Uncorrected transcript provided by Morningside Partners. C-SPAN uses its best efforts to provide accurate transcripts of its programs, but it can not be held liable for mistakes such as omitted words, punctuation, spelling, mistakes that change meaning, etc.
BRIAN LAMB: Andrew Nagorski, where did you get the idea for your book, Hitlerland?
ANDREW NAGORSKI: I was thinking for a long time what would be my next book. I go through these periods where you’re searching for topics. I always never wanted to force a topic. And it was a conversation, I remember very vividly with my wife, we were driving somewhere and she said, ”You know, there have been all these books recently about Americans in Paris, Americans in London. Has anyone really done a book about the American experience in Germany?”
And even though we had lived in Germany twice, I was a Newsweek correspondent in Bonn in the cold war days. And then in Berlin post-cold war days, I never really thought about that. I had picked up a book, a memoir, here or there but as – and when I began to explore I realized nobody had really examined the American experience in Germany from the end of World War I right through Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war against the United States by Hitler.
And then the next question, of course is, are the stories there? What are the sources? Will it be – is it a story you can weave together? And once I began exploring what was out there both in published, unpublished, and memoirs, and diaries, and letters I just found myself fascinated from the get go.
LAMB: Did it have any impact on you when Erik Larson came out with his book, Garden of Beasts?
NAGORSKI: Well, of course, I learned, when I was almost concluded with my – basically I had finished my manuscript when I realized that this book was coming out. And, you know, my first reaction was, why is someone else writing about this subject?
But then I quickly realized he was writing at a much, you know, more focused, narrower slice. Not to belittle in any way what he did. He did a very interesting book, but he focused on William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Germany when Hitler took power, and his daughter. Who are part of my story too but they are only a – one part, one of many – or two of many characters in my story which spans a much broader era.
So, in the end I think a lot – a number of people have told me that if they read Larson’s book that that made them even more curious about the other Americans and the broader context of this. And I hope Hitlerland provides that to them.
LAMB: Give us some of the names, I mean, Howard K. Smith was there, Richard C. Hottelet of CBS. But who are some of the other names that popped up in this story from the end of World War I to the beginning of World War II?
LAMB: In Berlin.
NAGORSKI: Well, mostly in Berlin but some in Munich, and some other places because I decided to, first of all, see whoever left interesting material behind. In a couple cases I could still interview people. Richard Hottelet was still alive, of course who was one of the original Murrow boys, and later with NBC. Angus Thuermer who was a young AP correspondent at the time, and later on went on to a long career in the CIA, was someone I managed to interview. He was among the last Americans interned in Germany after the declaration of war. And so, there were a few people.
But usually it was – I ended up speaking to the kids, sometimes grandkids. And getting the written records that they had left behind, either in family archives or in, you know public archives, libraries and so forth. And so, there was, you know a stunning number of people there who – some of whom were well known. Of course, you’ve mentioned William Shirer, very famous journalist earlier. There are people like Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News who was, in his era, one of the real, real power houses. There was Hans Kaltenborn, who was a major broadcaster in the early radio days. There was – you know, of course, Charles Lindburgh comes through Germany, everyone has heard of that. But you also had people – even John F. Kennedy flits through Germany in 1937. His diary entries are not terribly revealing other than the fact that he’s interested in the ”bundle of fun” he picks up at the border.
But, yes, I tried to get a sense of those people who actually were there for longer and really observed things. W.E.B. Du Bois, for instance, not a name you normally associated with Germany, the black sociologist historian, but he spends six months on a fellowship in 1935 and ’36. And there are some fascinating insights about Germans, racial doctrine, the contrast with the United States, and, of course, the play off the ’36 Olympics. So, you know, you have people like George Kennan who are associated with Russia who had – most people don’t realize had spent one tour in Germany which happened to be those critical years right before World War II.
NAGORSKI: Who doesn’t look good in retrospect?
LAMB: Well, there are a number of people who don’t look great. And there are a number of people who I’d say have a very mixed record. And one thing I try to do in this book was not to be, sort of, rendering judgment on these characters. The whole point of the book, and the reason I wrote a book about this period, which I find fascinating – but I would never have written a straight history of the period, there have been so many very accomplished historians have done that and very effectively.
But if Hitlerland succeeds, it succeeds in the sense of putting the reader in the shoes of the Americans there at the time. Seeing things piecemeal, and then trying to figure out what was happening. What – and it inevitably raises the question, what would you have known, you, me, anybody else, if we had been there at the time. It all seemed so clear in retrospect but it wasn’t clear then. And the more I delved into this the more I felt I didn’t want to pass rigid judgment on people.
Of course there are people who are very prescient. Again, Edgar Ansel Mowrer was one of them, this Chicago Daily News correspondent. There was a Consul General in Berlin called George Messersmith who was very, very outspoken, very courageous. There was a young military attache Truman Smith, who plays a very significant role in my book. Who I think was very perceptive, both about Hitler who he met as far back as 1922, and about the German military build up.
