In February 1937, National Geographic published “Changing Berlin,” a 47-page feature story by Douglas Chandler. According to Bob Poole, a former NGM editor and the author of Explorers House: National Geographic and the World It Made, Chandler…
“… painted a happy portrait of Berlin, a glittering city where red banners with bold black swastikas rippled along Unter Den Linden; where New Age architecture displaced tired old buildings; where coal was given to the needy in winter; where industry generously provided proper housing for thousands of employees; where ‘flaxen-haired, sun-crisped youths’ splashed in the river and grew strong….
[By April 1939] it was likely that Chandler was on the payroll of Paul Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, and probably had been since 1935, long before La Gorce and Bert had launched Chandler’s National Geographic career” (Poole, p. 175-7).
Chandler’s Berlin story, Poole writes, “proved to be perhaps the biggest embarrassment in the history of the National Geographic Society.” It also grew from National Geographic’s fascination with fascism:
“… The month following Chandler’s piece, the magazine published ‘Imperial Rome Reborn,’ an article by John Patric on Mussolini’s Italy, which was only slightly less admiring of Il Duce than Chandler’s ode to Berlin.
… As Europe deteriorated, and Hitler and Mussolini’s true intentions were widely revealed, it would become increasingly difficult for National Geographic magazine to remain above the fray, a position from which it had advanced the view that the fascist regimes of the late 1930s were efficient, benign, even admirable. Coming from a respected magazine like National Geographic, this had been peerless propaganda” [emphasis added] (Poole, p. 176).
On the bright side, National Geographic eventually recognized the threat of fascism, and underwent an editorial transformation: the Magazine would provide vocal support for the Allied war effort and, in subsequent decades, NGM regularly published stories that celebrated the blessings of democracy.
We sincerely hope it’s a lesson our Society will never forget. Sometimes, though, we look and we worry.
(For more about The Hitler Meme, see this.)