Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

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9781439191002: Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power
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Hitler’s rise to power, Germany’s march to the abyss, as seen by Americans—diplomats, military, expats, visiting authors, Olympic athletes—who watched horrified and up close.

Some of the Americans in Hitler’s Germany were merely casual observers, others deliberately blind, a few were Nazi apologists. But most began slowly to understand what was unfolding, even when they found it difficult to grasp the breadth of the catastrophe.

Among the journalists, William Shirer understood what was happening. Edgar Mowrer, Dorothy Thompson, and Sigrid Schultz, reporters, were alarmed. Consul General George Messersmith distinguished. Truman Smith, the first American official to meet Hitler, was an astute political observer. Historian William Dodd, who FDR tapped as ambassador in Berlin, left disillusioned; his daughter Martha scandalized the embassy with her procession of lovers, Nazis she took up with; she ended as a Soviet spy.

On the scene were George Kennan, the architect of containment; Richard Helms, who rose to the top of the CIA. The writers Sinclair Lewis and Thomas Wolfe, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, and the great athlete Jesse Owens came through Germany; so did a younger generation of journalists—Richard Hottelet, Hans V. Kaltenborn, Howard K. Smith, and Ed Murrow.

These Americans helped their reluctant countrymen begin to understand Nazi Germany as it ruthlessly eliminated political opponents, instilled hatred of Jews and anyone deemed a member of an inferior race, and readied its military and its people for a war for global domination. They helped prepare Americans for the years of struggle ahead.

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About the Author:

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nagorski is vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, a New York-based international affairs think tank. During a long career at Newsweek, he served as the magazine’s bureau chief in Hong Kong, Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Warsaw, and Berlin. He is the author of four previous books and has written for countless publications. He lives in Pelham Manor, New York.

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Hitlerland Introduction


Of all the Americans who reported from Germany between World War I and World War II, no one was quite as well prepared for the assignment as Sigrid Schultz. Born in Chicago in 1893 to parents who had come from Norway, she spent most of her youth, starting at age eight, in Europe. Her father was a successful portrait painter who made Paris his base, which meant Sigrid attended French schools. When he received an assignment to paint the portrait of the king and queen of Württemberg, she also attended German schools for several months, equipping her not only with the language but also with early insights into local attitudes.

“Few foreign painters were invited to German courts in those days and the other little girls tried to be nice,” she recalled. “But it was clear that to be non-German was a deficiency. Any foreigner who failed to be dazzled and humbled by German Kultur or efficiency was, at best, an object of pity.”

Schultz studied international law at the Sorbonne and then moved to Berlin with her parents. There, she witnessed World War I from the losing side. Once the United States entered the war in 1917, she and her parents had to report every day to the police as “enemy aliens,” but she was able to continue her studies, taking courses at Berlin University. In the aftermath of that conflict, the Chicago Tribune hired her to work with its Berlin correspondent Richard Henry Little, who was impressed with her language skills. But from the moment she started her new job in early 1919, she demonstrated her reporting skills as well, teaming up with Little on assignments.

Together, Schultz and Little interviewed dozens of German officers to get a sense of their mood in the wake of Germany’s defeat. Most were bitter, but none more so than “a sour, disagreeable little man in navy blue, whose name was Raeder,” Schultz wrote. The German officer told the two reporters: “You Americans need not feel proud of yourselves. Within twenty-five years at the latest, your country and my country will be at war again. And this time we shall win, because we will be better prepared than you will be.”

The Americans didn’t take offense—quite the contrary. “I well remember how, on that day in 1919, we felt sorry for vengeful little Raeder,” Schultz noted. “He was taking defeat so hard. He was, we felt, simply consuming himself with hatred.”

Schultz became the Chicago Tribune’s chief correspondent for Central Europe in 1926, and she remained based in Berlin until 1941, impressing successive waves of the otherwise almost all-male American press corps with her knowledge of Germany and her tenaciousness in chasing down stories. Looking back at her experiences in her book Germany Will Try It Again, written and published during World War II, she argued that Raeder’s bitterness was widely shared by his countrymen, along with his eagerness to avenge their defeat in the previous global conflagration.

By that point, of course, she knew where this bitterness had led, and the question arises whether some of her descriptions were colored by hindsight. But in the case of her recollection of the interview with Raeder, it appears that she only added a final flourish to emphasize the accuracy of his prediction: “When, almost twenty-two years later, Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States, the man commanding the German Navy was Grand Admiral Dr. Erich Raeder.”