And then there were people who clearly blew it. Dorothy Thompson most famously, she was the most famous American woman correspondent of that era. Very pioneering, very smart reporter in many ways, but she goes in and interviews Hitler in November of 1931, for the first time. At that point Hitler’s party is really on the rise. A lot of people are predicting he’s going to take power. And she writes immediately after her interview, ”I thought I was going to interview – to meet the future leader of Germany. Within 50 seconds I realized I was not, such was the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog.” And went on to talk about how he had this look in his eyes that is common to hysterics, and alcoholics, and geniuses, and how he doesn’t really – he has a soft, feminine side, he’s going to be no match for the true German politicians.
But what I find, what was interesting about that – and I also should add, that Dorothy Thompson later obviously radically revised her views and did some hard hitting reporting that got her expelled. But that even those mistakes of what I call the first drafts of history, that we as journalists always try to write, are revealing because they explain a lot about how Hitler fooled a lot of people. And why so many people did not take him seriously, whether they were journalists, diplomats or Germans themselves, or even many German Jews.
LAMB: Dorothy Thompson was married to...
NAGORSKI: Sinclair Lewis, of course. Yes, in talking about famous people, there were many famous literary characters coming through Germany. Sinclair Lewis was one, he comes, he falls in love with Dorothy Thompson.
Thomas Wolfe comes to Germany. He was very entranced by Germany. He comes there a few times. Hailed as a hero at first and then – and when he first comes in 1936 he really is pretty much oblivious to a lot of the – what’s going on because he’s just basking in his fame. By the next time he comes, a year later, he’s much more aware and writes a very piercing novella, ”I Have A Thing To Tell You,” which becomes part of his – of a larger book later.
And so, you know, you even have, like I came across an entry in one diary of another correspondent in 1927, ”Well, Hemmingway was just through town, and you know, I saw him on the street with Sinclair,” Sinclair Lewis. You know, Josephine Baker comes to town. She – in 1925, we think of her always as Paris, you know, entertaining the audiences in Paris in Folies Bergere. But she hears about Berlin, this amazing party town in the ’20s, and she decides to take her whole troupe to Berlin. And despite the fact there are already some Nazi protesters outside shouting racist slogans, inside the German audiences love her, she’s the star of the show. She’s invited to the after parties. She performs there often just in her loincloth. And she says, ”There’s no freer, greater place than Berlin,” which is something we tend to forget about Germany.
LAMB: Let’s go back and recap your own life and experience. You were here for Booknotes in 1993, how many books have you written?
NAGORSKI: This is my fifth book.
LAMB: Where do you work now?
NAGORSKI: I’m now at the EastWest Institute which is a New York based think tank started in 1980 in cold war days. So, EastWest would have been, you know, back channel diplomacy between the Soviet Union, the United States, NATO pact – NATO and Warsaw pact. Now the Institute deals with all sorts of issues, China, cyber security, economic security issues. I’ve been there for the last – almost four years since I left Newsweek.
LAMB: How many different places did you live writing for Newsweek and anybody else?
NAGORSKI: Well, for Newsweek I was basically abroad for about 20 years. Hong Kong, Moscow twice, once expelled in the Soviet days, Bonn, Berlin, Rome, Washington briefly. So what – how many places does that make? You know, several.
LAMB: We know you were born in Scotland, but of Polish parents.
LAMB: And your wife is Polish?
LAMB: And at the time you had four kids. Do you still have four kids?
NAGORSKI: I still have four kids and now have seven grandkids.
LAMB: How old are the kids?
NAGORSKI: The kids are in their – they’re all – and the last one just finished college about a year – let me get this right, about two years ago. And we now – and the other kids, the other three kids, are all married and have kids of their own as well.
LAMB: And you live where?
NAGORSKI: I live in New York, just outside of New York in Pelham. And our kids are scattered in Juno, L.A., Austin, and New York.
LAMB: In your book you talk a lot about William Shirer.
LAMB: Who was he, we’ve got some video to show in a moment, but tell us who he was before we show it.
NAGORSKI: William Shirer, at the time of when I’m writing this story is just – he’s just turned 30, he’s in Paris. He’s been a writer for various publications in the United States. He is desperate to go to what he thinks is the next big story, which is Germany. He says, ”You know, I’m dying of boredom in Paris.” Now, most people wouldn’t think Paris is a boring assignment. But, in fact, it goes to show, once again, that as a journalist your instinct is always to go to that next big story. He could see that it was happening in Germany.
And in 1933, after Hitler takes power, he gets an assignment from Hearst International News Service to go to Germany. He goes there, is an incredibly energetic, perceptive, correspondent. Eventually is hired by Ed Murrow of CBS, one of the original Murrow boys. And he stays in Germany or in Vienna right through the beginning of the war.
He writes, at the time, his – he publishes his Berlin Diaries after he leaves Berlin, which comes out in 1940, which has a huge impact in the United States because the writing is wonderful. And it’s very vivid. And it really brought home what was happening in Germany. Of course, much later, long after the war, he produces the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. The book that he’s most famous for, which is still, I think, one of the most authoritative studies of that period despite all the subsequent books that have followed.
LAMB: Did you check to see, by chance, how many of those books have sold, the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?
NAGORSKI: Well, Simon & Schuster, which happens to be my publisher, has just reissued that book on the 50th anniversary of its publication. I would assume it’s – we’re talking, you know, millions of copies.
LAMB: Let’s watch part of a documentary in 1968, just a tiny bit.
