8 Famous Americans' Experiences In Nazi Germany


We've all heard about Americans in Paris and London in the 1920s and 1930s, the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein. But what's often forgotten is that Europe's real cultural capital after World War I was Berlin, a city undergoing an explosion of creativity in the arts and sciences even as it reeled from the consequences of Germany's defeat, the economy went into free fall, and politics often turned to violence, with extremists of the left and right battling in the streets. As normal inhibitions all but evaporated, even the sex was wild. It was precisely this chaos, creativity and excitement of the German capital that served as a magnet for many Americans, including numerous celebrities.

But these Americans were soon confronted with the specter of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi movement, which they struggled to understand. In my new book, Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power [Simon & Schuster, $28.00], I chronicle how they reacted to the often bewildering events around them. By drawing on their first-hand testimonies from a broad array of sources--published and unpublished memoirs, diaries and correspondence--I let them tell their stories, as much as possible, the way they experienced them at the time. These Americans didn't have the benefit of hindsight: they were trying to figure out what Hitler and his movement represented as all this was playing out. Or, in some cases, they were simply preoccupied with their own lives and with having a good time, largely oblivious to the dark cloud that was descending over Germany and was soon to descend over almost all of Europe. While writing this book, I tried not to be overly judgmental. The implicit questions for anyone, including myself, were: What would I have understood at the time, and what would I have done? I think most people will realize that the answers are not nearly as obvious as they might have thought before reading Hitlerland.

Here are eight of the Americans I mention in the book:

Josephine Baker


American performers gravitated to Paris in the 1920s, but the truly adventurous quickly discovered that Berlin's nightlife had "an intensity Paris doesn't know," as Josephine Baker put it. Baker and her Revue Nègre took their act to Berlin, holding their opening show on December 31, 1925. Although there were protesters outside the theater denouncing the black entertainers, and Nazis called Baker 'subhuman,' she was elated by her rapturous audiences. "It's madness. A triumph. They carry me out on their shoulders," she said. Baker was showered with gifts of jewelry, perfumes and furs, and happily accepted invitations to parties, often wearing nothing more than a loincloth. Baker was lured back to Paris to star at the Folies Bergère, but she never forgot Berlin.

Thomas Wolfe


Thomas Wolfe visited Germany in the mid-1920s, and when the young but already famous writer returned in 1935, he still harbored fond memories of that era. Coupled with the fact that he was treated like a literary superhero because of the tremendous popularity of his novel Look Homeward Angel in Germany, this meant that Wolfe initially reciprocated the warm feelings of the Germans and largely ignored Hitler's record. But by his next visit in 1936, he became much more aware of the horrors of the Nazi regime, vividly describing them in his unabashedly autobiographical novella I Have a Thing to Tell You. As his narrator and alter ego predicted, this honest account triggered the banning of Wolfe's work in Germany.

Jesse Owens


At the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, as a German-Jewish reporter wrote in her diary, Hitler applauded German winners in "an orgasmic frenzy of shrieks, clappings, and contortions," but displayed a "disgusting" lack of sportsmanship when others emerged victorious--especially Jesse Owens and other black American athletes. The German dictator complained that it was unfair of the United States to send "these flatfooted specimens" to compete with the Germans. Yet despite the racist ideology of the Nazis, Owens was the most popular athlete at the Olympics. And according to an American journalist who talked to him on the voyage back across the Atlantic, the gold medalist was "a quiet, modest man" who shrugged off Hitler's behavior.


W.E.B. Dubois

The black American sociologist and historian W.E.B. Dubois, who spent nearly six months on a fellowship in Germany in 1935 and 1936, understood why black Americans would have mixed feelings about their experiences there. He reported that he was treated "with uniform courtesy and consideration," never encountering the kinds of personal insults or discrimination that were commonplace back home. But he was aware of the "campaign of race prejudice" against the Jews "which surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen." His message to his countrymen: unless they spoke German and were very observant, they could easily miss what was really happening in Hitler's Germany.


Charles Lindbergh

Almost everyone has heard how Charles Lindbergh, the world's most famous aviator, made several visits to Germany in the 1930s and was unabashedly impressed by much of what he saw. What is largely overlooked is why Lindbergh came to Germany in the first place. In 1936, Truman Smith, the military attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin who was eager to learn more about Hitler's military build-up, came up with the plan to have Hermann Goering's Air Ministry invite Lindbergh. As Smith hoped, Lindbergh was granted access to the Luftwaffe's airfields and factories, providing valuable intelligence that he freely shared with Smith who often accompanied him on his inspections. This is the largely untold back story about Lindbergh's visits.


John F. Kennedy

Like many wealthy undergraduates, John F. Kennedy took off for Europe in the summer of 1937 after his freshman year at Harvard. Travelling with his friend LeMoyne Billings, he spent five days in Germany accompanied by a young German woman--"a bundle of fun" as Kennedy put it. His diary entries suggest he was primarily interested in the night life, but he also noted that along the Rhine the attractive towns showed that "Nordic races certainly seem superior to the Latins." Because of his father Joseph Kennedy's pro-German views, it's easy to read more into such entries than merited. But at the very least, they demonstrate the innocence--and ignorance--of many young American visitors to Nazi Germany.


William Shirer

Ferociously anti-Nazi from the very beginning, William Shirer, who reported for Hearst's Universal News Service and then for CBS, was one of most discerning American correspondents. At first, he found it hard to understand why the Nazi leader was adored by mobs of people with "crazed expressions" who treated him "as if he were a Messiah." But then he began to sense how skillfully the Nazis orchestrated their pageants, so that "every word dropped by Hitler seemed like an inspired Word from on high." Shirer soon came to believe that a new global conflagration was inevitable--and necessary to stop Hitler. In 1960, he published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, still the most authoritative study of that period.


Dorothy Thompson

She was America's most famous women foreign correspondent of her era and she knew Germany well, since she had been based in Berlin in the 1920s. So when she returned to the German capital in November 1931 for her first interview with Adolf Hitler just as his Nazi Party was on the rise, her readers eagerly anticipated her write-up. Struck by "the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog," she concluded that he had no chance to rule Germany. Later, she radically revised her views and, on a return trip to Germany after Hitler took power, she wrote hard-hitting articles that prompted the Nazi regime to summarily expel her from the country.