Columbia Journalism Review

James Boylan


As Adolf Hitler trans-formed himself from a failed regional politician to the most feared tyrant of the 20th century, Americans were on hand to observe, report, and warn. Andrew Nagorski, a Newsweek veteran and now head of a public-policy think tank, has ingeniously stitched together the story of the diplomats, journalists, and other expatriates who worked in Germany during the two decades that ended with America’s entry into World War II. There are many fascinating figures—the ill-prepared American ambassador, William E. Dodd, and his scandalous daughter, Martha, who slept her way into becoming a spy for Moscow; the consul general in Berlin, George Messersmith, fervent opponent of the Nazis. But the American correspondents, numbering an astonishing 30 or more in the prewar years, were the ones who most urgently warned their country of the growing menace.

Senior among them was Karl von Wiegand of the Hearst newspapers, who was initially impressed with Hitler but changed his mind. Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribuneremained through the entire period. Others were pushed out—Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News was expelled soon after Hitler took power in 1933; Dorothy Thompson was never welcome for very long. Working in Berlin was often hard—dodging the thugs who assaulted people for failing to give the “Heil Hitler” salute; tolerating the slithery embrace of Hitler’s half-American press agent, Putzi Hanfstaengl. In the end, 15 American correspondents remained after Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war. They were interned and exchanged for German counterparts in May 1942.

Summing up their work, Nagorski concludes that, whatever their lapses, most of the Americans “came to understand what was happening around them, even if they often found it hard to grasp the full implications…of a society undergoing a horrific transformation in the name of a demented ideology.” He gives particularly high marks to William Shirer, who was censored in his CBS Radio broadcasts but unmasked the Third Reich in his best-selling Berlin Diary (1941). Note: Nagorski mentions a few American turncoats, none professional journalists. But there was one exception he overlooks: Robert Henry Best, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and winner of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, who remained in Germany when the others went home and did broadcasts for the Nazis; he was convicted of treason after the war and died in prison.


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.