As World War II staggered to an end, readers of the St. Louis Dispatch may have noticed a photo of a captured Polish commander en route to prison after a failed revolt in 1944. The photo was “supplied by a German agency,” the caption read, and provided in the U.S. by the Associated Press. But the photo—and thousands that appeared in American and German papers during the war—was not what it seemed. It turns out it was traded to the AP by the Nazis in return for American photos as part of a top-secret, government-approved arrangement.
A new report reveals the details of the Associated Press’ “extraordinary” arrangement with the Third Reich, reports Michael S. Rosenwald for The Washington Post. It’s the result of a year-long review that took place after a German historian revealed the agency’s ties to the regime.
As Smithsonian.com reported last year, archival documents suggested that the AP made a deal with the Nazis during World War II, trading access for editorial control. Though the agency denied colluding with the Nazis, it admitted that it came under pressure from the regime in the years leading up to 1941, when it was expelled from Germany along with other journalists—and that it used photos from a subsidiary organization that had access to Nazi-controlled images for the rest of the war.
The revelations prompted an extensive internal review and a report detailing the agency’s operations in Germany before and after World War II. The agency looked not just in its own archives, but at documents the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration declassified on its request.
The review revealed that before the war, the AP initially reported on the Nazi regime without interference. But in 1935, the AP “let go” of its Jewish employees in response to Nazi pressure, and things heated up for journalists as the Third Reich cracked down on free expression within Germany. As American journalists left the country in droves, the AP decided to stay.
Things changed in 1941, when the Nazis expelled all foreign news organizations. They’d already pushed out American journalists like Dorothy Thompson, who was kicked out in 1934 because of reports critical of Hitler. But then the AP was forced out, its American staff arrested and its German photo service taken over by the Nazis—and the agency had to decide what to do.
Its solution, the report reveals, was to work with Helmut Laux, the Waffen SS photographer who was in charge of the photo agency the Nazis had commandeered. He arranged a trade: AP photos from abroad in exchange for Nazi-censored photos from inside Germany. “The AP sought and was given a green light for this wartime arrangement by the U.S. government,” the agency writes.
But though the report insists that the arrangement was for the good of the American reading public, Rosenwald found evidence that likely thousands of Nazi propaganda photos were misidentified as AP ones. The AP denies that they distributed Nazi propaganda, but the end result seems to have been that American readers regularly saw photos provided by master manipulators of the Third Reich.
In turn, American photos were filtered to German readers through a Nazi lens. Third Reich censors apparently put new captions on AP photos that included propagandistic takes on current events. And in at least one case, the report says, they physically altered a photo, removing a Union Jack from a picture taken in North Africa to make it seem like the U.S. “was planning imperial expansion on its own."
Though the U.S. Office of Censorship gave the thumbs-up to the deal, American counterintelligence apparently wasn’t clued in. In 1946, they reported that the Nazis altered the captions of AP photos “in a manner favorable to the Germans” and that they were possibly used as German propaganda. They suggested that AP executives be prosecuted under the Trading With the Enemy Act, a broad 1917 law designed to punish civilians for dealings with hostile forces. But the suggestion was dropped a week later, once it was revealed that the Office of Censorship had okayed the arrangement.
In a release, the AP says that the photos it distributed during the war “provided the public important views.” But though the agency admits it should have refused to employ Nazis and ought to have put up a bigger fight against German manipulation of AP photos, the deal’s very existence raises serious questions about how a not-so-free press influenced public perceptions of the war.
“I was convinced that the end of the war would bring a solution to all problems,” wrote Willy Brandt, an AP employee who helped broker the deal, in a previously unpublished manuscript released along with the report. Seventy-two years after the end of the war, it’s unclear if those problems—and the ethical quandaries of a quid pro quo agreement between a press agency and a totalitarian government—will ever be resolved.