Getting Hitler

By Elliot Jager
Tuesday, April 17, 2012

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.

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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