if you can, Berlin in November 1938, the grim capital of a savage
ideology heading deeper into horror and
cruelty. The New York Times correspondent has just emerged
from an interview with the Fuhrer. It is an exclusive. His editor
will be pleased. On the way home the Times man passes a looted
synagogue, and the broken bodies of those who were worshiping there.
Elsewhere, homes and businesses are being ransacked, and their occupants
are under attack. Other victims are rounded up and dragged to the
concentration camps from which far too few will ever emerge. Filing
a report that night, the journalist prefers not to dwell on such
distasteful events. Instead he contents himself with a comment that
stories of a Kristallnacht pogrom had been exaggerated. Yes,
there had been some scattered excesses, but they had been the work
of a few hotheads, nothing more.
Delighted by the coverage, the Nazi hierarchy gives the correspondent
privileged access. He becomes the doyen of the Third Reich's foreign
press corps, the essential contact for every new visitor to Berlin.
In the ultimate accolade the journalist wins a Pulitzer Prize for
the "scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional
clarity" of his reporting from Germany.
In the years that follow, of course, it becomes impossible to deny
the reality of Hitler's charnel-house state. The reporter is revealed
for what he really was, evil's enabler, a greedy, venal man, whose
soothing words had done much to calm the fears of an outside world
that might otherwise have tried to step in to stop the slaughter.
Amazingly, however, more than 60 years later his Pulitzer still
stands, and with it, his distinguished place in the history of the
New York Times. Last month, the newspaper, as it does once
every year, proudly published the honor roll of its Pulitzer-winning
writers. It is not difficult to find the name of the dictator's
apologist. It is right up there near the top, fitting company, in
the view of the New York Times for the other journalists
on the list: Walter Duranty is still, it is clear, a man with whom
the Grey Lady is in love.
It is a remarkable, and disgusting, story. Sadly, it is also true,
with only one qualification. The journalist, Walter Duranty, was
a propagandist for Stalin not Hitler, the evil that he was to witness
took place in the Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany.
For well over a decade, Duranty's influential reports from Moscow
described a Soviet Union run by a tough, but dedicated, elite, who
could, he conceded, be cruel, but only in the cause of improving
the lives of the people. As the Times man liked to say, "you
can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
To Duranty, Stalin ("the greatest living statesman") represented
progress and the chance of a better future for the once benighted
masses. In one typical passage he gushed that, "Stalin and his associates
have carried with them the strongest and most intelligent elements
of the Russian people, and have created a national unity and enthusiasm
which the Tsarist Empire never knew. They have learnt by their own
errors and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, and the
nation has followed them." It was, he wrote, "a heroic chapter in
the life of humanity."
That this "heroic chapter" was to prove fatal for large numbers
of that same humanity did not seem to trouble Duranty too much.
"I'm a reporter," he explained, "not a humanitarian." In fact, he
was neither, something that can be seen most clearly from his treatment
of the Ukrainian famine of 1932-3. This man-made famine, a deliberate
attempt to break the Ukrainian peasantry, is one of history's most
terrible episodes (In his Harvest of Sorrow Robert Conquest
estimates the death toll in the Ukraine and neighboring regions
at seven million). Walter Duranty of the New York Times,
however, did what he could to cover it up.
It was behavior that puts the Pulitzer winner in the same moral
category as the present day's Holocaust deniers, if not somewhere
worse. Today's revisionists, I suppose, can at least claim the excuse
that they were not there. By contrast, Duranty was right on the
spot, in Moscow and briefly, even, in the killing fields of the
Ukraine itself. He knew. Privately, he told British diplomats
that as many as ten million people might have died, "The Ukraine,"
he admitted, "had been bled white."
Publicly, however, his story was very different. He claimed that
tales of a famine were "bunk," "exaggeration," or "malignant propaganda."
There was "no actual starvation." As other accounts of the tragedy
filtered out, Duranty was forced to backpedal a little: his reports
still avoided references to famine, but he conceded that the annual
death rate in the affected areas might have trebled from its normal
level of around one million to a total of three million. These unfortunates
had perished not so much from "actual starvation as from manifold
disease." It is an absurd distinction, as grotesque as any made
by those revisionists who argue that many of the deaths in the Nazi
camps were the product of typhus. Typically, such people will then
sidestep the issue as to why it was that those victims were in the
camps in the first place. Duranty took a similar approach. The increase
in the death rate by two million was presented to his readers as
an almost passive tense disaster: it just happened, nobody was really
In reality, of course, the famine was, as Duranty well understood,
the organized product of a murderous regime. Had he told the truth,
he could have saved lives. When today's revisionists deny the Shoah,
their lies, thankfully, have little or no impact. They are simply
irrelevant. Duranty's distortions, by contrast, helped mute international
criticism of Stalin's lethal project at a crucial time, criticism
that might, perhaps, have made the killing machine at least pause.
Instead, the "Great Duranty" kept quiet, pocketed his Pulitzer,
and crossed the Atlantic the following year in the company of the
Soviet foreign minister, who was on his way to Washington to sign
off on U.S. diplomatic recognition of the Stalinist state. Within
four years an emboldened Stalin had launched the Great Terror.
As I said, it is a disgusting story, but not a new one. Back in
1974, Joe Alsop used his final syndicated column to attack Duranty's
pro-Soviet stance, and Robert Conquest covered the same ground in
rather more detail a few years later. 1990 saw renewed focus on
this subject with the publication of Stalin's Apologist,
S. J. Taylor's invaluable biography of Duranty. The New York
Times responded with a favorable review of Ms. Taylor's book
and an editorial comment that Walter Duranty had produced "some
of the worst reporting to appear in [the] newspaper," citing, in
particular his "lapse" in covering the Ukrainian famine.
That, at least, was a start, but eleven years later Duranty's name
still features in the paper's annual honor roll of Pulitzer winners
(the only change has been that he is now described as having won
the award for his "coverage of the news from Russia," previously
he was lauded for his "dispassionate interpretive reporting" of
the news from Russia). For a journal that prides itself on its sensitivity
this is another remarkable "lapse," one made stranger still by the
Times's understanding in other contexts that the symbols
of the past can still hurt. Its attacks on, say, the continued display
of the Confederate flag might have more moral force if the paper
could bring itself to stop its own annual celebration of an employee
who was, in effect, a propagandist for genocide.
Nobody should ask the Times to rewrite history (that's something
best left to Stalinists), but a Pulitzer Prize has, in the past,
been withdrawn. It is a precedent that the paper should urge be
followed in the case of Duranty, not for his opinions (loathsome
though they may have been) but for the lies, evasions, and fabrications
that characterized the reporting that won him his award. Beyond
that, the paper should ask itself just what else it is going to
do to make some amends to the memory of the millions of dead, victims
whose murder was made just that little bit easier by the work of
the man from the New York Times.
An apology might be a start.