Andrew Nagorski is an award-winning journalist and vice-president of the EastWest Institute, think tank based in New York that seeks ways to contribute to the debate on ways to forge global peace. Nagorski has a special talent for bringing to life World War II in a way that is entertaining and reads like a narrative.
My first introduction to his works was his 2007 book “The Greatest Battle: Hitler, Stalin, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow,” published by Simon and Schuster, and which I reviewed for Waterline on February 21, 2008. Nagorski’s latest book takes a look at Hitler’s Germany, and the Nazi dictator himself through the eyes of the Americans living in the country. It takes readers into those Americans who became enthralled with the dictator and those who saw through his façade and the destruction of German democracy of the Weimar Republic.
Americans also wrote of the terrible poverty and economic desperation of Germans at the end of World War I. Nagorski warns readers that this a book that pieces together eyewitness accounts and ends with the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the true horrors of the Holocaust was still a few years in the future. Many Americans in Germany left when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and Hitler declared war on the United States days after that.
Perhaps one of the most chilling stories is that of the American Helen (Niemeyer) Hanfstaengl whose husband Ernst, a Harvard graduate, did much to enable Hitler’s rise in the 1920s. It is 1923, and Hitler has concluded the failed attempt to seize government in Bavaria, what would be called the “Beer Hall Putsch.” He is hiding from authorities in Helen’s home, suffering from a dislocated arm, the police are banging at the door, Hitler takes a revolver, and attempts to end his life, but is persuaded by Helen not to, as she takes the gun away and hides it inside a flour pot. This would be one of the most intriguing “What Ifs?”
The future German dictator would be saved to go on to make a spectacle at his trial, serve time in Landsberg Prison, and write his book, “Mein Kampf,” (My Struggle) ranting on everything from anti-Semitism, to Boxing, and even Syphilis. Ernst would advise Hitler to cultivate close relations with the United States, arguing that whoever America backs economically will win militarily. Not only would Hitler not listen to his advice, the German dictator would turn against Hanfstaengels, of note Helen could boast two American Civil War Generals as ancestors.
There is there are the warnings of Thomas Wolfe, who in 1936 wrote a novel, “I Have a Thing to Tell You,” which highlighted Germany’s militarization of society by the Nazis, his predictions would be drowned out by the spectacle of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. In 1938, former American President Herbert Hoover met Hitler, and was subjected to his tirades; the meeting did not end well arguing for the need to live amicably with other nations.
U.S. Embassy Consular Officer Charles Thayer wrote of the madness seizing the city, a witness to the anti-Semitic violence of “Kristallnacht,” or Night of the Broken Glass. Among the American diplomats held under a form of house arrest by the Nazis until a 1942 exchange could be arranged was George Kennan, the father of Soviet containment. American aviator Charles Lindberg would provide much intelligence on the German Air Force to the U.S. military attaché, but this would be overshadowed by his heinous racial and pro-Nazi views.
William Shirer, who reported for CBS Radio, was a journalist who reported on Hitler’s rising dictatorship from the very beginning, he would go on to write perhaps one of the most important books on the period, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” which was published in 1960 by Simon and Schuster.
Nagorski’s book is important and offers insights into the stressors on German society that enabled the rise of Hitler. A recommended read for those interested in World War II, and for those wanting to understand how despots rise from amidst a democratic society.
Editor’s Note: Commander Aboul-Enein teaches part-time at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. His book “Militant Islamist Ideology: Understanding the Global Threat,” published in 2010 by Naval Institute Press was named among the most influential 150 books on terrorism and counter-terrorism by the Journal, Perspectives on Terrorism. He maintains a regular book review column in Waterline.