LAMB: So we can see what William Shirer looked like.
WILLIAM SHIRER: Buried amid the debris of the Third Reich, the demagogue who caused so many deaths was himself perishable. The architect of so much evil was, after all, only a man.
Adolf Hitler is dead. The Third Reich he built, which lasted so short a time, 12 years, but which in its calculated butchery of human life and the human spirit, surpassed anything this earth has seen, is now but a painful memory. How did it happen that an ancient and cultured people, steeped in Christianity, cultivated in the arts and sciences, preeminent in modern technology, who gave us Luther and Kant and Beethoven, Grita and Einstein, collapse into savage barbarism in the mid-twentieth century?
To seek the answers we must follow the Germans and the rise of their strange leader through the turbulent years between 1920 and 1945.
LAMB: What was his posture? What was he writing about Hitler and the Germans when he was there?
NAGORSKI: Well, first of all, he was speaking – his thoughts, which you could see from his diaries, are very clear. While other people in their correspondence and diaries are often wondering, is Hitler for real? The big question for many people was not whether Hitler was, you know, was he essentially a demagogue or not, everyone knew he was a demagogue. But does he mean this stuff? Even whether or not you’ve read Mein Kampf that could he really believe these things he’s writing about Jews and others, and the business about taking over the Soviet Union, and conquering the Slavic lands? And Shirer, from the very beginning takes it completely seriously. And he gets as much of that into his writing as possible, and then his broadcasting, although broadcasting later becomes a problem because it’s heavily censored.
I should – as a small aside, I thought, you know, that clip was wonderful. I also – I suppose I owe Shirer a debt because, you know, my interest in this was for all sorts of reasons. But of course, I also read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, not– as a young college student, and it influenced me greatly. But the book’s title I should say, in part, is due to Shirer and a couple of other journalists. This is not – Hitlerland is not made up by me. Hitlerland was a term that Shirer and a few of his colleagues used informally among themselves about the country they were covering.
LAMB: The cover of your book is that, I didn’t look, is that Nuremberg?
NAGORSKI: No, it’s actually – I think it’s in Dortmund or somewhere, it looks like a Nuremberg rally. It’s a very similar rally in another city but – I mean what I particularly liked about the cover, when the art department of Simon & Schuster proposed this cover, usually when you go through a book cover you go through various drafts, we all looked at it and said, ”That’s perfect.” Because you’re not looking straight on at Hitler, you’re looking over his shoulder. And, again, it’s supposed to convey – which it instantly conveys the idea of the premise of the book is that you’re getting a different angle on these familiar events. You think you know about them. I thought I knew about them.
But until I wrote it and did the research for Hitlerland I had no idea about the experiences of many – of the people who were essentially my predecessors, those correspondents or diplomats in Berlin. And despite all the time I had spent in Germany I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about, what would it have been like to have been a correspondent there in the ’20s and ’30s? And, you know, how would you have operated? What would you have noticed or not noticed much less how would you have acted?
LAMB: Who was Putzi?
NAGORSKI: Putzi Hanfstaengl, one of the – of course one of the most notorious characters, I’d say, in the book. His full name is Ernst Hanfstaengl. He was – he called himself a half American. His father was from a very distinguished Bavarian art family, his – of art dealers. His mother was from a family, the Sedgwick family in Boston, a born and bred American family. Her father, so Putzi’s grandfather, had been a Civil War general. He, in fact, had even carried – helped carry Lincoln’s coffin. And so, Putzi is born in Germany but is sort of – he’s, you know, German/American.
He goes to Harvard class of 1909. Among his classmates for instance is Dean Atchinson, Archibald Macleish, Teddy Roosevelt Junior. He even is invited to the White House by Teddy Junior because Putzi is a very colorful character, a very tall guy, very entertaining, plays the piano wonderfully. He’s invited to play the piano in the White House.
And eventually is playing the piano for Hitler because what happens is after he graduates from Harvard, he runs the family art business in – on Fifth Avenue in New York. He meets an American woman whose parents came from Germany but she’s a born and bred New Yorker, her name is Helen. And in 1921, as a married couple, they move to Munich.
And there, very soon, he meets Hitler. He becomes one of Hitler’s earliest propagandists. And interestingly enough, because of his whole American background, the connecting point for many Americans who want to meet Hitler once Hitler begins to rise in prominence. So, his story, which is told throughout this book, is one which intersects with so many of the Americans.
And what I found also fascinating about the research in the book is you get often – you get certain scenes where someone would say, ”I saw Putzi. He came to my house.” Louis Lochner, the AP Bureau Chief, for dinner, and he wore this strange looking Nazi uniform for the first time. This is right after Hitler takes power. And he said he’s got British tailoring. And then you get the description of that same scene from somebody else who saw Putzi that day, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs.
And so, you begin to triangulate and see, you know, that these stories not only intersect but they reinforce each other. And that’s – you know, it’s one of the great fun parts of being kind of the amateur historian, journalist. And in discovering these stories, setting these scenes, which tell you a great deal about, you know the atmosphere of the times.
