hitler went to jail — he would use his time there to write Mein Kampf. But the event convinced Knickerbocker of the fragility of the Weimar Republic, and he abandoned his psychology studies to report on German politics. He would spend the next twenty years as one of the United States’ most persistent voices on the dangers of Nazism and the severity of the crisis on Germany.

Throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s, Knickerbocker reported from Berlin, and briefly from Moscow, on the political events in Germany and the Soviet Union as chief correspondent for the New York Evening Post and the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and as a European correspondent for the International News Service. He was also a columnist for the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, and he published six books in German during his time in Berlin. In 1931, Knickerbocker won the Pulitzer Prize in Correspondence for a series of articles on the Soviet Five-Year Plan.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, Knickerbocker’s critical views of the Nazi party forced him to leave Germany. Instead of returning to the United States, he traveled and reported extensively in Europe, and in 1934, he published a book, Will War Come to Europe?, which suggested the possibility of a major war on the continent. Knickerbocker continued to report on the events in Germany and Europe in the 1930s, and in the early 1940s, he traveled throughout the United States, giving speeches urging the country to enter the war. In 1941, Knickerbocker published a book on the subject, Is Tomorrow Hitler’s?

Knickerbocker’s work was well-reported, grounded in broad interviews, hard numbers, affidavits, and personal observations, and his location in Berlin and later elsewhere in Europe afforded him a close view of the atrocities unfolding in Germany. As early as 1933, in his book The Truth About Hitlerism, a synthesis of his articles on Hitler and the Nazis, Knickerbocker wrote, “Not even in Czarist Russia, with its “pale,” have the Jews been subject to a more violent campaign of murderous agitation than in Germany since the rise of National Socialism.”

But Knickerbocker’s careful and tenacious reporting often fell on deaf ears. In Germany, Knickerbocker describes a general disbelief that the Nazis would come to power, and if they did, that they would carry out such an atrocious agenda. And in the United States, particularly in the 1930s, the events in Europe seemed far away and irrelevant. Moreover, anti-semitism and a resultant disbelief in the extent of Nazi atrocities was not uncommon; a 1933 letter to the editor of the Evening Post reflects this: “The Knickerbocker articles in the Evening Post were paid for by the Jewish Congress. Christians beware.”

In spite of this, Knickerbocker never diluted his rhetoric, even at the risk of alienating those who disagreed with him. Ultimately, his commitment lost him his German-language platform and audience when he was forced to leave Germany. But even from afar, Knickerbocker continued to believe that what he had encountered in Germany was worth reporting on, and he covered the topic through the end of the war.

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