*   *   *

Much has been written about Americans in France and Great Britain during the interwar period, and even a fair amount about Americans in the Soviet Union. But, for a variety of reasons, the Americans who lived, worked or traveled in Germany at the time when Hitler was coming to power and then forged the Third Reich haven’t attracted anything like that level of attention—including Schultz and many of her colleagues. In fact, they are often forgotten. Or, like diplomat George Kennan, they may be remembered, but not for their German experiences; the German chapter in their lives was eclipsed by other parts of their biographies that made them famous—in Kennan’s case, as the architect of the containment policy that successive postwar presidents pursued in dealing with the Soviet Union.

As a result, Americans often have the impression that the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the subsequent rush to terror and war took place in a strange, isolated country. Few of them pause to ask who were the Americans there who witnessed these events firsthand, how they perceived and reported them either as part of their jobs or simply as curious visitors, and what kind of impact their accounts had on their countrymen’s views of Germany at the time.

Today, it’s conventional wisdom that Hitler’s intentions were perfectly clear from the outset and that his policies could only result in World War II and the Holocaust. Most people find it hard to imagine that in the 1920s and right through the 1930s, American reporters, diplomats, entertainers, sociologists, students and others living in or passing through Germany wouldn’t have all instantly seen and understood what was happening before their eyes. After all, they had ringside seats, providing them with an unparalleled view of the most dramatic story of the twentieth century. Several of them not only observed Hitler from afar, but met and spoke to him, both when he was still a local agitator in Munich and then the all-powerful dictator in Berlin. To them, he wasn’t some abstract embodiment of evil but a real-life politician. Some Americans tried to take his measure very early, while others did so once he was in power. And even those who didn’t have those opportunities witnessed the consequences of his actions.

Yet their readings of what was happening in Germany, and what Hitler represented, varied greatly. There were those who met Hitler and recognized he represented almost a primeval force and possessed an uncanny ability to tap into the emotions and anger of the German people, and those who dismissed him as a clownish figure who would vanish from the political scene as quickly as he had appeared. There were those who, at least initially, viewed him and his movement sympathetically or even embraced it, and those whose instinctive misgivings quickly gave way to full-scale alarm, recognizing that he was a threat not only to Germany but also to the world.

It wasn’t just Americans who didn’t know what to make of Hitler or who hadn’t really examined what passed for his worldview. Otto Strasser, an early follower of Hitler who later broke with him and escaped from Germany, recalled a dinner with several top Nazi officials at the 1927 Party Congress in Nuremberg. When it became apparent no one had read Hitler’s autobiographical screed Mein Kampf in its entirety, they agreed that they would ask anyone who joined them if he had done so—and stick that person with the bill. “Nobody had read Mein Kampf, so everyone had to pay his own bill,” Strasser reported.

The unfolding of history only looks inevitable in retrospect, and the judgments of the Americans who were witnessing these events unfold were based on a variety of factors: their predispositions, the different slices of reality that they observed and whether at times they saw only what they wanted to see, whatever the signals to the contrary. Schultz chose to highlight Raeder’s comments in 1919 to bolster her thesis later, once the United States and Germany were at war again, that Hitler’s movement was the logical outcome of the hate fomented by the country’s defeat in the previous war. But other Americans dwelled on their warm reception in the aftermath of World War I, and wanted to believe that the toll of that conflict had been so high that it had served as a decisive object lesson. Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the Berlin correspondent for the rival Chicago paper, the Daily News, recalled that in the 1920s “most Americans in Germany nourished a legitimate hope that Germany’s defeat, humiliation, inflation and internal disorders had brought home to most citizens the folly of again seeking European hegemony.”

While correspondents like Schultz and Mowrer, and diplomats like Kennan and several of his colleagues, were hardly innocents abroad—they had studied and worked elsewhere in Europe—many of the Americans who were in Germany in this period were both very young and very inexperienced. This, of course, colored their perceptions and influenced their reactions. They were alternately charmed, shocked and mesmerized by Germany’s combination of old world rigidity and new, postwar world extremism, whether in political or sexual behavior.

As a result of their country’s peculiar role, Americans in Germany were in a special position. Although the United States had joined in the fighting in World War I, it was only in its later stages. Most Americans were far from eager to be dragged into a new European conflict, which accounted for the strength of isolationist sentiments back home. Americans in Germany were put in a different category than the other winners of World War I: they were seen as almost neutral, far less vengeful than the French, in particular, and, in general, more willing to give the defeated Germans the benefit of the doubt. As observers, they could stand a bit outside and above the continental rivalries.