And here’s Putzi, who actually is playing Harvard marching songs for Hitler in the early days. And Hitler is saying, ”Wow. Those are great, they have a great beat we should use them at our rallies.” And, in fact, then Hitler – then Putzi composes some marches for Hitler. You know, it’s the kind of thing if you thought about it, kind of in a novel or a movie script, you’d say, that’s too – yes, that’s too crazy to imagine. But this was – nothing was too absurd in this situation.
LAMB: What was the relationship between Hitler and Helen, Putzi’s wife?
NAGORSKI: Helen was an attractive woman who very quickly became very friendly with Hitler as well. In fact, Hitler was coming over to their house in the early ’20s when he was still a local figure, not a national figure. And he was clearly attracted to Helen. Now, I won’t say, you know, what the nature of this attraction was, it’s hard to say. Helen believed that he was sort of in awe of her in many ways. The subject of Hitler’s sexual proclivities is a very long subject and there are many theories. There was nothing I don’t think sexual between them. But he was – he liked being in her company.
And most significantly in 1923 there’s the beer hall putsch. Hitler tries to seize power in Munich, and the Nazis are fired upon by the police. Hitler is injured his shoulder is dislocated. Several Nazi’s are killed including his aide who he was marching arm-in-arm with. And he seeks refuge in Helen’s house. Putzi has already fled to Austria.
And the next morning he’s in the house and Helen knows that – gets a call from her mother-in-law saying, ”The police are coming to your house next. They’re going – they’re looking for Hitler. They’re going to arrest him.” And in the scene, which I describe in detail in the book, he – Helen goes up to tell Hitler, ”Look, get ready, you’re going to be arrested.” And he’s got a gun in his hand. And Helen at that point is convinced, in her own mind that he’s thinking of shooting himself. And she grabs that gun from him, think about the implications of that? 1923. If he had gone through with it, if – we can’t know whether he would have gone through with that, whether she was right. But the idea that an American woman may have saved Hitler in 1923 from suicide and from – and in effect doomed the world to what followed, is a rather a staggering thought.
LAMB: Hitler served how long in prison and why?
NAGORSKI: He was then arrested in Helen’s house in 1923. He was brought to trial in early 1924. He was sentenced to five years in prison for this attempted putsch. But he made – he was treated very lightly by the authorities. Both by the judge, who allowed him to just basically use the trial as this staging ground to be able to tell the world about his theories, and first time, get really major media attention. And this was also the first time that many correspondents saw him.
And then he goes to prison and out of that five years he only spends 11 months in prison. And he is treated very generously by the authorities. He’s treated almost like a hero there. There’s a lot of popular sentiment that supports him. He dictates Mein Kampf during his time in prison. He has visitors all the time people are sending him flowers.
Now, you have to recall the early ’20s in Germany were a time of, not only had Germany been defeated in World War I, losing a couple million men, it was very demoralized. There had been this period of hyper inflation, people’s savings wiped out. This sense of total collapse and Hitler had played upon that and the Wiemar politicians, the new democracy that had been – that was created was proving to be very ineffective at the time. So, Hitler was able to benefit immensely from his prison time.
LAMB: You sent me back to Mein Kampf, and by the way, it’s available free of charge on Google, you can get...
LAMB: ... it and read it. And it just reminded me, I mean I hadn’t read it for a few years, of this obsession with Jews.
LAMB: What – did you find anything in your research that told you why? And what did he say in Mein Kampf about Jews?
NAGORSKI: Well, I mean, basically the language about Jews is always vermin, lice, this sort of language. The scourge, that they – of course, the stab in the back theory that somehow Germany lost World War I because the Jewish politicians stabbed the military in the back. All of which, you know, is a very convenient excuse for what happened. You know, it’s a classic scapegoating.
In terms of, why the Jews? For instance, Helen Hanfstaengl talked about Hitler, even in those early days, coming over to her house and playing with her son Egon, who was a few years old, and being very, very charming. But then he’d suddenly go off on a rant about Jews. And she would say what many people have said since, that somehow it could be traced back to his time in Vienna when he was relative – he was a non-successful artist. He had tried to get in, he didn’t get accepted into a fine arts school and been rejected, that’s another what if in history.
But that he had developed a raging hatred of Jews by then. How you explain that I’m not sure there’s any simple answer. But it certainly fuelled his thinking, fuelled Mein Kampf. And someone like Dorothy Thompson when she interviewed Hitler, one very perceptive comment which she made was, ”Take away the anti-Semitism and the whole case he makes collapses.” Because it’s all based on that, and his notion of races, inferior races, with Jews at the top of the list, but Slavs not far behind.
LAMB: By the way, how many countries ban that now from being bought or read or...
NAGORSKI: Well, Germany still has the ban, that’s the primary one because it’s the copyright that belongs to the Bavarian authorities and they haven’t lifted it. Unfortunately I think it expires in another year or two. So, even in Germany it will be available. I’m not sure how many other countries still ban it.
My feeling is it makes no sense to ban it. First of all, if anybody who tries to read, and if you picked it up recently, you’re reminded of this. It is a turgid treck, you know, it’s hundreds of pages of Hitler just ranting. And it’s – this is not going to turn someone onto the Nazis.
