Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

When Paul Drey, a German employee of the U. S. Consulate, was asked in 1922 by acting consul Robert Murphy whether agitators such as Adolf Hitler would get very far, he replied, “Of course not! The German people are too intelligent to be taken in by such scamps.” While Murphy remained skeptical (but was told by his superiors to focus his attention on other things, like promoting American commerce), Drey, like so many of his German and American contemporaries, vastly underestimated the staying power of Hitler and the hypnotic thrall under which he would come to hold Germany. And like so many others, Drey would pay for that mistake with his life: he died in Dachau. But this is only one recollection cited in Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland, an utterly fascinating survey of Americans, many of whom were reporters, living in Germany before, during, and after Hitler’s rise to power, and their perceptions of and reactions to the Nazi leader and his followers. It was Germany’s openness to “Americanization” during the 1920s that made Americans feel quite at home there, yet while some were sensitive to the growing hatred being aimed at the Jewish population, others were either completely ignorant of it or turned a blind eye to it. As an example, Chicago Daily News reporter Ben Hecht wrote, “The strange bit of history I have to report is that in my two years in Germany [1918-1920], I, a Jew, saw and heard no hint of anti-Semitism.” But to S. Miles Bouton, who wrote for the Baltimore Sun, it was hard to overlook: “There was still no indication in 1928 of the coming pogroms that were to sully Germany’s reputation five years later, but songs about spilling Jewish blood were being sung by uniformed marchers, and the swastika, emblem in Germany for hatred of the race, was ever more in evidence.” And what of Hitler himself? Dorothy Thompson, journalist and wife of writer Sinclair Lewis, was not impressed. She interviewed Hitler in 1931 and came away with the following impression: “I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany. In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure I was not.”  Famous last words, as they say. But Thompson wasn’t far off the mark when she added, “take the Jews out of Hitler’s program, and the whole thing . . . collapses.” As the book goes on, it is these observations and others, given from men and women who witnessed firsthand the frightening spectacle of Germany's bestial transformation and whose perspective on the matter was--for the most part--a decidedly democratic one, that make Hitlerland such a captivating read. Indeed, for those interested in viewing this fateful period in history through a different lens, this is not a book to be missed.

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