Americans in Germany, 1919 to 1941

“Hitlerland” by Andrew Nagorski  (2012) – 327 pages

 “He (Herbert Hoover) told Arenz that if Hitler would face an American jury, there wouldn’t be any question about him being declared insane.”

 “Hitler is sowing something in Europe that will one day destroy not only him but his nation.    William Shirer April 14, 1941 

I rarely read non-fiction and even more rarely write about non-fiction books, but this book I could not resist.  It all started last year with “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson  That book was about the American ambassador in Germany William Dodd and his daughter Martha.   That is a fascinating story about two people who were in way over their depth in a place to witness the insanity and brutality that was happening in Germany in the 1930s.  

 Although there were some Americans who were Nazi apologists and some who willfully avoided seeing what was actually happening, most Americans were stunned and angry about what was taking place.  Perhaps William Shirer said it best.

 (William) Shirer and his Austrian wife, Tess, were relieved to be leaving the German capital in the fall of 1937.  Summing up those three years there, he wrote in his diary on September 27: “Personally they have not been unhappy ones, though the shadow of Nazi fanaticism, sadism, persecution, regimentation, terror, brutality, suppression, militarism, and preparations for war has hung over all our lives like a dark brooding cloud that never clears.”

 Except for a few years in the late Twenties when Hitler was in prison and just after he was released, most of the Americans in Germany were in one of two categories, either journalists or part of the diplomatic corps.  After Hitler took over in 1932, few Americans stayed in Germany unless they had a good reason to be there.  If Americans were walking the streets while a Nazi rally was in progress, they were likely to be beaten up if they didn’t display the proper enthusiasm.  Some people thought that once he was in power Hitler would try to restrain his followers, but if anything he egged them on to more severe acts of violence.

 Even in the early years immediately after World War I, if anyone talked to Hitler for more than five minutes, he would go into an obsessive almost incoherent anti-Semitic tirade, and his listeners could not get a word in edgewise. To anyone who had met Hitler personally during those years, Kristallnacht and what went on in the concentration camps came as no surprise.             

 At least three major literary figures are featured in “Hitlerland”.  In 1928, Sinclair Lewis married Dorothy Thompson who was one of the leading journalists in Germany in the late Twenties and early Thirties.  After they left Germany in the early Thirties, Lewis wrote his novel “It Can’t Happen Here” which alerted Americans to the dangers of fascism. Thomas Wolfe spent some time in Germany attending the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.  Wolfe was at first impressed with Nazi Germany but before he left became aware of its ominous threat to the world.  By 1938, Wolfe was dead at the age of 37 of “tuberculosis of the brain”.

Mildred Harnack

The third major literary figure in “Hitlerland’ is Hans Fallada of Germany.  Of Hans Fallada, Mildred Harnack said, “He is not happy, he is not a Nazi, he is not hopeless.”  Hans Fallada later wrote the best account of the sad life for regular Germans during the Hitler years in his novel “Every Man Dies Alone”.    Mildred Harnack, the woman from Wisconsin who married a German, also became famous as the only American woman executed by the Nazis.

 I was totally absorbed in “Hitlerland” while I was reading it.  That usually doesn’t happen to me while reading non-fiction.  Usually I skip around, but I read every word of this book.  I suppose it was a combination of my intense interest in the subject matter as well as the quality of the writing of Andrew Nagorski.

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