Early Warnings: How American Journalists Reported the Rise of Hitler

Andrew Nagorski, author of the new book Hitlerland, discusses the way Americans saw -- and wrote about -- the early days of the Third Reich.

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What did Americans think of Hitler when they first met him in the 1920s and 1930s? You write that some of them burst out laughing at his shrill voice and jerky hand movements and refused to take him seriously.

That's true. In fact, some of the first people who met him did take him quite seriously. Truman Smith, who was a junior military attaché in the 1920s, came away from meeting Hitler and said, "This is a marvelous demagogue who can really inspire loyalty." It was the same with Karl von Wiegand, a Hearst correspondent who was the first American journalist to interview Hitler back in 1922. He was struck by Hitler's oratorical skills and his ability to whip people into a frenzy.

Then you had this period after the Beer Hall Putsch where Hitler came out of prison and a lot of people had forgotten about him. After the Great Depression hit, suddenly the Nazi Party became a major contender for power. Yet you had Americans meeting Hitler and saying, "This guy is a clown. He's like a caricature of himself." And a lot of them went through this whole litany about how even if Hitler got into a position of power, other German politicians would somehow be able to control him. A lot of German politicians believed this themselves.

Of course, everyone began to reassess that very quickly after he took power. But some of the Americans were much more prescient -- for instance, Edgar Mowrer, the Chicago Daily News correspondent, kept frantically trying to warn readers and the world, "What he's saying about the Jews is serious. Don't underestimate him."

How hard did these writers work to find out what was really going on? Did they take risks to get to the real story, or were they mostly content to stay in their comfortable bubble?

When you're a foreign correspondent, there's always the possibility of staying in your own little world. You all go over to each other's houses, you entertain each other, you have expense accounts. And the American correspondents and diplomats in Berlin were living in relative luxury. Even so, the good correspondents and diplomats did go out and seek information, even when it became progressively more difficult -- and more dangerous -- to get it.

That's what I found really interesting in a case like Edgar Mowrer, how he'd get information from a German-Jewish doctor. He'd make appointments to see him very often. The doctor would make sure his assistant was out of the room, and then he'd slip a note into Mowrer's shirt with information about who had been arrested, what had happened. When even that became too dangerous, Mowrer started a ritual of meeting the doctor at a public toilet once a week. They'd stand at neighboring urinals, and before each of them left, the doctor would drop that little sheet of paper, which Mowrer would pick up. Then they'd leave through separate exits.

Some journalists and diplomats took those kinds of risks and really pushed to get everything. Others held back -- after all, Germany really was a very prestigious reporting assignment. They felt constrained and didn't want to jeopardize their situation.

Was there an appetite for this news back home?

On the part of the newspaper editors, there was some skepticism about the early stories. In World War I, American newspapers had published a lot of stories about German atrocities -- about how they were bayoneting babies in Belgium -- and those proved to be fabrications. So I think the editors were open to some of these first reports about the Nazis, but they were wary.

Even the reporters were sometimes slow to write about the things they witnessed firsthand. I tell the story of Hans Kaltenborn, a famous radio broadcaster of that era. He was of German descent, but had grown up in the United States. Right after Hitler took power, there were attacks on Americans who failed to give the Hitler salute. Kaltenborn went over with the attitude that these reports were greatly exaggerated. Then his teenage son got beaten up for exactly the same reason. The Nazis apologized profusely and said, "I hope you won't write about this." And Kaltenborn replied, "No, I don't insert anything personal in my stories." Even after this happened to his own son, he was reluctant to write about it.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she edits digital features.

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