Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek correspondent who was stationed in Bonn and Berlin, told an audience during a recent United States Holocaust Memorial Museum program at B'nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton that he didn't give much thought to what it must have been like for his American predecessors to report from Germany as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s.
While writing his new book "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," Nagorski said he wanted to see if he could put himself into the shoes of the characters.
One of those characters was Howard K. Smith, a young journalist who later would have a long career with ABCNews. Stationed in Berlin in the 1930s, Smith described four stages of awareness in pre-war Germany, Nagorski said.
"Wow, this is a beautiful country," was the first stage. "Hey, there are a lot of uniforms and marching bands. It's kind of exciting," was the second. The third stage was that the Nazis were "taught to attack and kill and do anything." And the fourth was "utter terror."
Dorothy Thompson, who also was a correspondent in Berlin during those years, met with Hitler in 1931, Nagorski said. "She said it took her less than 50 seconds to measure the startling insignificance of this man who set the world agog."
Nagorski quoted Thompson as saying, "There's no ideology here with the Nazis. You take away anti-Semitism and there's nothing left. Adolf Hitler has already gone to war; the rest of the world just doesn't believe it yet."
Journalist William Shirer, who became known for his reporting from Germany and would later write "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," saw in 1934 "that a great conflict with Germany was inevitable," Nagorski told the audience.
But many of the journalists' editors back home in the United States were skeptical of the reporting, he said.
"The mood in the United States was 'Why should we get involved again?'" The country was in the throws of the Great Depression and people had their own problems. In addition, anti-Semitism was pervasive in American society, Nagorski said. "People did not want to hear these warnings."
Arthur Berger, an advisor to the museum who interviewed Nagorski as part of the program, said Nagorski's book and Erik Larsen's "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" are the only books that deal with what Americans in Germany were saying about the situation there before World War II.
"Hitlerland" is a great book, Berger said. "It fills in a lot of things that are not known. There were a lot of eyewitnesses. How did they report and what was the American reaction?"
Berger added, "There were many opportunities to stop what was going on. To stop Hitler; for the United States, for France, for Britain to do something; to stand up against this dictatorship and to prevent the Holocaust."
Rabbi David Steinhardt of B'nai Torah Congregation said Nagorski "emphasized first that evil forces can't be ignored. When someone claims that they are going to do something, they have to be taken seriously."
Steinhardt added, "A pathetic response from government and individuals sets the stage for disaster."
Arthur Stark of Pompano Beach said he read "In the Garden of the Beasts" and learned that the U.S. government wasn't doing anything to help the Jews. "No one was listening to people who reported the facts," Stark said. "FDR did not want to get into war."
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