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Getting Hitler

Some cataclysmic events occur with the speed of a train wreck; others unfold over months or even years.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 2007 bestseller The Black Swan argues that the more earth-shattering the event, the less likely that the press will provide an early warning.  A more sympathetic explanation of why journalists and diplomats are caught off-guard is that they are not fortunetellers.  Still, it is reasonable to insist they observe accurately, contextualize astutely, and clearly transmit what they witness.  Hitlerland, a new book by Andrew Nagorski, former Newsweek reporter and now policy director of the U.S. think tank EastWest Institute, asks how well reporters and diplomats stationed in Germany after World War I assessed the path on which Germany and Hitler had embarked.  The book is exasperatingly non-judgmental, but the question is the right one.

Relevant Links
The Overseas Correspondent  Peter Osnos, Foreign Affairs. The craft of reporting from abroad, says the editor and former Washington Post journalist, is going the way of the blacksmith.
Foreign Reporting  Megan Garber, Neiman Journalism Lab. Harvard’s Neiman Foundation tries to figure out how foreign correspondents can operate in the changed environment of the 21st century.
Interview with Andrew Nagorski  Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, Atlantic. Nagorski tried to put himself in the shoes of reporters in Hitler’s Berlin, without benefit of hindsight: “What would I have understood?”
What Americans Knew  Jim Willis, Greenwood. With many reporters deluded about Hitler’s intentions, it was not until 1938 that most U.S. newspaper readers understood the menace of Nazi anti-Semitism.
"Anti-Semitism Sweeping Germany Like Plague"  JTA. . . . and other reportage from the archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

U.S. journalists who arrived in Weimar Germany after World War I found it carefree, civilized, racy, and friendly to Americans.  But the Treaty of Versailles had imposed humiliating conditions on Germany, and German resentment grew as the economy plummeted during the Depression.  The situation stoked Nazi claims that Jews and communists had stabbed the country in the back.  U.S. newspapers and radio stations that survived the Depression sent some 50 journalists to Germany to cover Hitler's rise to power.  Nagorski shows that among America's journalists and diplomats—judged by their own experiences, not 20/20 hindsight—some were clueless, some became Nazi apologists, and only a handful produced insightful reporting. 

Charles Lindbergh first visited Germany in 1936 and, at the request of the U.S. military attaché, toured German airbases with Hermann Goering.  They hit it off; Lindbergh became an advocate of accommodation with the Nazis and an outspoken proponent of U.S. isolationism.  Former president Herbert Hoover arrived in 1938 to meet Goering and Hitler.  The führer ranted against Jews, communists, and democracy.  Hoover concluded that Hitler might be insane but was his own man, not a puppet of some reactionary cabal.  Returning home, Hoover told Americans not to interfere in Germany's internal affairs.  Then there was the irascible George Kennan who had volunteered for a Berlin embassy assignment, but when the time came for U.S. diplomats to be evacuated in 1939 whined impatiently about the many places that had been inopportunely reserved for Jewish refugees on the ship sailing for neutral Lisbon.

The main draw of Hitlerland is its voyeuristic quality: Nagorski gives us a sense of what life was like for American journalists and dignitaries.  The descriptions of meetings with Hitler are especially intriguing.  Karl Wiegand, the German-born Hearst correspondent, eerily described Hitler in 1922 as "aged thirty-four, medium-tall, wiry, slender, dark hair, cropped toothbrush mustache, eyes that seem at times to spurt fire, . . . a complexion so remarkably delicate that many a woman would be proud to possess it, and possessing a bearing that creates an impression of dynamic energy well under control."  In that year Truman Smith, a military attaché, became the first U.S. diplomat to meet Hitler.  "A marvelous demagogue," Smith said.  "I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man.  His power over the mob must be immense."  "There is something glassy about his eyes," journalist William Shirer wrote.  "For the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob"; perhaps the secret lay in the quasi-religious rites the Nazis employed to turn their rallies into fervent, mystical experiences.

Helen Hanfstaengl, the American wife of German industrialist and Nazi sympathizer, frequently hosted Hitler in Berlin.  She described him as a "slim, shy young man," asexual, "with a far-away look in his very blue eyes."  His voice, she said, "had a mesmeric quality."  Hitler barely escaped the Nazis' abortive 1923 putsch.  At Helen's house, about to be arrested, he tried to kill himself with a revolver.  Helen grabbed the weapon from him, shouting, "What do you think you are doing?"  Thus, she gave Hitler a new lease on life.  He thrived on the publicity he received during his subsequent trial, addressing the court with "humor, irony and passion," then served nine months in prison under pampered conditions while dictating Mein Kampf.

Wiegand continued to cover Hitler's rise, quoting him in the New York American in 1930 as saying, "I am not for curtailing the rights of the Jews in Germany, but I insist that we others who are not Jews shall not have less rights than they."  Annetta Antona of the Detroit News interviewed Hitler in 1931 and remarked on the portrait of Henry Ford over his desk.  "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration," Hitler said of the anti-Semitic car magnate.  

