The topic of Adolf Hitler is by no means an anomaly within the sphere of history writing. Myriad authors and historians have published an array of books on the infamous Führer and his rise to power. But in Andrew Nagorski‘s latest book, Hitlerland, he uses firsthand accounts of American journalists and diplomats living in Germany during the days of Hitler’s ascent to power.
On March 19, the OPC hosted Nagorski for a discussion of his new book at Club Quarters. Accompanying Nagorski in his book talk was Sabine Anton, a German correspondent for Europe’s largest television network RTL. As a native of Berlin, Anton offered her own personal insight into Germany’s history and led the book talk with her questions for Nagorski.
Of Polish descent, Nagorski has always been interested in just how Hitler and his followers could have gained total control of Germany so quickly. His parents were political refugees who escaped from Poland and came to the United States, making this transformation of Germany personal. As an author of four previous books focusing on Eastern European and Soviet history, it was no surprise to Nagorski to write another book on this subject matter. However, he explained, he wanted to write about Hitler in a way that no other historian or author had done before. He realized that no book had been published from the perspective of Americans living in Germany during the 1920’s and 30’s. He said he wasn’t sure there would be a sufficient amount of sources to substantiate his work, but through research, he found a breadth of unpublished memoirs, interview transcripts, and varying types of correspondence that all provided detailed insights into the lives of Americans and their perceptions of Hitler.
The talk transitioned into a discussion of the prominent characters in the book. Nagorski explained that he wanted “to present his work as watching events through their eyes” and give readers a window into what life was like for these Americans. He said some of the attitudes held by the German people leading up to World War II, run counter to how Americans imagine what it was like to be in Germany. Nagorski said that when Jesse Owens went to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics he was warmly welcomed by the German people. The sociologist and historian W.E.B. Dubois found that Germans treated him with “uniform courtesy and consideration.” He found less racism in Germany than in the U.S. so it was difficult for some to fathom the extreme antisemitism that was taking hold in Germany.
Most observers, whether they admired or saw an ominous leader in Hitler, agreed that he was a master of stagecraft. Hitler would begin the rallies with a soft, rational voice and as he gathered momentum, he became agitated. At the end, which is all Americans saw in newsreels, he looked like a raving lunatic, waving his arms and screaming, but Nagorski said that if you were at the rally, you might have had a different impression. Reports from American journalists varied greatly from seeing Hitler as a clownish figure who would soon disappear from the political scene to those who came to admire his ability to tap into the German people’s psyche and anger after World War I. Looking back, people see Hitler as evil personified, but when he was a politician gathering steam in Munich, the view was much different.
Nagorski observed that there were many more journalists in Berlin at that time, about 50 in the 1930’s. American newspapers, wire services, radio and even smaller city dailies sent correspondents overseas. The Chicago Daily News office at the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Unter den Linden became more like a mini-diplomatic mission with reception areas for visiting Americans.