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Americans with a Front Row Seat to the Rise of Hitler

June 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Never before has the story been told of a group of Americans who lived in Berlin as Hitler and his Nazi party clawed their way to ultimate power. Margaret Warner speaks with former Newsweek journalist and author Andrew Nagorski about his new book, "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power."
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the never-before-told story of a group of Americans in Berlin who had a front-row seat at the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party.

Margaret Warner has our book conversation.

MARGARET WARNER: In the aftermath of World War I, Germany was in economic shambles. But the capital, Berlin, was a vibrant cultural hub, home to avant garde artists and actors like Marlene Dietrich, and to a decadent cabaret life.

But as early as the 1920s, a dark cloud was gathering, as Adolf Hitler and his Nazi acolytes gained strength. By the 1930s, the cloud had enveloped the nation and was threatening Europe.

Hitler’s rise was witnessed not only by the German people, but by some 150 American diplomats and correspondents who had the job of informing their own government and the American public about what was developing.

Other prominent Americans passed through Berlin or stayed for a time, author Sinclair Lewis, aviator Charles Lindbergh, a young John F. Kennedy, and singer Josephine Baker, to name a few.

Much has been written about American expatriates in Paris and London between the wars, but very little has been chronicled about these Americans in Berlin.

Former Newsweek journalist and author Andrew Nagorski has set out to correct that with his new book, “Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.” It’s the story of the handful of Americans who were the first to take the measure of Hitler and his followers, showing how difficult it is to see the future when caught up in the present, even in the eye of the storm.

I spoke with Andrew Nagorski about his book and the times.

Andy Nagorski, thanks for joining us.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power”: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Paint a picture for us, first of all, of Berlin in the ’20s and ’30s. As Hitler was rising to power, what was it like? What was it like for the Americans there?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: First of all, you have to remember, this was a country and a city that was totally devastated after World War I. The Germans had lost something like two million men. The economy was in a shambles. We have all heard the stories about wheelbarrows full of money because of hyperinflation.

People were very demoralized. But, at the same time, it was an incredibly vibrant scene. There was new freedom in the arts, in politics, in every aspect of life, even sexual life. It was a crazy party town. And the Americans coming in saw all this, and they were excited.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, a lot of what you looked at, though, were the writings and the words of diplomats, of journalists, of people whose business it was to study the Germans. What question did you want to answer? Why did you delve into this?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: In retrospect, it seems perfectly obvious that everyone should have known what was coming, that this was, after all, the rise of the biggest evil mankind had ever seen.

But when you put yourself in the shoes of these diplomats, journalists, writers, casual visitors, as I did, it paints a very different picture. History is always perfect in hindsight. It’s not perfect at the time. So I wanted to know, what did they know, when did they know it, and what did they get wrong, and why did they get it wrong? Because, even in getting it wrong, you began to understand why something like this could happen, and the world not necessarily wake up to it in time.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, give me an example of someone who got it wrong.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Well, most famously, for instance, Dorothy Thompson, the renowned American woman correspondent of that era.

She goes in to interview Hitler in 1931, in late 1931, when his party’s really on the rise and everyone is expecting him to take power. And she interviews him, and she comes out and writes the first sentence of her article, which says: “I was expecting to visit the — meet the future dictator of Germany. In 50 seconds, I realized I wasn’t. He was — because I saw the startling insignificance of this man.”

And she goes on about what a weird character he is.

MARGARET WARNER: A little man.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: A little man, somewhat “effeminate” — quote, unquote — which was something that several Americans remarked upon, and somehow not able to stand up to the serious politicians in Germany.

MARGARET WARNER: Then there was this young diplomat at the embassy. He was the assistant military attache, Truman Smith. Even early in the ’20s, when Hitler was just, and his brownshirts and his National Socialist Party down in Bavaria, he saw something.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: He meets Hitler in Munich when he’s this local agitator.

And he sees that he is — yes, he’s a fanatic, but he’s a highly organized fanatic, and he knows how to play a crowd. And he says, this guy can go very far. In Bavaria, he may even aspire to be the dictator. That’s as far as the imagination went there. But at a time when many people had not even heard of Adolf Hitler, that was a pretty good prediction.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there were also Americans there who actively sympathized with him, consorted with him, helped him.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes, yes. There were.

Most famous was this German-American whose father was from Bavaria. His mother was from a famous Bostonian family. His name was Putzi Hanfstaengl. He went to Harvard, class of 1909. And he becomes very close to Hitler, as does his wife.

And it’s an astonishing relationship. And he becomes the conduit for many Americans seeking to meet Hitler.

MARGARET WARNER: And why? What was it about Hitler or this Putzi man that — what was the appeal?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Putzi was a very entertaining character.

He was a very good piano player, and he even played Harvard marching songs for Hitler. You can imagine these scenes where Hitler’s sitting there, Putzi is playing Harvard marching songs, and Hitler is saying, wow, that will really work at our rallies and for some of our S.S. troops.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, if we get to the early ’30s, just before Hitler becomes chancellor, there still seems to have been a split among the Americans who were observing him about whether he was a fading power or really the coming power.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes, there was a big split.

There were people like Edgar Mowrer, who was a correspondent for The Chicago Daily news, was actually warning Jews, German Jews, get out of this country. This is much more dangerous than you think.

And then there were other Americans who thought — they were more concerned in many cases about the communist threat, a coup from the left, because, remember, there were radicals from the right and left. This was not too long after the Bolshevik Revolution.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the things I found fascinating about your book is that even after Hitler came to power, Americans, some Americans socialized with him, or certainly senior members of his regime.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Yes. Americans had access to Germany in a way that, for instance, Americans in the Soviet Union didn’t have access to the elites.

And even traveling into the country was a lot easier. So you had people like, again, Truman Smith, this young military attache, who comes back in the mid-’30s as a senior military attache. And he’s hobnobbing with senior German officers. He actually comes up with a plan to plant the idea with Hermann Goering’s air ministry to invite Charles Lindbergh to Germany, not because Lindbergh is considered a German sympathizer so much — that’s a different issue — but because Hermann Goering is going to want to show off his air force to Lindbergh, which in fact happens, and Lindbergh provides a lot of good intelligence.

MARGARET WARNER: Bottom line, how good a job did particularly the American diplomats and the American writers and journalists of all types, radio as well, do in alerting ordinary Americans to the menace that was building, to the fact that probably, eventually, the U.S. would be drawn into this conflict?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: It’s mixed from start to finish, but the best ones really did try to get the word out.

But, remember, America wasn’t very receptive to this message. Nobody wanted to contemplate another global conflagration like World War I. So whether you were an isolationist or kind of a middle-of-the-roader or a liberal FDR-guy, this wasn’t welcome news that was being sent by the most perceptive of these American journalists or diplomats from Germany.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, on balance, what did you conclude about what it takes for an individual human being when they’re caught up in an historical moment to grasp the enormity of it, even while they’re living through it?

ANDREW NAGORSKI: You have to be very knowledgeable about the present situation.

But that very knowledge may make it hard for you to break out of the framework of a frame of reference of that situation. So, when we look back, any of us looks back and says, oh, I would’ve figured everything out, I wouldn’t be so sure.

MARGARET WARNER: Andy Nagorski, thank you.

ANDREW NAGORSKI: Thank you.