In fact, I describe a scene in my book where Otto Strasser, who is one of the early Nazis who later broke with Hitler, describes a 1927 Nuremberg party rally where he and a few buddies are having dinner at a restaurant. And each of – and admits to each other, ”Well, we never read all of Mein Kampf. We couldn’t get through it.” And then they said, ”OK,” and various Nazi officials were coming to join them for dinner, he said, ”The first Nazi official who joins who says he’s read the whole book, we’ll stick him with the tab.” And they go through the evening, various people join them, they couldn’t stick anybody with the tab, everybody had to pay for themselves.
LAMB: Here’s some video of a famous American that you read about, it’s – let’s watch and then you can explain this.
CHARLES LINDBERG: France has now been defeated, and despite the propaganda and confusion of recent months, it is now obvious that England is losing the war. And I have been forced to the conclusion that we cannot win this war for England regardless of how much assistance we send. That is why the America First Committee has been formed.
Are we operating under a government by representation or are we operating under a government by subterfuge?
LAMB: Charles Lindberg.
NAGORSKI: Charles Lindberg is most famous for exactly that, that sort of thing that you just – that clip you just saw. And, of course, for his solo flight across the Atlantic that made him, you know, the biggest celebrity of his era, the kidnapping and murder of his son.
But then in relationship to Germany all of us have heard the story of Lindbergh, his sympathy, his apparent sympathy for a lot of what was going on in Germany. And then his very fervent efforts to keep America out of the war at all costs.
But, the part of the Lindbergh story that I focus on in Hitlerland is a different one. And that is something, again, I had not realized was that the origins of his visits to Germany was not the fact that, say the Germans invited him because they thought he sympathized with them or that he went there because he sympathized with them initially. It’s because this young – this military attache, Truman Smith, who had been in Germany in the early ’20s, first met Hitler, then comes back as a senior attache in ’35 is – has got very good sources within the Wehrmacht, the German army, and learning about how it’s building up. But he doesn’t know much about the Luftwaffe, the air force.
And he realizes that Lindbergh is in France and in England traveling around as a celebrity. And he comes up with the idea, if I can get Hermann Goring’s Air Ministry to invite Lindbergh to Germany, Goring who loves to show off, will want to show this famous man everything. And that’s exactly what happens. He comes to Germany. Yes, he is used by the Germans for propaganda purposes in many ways. But he also gets to see the air fields, the new planes, and he knows those – he knows a lot about aviation of course. And he brings the military attaches with him, or debriefs them, and provides some very good intelligence.
Now, his motive was probably to convince the Americans that, look, this is such a powerful country, you don’t want to mess with them. But, regardless of the motive, there’s real intelligence here.
And there’s also then these amazing stories of the lunch that Goring holds for Lindbergh where Lindbergh at one point asks Goring, ”I hear you have a pet lion. Can I see him”? And Lindbergh says, ”Yes, come on in.” And so they bring him over to the library and calls this pet lion cub over on his lap. Now Goring’s a big man in a white uniform, the lion jumps up on his lap, the various dinner guests, including Truman – the lunch guests, including Truman Smith, the Lindberghs are there, and suddenly the lion gets nervous and just lets loose. The uniform turns bright yellow, Goring goes flying out of the room changes and – yes, this is the kind of thing that, you know, again, which are these episodes which are incredible to learn about. And again, hear about from different sources. And, in fact, Truman Smith’s daughter, who is still alive I discovered. After I talked to her at great length, the next day she called me and said, ”By the way, did I show you this photo on my refrigerator”? And I said, ”No, what photo on my refrigerator”? ”The one with Goring’s lion.” She was about 12 years old at the time, and after Goring – that incident with Goring’s lion, Goring sent the lion back to the Berlin Zoo and Truman Smith arranged for her to have a photo taken with it.
This is amidst all these tragic events there is just a sense of a bit of a theatre of the absurd here.
LAMB: We have some more video and we were talking about Richard C. Hottelet earlier, is he still alive?
NAGORSKI: Yes, he is. I talked...
LAMB: How old is he?
NAGORSKI: Richard must be 93 if I’m not mistaken, 93 or – yes, right around 93, I believe, maybe 94 at this point.
LAMB: You’re going to see some other familiar faces, this is back in 1995, let’s watch it.
SANFORD UNGAR: But I think Helen Kirkpatrick is saying that she was a warmonger. She felt it was important to let the United States stand up to Hitler.
HELEN KIRKPATRICK: Well, I wrote a book on the subject which Mr. Chamberlain didn’t like very much. We didn’t like Mr. Chamberlain very much either.
RICHARD C. HOTTELET: But the – for instance, Sigrid Schultz’s story of the Kristallnacht. This infamous day, and it was the 10th of November 1938, when the Nazis turned their goon squads loose on little Jewish businesses and smashed their windows. The crystal night it got to be called. This led – I mean, it was there. It was presented to people. She didn’t say, isn’t this terrible, isn’t this awful. It was terrible, it was awful, it was perfectly plain. People chose to ignore it.
LAMB: What happened to him when he was in Germany, and how long was he there during that period from ’23 up to the war?
NAGORSKI: Now, Hottelet came in the ’30s. He was a young man. And I don’t remember exactly which year he came in, but he was there for I think about three years, two or three years, first as a student and then working as a wire service reporter. And...
LAMB: He could speak German?
