Some cataclysmic events occur with the speed of a train wreck; others unfold over a period of months or even years. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's 2007 sardonic bestseller The Black Swan put forth the proposition that the more earth shattering the event the less likely are news outlets to provide their readers with an early warning. A less condescending take on why journalists – and diplomats for that matter – are caught off-guard is that they are not fortunetellers. It is reasonable though to insist they accurately observe, astutely contextualize and plainly transmit that which they witness. The subject of Andrew Nagorski's exasperatingly non-judgmental new book Hitlerland is how well reporters and diplomats stationed in Germany after the First World War did in correctly assessing the path embarked upon by Hitler and Germany?
The main draw of Hitlerland is in its voyeuristic quality. We meet Hitler before he comes to power and can fantasize about myriad ways the monster might have met an early demise. For "without Hitler, the Nazis would never have succeeded in their drive for absolute power." Nagorski, a former Newsweek reporter and now policy director for the EastWest Institute think-tank, gives us a sense of what life was like for American diplomats and journalists and their ex-pat families. Though many newspapers and radio stations did not outlive the Great Depression that began in 1929 those that did managed to send over time some 50 journalists to cover Hitler's rise to power. Judged by their contemporaneous experiences – not 20/20 hindsight – Nagorski shows that some proved clueless; several became Nazi apologists, while only a handful proved sagacious in their reporting.
The story begins circa 1920 in post-World War I Weimer Germany which the Americans mostly found to be carefree, civilized, sexually racy and U.S.-friendly. Under the Treaty of Versailles (1919) Germany had been required to pay reparations to the victorious allies, disarm its military and give up its colonies. By attacking these stipulations, the Nazis were able to exploit the sentiments of a country that felt humiliated. When the Depression came, Germany's socialist government could no longer pay its bills. The bad economy gave the Nazis enormous traction and stoked claims by fascists such as General Eric Ludendorff that Jews and communists had stabbed the country-in-the-back and were responsible for Germany's rout. He joined Hitler's 1923 Beer Hall Putsch.
Among those who make cameo appearances in Nagorski's narrative of the interwar period are Ben Hecht, who spent two years in Berlin starting in 1918 as a cub reporter for the Chicago Daily News well before anti-Semitism had metastasized. Charles Lindbergh made his first visit to Germany in 1936, and at the request of the U.S. military attaché toured German airbases with Hermann Goering. The men hit it off and Lindbergh became an advocate for accommodation with the Nazis and an outspoken proponent of U.S. isolationism. John F. Kennedy came in 1937 after a "rowdy" European road trip recording in his diary an appreciation for the Nordic beauties he encountered. Former president Herbert Hoover arrived in 1938 to meet Goering and Hitler. The führer ranted against Jews, communists and democracy, leading Hoover to conclude that Hitler might possibly be insane but was his own man and not the puppet of some reactionary cabal. Returning home, Hoover lectured Americans not to interfere in how Germans ran their internal affairs. Then there was the irascible George Kennan who had volunteered for a Berlin embassy assignment, but when the time came for U.S. diplomats to be are evacuated in 1939 whined impatiently about the many places that had been inopportunely reserved for Jewish refugees on the ship sailing for neutral Lisbon.
Nagorski's descriptions of early meetings with Hitler are most intriguing. Karl Wiegand, the German-born Hearst correspondent who had grown up in Iowa, first met Hitler in 1921, and began writing about him a year later – fully 11 years before Hitler came to power. Wiegand initially characterized him as a new politician, "a man of the people" and a "magnetic speaker." Here he eerily introduced the future führer to his readers: "Aged thirty-four, medium-tall, wiry, slender, dark hair, cropped toothbrush mustache, eyes that seem at times to spurt fire, straight nose, finely chiseled features with a complexion so remarkably delicate that many a woman would be proud to possess it, and possessing a bearing that creates an impression of dynamic energy well under control…" The first U.S. diplomat to meet Hitler was Truman Smith a military attaché in 1922: "A marvelous demagogue. I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man. His power over the mob must be immense."
Helen Hanfstaengl, the American wife of Ernst, a German industrialists and Nazi sympathizer, frequently hosted Hitler in her Berlin home. She described him as a "slim, shy [asexual] young man with a far-away look in his very blue eyes" who liked children. In adult company Hitler did the talking "his voice had a mesmeric quality." Her guest fancied black coffee and chocolates not to mention Wagner's music which affected him "physically."
