European Affairs

True, too, there have been some narratives in the last year about Americans at the eye of the storm – notably “In the Garden of Beasts” (by Erik Larson, Crown Publishers) about Ambassador William Dodd and the dual biography of Dorothy Thompson and Rebecca West, “Dangerous Ambition” (by Susan Hertog, Ballantine Books).

What has been missing in all this is a clear survey focused on how well or how poorly Americans performed as first-hand observers of an emerging new regime of evil. The gap has now been filled by Andrew Nagorski, a veteran journalist at Newsweek and author of several non-fiction books on Russia and Eastern Europe, who now works at the East-West Institute in New York. In setting out to correct the deficit, Nagorski finds, as might be imagined, that Americans ranged from realists who accurately foretold and warned of Hitler's menace to the other extreme of the merely naïve and self-deluded about the threat. A special category includes those who had various degrees of sympathy towards Germany, usually seeing developments there as a response to the country’s grievance over the harsh treatment meted out to it at the 1919 Versailles peace-treaty conference – a notion that has come back into view with some historians who warn against over-harsh retribution in the settlement of conflicts as sometimes dangerous for peace in the future.

By and large, Nagorski gives most of the Americans high marks for their perceptivity and courage about developments in Germany. Despite varying degrees of intelligence and seriousness as individuals, as a whole “these Americans helped their countrymen [at home] begin to understand the nature of Nazi Germany--how it ruthlessly eliminated its political opponents; how it instilled hatred of Jews and anyone else it deemed a member of an inferior race; and how it was preparing its military and its people for a war for global domination,” he writes. In recognizing the looming danger, “the Americans in Germany gradually eroded isolationist sentiments [in the U.S.] and prepared their countrymen psychologically for the years of bloodshed and struggle ahead…This was the real contribution of the Americans in Hitler's Germany."

Some of the best of these Americans on the scene already are near-legend through their own writings, most notably William Shirer, who while broadcasting for CBS wrote and published “Berlin Diary” in 1941 and then, after the war, his magisterial “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” At least two other journalists, Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News and Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune, were equally perceptive in their warnings. Others such as Louis Loechner of the Associated Press were smart and observant journalists but could not take the final intellectual leap of imagining that Hitler's menace eventually could envelope the United States.

Among American diplomats, there were also highs and lows. As now well portrayed in “In the Garden of Beasts”, William Dodd, U.S. Ambassador to Berlin from 1933-38, was an academic hopelessly over his head. Even worse, in a family that these days would be described as dysfunctional, his daughter cavorted with handsome Nazis before being turned into a Soviet spy. Fortunately, there were numerous sharp sets of eyes in the embassy to compensate, especially consul-general George Messersmith and military attaché Truman Smith. As a young diplomat, George Kennan was a shrewd political observer but lacking in sympathy for the plight of Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution.

And at the other end of the scale, Putzi Hanfstaengl, a Harvard-educated German with an American mother claiming classmate friendship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in effect became an unofficial liaison for the U.S. press while really acting as a public relations advisor to Hitler. And Nagorski tells several anecdotes of American wives of mostly high-caste Germans who actively sympathized with the Nazi agenda and often tried to undermine American journalists.

Beyond the resident Americans in Berlin, Nagorski recounts stories of the visitors passing through, mostly on short stays, from Charles Lindbergh to Herbert Hoover and assorted pacifists and academics, who utterly failed to see or understand what was before their eyes, in part because so many Germans (especially young women in the case of traveling Harvard student John F. Kennedy) were so hospitable to Americans.

Amid the horrifying historical panorama, Nagorski has told a lively human tale of men and women, some who grasped the crisis around them and others who lacked the psychological or intellectual insight to grasp and act upon the portent of events.

An obviously relevant comparison between that time and our own is that at least Americans were there during the rise of Nazism in Germany. As Nagorski notes, the U.S. press corps numbered at least 50 in Berlin – at a time when American news organizations were enduring the financial pressures of the Depression. In current times, obviously less fraught but potentially explosive in places dimly understood by most Americans, the U.S. press contingent is barely a shadow of its former self. In contrast, U.S. embassies, which in pre-war days were hopelessly undermanned, are now more amply staffed – and, if the Wikileaks documents are to be believed, often quite astute in their reporting.

 Michael D. Mosettig is Foreign Affairs and Defense Editor, PBS Newshour