How easy it is to judge the past

by Libby Sternberg

hitlerland-largeI’m fascinated by the pre-World War II period of history. Or rather, by history of what was going on in Germany in the ramp-up to the war. My fascination springs from a desire to answer a question that many ponder: How could a civilized country such as Germany, home to writers, authors, composers of the highest cultural achievement, succumb to the savagery that was Naziism? A concomitant question that might arise in individual minds is: What would I have done, had I been a German at that time?

As with all history, it’s easy to look back at that time and think smugly that we would have recognized Hitler’s evil, even if we’re unsure of our inner courage to resist in the face of brutality. But what is black-and-white to us now had many shades of gray as it occurred, with bright minds looking past the horror to conclude that Hitler wasn’t a menace, that, to the contrary, he was a force for good.

My fascination with this period led me to the book Hitlerland by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster 2013), recommended to me by my journalist son. This volume deals almost exclusively with American journalists who covered Hitler and his rise to power, with some stories of diplomats and other Americans’ experiences at the time, as well.

(The diplomatic story, by the way, was covered very well in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, which I reviewed here.)

What’s striking about the Hitlerland story is how many journalists got it wrong, thinking, as the Baltimore Sun’s S. Miles Bouton did, for quite some time, that “Germans supported Hitler for the same ‘patriotic’ reasons, and Americans shouldn’t be swayed by the anti-Nazi accounts of his colleagues in the American press corps.”

The Bouton tale is revelatory because he was no rookie reporter sent to cover Germany just as tumult began. No, Bouton had been writing about the country since before World War I. He seemed to sympathize with the German position that the Versailles Treaty was retaliatory and cruelly punitive to the Germans, and he even seemed to believe that the real story that needed to be reported was how the Weimar government was attempting to silence the Nazis.

He, like others in the book, eventually came around to seeing Hitler and his Nazis for what they were, but his story begs the question: if a long-time paid observer of Germany got it so wrong at the start, how can one expect others with less information to get it right?

That question leads me to another book that I read several years ago called Defying Hitler by haffnerSebastian Haffner (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000). This slim volume is the posthumously published memoir of a German who came of age during the Nazis’ rise to power. Because it was written when the author was young and passionate, it is also sometimes a rambling account of his life. But it is that very quality that gives it an immediacy, a you-are-there angle that allows you to experience with the author what it felt like to be German in the interwar years. Witness, for example, his crushing disappointment upon learning his country had lost the Great War when, due to propaganda efforts, he’d thought Germany would win:

“How shall I describe my feelings–the feelings of an eleven-year-old boy whose entire inner world has collapsed?”

From there, you live with him as he watches his family deal with hyperinflation, immediately cashing the father’s paycheck and heading to the market to buy as much as possible before their money lost more value.

And then it’s on to leader after leader briefly on the political stage, knocked off or assassinated outright. When Hitler and his Nazis finally do come on the scene, you at last understand how even this bright young man could view them with a certain cynicism or at least nonchalance, expecting them to topple like the others gone before, or at least be as meaningless and useless.

But topple they did not, and eventually Haffner confronts the oozing evil that Naziism has unleashed. One of the most moving scenes in the book is when he realizes that, by answering a simple question, he has betrayed his conscience. As a young law clerk, he is at work studying briefs when brown shirts disrupt the office, throwing out all the Jews.

Meanwhile, a brown shirt approached me and took up position in front of my worktable. “Are you Aryan?” Before I had a chance to think, I said, “Yes.” He took a close look at my nose–and retired. The blood shot to my face. A moment too late I felt the shame, the defeat. I had said “Yes!” Well, in God’s name, I was indeed an “Aryan.” I had not lied, I had allowed something much worse to happen. What a humiliation, to have answered the unjustified question as to whether I was “Aryan” so easily, even if the fact was of no importance to me! What a disgrace to buy, with a reply, the right to stay with my documents in peace! I had been caught unawares, even now. I had failed my very first test.

He left Germany in 1939 and went on to write several books about Nazi Germany, including the insightful volume The Meaning of Hitler, well worth the time.

Both Hitlerland and Defying Hitler are absorbing stories, providing useful background for the questions I posed at the outset of this essay. For those who think it would have been easy to first recognize and then fight the threat posed by Naziism, they make for uncomfortable reading.

But if you still think you’d have been one of those who wouldn’t have succumb to Naziism, go on over and read this 1941 article by Dorothy Thompson, one of the journalists covered in Nagorski’s Hitlerland.  Its title, “Who Goes Nazi,” describes a parlor game she regularly played, trying to decide, based on her experience in Germany, who at a dinner or cocktail party would be likeliest to rationalize away the brutality of National Socialism and go along with the crowd. Read to the end of this politically incorrect piece. Her conclusions might surprise.

Libby Sternberg is a novelist. Her latest book, After the War, is available in print and digitally.

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