Chicago Tribune

Liz Smith

 

"THE TIMES in which we live move too fast for the considered historian to record them. They move too quickly to permit the writing of long books about momentary phases. Ours is the age of the reporter."

If you think that is a recent quote, a comment on our age of instant reporting, blogging and tweeting, you're wrong. The above was written by Dorothy Thompson, the famous journalist (and wife of Sinclair Lewis) in 1932. She was explaining the big rush of her short book, "I Saw Hitler!"

Dorothy's quote is culled from a longer book, coming from Simon and Schuster. It is titled "Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," written by Andrew Nagorski. This book chronicles observations -- from letters, diaries and unpublished memoirs -- of American reporters, embassy workers and even tourists who worked and played in Germany from 1922 to 1941. It is riveting stuff.

Today, people continue to ask, "How could it have happened? How could Hitler have mesmerized a nation, planned a global conquest and attempted to exterminate the Jewish race?" Mr. Nagorski's book goes a long way toward explaining. With few exceptions, most people -- even savvy journalists embedded in Germany -- simply could not believe what they were seeing. They didn't take Hitler seriously ... they were isolationists ... they didn't really care that much. And anyway, no one man -- certainly not one as physically unprepossessing as Hitler -- could truly sway all of Germany, could he? (Only his icy blue eyes distinguished him.)

I read this book in one terrible gulp. You know what's coming, and you want to scream, "Wake up before it's too late!" There are never enough examinations of this period. It wasn't the 14th century; it was the 20th. With cars and movies and most of the luxuries, modern conveniences and civilized attitudes we have today. Yet it happened. And, yes, of course, it could happen again. It does, in fact; "ethnic cleansing" has occurred in Bosnia and Africa.

Amongst the cast of real-life characters there was one odd, infuriatingly flighty standout. Her name was Martha Dodd, daughter of William E. Dodd, who served as the American ambassador to Germany for a number of years. Martha was pretty and promiscuous, and spent her time in Germany bedding as many attractive men as possible -- Nazi or otherwise. At first she was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Then she became disenchanted and switched her attentions to communist Russia, which she considered an "ideal" way of life. She married an American financier, but became a Soviet spy! Eventually she and her husband fled the United States. They died in Prague many years after the war. Martha was kind of a thoughtless idiot, but as she kept popping up throughout the book, I wondered if her story might make an interesting film? The heroine doesn't always have to be nice, after all.

In any case, Martha is only one of many who populate the pages of "Hitlerland." This is an important, chilling book.

Hitlerland

American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Hitler’s rise to power, Germany’s march to the abyss, as seen through the eyes of Americans—diplomats, military, expats, visiting authors, Olympic athletes—who watched horrified and up close. By tapping a rich vein of personal testimonies, Hitlerland offers a gripping narrative full of surprising twists—and a startlingly fresh perspective on this heavily dissected era.