A reconstruction

by | May 3, 2013 | Book Reviews

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses
to the Nazi Rise to Power
Andrew Nagorski
Simon and Schuster, 2012
383 pages, $28
ISBN 978-1-4391-9100-2

Readers who were gripped by Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a brilliant portrayal of events in Berlin during the 1933–1937 ambassadorship of William E. Dodds, are likely to be similarly absorbed by Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland. Nagorski, an award winning journalist, is perhaps best known for his previous book, The Greatest Battle. Those of us who remember the brilliant work of William L. Shirer, Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, are possibly unfamiliar with lesser known works of his contemporaries in the Berlin press corps from the 1920’s through early 1942. (Incidentally, both of Shirer’s seminal works are still in print having been reissued in 1995.)

Hitlerland, with its advantage of hindsight, explores the dispatches, diaries, letters and recorded interviews of American journalists, diplomats and celebrities who were present in Berlin during that fateful era. As early as 1922, Adolf Hitler was making a name for himself as leader of a Monarchist group against the Weimar regime. After witnessing some of Hitler’s appearances, Robert Murphy, the acting consul in Munich, asked Paul Drey, a German-Jewish employee of the consulate, “Do you think these agitators will ever get far?” “Of course not!” Drey replied. “The German people are too intelligent to be taken in by such scamps.” Paul Drey died in Dachau.

Fate intervened following the abortive Nazi “Beer Hall Putsch” in 1923, as Hitler narrowly avoided being gunned down and apparently was just barely prevented from committing suicide. By 1930, the Nazis had won 107 seats in Parliament and by 1932 had taken 230 seats. Yet the soonto- be-famous broadcaster, H.V.Kaltenborn, concluded “after meeting Hitler…I could not see how a man of his type, a plebeian Austrian of limited mentality, could ever gain the allegiance of a majority of Germans.”

Kaltenborn’s son, Rolf was roughed up by some ‘brown shirts’ for failing to give the Nazi Heil Hitler salute. “Some Americans, it seemed, didn’t want to see what was really happening even when it was happening to them,” reported one observer. Other journalists soft-pedaled their reporting in order not to be thrown out of Germany.

But Berlin was the place to be until the Nazi takeover. Berlin was open, risqué, full of culture and sexually liberal, a party town; an unending stream of celebrities made their appearance. Martha Dodd, the American ambassador’s daughter, slept with many, before she became a spy for the Soviets.

On the one hand the last gasp of the failed republic, and on the other the rising tide of the Nazi sea. “Anyone who did not accept Hitler’s rule wasn’t just wiped out. It was pretended that he never was.” Howard K. Smith, a cub free-lance reporter (Smith went on to become a major television news anchor) developed a theory about how Americans and other foreigners tended to evolve in their thinking about Germany through four stages:

• “At first glance, Germany was overwhelmingly attractive…Germany was clean, it was neat, a truly handsome land.”
• “During stage two the most noticeable characteristic of Nazi Germany was ‘uniforms and guns; the amazing extent to which Germany, even then, was prepared for war.’ Visitors were excited by what they observed.”
• During stage three we “began to grasp that what was happening was that young humans, millions of them, were being trained to act merely on reflexes.”
• Finally, the next level was characterized by “a strange stark terror,” as they realized that the Nazis were “a real, direct and imminent threat to the existence of a civilization….”

As Smith pointed out, some made the journey from stage one to stage four in a week. Some remained stuck at stage one or two. Still others made it to stage three, but never progressed from there.

The Nazis put up with the American journalists as long as there was a chance the U.S. could be kept out of the war. Four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the U.S. and all the journalists and diplomats who stayed were interned. It was five months before they were released and exchanged for German nationals similarly interned in America.

The many warnings issued by those not taken in by Hitler’s false promises of peace fell on deaf ears in much of isolationist America, and the fairly deep anti-Semitism in our State Department led to a passive disinterest in the fate of German Jewry. Disinterest, no, it was more than that as an active effort to deny visas to even the reduced numbers of immigrants permitted by American legislation was pervasive in United States embassies throughout Europe.

Writers and artists by the score whose names became well known, such as John Gunther, Ben Hecht, Richard Hottelet, George F. Kennan, Sinclair Lewis, Edgar A. Mowrer, Robert Sherwood, Dorothy Thompson, and Thomas Wolfe were all part of the present and future glitterati whose books, memoirs, and correspondence enrich Nagorski’s fascinating reconstruction of Hitlerland.

—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 30 years.