What did the average American know about Hitler's atrocities in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s? How did local newspapers report on the Holocaust? And what can we learn from the press's failure to prominently cover the tragic events of the time?

With the goal of answering these fraught questions, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is embarking on an unprecedented crowdsourced history project. One month out of beta, their History Unfolded initiative asks "citizen historians" to search online archives and their hometown libraries to better understand how local newspapers reported on the Holocaust. 

While some of these reader-submitted pieces may be part of a 2018 exhibition on Americans and the Holocaust, the immediate goal of the project is to "challenge assumptions about American knowledge of and responses to the Holocaust," while also teaching citizens how to use primary sources in historical research. I spoke with members of the History Unfolded team about the challenge of turning citizens into researchers, the gems they've already uncovered, and what the History Unfolded project might teach us about empathy and awareness today. 

HistoryBuffNow that you're a few weeks out of beta, what kind of results are you seeing?

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Team: We are very excited by the results we’ve seen so far. When we launched History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust, we really didn’t know what we might find. Nor did we know who might participate once we moved beyond a small number of beta testers, including groups of teachers with whom the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a close relationship. So far, more than 500 participants have submitted over 800 articles to the project, and approximately 85% of these articles have been approved for publication on the site. To date, these articles have come from newspapers published in 46 states and the District of Columbia. 

As with most crowdsourcing endeavors, the success of this project will rest largely on the dedication of a small number of “power users.” Indeed, out of the 500+ registered participants, about 10 of them are responsible for more than half of the content submitted. That said, one of the major challenges of this project is that the primary sources targeted for research -- smaller, local, and regional historical newspapers -- are often available only on microfilm at libraries and historical societies. This means we will have to build a grassroots corps of power users in regions around the country if the project is to meet its full potential.

HB: Can you talk a bit about the goals of this project?

USHMM: We launched History Unfolded with a two-fold goal in mind. One was to answer a real historical research question: how did small, local, and regional US papers report on Holocaust-era events in Europe and the United States? The other was to create an excellent experience for participants: they would learn about their local community, learn about the Holocaust, learn how historical research works, and gain new research skills, while joining a nationwide community of fellow citizen historians and contributing to a major project of the Holocaust Museum, as well as overall historical scholarship. To this time, the largest body of scholarship on American newspapers and the Holocaust has focused on large papers (the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, etc.). No project has attempted to take on the broader question of how Americans reading other papers would have encountered the Holocaust, nor undertaken a systematic study of local papers nationwide.

For the Museum, the project sits within a much larger initiative about Americans and the Nazi threat. For the next 10 years, we will be exploring questions around what Americans knew at the time, and how they responded to the threat of Nazism and the persecution and murder of European Jews. Many of the research decisions that drive History Unfolded (which events our citizen historians would research, for instance) have been based on the needs of the curator of the exhibition that will open in spring 2018 at the Holocaust Museum, in conjunction with this initiative. By contributing to the History Unfolded database, which is accessible online by anyone, citizen historians help the curator---and potentially other scholars of this period---better understand what kinds of information was available to ordinary Americans in communities throughout the United States, how this information was presented and understood within the context of competing concerns, and what actions, if any, were being advocated in the press. In addition, the curator intends to incorporate information added to the History Unfolded database into the exhibition, and has already included articles found by citizen historians on the idea boards from which the exhibition will be generated.  

There are larger participation goals as well: ultimately, we aim to engage 20% of high school students and public libraries throughout the United States in this project. We also want to ensure coverage from every state, and have set a goal of receiving information from 50% of papers in circulation in 1940. We are also interested in how non-English-language papers, the African-American press, and other papers targeted at particular ethnic or affinity groups reported on the Holocaust. Overall, we’re looking to compile a large enough data set of accurate information about local and regional news reports during the 1930s and 1940s to influence new scholarship and public understanding of Americans and the Holocaust.

HB: What sorts of challenges are you anticipating in this project?

USHMM: Our biggest challenge is that we are asking a great deal of participants, many of whom have no prior experience or background performing historical research. Most have never worked with microfilm; many have never even read a real, printed newspaper! (Fortunately, we made a tutorial for that.) We are asking them to engage in real historical research, which can be a tedious process requiring investigation of historical newspaper collections on microfilm at a local library. As with any authentic research process, one can search through a newspaper and find nothing. In many cases, newspapers did NOT report on specific Holocaust-related events. It takes perspective and patience to understand that finding nothing gives us important information, too! However, there’s no getting around the fact that it is much more exciting to find something, than it is to find nothing. That said, for folks who invest their time in the project, it is definitely a rewarding experience. You will find something eventually, and it is a great feeling to know that you are contributing to something bigger than yourself.

HB: This feels like a rare opportunity for a history project to engage a large group of people on multiple levelsboth from a Holocaust education standpoint but also by informing readers about primary source research. Is there any precedent for this type of "citizen history" project that you're going off?

USHMM: This is not the first “citizen history” project that the Museum has tried. Back in 2007, we launched a project called Children of the Lodz Ghetto: A Memorial Research Project. This project was an experiment, and it never really left its beta stage. We learned a lot from the experience that has informed how we have approached the History Unfolded project. That said, there are not many precedents for “citizen history” (a few notable exceptions are the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center and Zooniverse’s Operation War Diary). The Museum has looked to “citizen science” (which is more established) for inspiration. Many citizen science and citizen history projects tend to limit participation to transcription, data collection, and similar efforts, which require a minimum level of effort (and knowledge) from would-be participants. Our approach has been slightly different. Philosophically, we’ve favored an approach that is fundamentally educational and demands a lot of participants. Think of it as a contract between the Museum and participants in which we agree to work and learn together. We ask a lot of our citizen historians, and offer a rewarding learning experience in return, including the opportunity to make a real contribution to history. (Whether this philosophy bears out is something that we look forward to evaluating.) First and foremost, citizen history is not busywork: it is work with a purpose, to answer a question that could not be answered completely without the contributions of a broad range of participants.

HB: Recently, a 1922 NYT profile of Hitler, in which his anti-semitism is severely downplayed, went viral online, with many drawing explicit comparison to the way the media has treated Donald Trump. Does the timing of this project have anything to do with the renewed discussion of fascism in American politics?

USHMM: The simple answer is “no.” The Holocaust Museum began work on a concept for what became History Unfolded in early 2014. So, it pre-dated any contemporary discussions related to the 2016 presidential campaign. That said, an educational goal of the project is for participants to consider how political considerations economic uncertainty, fear of foreigners and communism, isolationism, and concerns about national security influenced American attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s toward events in Europe, particularly in regard to immigration and refugee policy, rescue operations, and, ultimately, entry into the war. By compelling audiences to think critically about this period in American history, the Holocaust Museum hopes they will be able to take the lessons of this history and apply them to contemporary relevance, such as how we respond (or don’t respond) to crises and societal threats in our communities and in the world today.

HB: Many people may be surprised to learn of how little the New York Times prioritized Holocaust reporting in their coverage. There are several instances of the Times burying stories dealing with the murder of Jews. What do you think accounts for this?

USHMM: How the New York Times covered the Holocaust has been the subject of much research, most notably by Laurel Leff in her 2005 book Buried by The Times: The Holocaust and America’s Most Important Newspaper. Examining the role of news editors, Leff found that the New York Times — from September 1st, 1939, to May 1945 — published 1,186 stories about what we would now describe as the Holocaust. She also found that almost all of those stories were placed inside the newspaper. Leff only found six front-page stories that were about the extermination and that clearly identified Jews as the primary victims.

It’s not entirely clear why articles were placed where they were in the Times, but it’s important to keep in mind that the paper could only use a small fraction of the news available to it, and less than five percent of that content would appear on the front page.

It is also important to keep in mind the context of the time. Americans did not understand the Nazi persecution of the Jews as we do now; there was no concept of “the Holocaust.” Equally important, more than half of the American population harbored antisemitic attitudes in the 1930s and 1940s. Much of American society was not welcoming to African Americans, Catholics, or Jews. So it should not be surprising that newspapers, including the Timeswould have eschewed what many viewed as a “Jewish” story.

HBOne thing many of us may not immediately consider is how large of a role local news played in people's lives at this time. There wasn't this monolith of knowledge across the country — your awareness of the world was very much defined by the most immediately available media. From what you've learned so far, what made some local papers more likely to report on the Holocaust?

USHMM: So far, in all honesty, we don’t know what made some local papers more likely to report on the Holocaust. Many papers throughout the United States relied upon wire services for international content. We’ve seen many AP articles repurposed by local papers to provide coverage of stories related to the threat of Nazism and the persecution and murder of European Jews. So, whether or not the the wire services picked up a story was certainly a factor for whether it was reported in local press. Another factor was probably the paper’s subscription base. Jewish newspapers, Catholic newspapers, and German-language newspapers showed interest in specific stories because of the real and perceived interest of their target readership. A related area of interest, which we are currently investigating is whether there were any trends in how newspapers, with Jewish owners, but targeting a general audience, covered the Holocaust. One of the criticisms leveled at Arthur Sulzberger, owner of the New York Times, was that he was not aggressive enough in covering the Holocaust because he did not want to give the appearance of granting Jews special treatment. Like many Jews in prominent positions, he also was concerned that too much focus on Jews might fuel American antisemitism.  We will be interested to see if Jewish owners of smaller American newspapers made similar or different decisions.

Click here to read more about the project and learn how you can become a citizen historian.