I can’t remember how I leaned about Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power but its been on my to be read list for a long time. After one of my local public libraries recently reopened to patron traffic I paid a visit and in the course of things helped myself to a nice stack of books, one of which was a copy of Hitlerland. After finishing the memoir A Mirror Garden I decided to give Hitlerland a shot. While maybe not as an enjoyable as Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts or Peter Ross Range’s 1924 I still found it a detailed and reveling look at Hitler and his fellow Nazi’s rise to power as seen through the eyes of those Americans who witnessed it firsthand.
From the early 1920s right up to the United States’s entry into World War II a number of Americans lived in, or spent time in Germany. Most worked in the foreign service, assigned to the US embassy in Berlin or assorted consulates scattered throughout the country. Others were correspondents for newspapers or the emerging medium of radio. The rest were business representatives, military attachés , students, tourists and athletes. (Berlin was the site of the 1936 Olympics.) Others were American expats married to German spouses and to them Germany was not a tourist destination or a temporary employment gig but home.
According to Nagorksi some Americans who called Germany home, especially women, were zealous supporters of the Nazis. During his early days as a rabble rouser in Munich Hitler had an obsessive crush on the American wife of one of his co-conspirators. Disconsolate after the failure of the Beer Hall Putsch and contemplating suicide, in what would ultimately change the course of history she talked him out of taking his own life, believing if he did it would bring an end to his nascent political movement.
Americans who witnessed the rise of Nazi Germany first-hand in a myriad of ways. Many, upon arriving in the early days of Hitler’s Reich were impressed by the nation’s rebound from economic ruin and political chaos by marveling at the cleanliness of German cities and its peoples’ newly restored confidence and sense of purpose. (As an early sign of disturbing things to come, while this was going on American diplomats were spending more of their time investigating cases of Americans beaten up by Nazi thugs.) But as the years went by more and more visitors grew alarmed by the rise in militarism, antisemitic violence and clampdowns on freedom as arrests, imprisonments and murders of dissidents and political rivals skyrocketed. These concerns deepened by the end of the 1930s as German forces marched first into the Rhineland and then Austria, Czechoslovakia, and finally Poland triggering World War II.
A number of the Americans Nagorski writes about were high profile individuals. United States Ambassador Dodd and his free-spirited adult daughter (whose amorous adventures are worthy of a Hollywood period piece) I knew from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I was also aware American aviator Charles Lindbergh’s visits to Germany and his cozy relationship with its Nazi leadership. What I didn’t know is according to Nagorski Lindbergh was secretly enlisted by America’s military attaché in Berlin to gather intelligence on Germany’s air force. (Specifically, by requesting a tour of one the country’s aircraft manufacturing plants, which were being shielding from the prying eyes of foreigners.) Known to history as the father of the containment approach to US-Soviet relations, diplomat George Kennan was briefly assigned to Germany, only to be detained and later expelled after Germany declared war on the United States. Decades before Howard K. Smith anchored the nightly news he spent time as a young reporter in Germany, one of the last Americans to file report from the county before the United States entered the war.
Throughout the ages there has been individuals, who by accident or design, have occupied ringside seats at history’s unfolding. Tragically, all too often their letters, journals and dispatches warn of something hideous on the horizon. Yet more often than not their warnings fall upon deaf ears. Hitlerland should remind us that evil seldom arrives unannounced.