NAGORSKI: Yes, yes, yes, he studied German. And many of the – most of these reporters who spent any amount of time there did speak German and were, yes, were quite proficient. And Sigrid Schultz who was a Chicago Tribune correspondent for this entire period was completely fluent in German. She had actually studied in a German university for awhile. Long before Hitler took power.
Hottelet, what happened to him was he – he was picked up by the Gestapo. He was the only American correspondent who was actually imprisoned by the Gestapo for several months in 1940. This is – World War II has started, America’s not yet in the war, so American correspondents are still in Germany. But things are beginning to get more and more difficult for them.
And there were various theories why Hottelet was picked up and held. He was not treated anywhere nearly as badly as most Gestapo prisoners. There was still something special about being an American. I remember Hitler was trying to still keep America out of the war if possible. But he was detained for – he was kept in prison for several months and then eventually released there.
But many of his fellow journalists simply felt it was both that Hottelet had been more and more disgusted by what he’d seen around him, and was making that very clear. But also was a warning to other journalists. What often happens in any totalitarian society when you’re a foreign correspondent one journalist may get picked on, or put in prison, or expelled, or so forth to basically tell the other journalists, watch your step, this can happen to you too.
LAMB: What was – what did you find that you didn’t know?
NAGORSKI: There’s a long list of things. I would say I mean, first of all, you know, something like the back story on Charles Lindbergh was one of them.
The other one I think it’s in a more general sense, aside from very specific incidents, that so many of which I did not know about, it was the sense of just how creeping the understanding was of what was happening in Germany. And it was a – one of the things I expected going into this project was that as Hitler rose, it would be a pretty linear progression in terms of understanding of him by Americans. In fact, it was anything but linear.
Howard K. Smith, the future ABC news anchor, who is a wire service reporter, had talked about four stages when Americans came to Germany, or many foreigners came to Germany, after Hitler took power. One is that first sort of being completely in awe of Germany, it’s a well ordered society, people seemingly very polite. It was beginning to rebound from the depression, and so, this admiration.
And then, two, say, ”Wow, there are all this military here. But it’s kind of exciting, there are marching bands and there are the marching boots, there are thousands of people. And it’s – well, people are excited.
Third stage is suddenly, ”Oh my God, these people are being trained to kill, to conquer.” And the fourth stage is utter terror.
Some Americans went through those four stages really fast. Some only were – they stuck at one or two. Some went up to three then back to two. It was very interesting that, say, Truman Smith, this military attache – Karl von Wiegand a Hearst correspondent, the first American correspondent to meet Hitler in 1922 when very few people had heard of Hitler had a pretty good read on him in those early days. Saying, ”He’s a – what’s called a marvelous demagogue.” Not in terms of admiring him, admiring his skills, and say, ”This guy could go far in Bavaria.” Now, in those days that was as far as the imagination went. But still, that wasn’t a bad perception. Later...
LAMB: How big, by the way, is Bavaria inside Germany?
NAGORSKI: Well, it’s, you know, it’s the southern state of Germany. Munich is its center. I’m not sure exactly in terms of full territory but it has always been sort of an entity unto itself. It is near the Austrian border. So, it has a distinct culture. By the way, Hitler always felt much more comfortable in Munich and in Bavaria then he did in Berlin even after he took power.
LAMB: Let me show you some video of Howard K. Smith for those who don’t remember him.
HOWARD K. SMITH: Hottelet was German, he spoke German better than most Germans did. He despised Adolf Hitler and he said so. He was just an obvious target. If they were going to get somebody they were going to get him.
And also, the Germans forbad us to go out and hunt for ruins after the early bombings of Berlin. They wouldn’t allow it. He got a bicycle and went out. And so, they really were furious at Hottelet.
They arrested him and they raided the office. I was on the dead man shift that night so I was there when the Gestapo came in, about eight big men. Took the office apart and they wouldn’t tell me what it was about so I couldn’t do anything about it. Exner’s wife, Dorothy Exner, phoned me. And as the phone rang the head of the Gestapo said to me, ”You speak German, nothing but German.” So, I said, ”Hello.” And she said, ”Howard”? And I said, ”Yes.” And I answered her in German. She said, ”Why are you continually answering me in German”? I said, ”I’m not allowed to do anything else.” She said, ”I see.” So she hung up. And Exner went to the foreign office and found out what was happening.
And Hottelet was held for several months. Finally he was traded for two spies, two German spies we arrested in the United States.
LAMB: Did Richard C. Hottelet worry at the time about, you know, being held there forever? I mean how afraid was he that the Germans were going to do something to him?
NAGORSKI: You know, I think he – probably in the initial days, from his account, what – he wrote up his story and then I talked to him about it. When he was first thrown in, of course, in that moment, even though you can say rationally, they’re unlikely to keep me forever, they’re unlikely to kill me, torture me, because I’m an American correspondent and that – for that reason, and because there’s still a reason not to antagonize the United States that overtly. But intellectually you can think that. But you realize what kind of a regime this is and you can be very worried. But I think very soon after he was transferred from one prison to another, given better conditions, and an American embassy official was allowed to even visit him. So, the signal was there that something would eventually be negotiated. So, and he was a young man with a lot of courage, a lot of drive, maybe naivety in some ways, but I don’t think he was all that rattled except for right in the very beginning as anyone would be.
