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Book review: Americans witness the rise of the Nazis in 'Hitlerland'

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

"HITLERLAND: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power," by Andrew Nagorski, Simon & Schuster, $28, 400 pages (nf)

For most Americans, the decade of the 1930s meant dealing with the Great Depression. Paying the rent, making sure your family had enough to eat and hoping to provide some measure of hope in the greatest economic recession of all time were the orders of the day. Because of these concerns, few Americans took the time to truly appreciate the storm clouds brewing in Europe. Some Americans, however, spent the 1930s in the heart of that storm — Germany.

As Germany transformed itself from a fledgling republic into a brutal dictatorship, American journalists, diplomats and assorted expatriates worked to understand and interpret just what it was they were witnessing.

Journalist and historian Andrew Nagorski's new book, “Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power,” is an account of Americans who lived in Germany during this turbulent time in world history and their often troubling relationship with the Nazi regime.

Nagorski looks at American journalists like William L. Shirer, whose “Berlin Diary” became a best seller in the U.S. after his return in 1941, and diplomats like the legendary George F. Kennan, whose time in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin was consumed with paperwork as many German Jews sought American help to get out of Europe as quickly as they could.

A considerable amount of this work is devoted to Ernst "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, a half-American, half-German Harvard graduate who became an early supporter of Hitler and considered himself a Nazi expert on the United States, though he eventually fled Germany in fear of his life. Nagorski also writes extensively about William E. Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937.

Virtually every human story in this book is interesting, and most are quite chilling. However, the anecdotal approach that Nagorski uses comes across quite clunky and disjointed at times. Trying to fit this type of storytelling into a broad chronological canvas doesn't work here nearly as well as it did in Nagorski's earlier work, “The Greatest Battle.” The stories themselves are thoroughly engrossing, but one wishes Nagorski had taken a more thematic or strictly chronological approach throughout.

Particularly interesting are the sections dealing with Dodd's daughter Martha, whose initial enthusiasm for Nazism soon dimmed, leading her into the arms of Soviet intelligence and a secret life as a Russian spy. Also, the chapter detailing the internment and evacuation of Americans from Germany after the two nations went to war in 1941 is equally engaging.

“Hitlerland” is a good book but misses becoming a great one largely due to the author's disjointed presentation. Still, for those interested in the American experience in Nazi Germany, Nagorski's book may be worth a look.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the "History Challenge" iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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