‘There is nothing sane to report’

Andrew Nagorski explores in "Hitlerland" how the period between WWI and WWII affected Germany-based American journalists and those in the United States embassy assigned to Berlin.

Hitlerland 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
Hitlerland 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/PR)
The period between the end of World War I and the beginning of World War II was indeed a difficult time. Andrew Nagorski, author of four previous books and an expert on international affairs, explores how these years affected Germany-based American journalists and those in the United States embassy assigned to Berlin.
In 1919, a National Assembly meeting in Weimar formed what came to be known as the Weimar Republic. Although its early years were marred by hyper-inflation and economic unrest, things settled down by 1924. Berlin became a center of creativity in literature, art, science, music, theater, architecture and film.
That period effectively ended in 1929 when the New York stock market crashed, and the ensuing Great Depression had a profound impact on the rest of the world, including Germany. The political repercussions of these economic problems helped Hitler to become chancellor in 1933, effectively ending the Weimar Republic. Ten years earlier, he had staged the failed Munich Beer Hall putsch which had resulted in his brief imprisonment. Now, he quickly became the dictator, oppressing and killing Jews while ruling over Germany until its World War II defeat in 1945.
Nagorski ably tells the story of these years as seen through the eyes of Americans in Germany who witnessed, reported, and actively participated in them. He begins with a brief mention of Ben Hecht, later a star writer, producer and director, who spent two years in Berlin (1918-1920) as a reporter.
His concluding observation was, “Germany is having a nervous breakdown. There is nothing sane to report.”
Quickly establishing his pattern of switching back and forth between journalists and diplomats, Nagorski writes about Hugh Wilson, who had two short postings to Berlin in 1916 and 1920 before returning for several months in 1938 when he served as the last ambassador to Germany before World War II began. He also records the observations of assistant military attaché Truman Smith and his wife Kay, especially Smith’s account of his meeting with Hitler in 1922.
In 1935, Smith returned to Germany as the senior military attaché and again met with Hitler. In addition to reporting Smith’s comments about Hitler, Nagorski describes how both Smith and Kay were struck by the orderliness and cleanliness they found in Berlin in 1935, as contrasted with the shabbiness of 1922. The Smiths also found during their second assignment that their telephones were bugged.
Especially interesting is Nagorski’s description of the experiences of ambassador William Dodd and his family. He served from 1933 to 1937, accompanied by his wife, son and daughter. Their encounters, especially those of daughter Martha Dodd, are narrated in books by both William and Martha Dodd. A full account of what happened to Dodd and his family is recorded in the 2011 best-seller, In the Garden of the Beasts, by Erik Larson.
Since Nagorski completed his book before Larson’s was released, he does not mention it either in his acknowledgments or in his bibliography.
The Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Germany before the United States entered World War II in 1941 are well described through the eyes of many Americans, many of whom were already famous or went on to become famous. The book contributes to our understanding of Germany and usefully augments our historical perspectives.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus of the School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.