Andrew Nagorski, vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute, has released his latest work Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, a chronicle of American expatriates living in Germany during Adolf Hitler’s transformation from a local agitator to the all-powerful leader of a terrifying regime.
Hitlerland explores the perspectives of such prominent Americans as George Kennan, Sinclair Lewis, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Owens, William Randolph Hearst and W.E.B Dubois during their time in an increasingly volatile Germany.
The book was the product of extensive research and interviews; as Henry Kissinger explains, Nagorski “plumbed the dispatches, diaries, letters, and interviews of American journalists, diplomats and others who were present in Berlin to write a fascinating account of a fateful era.”
Publishers Weekly writes: “Nagorski’s account is rich in anecdotal detail about how a man dismissed by many could hypnotize a nation and terrorize the world.” At a time when the public debate about current flashpoints often uses Hitler and 1938 as a reference point, Nagorski’s latest work is essential reading. Nagorski spoke with EWI staff on the writing process, notable figures featured in the book, and the connection to his experiences covering Germany for Newsweek.
Who were the Americans in German in the 1920s and 1930s, and how did you get their stories?
There was a broad range of Americans: diplomats, military attachés and foreign correspondents, along with a stream of visiting writers, students, professors and Olympic athletes. In a few cases, I was able to interview them directly, but most of them are no longer living. Which meant that I had to scour every possible record I could find—their published and unpublished memoirs, diaries, reports and letters. I found many of these source materials in archives, libraries and private family collections; in some cases, there were records that had been sitting in a family’s attic and almost forgotten.
What drew these Americans to Berlin?
Berlin in the 1920s was a wild place, where everything about life played out on the extremes. Against the backdrop of Germany’s defeat in World War I, its economic collapse and hyperinflation, politics often turned to violence. Even the sex was wild, as normal inhibitions all but evaporated. At the same time, Berlin—more so than Paris or London—was the cultural capital of Europe, boasting celebrities like Bertolt Brecht, Marlene Dietrich, George Grosz and Albert Einstein. The Americans who came to Berlin were swept up in all this excitement.
How were these Americans treated?
In the 1920s and early 1930s, most American felt very welcome in Germany. Of course, the United States had helped defeat Germany in World War I, but its involvement came late. And the Americans were far more sympathetic to their plight after the war than the British or, especially, the French, who wanted to punish Germany as much as possible by seeking high reparations. As a result, Americans were seen as the good victors, who didn’t share those fierce European enmities. Germans also were heavily influenced by American music, films and trends.
How did this change once Hitler came to power in 1933?
First of all, many Americans were deeply troubled by the extremism of the Nazis. And some witnessed incidents of violence first-hand, or, in several cases, were even the victims of such violence. In the early period of Hitler’s rule, quite a few American visitors who failed to raise their arms in the Nazi salute were beaten badly by storm troopers. But even then, the American journalists and diplomats were often treated much better than their European counterparts, since Hitler didn’t want to antagonize Washington and hoped to keep America out of any future European conflict.
What impressions did Americans who met Hitler have of him?
One of the most fascinating aspects of my research was exploring that question, and discovering the huge range of reactions. Captain Truman Smith, who was a junior military attaché in 1922 when he became the first American diplomat to meet Hitler, kept a notebook of his impressions. It shows that he immediately realized that this local agitator in Munich, who was largely unknown at the time, could become a real political force. But the most common mistake was to underestimate Hitler. Americans often saw him as almost a clownish or effeminate figure, who couldn’t possibly outmaneuver the more “serious” politicians. As late as 1931, Dorothy Thompson, one of the most famous female correspondents, interviewed Hitler and quickly proclaimed that he had no chance of gaining power.
Of all of your stories about Americans there, where’s the biggest surprise?
For many readers, I think it’ll be discovering that an American woman, the wife of Hitler’s propagandist who was of mixed German-American parentage and a Harvard grad, may have prevented the Nazi leader from committing suicide after his failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The woman’s name was Helen Hanfstaengl, and Hitler clearly—how to put it?—had a thing for her in his own awkward way. This is a story I tell in some detail.
How will these first-hand accounts change a reader’s view of the rise of Nazism and the familiar players? What are you hoping to convey with this book?
There have been many excellent accounts of this period, but what is different about mine is precisely the fact that the reader sees events unfolding through the eyes of the Americans there 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. And the implicit questions for anyone, including myself as I was conveying their stories, 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.
As a Newsweek foreign correspondent, you were based in Germany twice and you covered the fall of communism. How did that influence your choice of this subject?
The fact that I was lucky enough to cover such epic events in a more recent period made me very curious about my counterparts in the 1920s and 1930s. While the periods were very different, I knew from my own experiences how difficult it is to understand the meaning of epic upheavals when you’re right in the midst of them. For that reason, I’m perhaps less harshly judgmental about some of the miscues or miscalculations of the Americans at the time than others may be. In fact, I did not feel that my mission in this book was to pass judgment for the most part. It’s up to my readers to make up their own minds.
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.