Hugh Wilson, the last U.S. ambassador to Germany before the war, described Hitler as "a man who does not look at you steadily but gives you an occasional glance as he talks."  But Undersecretary of State Sumner Wells, the last major U.S. figure to see Hitler before America entered the war, thought Hitler "dignified, both in speech and in movement."  Wells proved particularly adept at giving U.S. Jewish leaders the runaround during the Shoah.

A few reporters saw Hitler plain.  Shirer was one; another was Dorothy Thompson.  "Take the Jews out of Hitler's program," she wrote, "and the whole thing collapses."  The Nazis eventually expelled her from Germany.  There was also Joseph Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor, who said America would either have to fight Germany or become a satellite of "Hitlerland."

History never repeats itself literally. But what of those now shaping our views about events in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad, and Ankara?  They probably have less expertise, and less access to decision makers, than Shirer and Thompson had in their day.  With fewer foreign bureaus, many news outlets rely on local stringers who lack American sensibilities and professionalism.  This deficit is hardly offset by parachuting American pundits into foreign places or letting armchair bloggers loose to influence perceptions of burning issues.  Absent the gift of prophecy, there is no substitute for living in the place you write about, understanding its language, and being attuned to its culture.

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sharinlite on April 17, 2012 at 10:56 am (Reply)
Here is the continuation of an earlier comment: (For decades I asked "why the Jews;" then I began asking "why do the Jews . . . ." I think I finally found an answer to the second question, and it is the second that has become, for me, a Gentile, the most important. The "why do" is something you all call Tikun Olam. It is the cry of humans millennia old and the Jews, because of their "religion" that developed over thousands of years. But, in wanting social justice, the belief is that if we just "want" it, it will become universal. As studies and statistics have shown in the last decades, no, social justice is not achievable if attempted by bureaucrats. It requires the very thing that is disappearing from America: faith, faith in something greater than ourselves. Securlarism is the new religion, and look around to see what it has wrought and portends for America's future.) Here is what it portends.
Alison Weir on April 17, 2012 at 7:21 pm (Reply)
When Dorothy Thompson wrote about Israel's treatment of Palestinians, Zionists destroyed her career and largely erased her from history. See The History of US-Israel Relations Part One: How the “Special Relationship” was created.
Alan Abbey on April 18, 2012 at 7:04 am (Reply)
Excellent piece, Elliot, and the links are as valuable, if not more so. I will be using this material in the upcoming course I am teaching on International Journalism at National University. Thanks!
SW on April 18, 2012 at 8:38 am (Reply)
Searching for "Dorothy Thompson" and "Israel," one finds that she is not erased from history. Her papers are held at Syracuse, and her publications are available. As to Nazi symbols and the culture of peace intent on correcting "Zionists," "The so-called 'peace' activists who attempted to infiltrate Israel via Ben Gurion Airport on Sunday would likely identify with those of Israel's most emphatic critics who insist that despite their disdain for the Jewish state, they are not anti-Semitic. But more often than not, the behavior of these individuals betrays their true disposition. That is what happened on Monday, when it was discovered that at least one of the flytilla activists who was detained at Ben Gurion had scrawled a Nazi swastika on the wall of a holding facility."
Alison Weir on April 18, 2012 at 12:43 pm (Reply)
Very few people today have heard of Dorothy Thompson, despite her previous fame and despite the fact that she was, according to the Britannica, one of the most important journalists of the 20th century. See Since there are so many parallels between Zionist ideology and Nazi beliefs, and since Zionists' advocacy of transferring people of the "wrong" ethnicity away from their homes in order to make way for the preferred ethnicity presaged Nazi actions, it is not rare for people today to compare Zionist actions to Nazi ones--especially since the IDF a few years ago specifically studied Nazi strategies in the Warsaw Ghetto for replicating in Israel's treatment of Palestinians in their ghettos. You can find detailed information, with citations, at and
SW on April 18, 2012 at 9:41 pm (Reply)
There are "so many parallels between Zionist ideology and Nazi beliefs?" This is preposterous, given that Pan-Arab socialism in its various formative documents often cites "Mein Kampf" as a source for its thought and some "Palestinian" cadres were formed to support Nazi activities during WWII before there was a "country" of Israel. Alleging that Zionism is akin to National Socialism is just a modern-day American-based version of the Protocols strategy. Among the propaganda goals of National Socialism and Soviet Socialism has always been the muddying of political waters, with one goal being attacks on Jews--long before there was a State of Israel. The article's pointed quote by Thompson tells the tale: "Take the Jews out of Hitler's program, and the whole thing collapses."
Sharinlite on April 19, 2012 at 1:20 pm (Reply)
Correct, in a nutshell. The "world" is forever persecuting the Jews--one, because they can and two, because the Jews, until Israel, wouldn't fight back. Still, the majority of Jews have gone secular, as it in this way that they can atone for whatever it is the world persecutes them for.

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