By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK, April 12 (Reuters) - Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in Germany is among the most written-about topics in modern history.
But Andrew Nagorski, who for more than three decades was a foreign correspondent and editor for Newsweek magazine, explores a unique angle to the story in his new book: How did Americans living in Germany view Hitler and the Nazis’ rise?
Plumbing a trove of diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, old news stories and other sources, “Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power,” provides fascinating, in-the-moment accounts by American journalists, diplomats and expatriates that are both eerie in their prescience and foreboding in their misjudgments.
Nagorski spoke to Reuters about the book, observing society’s flaws and why Hitler was underestimated by many.
Q: How did you get the idea for this project?
A: “I served in Germany twice for Newsweek, but I’d been so preoccupied with pre- and post-unification, the collapse of communism that I hadn’t focused on what it must have been like to be an American correspondent or diplomat in the ‘20s or ‘30s.
“I was struck by how much was written of the Americans in Paris and London, and that no one had really done a comparable book about Americans in Germany. When I began digging in to see if the material was there, I found such a wealth of information. What I found fascinating about reliving the period through the eyes of these Americans was what did they understand? When did they understand it? And what did they totally misjudge?”
Q: Do you think Americans and other foreigners in Germany were better able to assess the danger of Hitler than the Germans?
A: “Some of the early journalists and diplomats had a pretty good inkling that this was someone to watch with trepidation, while, when Hitler was coming closer to gaining power in the early ‘30s, a number totally dismissed him. Dorothy Thompson, who at that point was the most famous American woman correspondent, talks about the ‘startling insignificance’ of this man, who’s voluble, who goes on these rants.
“She and other journalists mention that he’s ‘effeminate,’ meaning he’s not tough enough, that other German politicians are going to outmaneuver him. This was a very common mistake.”
Q: Do foreigners enjoy a distance that allows them to see a society’s flaws clearer?
A: “I think so, up to a point. There’s a fine line between being the outsider who can see things clearly and an outsider who doesn’t understand what’s happening under the surface. The best foreign diplomats and journalists are the ones who are able to see certain patterns emerging from the complexity of the society they are observing without over-simplifying.”
Q: The relationship between American journalists and diplomats in “Hitlerland” strengthens to the point where journalists actually provide intelligence to the diplomats. Have you observed any kind of similar dynamic?
A: “The closest analogy for me was when I was a reporter in the Soviet Union in the ‘80s, where journalists and diplomats often felt in the same camp in terms of trying to get information in this repressive society. So there was often informal cooperation, but not what happened in Germany by the time it was going to war with Poland and invading other countries.
“I think many Americans openly sympathized, obviously, with the countries that were being attacked and felt a natural impulse to help the American diplomats who were trying to feed decent information about the scale of military action. So there was a much closer bond even than journalists and diplomats had during the Cold War in the Soviet Union, but I felt echoes of that.”
Q: Why do you think so many smart people, be they Americans or Germans, simply couldn’t fathom that Hitler could come to power?
A: “Because he was such an unconventional, odd character. Even now, I think it’s hard for many people to understand how Hitler accomplished what he did. We see the newsreels of him ranting and yelling and say, ‘My god, what people would follow him?’ Hitler was a master of emotions and theatrical staging.
“You see that in the way he staged things like the Nuremberg rallies. What really emerges from these American accounts, even those who underestimated Hitler, is that (Hitler) was the key to the Nazis’ success, that without Hitler, if something had happened to him and he had disappeared, the Nazis probably would not have prevailed. There might have been a military dictatorship, but nothing on the scale of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.” (Editing by Patricia Reaney)