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Author limns American blindness to Hitler’s rise
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Author limns American blindness to Hitler’s rise

Oddly, an American-born woman, the daughter of a prominent Boston family, apparently saved Adolf Hitler’s life twice and indirectly opened a door to Nazi rule in Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust.

The woman, Helene Hanfstaengl, was the wife of Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, a Munich-born, Harvard-educated industrialist who served as liaison between Hitler and the foreign press.

Following the future dictator’s failed “beer hall putsch” in 1923, she dissuaded him from committing suicide. Later, when he went on a hunger strike in prison, she visited and convinced him to resume eating.

This is just one of the fascinating anecdotes author Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek foreign correspondent, will share during a program at Rumson’s Congregation B’nai Israel on Sunday, May 6. In his new book, Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (Simon & Schuster, March 2012), Nagorski tries to show why many warning signs of impending disaster went unheeded.

“This is not just a Jewish book, although what the Nazis did to the Jews was horrific,” he said in a mid-April phone interview.

The former journalist, now vice president and director of public policy for the EastWest Institute, an international affairs think tank, said his goal was to explore human psychology and perhaps explain how hundreds of Americans could have lived in or visited Germany in the 1920s and early ’30s without realizing the danger to come.

For this, his fifth book, Nagorski conducted scores of interviews and researched old documents and diaries. “What I discovered is that while in the midst of seismic events, it is very difficult to see a bigger picture and a deeper meaning.”

As a result, he concluded, “I’m not at all sure that it couldn’t happen again. Even though history never repeats itself exactly, there are themes that recur.” Blindness to evil, witting or unwitting, seems to be one of these.

According to Nagorski, a possible reason for neglecting to react to a phenomenon like the Nazi rise is that foreigners, as well as many Germans — even some of Hitler’s opponents — proceeded from a different set of values from those of the man himself and his followers. Dorothy Thompson, a famous female correspondent, referred to the “startling insignificance” of the man.

“She and others never expected him to act in a way that they believed irrational. But they were deceived,” the author explained.

Some perceptive individuals were exceptions, however, and Nagorski said he salutes them. Journalists William Shirer and Edgar Mowrer sounded alarms. Consul General George Messersmith, an American diplomat, exhibited passion and courage. Truman Smith, a military attache who was the first American to meet Hitler, appeared to have the fuehrer’s number.

Others, like correspondent Quentin Reynolds, may have been a bit slower, but also eventually caught on. Nagorski noted that Putzi Hanfstaengl encountered Reynolds shortly after his arrival in Berlin, and challenged, “You’ve been here a month now, and you haven’t asked me about our so-called Jewish problem or written anything about it to annoy me. How come, Quent?” Reynolds replied, “Give me time, Putzi. I haven’t been here long enough to know what’s going on.”

On the other hand, many Americans were duped; some openly embraced the Nazi message. “The most egregious went to work as propagandists for German radio,” said Nagorski.

Others, like architect Philip Johnson, looked at pre-war Berlin and declared, “The world was being created here.”

In 1933, Martha Dodd, the 24-year-old daughter of the new American ambassador to Germany, stated, “I felt that the press had badly maligned the country, and I wanted to proclaim the warmth and friendliness of the people, the soft summer night with its fragrance of trees and flowers, the serenity of the streets.” She was exposed to anti-Semitic propaganda, she admitted, but said, “We didn’t — at least I didn’t — take it too seriously.”

According to Nagorski, the case of Charles Lindbergh may have been the most curious of all. While allegations that he had pro-German sentiments were true, he also brought “valuable military intelligence” to American authorities. Lindbergh was the most famous aviator in the world, and Hermann Goering couldn’t resist inviting him to Germany, where he had a first-hand view of Nazi air power, with easy access to factories, airfields, and top German officials.

Nagorski speculated that Goering may have thought America would be frightened off by learning about such might, but events turned out differently.

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