Hitler­land: Amer­i­can Eye­wit­ness­es to the Nazi Rise to Power

  • Review
By – March 7, 2012

Award-win­ning jour­nal­ist Andrew Nagors­ki looks at the years lead­ing up to Hitler’s rise to pow­er, the run-up to war, and the Holo­caust through the obser­va­tions and per­son­al tes­ti­monies of Amer­i­can diplo­mats, mil­i­tary attachés, jour­nal­ists, authors, and Olympic ath­letes who spent time in Ger­many and wit­nessed the unfold­ing of that night­mar­ish his­to­ry. A deft sto­ry­teller, Nagors­ki brings that his­to­ry to life.

Hitler­land sug­gests that Amer­i­cans were not with­out resources to under­stand the col­lapse of the Weimer Repub­lic and the sub­se­quent rush to ter­ror, war, and geno­cide. But that does not mean that Hitler’s inten­tions were obvi­ous from the out­set. There were an array of Amer­i­cans who observed events and some who met and spoke with Hitler, both when he was an aspir­ing leader and then the all-pow­er­ful Fuher. Among them were writ­ers Thomas Wolfe and Sin­clair Lewis, archi­tect Philip John­son, broad­cast­ers and jour­nal­ists Edward R. Mor­row, William Shir­er, Richard Hot­telet, and Dorothy Thomp­son, black his­to­ri­an W.E.B. DuBois, ath­lete Jesse Owens, diplo­mats William Dodd and his daugh­ter, Martha, and George Messer­smith, and, of course, avi­a­tor Charles Lind­bergh. Many were naïve and super­fi­cial in their obser­va­tions, some were sym­pa­thet­ic and even apol­o­gists for the Nazis, but most, like Shir­er, Thomp­son, and Con­sul Gen­er­al Messer­smith, were alarmed by what was hap­pen­ing around them even if they did not grasp the full impli­ca­tions. In the end, these Amer­i­can observers helped to alert a reluc­tant nation to the dan­ger of Nazi Ger­many, par­tic­u­lar­ly how it instilled hatred of Jews and ruth­less­ly elim­i­nat­ed its polit­i­cal oppo­nents. By doing so they grad­u­al­ly con­tributed to the ero­sion of iso­la­tion­ist sen­ti­ments and helped pre­pare their coun­try­men for the loom­ing war ahead. Nagors­ki opens up a win­dow into an era that we thought we already knew and allows these Amer­i­cans to tell their sto­ries with­out pass­ing judg­ment on their per­cep­tive­ness or the rec­ti­tude of their moral com­pass­es cloud­ed by the ben­e­fits of his­tor­i­cal hind­sight. Their voic­es prob­a­bly should have been more force­ful and exhort­ing but they can­not be blamed that more peo­ple did not heed the warnings. 

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions