When Picture Post published “Back to the Middle Ages” November 26th 1938, the magazine was less than two months old. Launched on October 1st, it was from the very beginning staunchly anti-fascist, at a time when many in the British establishment were still seeking to accommodate Hitler. The Munich Agreement had been signed less than two months earlier, allowing the German annexation of the Sudetenland. Thanks to the editorship of Stefan Lorant, an Hungarian refugee who had been previously imprisoned by the Nazis in Munich, Picture Post was staunchly against appeasement from the beginning.
Situations had gotten worse in Germany that November. An assassination of a German diplomat by a 17-year old Jewish boy (below) in Paris provided the Nazis with the pretext for the Kristallnacht, an antisemitic pogrom. To cover the event, Lorant thought he should juxtaposed the faces of the Nazi leadership alongside those of the writers, actors and scientists they were persecuting.
Four central figures loomed large above the headlines, three still well-known, one less so. Alongside Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering was Julius Streicher whose newspaper Der Stürmer was the centerpiece of the Nazi propaganda. A former schoolmaster who was expelled from his profession, Streicher was anti-Semitic almost to a comical degree: he wrote anti-Semitic books for children, and frequently repeated the medieval accusation that Jews killed Christian children to make matzoh. An early practitioner of what you would today call ‘Fake News’, Streicher argued that since his articles were based on race, not religion, they were protected by the German constitution.
When Picture Post went to press, Streicher was at the height of his noxious power: at Nuremberg, where he was the local Nazi party chief, he was treated almost as an absolute monarch. During Kristallnacht, he ordered his followers to sack the Great Synagogue of the city. But Kristallnacht also proved to be his downfall: he was accused of keeping Jewish property seized after Kristallnacht in November 1938, and his enemies within the Nazi party hierarchy — especially Goering whose daughter he once accused of being conceived by artificial insemination — were all too glad to denounce him. Hitler also grew tired of Streicher’s hysterical tirades, and would travel to Nuremberg only in secret, in order to avoid having to dine with Streicher.
In 1940, Streicher was finally stripped of his party offices, although his paper continued publishing until the war’s end. But Der Stürmer, like its publisher, itself limped into the war years. Once its pages were full of denunciations of Germans who were friendly to Jews or patrons of Jewish businesses, and exaggerated stories about misconduct and crimes by Jews. As deportation of Jews intensified and Jewish life all but disappeared across Germany, there was little material for the paper. After a while, this would also become literally true as paper restrictions were imposed on Der Stürmer.