LAMB: When did the people in the United States start paying attention?
NAGORSKI: Well, it’s interesting to see that among those correspondents and diplomats who were the most worried about what was happening and really thought, there’s a looming confrontation here, we in the United States are not going to be able to duck this as much as we’d like to. They were very frustrated by the fact that many people in the United States simply didn’t want to hear that.
Remember, the U.S. had reluctantly gone into World War I, felt well, what did World War I solve? They had gone through the depression, were still struggling their way out of the depression. So, the last thing most Americans wanted to hear, and this was not just the America First movement, and so forth but many ordinary Americans. Even the Roosevelt administration, at first, was very reluctant to really absorb the full import of the messages that were coming out of Germany from the people who were very perceptive.
Someone – and it wasn’t, again, just journalists or diplomats. For instance, James McDonnell was the head of the Foreign Policy Association in New York. He comes over to Germany right after Hitler takes power and actually gets through Putzi Hanfstaengl a meeting with Hitler. And he comes away convinced that everything he’s saying about the Jews and about conquest and so forth should be taken literally.
LAMB: But what happens to Putzi before it’s all over?
NAGORSKI: Putzi, this is – well, again nothing is simple with Putzi. In 1936 or ’37 he has been falling out of favor with Hitler and is being increasingly marginalized by – but especially by Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist, they never got along.
And at one point he is taken up in a plane and told he’s going to be sent to Spain on a mission during the Spanish Civil War. And he’s told by the pilot when he gets up in the plane that I’m told to parachute you behind enemy lines. And he – and the plane stops before they leave Germany for refueling, the pilot feigns a mechanical thing, and says, ”You may want to get out of here.” He flees and goes to Switzerland and eventually ends up in England. He is convinced there was a plot to kill him. The Nazis later claim there wasn’t, we were just playing around with this guy. Who knows what that meant?
But he is eventually when – picked up during – when World War II started as an enemy alien in Britain. He’s shipped off to Canada. But even then he uses his connections to get a message to Roosevelt and saying, ”I can help you with intelligence on Hitler.” And he’s brought over to the United States. His son by the way, at that point, is – has recently graduated from Harvard and is in a U.S. army uniform.
LAMB: Is there any of his relatives – are there any of his relatives left?
NAGORSKI: I met his grandson in Munich who remembers his – both Putzi and Helen, his grandmother, very well. They lived into the ’70s. So, his grandson is alive in Munich.
LAMB: What happened to that marriage?
NAGORSKI: That fell apart in the mid-30s. Putzi, among other things, was a well-known ladies man. And at parties could be rather forward and finally Helen ditched him. Interestingly enough Helen, at one point, writes that Hitler asks about her and says – and learns that she’s divorced, he said, ”It’s about time.” And she’s kind of happy to hear that, she’s still thinking about him. So, she divorces and she goes back to the United States in the late ’30s, spends the war years there. But in the ’50s comes back then decides to move back to Germany. And spends the rest of her life there and dies there in the ’70s, as does Putzi.
LAMB: What parallel, if any – I’m afraid to ask this question, people are going to think I’m suggesting Hitler is represented by somebody in this country, but what parallel to what happened in the Weimar Republic, and then what happened when Hitler took over, is there here in the United States at this time in our lives? Any?
NAGORSKI: You know, I don’t – I never feel that there is a straight historical parallel sort of straight analogy. And Hitler was such an extreme case that I’m very hesitant to make direct analogies. But I think there are a number of lessons from, you know – from which I took away just from living vicariously through the lives of these Americans and Hitler’s Germany.
One is a powerful demagogue individual, whoever he may be, can really influence the course of history. Of course, the conditions have to be right, the economic conditions, the political climate. And this doesn’t take away from the responsibility of his followers. But it struck me in terms of that incident where Hitler may or may not have committed suicide or tried to commit suicide. He was so close to being shot when he held – when he tried the putsch in 1923, and other episodes that without Hitler most of the – and his personal qualities which is – these Americans write about, which at first are off putting to most visitors, usually you just see the rants, the news clips. But the people who watched him closely said he’s a master psychologist in the way he worked the crowds.
The Nazis would probably never have won power. Germany may have gone into a dictatorship, a military dictatorship, extreme right-wing dictatorship, but unlikely you would have had the Third Reich, the holocaust, something on that dimension.
The other one is that when an extremist or extremist movement, makes threats that seem absurd and suicidal even, that – and out of your rational frame of reference, that doesn’t mean that’s enough reason to disregard them. And the big mistake so many people made was to dismiss him, saying, ”It would be suicidal for Hitler to act on all his threats.”
LAMB: We don’t have a lot of time, so I’d ask you to do it very quickly, but the number of things you wrote about that have been written about for years, but I want you to define them. Events, night of the long knives, in 1934, what was it?
NAGORSKI: Night of the long knives, 1934, June 30th. Hitler sends out his troops to basically do away with many of the people he perceives as his enemies, including people in the S.A., the Storm Troopers, who are seen as being – getting out of hand. The S.S., the more elite unit, resented them. So, he has several of them murdered. He also has some previous rivals within the party murdered like Gregor Strasser who was part of that old – what was called the socialist wing of the party, at one point in the ’20s, seen as a rival. There really was a socialist wing, even though it was a racist socialist wing. And then people like the Bavarian official who presided – who was in charge, during his trial.
