The Americans Who Witnessed the Rise of the Nazis

What if they had tried to stop him? Heinrich Hoffmann / Art Resource

I have never felt quite so horribly intimate with the Führer as I did when reading Hitlerland: close enough to see him, touch him, almost smell him. What Andrew Nagorski (formerly a Newsweek correspondent) has done in this highly readable history built around the experience of Americans in Germany from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second, is to make Hitler at once as human and as monstrous as he was to the reporters, diplomats, businessmen, sycophants, and soldiers from the United States who met him.

Many of the Americans had very privileged access. One is reminded constantly in these pages of just how long the U.S. government remained neutral while Hitler pursued his campaign to resurrect Germany, persecute the Jews, and crush the rest of Europe. And the veteran journalists in Berlin took full advantage of their ability to get close to Hitler. Their greatest frustration was that they saw the horrors to come, but could not get the American home front to listen.

Young William Shirer, working for CBS Radio, watched Hitler giving a speech days before the 1938 Munich Conference, where he would demand that Britain and France allow Germany to dismember Czechoslovakia without firing a shot. Like a card player with his tells, Hitler had nervous tics, and Shirer, on a balcony above Hitler, had a clear view. “All during his speech he kept cocking his shoulder, and the opposite leg from the knee down would bounce up,” Shirer wrote in his diary. “Audience couldn’t see it, but I could ... For the first time in all the years I’ve observed him he seemed tonight to have completely lost control of himself.” A few days later, after Hitler won, Shirer noticed his swagger: “The tic was gone!”

Many of the most revealing encounters with Hitler involve American women. In the early 1920s, when almost no one outside Bavaria had ever heard of him, Hitler developed a crush on Helen Niemeyer, from New York. She was the young wife of German-American, Harvard-educated Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who would, for a time, become one of Hitler’s close advisers. Helen said later that her Nazi admirer was “a neuter,” but Hitler clearly wanted to spend as much time with her as he could. And when his abortive putsch to take over the Bavarian government failed in 1923 and he fled the police, Hitler holed up with Helen in her house.

“Now all is lost—no use going on!” said Hitler, putting a pistol to his head. Helen grabbed the hand of the future Führer. “What do you think you’re doing?” she said, reminding him of all the Germans who believed in his ideas already. “They’re looking for you to carry on,” she said. And so he did. In prison after that Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, and when the Great Depression hit Germany in 1930, Hitler tapped into the mainstream of national discontent. A decade after his arrest, he held absolute power.

Putzi Hanfstaengl, who was still on the scene during Hitler’s first years of dictatorship, introduced the chancellor to Martha Dodd, the flamboyant young daughter of the scholarly American ambassador. “Hitler needs a woman,” Putzi told her. “Martha, you are the woman!” Dodd had been making the rounds of handsome young men in Berlin, and also managed to include the much lionized American novelist Thomas Wolfe among her conquests when he visited Germany. (Wolfe told a friend she was “like a butterfly hovering around my penis.”) But Hitler didn’t quite know what to make of her when Putzi presented her to him in a Berlin hotel. Hitler kissed her hand, mumbled a few words, kissed her hand again, and then cast “curious, embarrassed stares” at her for the rest of the evening. (Eventually, after a torrid affair with a Soviet diplomat, Dodd embarked on a career spying for Moscow in Germany and the United States.)

Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski ‘Hitlerland’ by Andrew Nagorski. 402p. Simon & Schuster. $14.99

By the end of the book one is left wondering about many “might have beens.” What if Hitler had been allowed to commit suicide? What if U.S. diplomats let in on conversations about an assassination plot had abetted it? Could these American eyewitnesses have saved the world from Hitler’s madness? In any case, they did not. But their testimony to what they actually did do, and what they saw, is history as vivid as it comes.

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