Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (Book Reviews)

"... Americans reacted to Hitler rather as any other nationality did. First they ridiculed him, then they expressed grudging admiration for the order he brought to Germany. Later, they turned a blind eye to his anti-Semitism ..." - Washington Post, March 16, 2012

How Hitler happened while America watched

By Liz Smith

Chicago Tribune, March 23, 2012

"THE TIMES in which we live move too fast for the considered historian to record them. They move too quickly to permit the writing of long books about momentary phases. Ours is the age of the reporter."

If you think that is a recent quote, a comment on our age of instant reporting, blogging and tweeting, you're wrong. The above was written by Dorothy Thompson, the famous journalist (and wife of Sinclair Lewis) in 1932. She was explaining the big rush of her short book, "I Saw Hitler!"

Dorothy's quote is culled from a longer book, coming from Simon and Schuster. It is titled "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," written by Andrew Nagorski. This book chronicles observations -- from letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs -- of American reporters, embassy workers and even tourists who worked and played in Germany from 1922 to 1941. It is riveting stuff.

Today, people continue to ask, "How could it have happened? How could Hitler have mesmerized a nation, planned a global conquest and attempted to exterminate the Jewish race?" Mr. Nagorski's book goes a long way toward explaining. With few exceptions, most people -- even savvy journalists embedded in Germany -- simply could not believe what they were seeing. They didn't take Hitler seriously ... they were isolationists ... they didn't really care that much. And anyway, no one man -- certainly not one as physically unprepossessing as Hitler -- could truly sway all of Germany, could he? (Only his icy blue eyes distinguished him.)

I read this book in one terrible gulp. You know what's coming, and you want to scream, "Wake up before it's too late!" There are never enough examinations of this period. It wasn't the 14th century; it was the 20th. With cars and movies and most of the luxuries, modern conveniences and civilized attitudes we have today. Yet it happened. And, yes, of course, it could happen again. It does, in fact; "ethnic cleansing" has occurred in Bosnia and Africa.

Amongst the cast of real-life characters there was one odd, infuriatingly flighty standout. Her name was Martha Dodd, daughter of William E. Dodd, who served as the American ambassador to Germany for a number of years. Martha was pretty and promiscuous, and spent her time in Germany bedding as many attractive men as possible -- Nazi or otherwise. At first she was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Then she became disenchanted and switched her attentions to communist Russia, which she considered an "ideal" way of life. She married an American financier, but became a Soviet spy! Eventually she and her husband fled the United States. They died in Prague many years after the war. Martha was kind of a thoughtless idiot, but as she kept popping up throughout the book, I wondered if her story might make an interesting film? The heroine doesn't always have to be nice, after all.

In any case, Martha is only one of many who populate the pages of "Hitlerland." This is an important, chilling book.


Washington Post:

“Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power” by Andrew Nagorski

By Gerard DeGroot

WaPo, March 16, 2012

... The cover boasts that the book contains some big names, including George Kennan, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Owens, Edward R. Murrow, Sinclair Lewis and Richard Helms. But they in fact have small parts. The meat of the testimony comes from lesser figures such as the journalists Sigrid Schultz and Hubert Knickerbocker, the embassy official George Messersmith, and the military attache Truman Smith. Their recollections are bulked out with some fascinating trivialities.

As Nagorski points out, Berlin was, during the interwar period, the most interesting and exciting city on Earth. A sublime and cutting-edge culture was combined with peculiar politics, skyrocketing inflation and a lot of kinky sex. The political drama was rendered all the more fascinating by the shenanigans of a clown called Hitler whom few observers took seriously. Americans were welcomed because they represented the New World, a state of aspiration for Germans. Given the inflation, American dollars were powerful, making the frolics these visitors could enjoy in this land of fantasy all the more intense.

Americans reacted to Hitler rather as any other nationality did. First they ridiculed him, then they expressed grudging admiration for the order he brought to Germany. Later, they turned a blind eye to his anti-Semitism, excused his craving for territorial expansion and doubted his appetite for war. A few warned of Hitler’s threat, but they were largely ignored.

Most Americans tolerated German racism precisely because it was directed at Jews. The most striking feature of this book is how easily these visitors grafted themselves onto the prejudices of their hosts. Typical was Donald Watt, who arrived in Germany in 1932 to organize a student exchange. He convinced himself, on no evidence, that “relatively few” Jews were mistreated and decided that the main cause of anti-Semitism was that “a large proportion of all business was in Jewish hands.” In Berlin, hating Jews was the equivalent of high fashion. ...


More Reviews:

Early Warnings: How American Journalists Reported the Rise of Hitler - The Atlantic - Mar 13, 2012

Turning a blind eye to the Nazi terror - Minneapolis Star Tribune - Mar 10, 2012

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