LAMB: What’s a Brown Shirt?
NAGORSKI: A Brown Shirt is this Storm Trooper, basically the bodyguards, the thugs who were the private army of Hitler as he was rising to power. And then they were kind of the auxiliary basically enforcers once he was in power.
LAMB: You talked about the beer hall putsch, what’s a putsch?
NAGORSKI: A putsch is a coup, an attempt to overthrow a government. In this case it was an attempt at first to overthrow the Bavarian government. But they were saying they were then going to march to Berlin.
LAMB: You write about three other big events, in 1938 the Anschluss.
NAGORSKI: The Anschluss, yes. The Anschluss was the annexation of Austria where Hitler simply marches his troops into Austria, makes it part of the – what – greater Germany. Again, that was part of his plan. In 1938 many German generals even wondered, ”Is Hitler out of his mind to go this far”? And he then annexes Austria.
LAMB: 30 September ’38 was the Munich conference with Chamberlain.
NAGORSKI: Yes, that was where the fate of Czechoslovakia was in the balance. And here again, there were many Germans who believed this was a very dangerous move on Hitler’s part. But, in fact, Hitler gets the British and the French to agree to the breakup of Czechoslovakia. And suddenly basically whatever resistance there was – there might have been to Hitler in the military totally dissipates because it seems like he’s getting everything he wants without even – without any use of force.
LAMB: The 9th and 10th of November, Kristallnacht, that Richard Hottelet was talking about.
NAGORSKI: Yes, the night of the broken glass where – you know, a furious anti-Semitic campaign is unleashed where Jewish stores, Jews are attacked, many Jews are literally sometimes thrown out windows. It’s just an orgy of anti-Semitism, a signal that if anybody had any illusions at that point that this is for real.
LAMB: This is strictly a small – well, not a small item. But you write about, I just had never seen this, about his relationship, Hitler’s relationship, with his half-sister?
NAGORSKI: Well, yes, with his half-sister and his niece by – the daughter of his half-sister. Yes, Geli Raubal who is – he was, in the late 1920’s, he was clearly infatuated with her. He’s seen going about town with her, eventually has her move into his apartment. Again, there are rumors that this is - there’s something weirdly sexual about this. Who knows?
She is found in 1931 with a bullet through her – the official story is that she has committed suicide. There are other people who say that there had been a big fight that day between Hitler and Geli. And there were, you know, rumors in the socialist press that maybe he was somehow responsible for her death, then he hushes this up. And Putzi, actually, is one of the people who is sent around to make sure that this potential scandal is hushed up.
LAMB: We do this from time to time, some video of your past. We go back to 1989...
LAMB: ... when you used to do call-in shows here. Let’s roll.
LAMB: Are you going to go back over there soon?
NAGORSKI: I would expect so. It’s hard to stay away very long these days. If you do you miss three revolutions.
LAMB: How surprising was all this to you?
NAGORSKI: The speed of events I think was a surprise for everyone. But it was my feeling all along, particularly on Romania that if something happened unfortunately it would have to happen the way it did. In the sense of being violent revolution as opposed to the very peaceful and gentle revolutions, as they are called in the rest of Eastern Europe, because Ceausescu left no middle ground for dissent, for organized protest, for some sort of compromise. And therefore, the only way to overthrow this regime was in the kind of confrontation we saw last week.
LAMB: You can see by that video who has not changed, you.
NAGORSKI: A lot more hair. Where did that go?
LAMB: Well, we just have a minute, but looking back over your own life, are you – how would you characterize what you’ve seen change since, you know, your reporting life and especially over in Russia and all that?
NAGORSKI: Well, I mean, part of my motivation probably for writing Hitlerland is I was lucky enough to have been a reporter before, during and after the transformation of Europe, of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. And so, I have some feeling of what it is to live through historic events. And how hard it is during that time when you’re in the midst of it to just figure things out. You know, I always thought at some point that system will collapse. I cannot say that I prophesized when and how. I know we were all struck by the rapidity, as I said there.
So, I guess it’s made me more and more curious about other periods like that. And then what lessons we learn from it. Of course, the world has changed radically in every way. The media has changed radically. One of the striking things I found in writing Hitlerland was what a powerful U.S. press corp there was in Berlin. At one point, 50 U.S. correspondents in Berlin in the ’30s, representing all sorts of newspapers and wire services that no longer exist.
LAMB: Well, one last question. Is there any place in the world where we have 50 American correspondents?
NAGORSKI: I don’t think so. I can’t imagine any place where we have 50 these days, just – I mean there are various freelancers who may – but even if you add them all in and even in places like Beijing and Moscow these days, I don’t think so.
LAMB: Our guest has been Andrew Nagorski. His book is called Hitlerland, and the subtitle is American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power. We thank you very much for coming back.
NAGORSKI: Thank you so much.
Hitler’s rise to power, Germany’s march to the abyss, as seen through the eyes of Americans—diplomats, military, expats, visiting authors, Olympic athletes—who watched horrified and up close. By tapping a rich vein of personal testimonies, Hitlerland offers a gripping narrative full of surprising twists—and a startlingly fresh perspective on this heavily dissected era.