Thursday, March 22, 2012
Shades of Brown
The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.
Hitlerland: a term coined in the Berlin-based 1930s by International News Service writer Pierre John Huss to describe Nazi Germany. Huss. Huss, who later worked as one of the so-called "Murrow's Boys" assembled by the legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, interviewed Adolf Hitler multiple times. William Shirer, who also knew a thing or two about Germany in the '30s, described Huss as "slick, debonair, and ambitious." Some of Huss's peers grumbled at the time that he was a little to close the Nazi regime, which may or may not have been true. But as Andrew Nagorski makes clear in this often absorbing book, there were many Americans in Germany at the time who were open in their admiration of it, along with those who were confused, afraid, and angry about it.
In Hitlerland, former Newsweek journalist Andrew Nagorski finds a clever way to tell a familiar story. He's gathered up dozens of sources from Americans who lived, worked, or simply passed through Germany in the two decades following the Great War and sketched a compelling composite portrait. Among the most durable and informed observers we meet are Truman Smith, a military attaché to the U.S. embassy in Berlin, Hearst correspondent Karl Henry von Wiegand, and Chicago Tribune reporter (and later radio correspondent) Sigrid Schultz. More familiar names include future television broadcaster Howard K. Smith, future CIA director Richard Helms, and celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh.
Lindbergh, of course, later became infamous for his isolationism, widely viewed as Naziphilia by another name. In Hitlerland, however, we meet him and his also famous wife Anne in their first visit to Germany before his viewed solidified. Ironically, Lindbergh's VIP tour of state-of-the-art German aviation yielded information that proved to be of considerable value to the American government. The far more repugnant figure in Hitlerland is Ernst "Putzi" Hafstaengl the half-German/half-American Harvard graduate who worked for a time as Hitler's propagandist before being dumped by the Fuhrer. In one of the more dramatic moments in the book, young Hitler takes refuge in the immediate aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923 with Hafstaengl's wife, Helen, in their Bavarian home. Hitler was reputedly infatuated with Helen, who talked him out of possibly killing himself as authorities closed in to arrest him. It's hard to know how serious Hitler's suicide threat was, but it's sobering to consider that an American woman's woman intervention may have been the last best chance to prevent the Holocaust.
There are lots of vivid cameo appearances in Hitlerland, too: Jesse Owens, Josephine Baker, Philip Johnson, and a callow young John F. Kennedy wander through, their opinions perhaps inevitably filtered through their individual circumstances. Thomas Wolfe and Sinclair Lewis are initially charmed by what the see, but are increasingly troubled. So is U.S. Ambassador William Dodd, whose story is chronicled in Erik Larson's recently published bestseller In the Garden of Beasts. Dodd's daughter daughter Martha starts out enchanted by the regime but then trades her loyalty to the comparably dubious Russia of Josef Stalin.
If there's a problem with Hitlerland, it's that the trajectory of his story -- which features the usual "highlights" of the failed coup attempt, Hitler's ascension to power, the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallacht, and the outbreak of war -- is little different than any number of other accounts of the period. As a group, Americans, Jewish or not, prove no more or less prescient than any number of other people at the time, German or not. Nagorski usefully emphasizes that the impact of war in Germany was felt forcefully and negatively even in the early, triumphant months of 1940 and 1941, and the pace of the narrative picks up steam as he does. We also view the hugely influential Soviet diplomat George Kennan during what for him was a brief but irritating stint in Germany, trying to corral an unruly clutch of American correspondents temporarily interred by the German government, pending an exchange following its declaration of war on the United States. But interpretively speaking, the book tells us little we didn't already know about the tenor of the Nazi regime. Certainly, Hitler is as magnetic, repellent, and inscrutable as ever.
Hitlerland is nevertheless a well conceived, crafted, and executed story. Casual as well as informed World War II buffs will savor it.