BOOK REVIEW – Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Andrew Nagorski, Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2012. 400 pp. Photos, bibliography, index.

Review by Kaitlin Sadler
University of Mary Washington

Seven decades later, questions surrounding the Second World War still captivate students of history. The question of how Adolf Hitler rose to power is not the least of these. In his book Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, Andrew Nagorski compiles the testimonies of American citizens in Nazi Berlin, in an attempt to convey the atmosphere of the times. Journalists, tourists, diplomats and their families provide the firsthand material for Nagorski’s story, which covers the scope of American observations and sentiments about Germany as it moved toward the outbreak of war in 1939. Hitlerland is intended for a popular, non-scholarly audience, and provides a good sense of the confusion and apprehension that accompanied the political turmoil of the times.

Nagorski’s narrative begins in the immediate aftermath of World War I with the establishment of the Weimar Republic. He briefly describes Berlin of the 1920′s as a lively city which attracted foreigners as a hub of arts, sciences, and free love, set against a backdrop of political and economic turmoil. Then, he begins to introduce the reader to the cast of Americans at the center of the tale. Among the main characters are Putzi Hanfstaengl, the half-American Harvard graduate who became one of Hitler’s propagandists, and journalists Sigrid Schultz, Edgar Mowrer, William Shirer, H. R. Knickerbocker, and Bella Fromm. Nagorski describes visits from famous Americans like aviator Charles Lindbergh and Olympic athlete Jesse Owens. The book also features testimonies from American ambassador William Dodd and his daughter Martha, consul general George Messersmith, attaché Truman Smith, his wife Kay, and his daughter Kätchen.

It soon becomes clear that the Americans’ impressions of Germany were extremely varied. Some did not know what to make of the Nazis, while others were immediately on their guard. Some visitors missed the tension and nuance that characterized German politics altogether. Among the rare few who immediately identified Hitler’s Germany as threatening were George Messersmith, who was praised for his uncompromising opinions on the Nazis long before they were popular, and his efforts to protect American citizens from them as consul general. Another visitor who was alarmed by events in Germany was missionary Sherwood Eddy. In 1933, he addressed an audience of Germans, accusing them of “acting against the principles of justice” (p. 142).

Nagorski emphasizes that strongly negative public opinions such as Eddy’s were in the minority at the time. Even American reporters stated that they were “shocked” by the boldness of his speech (p. 143). The journalists typically adopted a much more cautious approach, whether because they were hesitant to pass harsh judgment on a regime that seemed to improve Germany’s lot in some ways, or later, for fear of their jobs. In the early days, Edgar Mowrer, later a vocal critic of Nazi policy, “sounded alarmed in some moments but uncertain in others” (p. 101). He grew bolder as the dangers posed by the Nazis became more evident, and eventually attracted such ire from the regime that he was rushed out of the country for fear that he would be arrested, or worse. The radio broadcaster Hans V. Kaltenborn noted that many people were unaware of the dangers at first, recalling that “most people who met Adolf Hitler before he came to power in January, 1933 were apt to underestimate him…I was no exception” (p. 88).

This is indeed a theme throughout the testimonies of the Americans who met Hitler, and it had an effect on the assessment of the threat Germany posed. H.R. Knickerbocker’s analysis claimed that Germany was definitely moving toward militarism, but scorned comparisons of Hitler with Mussolini, noting “a strongly feminine element in Hitler’s character” (p. 75). In a book about her own meeting with Hitler, Dorothy Thompson stated, “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. It took just that long to measure the startling insignificance of this man…” (p. 85). Before the Nazi party took power, American ambassador Frederic Sackett wrote Hitler off as a “fanatical crusader” (p. 81). Many foreigners did not understand the impact of Hitler’s ideology and policies on the German people, simply because they found it difficult to take the man seriously.

Conversely, some Americans recognized Hitler’s appeal, some even falling under his spell themselves. Some who approved of Hitler cited the utility of the fascist movement as a counter against Bolshevism. Ambassador Dodd was advised by an American philanthropist to “let Hitler have his way” for such ideological reasons (p. 121). Karl Henry von Wiegand, a reporter for Hearst publications, described Hitler as “a man of the people,” and a “magnetic speaker with exceptional organizing genius” who had “the earmarks of a leader” (p. 22). Upon meeting Hitler, Putzi Hanfstaengl was “impressed beyond measure,” (p. 35). while his wife Helen described the dictator as “a warm person” who “evidently liked children” (p. 37). The reporter S. Miles Bouton criticized the idea of “the menace of Hitlerism” as it developed in the American press (p. 97). By citing these accounts, Nagorski dispels any myth that only Germans bought into Nazi propaganda.

The wide range of interpretations is understandable. As Nagorski puts it, “[w]hen you’re in the center of a whirlwind, daily life can continue with deceptive normality at times, even when the abnormalities, absurdities, and injustices are all too apparent” (p. 8). This partially explains why some Americans were hesitant to pass judgment on Hitler, and why ultimately, no one stopped him before he led the world into war. Nagorski also emphasizes that the opinions of these witnesses were colored by “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” (p. 4).

In fact, the Americans in Hitlerland experienced Berlin from a unique perspective. One did not necessarily need press credentials or diplomatic immunity; just being an American afforded one a certain advantage in 1930′s Berlin. They received “an unexpectedly warm welcome” (p. 15) due to an “overall pro-American mood” following the First World War (p. 16). They did not experience many of the same economic hardships as the citizens of Berlin, by virtue of being foreigners. However, the Americans were not untouchable. Associated Press bureau chief Louis Lochner recalled that “reporting from Germany ceased to be a pleasure when the Nazis seized power in 1933” (p. 171). While they only deported a select few American reporters before war broke out between the US and Germany, the Nazis tried other methods of undermining those who wrote negatively about them (p. 171). Some Americans were even physically assaulted, such as editor Edward Dahlberg, who was attacked for being Jewish, and Kaltenborn’s son Rolf, who was beaten for failing to execute the Hitler salute (p. 109). Yet, the Americans had the embassy’s protection behind them, and at least initially, propagandists such as Hanfstaengl were eager to introduce Hitler to American journalists, affording them many firsthand experiences with the dictator.

Nagorski narrates these experiences simply and straightforwardly. Throughout Hitlerland, he covers an expansive and complex period of history without going into too much detail. This makes it a book suitable for a casual reader, or one who might be a novice to the basic politics of interwar Germany. Nagorski cites his sources in an extensive bibliography which includes memoirs, letters, notes, articles, and interviews, as well as many scholarly secondary sources. Finally, a detailed index contributes to the accessibility of the subject matter. He also provides photo inserts, which serve as a useful and interesting aid, so that the reader may visualize the characters featured in the book. As an experienced journalist, political scientist, and author of several books, Andrew Nagorski produced a comprehensive book on the rise of Hitler focused heavily on primary sources.

However, Hitlerland is lacking in the analysis characteristic of many books of this genre. It has a much broader, less in-depth focus than Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, which follows the experiences of William and Martha Dodd, and a less scholarly objective than the works of Sir Ian Kershaw on the same subject. The author states that he “focused on telling [the Americans'] stories—and wherever possible, letting those stories speak for themselves,” (p. 8) and thereby offers no criticism of the people or events recounted in the book, adopting a detached, objective standpoint. While Nagorski is successful in terms of allowing the Americans to speak for themselves, an analysis of the recorded impressions might have proved helpful and interesting. Absent of such analysis, it does not present any new information to those who are already very familiar with the subject matter.

In Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, Nagorski presents an intriguing, easily comprehensible account of Germany on its road to war, as seen firsthand from an American perspective. The focus on primary sources effectively allows the reader to obtain a sense of the turbulence of the era and an interesting perspective on an important period of history.

 (Return to the July 2014 Issue Table of Contents)

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