Think “Americans in Paris,” and your mind conjures a romance of the years between the wars: Scott and Zelda, Josephine Baker, the luminous recollections of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Americans in Berlin? Not so much.
Yet Americans were in Hitler’s Germany, and in Hitlerland, Andrew Nagorski ’69, former longtime foreign correspondent for Newsweek, evokes their experience of the grim buildup to disaster. Sifting through the writings of diplomats, officers, students and, above all, journalists, he portrays a country beset by political chaos, extreme cultural ferment and inflation so severe that orchestra seats were sold by barter: “Rear stall: two eggs.” It was a country, as the future Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht commented after a 1923 visit, “having a nervous breakdown.”
Hitlerland assembles a notable cast of eccentrics, such as the half-American (and Harvard-educated) Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, the womanizing dandy who served as Hitler’s piano-playing court jester and liaison to the American press corps, and Martha Dodd, the U.S. ambassador’s flirtatious young daughter—and, later, a Soviet spy. We witness the rise of Hitler as an agitator and mesmerizing orator, the 1933 Nazi seizure of power and the ominous escalation of violence against Jews, culminating in the “unreal frenzy” of Kristallnacht in 1938, when thugs ransacked Jewish-owned houses and businesses, pushing grand pianos off the gallery level of a Berlin department store to smash to bits on the main floor below. These surreal vignettes of violence suggest the end of civilization itself.
Nagorski satisfies our curiosity about Hitler, showing the wildly divergent terms in which Americans of the day assessed him: “a man of the people,” “a pure and simple adventurer,” “a cork… [that] floats on the crest of every wave of popular sentiment,” “a fanatical crusader,” “a plebeian Austrian of limited mentality,” “one of the biggest showmen since P.T. Barnum.”
The book captures the audacity of how Hitler took power—not via an armed coup but through brilliant tactical manipulation of the democratic system he vowed openly to destroy. “Imagine a would-be dictator,” wrote the journalist Dorothy Thompson, “setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights” (emphasis hers). Which is exactly what Hitler managed to do.
History has obscured the fact that many Americans in the 1930s were quite taken with the Nazis. Visiting in 1934, William Randolph Hearst expressed “understanding and sympathy,” and two years later, Anne Morrow Lindbergh found “the power, unity and purposefulness of Germany” to be “thrilling.”
As for the Germans themselves: any book of this sort must judge whether genocidal anti-Semitism was the vision and work of a small cadre of fanatics or a mass phenomenon. Nagorksi follows the lead of William L. Shirer, who discerned in Germany a capacity for “barbarism” and asserted that Nazism “has expressed something very deep in the German nature and in that respect it has been representative of the people it rules.” Hitlerland supports this view with chilling anecdotal evidence, such as the newsreels from the assault on Poland, complete with images of terrified Polish Jews being manhandled by German soldiers—images that trigger “loud guffaws and shrieks of laughter” in theaters.
Hitlerland teems with characters—so many, in fact, that keeping track of them is a chore—and I found myself recalling 1933, a book by Nagorski’s Amherst contemporary, the late Philip Metcalfe ’68, which used many of the same sources but limited itself to half a dozen eyewitnesses, weaving their stories into a narrative with a distinctly novelistic feel.
Still, Nagorski’s far broader survey does its work well. It comes at a moment when almost all those who witnessed the Nazi rise to power have died, and the flux of living personal testimony is congealing into the seeming inevitability of history. Yet, as Nagorski crucially reminds us, “history only looks inevitable in retrospect.” Hitlerland pries us away from the retrospectoscope and returns us to the cataclysm in medias res, with all players still active and all outcomes up for grabs. “Hitler has the earmarks of a leader,” wrote the very first American journalist to interview him, way back in 1921. “Whether [of] merely a band or a great movement, only the future will tell.”
Cooper, a novelist and essayist, is a frequent contributor to Amherst magazine.