The amazing story of the American journalists and socialites who were charmed by the Nazis as they rose to power. Michael Korda reviews Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland.
“LOVELY SPRING WEATHER BUBONIC PLAGUE RAGING”
—Evelyn Waugh: Scoop
There used to be a strong belief that if you wanted to know what was really going on in a country, the best thing to do was to go there and ask a taxi driver. In fact Men at Arms, the first volume of Evelyn Waugh’s fiction trilogy about World War II, begins with the central figure, Guy Crouchback, listening to the opinions of a Fascist taxi driver as he sets out from his house in Italy to return home to England on the eve of war in the summer of 1939, to take up arms in the war that has not yet begun. “War is foolishness,” the taxi driver says. “You will see. Everything will be brought to an arrangement.” When Crouchback dines the next day in London with his fatuous brother-in-law Arthur Box-Bender, a Member of Parliament, and tells him what the taxi driver said, Box-Bender replies, “Of course. Always go to a taxi-driver when you want a sane, independent opinion.”
This is probably not as widely held a point of view as it used to be, now that most taxi drivers are foreigners who seldom speak the language of the country they are living in, or have any interest or stake in its politics, and people have generally switched to print journalists, television talk show hosts and television and radio news “commentators” when in search of what is going on. Of course most of these people are now either ideologically fixated or frozen as tightly as the stick inside a Good Humor bar to a single point of view (think Rush Limbaugh or Glen Beck), or simply present the news as they think their employer wants it to be presented, so perhaps one might be better off with a taxi driver—at least his opinions are likely to be his own, however odd, and you are paying him.
Reading Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland, one is struck by the fact that with the exception of the rare starry-eyed pro-Nazi journalist, most American reporters went through the same stages of initial qualified admiration for the new Nazi regime’s imposition of social order and huge public works programs to various levels of dismay and horror at what lay behind it all, only rather more quickly than their readers or the United States government did. If Americans were slow to realize the horror of Nazism, it was not for want of warnings, though they, like everybody else, reacted to them perhaps a little late. The most notable exception was William L. Shirer, of CBS, the author of Berlin Diary and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, who seems to have intuited from the very beginning of his arrival in Europe that Hitler’s was the face of evil, and whose boss, William Paley, the CEO and founder of CBS, perhaps because he was Jewish, did not get in the way of his own correspondent, unlike many newspaper proprietors of the period. Since I worked with Bill Shirer at S&S towards the end of his life, I can report that his greatest regret was that people did not pay more attention to what he was reporting very accurately from 1934 to 1941, or respect him for what he had written until after Pearl Harbor, when it was too late: history, by then, instead of news.
With the exception of Shirer, I must confess that I feel, like most Britons of a certain age, some degree of impatience with the increasingly high moral tone of American reaction to Nazi Germany throughout the Thirties, since Britain and France were being urged by Americans to confront Germany at every crisis without any assurance that the United States would be there to help them with the fighting, if it came to that. And when it did come to that of course, Britain and France indeed had to fight Nazi Germany by themselves from September 1939 to June 1940 (except for the gallant Poles, who were quickly overrun), just as the “appeasers” had always predicted and feared. Britain then fought Germany alone after the French surrender, from June 1940 to December 1941, without any sign that America would ever enter the war. It is galling to be told that we should have fought Germany over the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, or the Anschluss or the Czech crisis in 1938, by people who had no intention of joining in the fighting. The American position towards Hitler was that of a man watching the beginning of a bar room brawl and telling the British and the French, “You guys hit him, and I’ll hold your coats,” until the Japanese foolishly brought America into the war on December 7th 1941.