Twist of fate: After Hitler's failed lurch for power in the 1923 putsch he and Ludendorff barely escaped in a hail of police bullets that claimed 14 Nazi lives. Devastated, about to be arrested, Hitler intended to kill himself with a revolver when Helen grabbed his arm and took the weapon away from him, "What do you think you are doing?" Thus was Hitler given a new lease on life. He thrived on the publicity he received during his trial and addressed the court with "humor, irony and passion." He ultimately served nine months under pampered conditions while dictating Mein Kampf. As for Helen, she would divorce Ernst and return to America.
Reportage made while Hitler was already a major figure but before he became chancellor is no less fascinating. Wiegand continued to cover Hitler quoting him in 1930 in the New York American saying, "I am not for curtailing the rights of the Jews in Germany, but I insist that we others who are not Jews shall not have less rights than they." Annetta Antona of the Detroit News interviewed Hitler in 1931 in Munich and remarked on the large portrait of Henry Ford over his desk. "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration," Hitler told her of the anti-Semitic car magnet. Dorothy Thompson, wife of Sinclar Lewis, writing in 1931 also noted his "almost feminine charm" and his eyes. But "take the Jews out of Hitler's program and the whole thing collapse," she concluded. Thompson was eventually expelled by the Nazis.
Hugh Wilson, first assigned to the Berlin Embassy 1916, would become the last U.S. ambassador before WWII. He described Hitler as "a man who does not look at you steadily but gives you an occasional glance as he talks." He felt Hitler made policy according to his "artistic" instincts yet with efficiency. Parenthetically, in 1938, Wilson was briefly recalled by the Roosevelt administration for "consultations" to protest Germany's treatment of the Jews. Back in Washington, that same year cabinet member Harold Ickes also attacked "German Barbarism." But it was Sumner Wells, the undersecretary of state, who in March 1940 was the last major U.S. figure to see Hitler: "He had in real life none of the ludicrous features so often shown in his photographs…he was dignified, both in speech and in movement." With the US gripped by isolationism Wells did not even insinuate that Washington might join the war England was already waging against Hitler, Nagorski writes. Perhaps not incidentally, Wells proved particularly adept at giving U.S. Jewish leaders the runaround during the Shoah.
There were a few who did see Hitler plain. Among them were US counsel-general George Messersmith who early on assessed the Nazis as extremely dangerous and in internal State Department discussion revealed himself to be a hawk. Another was journalist William Shirer who found himself physically revolted while observing storm troopers marching below his window. Of Germans under Hitler's spell he wrote: "As an individual he will give his rationed bread to feed the squirrels in the Tiergarten [park] on a Sunday morning…but as a unit in the Germanic mass he can persecute Jews [and] torture and murder his fellow men in a concentration camp…" He recalled his reaction after meeting Hitler: "There is something glassy about his eyes, the strongest thing in his face [but] for the life of me I could not quite comprehend what hidden springs he undoubtedly unloosed in the hysterical mob." Perhaps, he opined, it was because the Nazis employed quasi-religious rites that turned their rallies into fervent, mystical-like experiences.
There were others, too, who were "rarely fooled" by Hitler. Nagorski points to Edgar Mowrer, winner of the 1933 Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of Hitler and author of Germany Puts The Clock Back. Challenging an exasperated Nazi yob over the blind irrationality of his tirade, the reporter extracted the retort: "The Fuhrer himself says true Nazis think with their blood." Another discerning observer was Sigrid Schultz who became the Chicago Tribune's bureau chief who spotlighted the Nazi propaganda machine and how it had warped the thinking of ordinary Germans. There was also Joseph Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor who recognized that the US would either have to eventually join England in fighting or become a satellite of "Hitlerland" – hence the book's title.
History never repeats itself literally. But what of those now shaping our views about events in Pyongyang, Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad and Ankara? They probably have less expertise and less access to decision makers than Shirer, Mowrer and Schultz had in their day. With fewer foreign bureaus, many news outlets rely on local stringers who lack American sensibilities and professionalism. This deficit is hardly offset by parachuting in American pundits or letting lose armchair bloggers to influence perceptions of burning issues. Absent the gift of prophecy, there is no substitute for living in the place you write about, understanding the language and being attuned to its culture.