Like Americans everywhere, they also tended to live a privileged existence, observing the material deprivations and growing violence but usually sheltered from them personally. They socialized extensively with each other, celebrated Thanksgiving and other holidays, and enjoyed the trappings of the expat lifestyle while monitoring the bigger events that swirled all around them. Louis Lochner, who reported for the Associated Press throughout this period, made casual mention of life in “the American colony,” and the “enviable camaraderie” among the American correspondents, “even among those who are one anothers’ [sic] fiercest competitors.”

To be sure, tensions erupted between those who came to radically differing views of Hitler and the Nazis, and what their military buildup signified. Then, too, there were the personal jealousies and resentments. The American Embassy in Berlin was a much leaner outpost than embassies are nowadays, and the small, overworked staffs and their spouses were often feuding about both their political views and petty grievances. There also were fissures between the politically appointed ambassadors and the professional foreign service staffers and military attachés. Throw in the perceived scandalous behavior of an ambassador’s daughter and you have a recipe for real drama. All of this could happen in any diplomatic outpost, but in Berlin it was magnified by the unrelenting tensions that accompanied Hitler’s reign.

The American correspondents, by contrast, were far more numerous than they are today—reaching a peak of about fifty in Berlin in the mid-1930s. Those were the days when wire services, newspaper chains and dailies from a wide array of American cities across the country, not just from New York and Washington, fielded correspondents overseas, giving them remarkable free rein to pursue their stories. And radio broadcasters soon joined that mix.

As a Newsweek foreign correspondent in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt I was living in what, especially from the perspective of today’s cutbacks in the media business, looks like the golden era of journalism. But my predecessors in Berlin lived far more largely. Mowrer, for instance, set up a new office for the Chicago Daily News right above the “Kranzler Corner,” a famous café at the prestigious downtown intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden. It boasted a second-floor reception center for American visitors, who could come by to chat, read American newspapers and even dictate to the office secretary on occasion. This was more than a news bureau; it was almost a small diplomatic mission.

There were plenty of Americans, including several who bore household names, who dropped in to see what this new Germany was all about—the likes of writers Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis, architect Philip Johnson, broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, former President Herbert Hoover, the black sociologist and historian W. E. B. DuBois and, of course, aviator Charles Lindbergh. Somewhat surprisingly, it was no great feat for Americans and other foreigners to enter and explore this curious, darkening world. “One thing one forgets is how easy it was to travel around Germany then,” recalls historian Robert Conquest, who traveled all over Europe in 1938 with some fellow Oxford University students and dropped in on Germany as well. “It was far easier than in postwar communist countries.”

I always have been drawn to this period of history, seeking to understand how Hitler and his followers could have gained total control of Germany as quickly as they did, with all the ensuing devastating consequences. This had a direct impact on my family’s history as it did on millions of others’. My parents grew up in Poland, and my father fought in the Polish Army before escaping to the West to join up with Polish forces under British command. After the war, I was born in Edinburgh. My parents then sailed for the United States, where they started a new life as political refugees. That’s why I grew up as an American instead of a Pole.

As a foreign correspondent who did two tours in Germany—the first one in Bonn during the last years of the Cold War, and the second in Berlin in the late 1990s—I often wrote about how Germans dealt with the legacy of the Nazi past. But I have to admit I knew very little about the Americans who worked in Berlin in those dramatic times. There were exceptions, of course. My colleagues and I all knew about William Shirer, the author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and that the Adlon Hotel, which was rebuilt and reopened after German unification, had been the hangout for Shirer, Dorothy Thompson and other star journalists of the time. But I can’t say I had delved much into their personal histories.

When I began to do so for this book, I realized there was a rich vein of stories that not only provided insights into what it was like to work or travel in Germany in the midst of these seismic events but also offered a unique perspective on them. Through their experiences, I felt I was reliving this heavily dissected era with an intensity and immediacy that is often lacking elsewhere. Whenever possible, I drew on firsthand accounts—whether in memoirs, notes, correspondence or interviews with the occasional still living witness—to share that perspective with readers.

Some of these tales were published but long forgotten, while I found others in unpublished manuscripts and letters in various archives and libraries, or sometimes provided by the children of the authors. In the case of the young diplomat Jacob Beam, for example, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in the second half of the 1930s, his son Alex—a good friend from my Moscow days, when we both were stationed there as correspondents—provided me with a copy of his unpublished manuscript. Some of the most colorful details about life in Germany came from the unpublished writings of Katharine (Kay) Smith, the wife of Captain Truman Smith, who was still a junior military attaché when he became the first American official to meet Hitler.

It’s important to keep in mind that this is history as seen by eyewitnesses without the benefit of knowing where these events would lead. The Wannsee Conference that formalized elaborate plans for the Holocaust was still off in the future—January 20, 1942, to be exact. The German Army was only beginning to encounter its first...

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