One question my generation, brought up in the 1930s, asks is why the Nazi regime was allowed to take root and acquire political control in Germany. Surely there were forces in and outside of Germany that would resist the rise of such a brutal regime. Some did see it coming. Two recent books, Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (Crown Publishing, 2011) and Andrew Nagorski, Hitlerland, American Eyewitnesses to Nazi Rise to Power (Simon and Schuster 2012) detail what those on the ground, mainly Americans, reported on the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. Nagorski covers the period from the end of WW1 to 1939 and Larson 1933 to 1938.
The answer includes several factors, some contextual and some internal to the Nazi regime and how it operated. At the end of WW1, the allies had not occupied German territory and many Germans felt they should not have surrendered, and agreed to the terms of the armistice which included loss of territory and large reparation payments. As Keynes and others warned, the payments were excessive and would slow the recovery of both the German and neighbouring European economies. Others, especially the French, wanted to apply even more punitive conditions. As the Nazi party gradually gained political control from the 1920s to 1933, economic conditions in Germany improved in part due to German rearmament and the order imposed by Nazi economic policies.
In the depression of the thirties, there was admiration in both the UK and US for the German recovery and concern that the reparation payments might not be paid in full. In view of Germany’s economic success, many were loath to criticize Hitler’s repressive political actions. As well, anti-semitic views were held by some in the US State Department and others in the US. Another contextual factor was that communism was viewed to be the alternative to Naziism in Europe, rather than the flowering of liberal democratic values. Among the ruling elites in both the US and UK, communism was seen as an outcome worse than Nazism. The Nazis courted their supporters abroad, and some Germans even took up fox-hunting which allowed them to dress up and mingle with the upper classes in the UK.
But some did see what was happening and warned their colleagues back in the US, unfortunately with little effect and not until it was too late. If today’s communications technology and the 24 hour news cycle had been active in the 1930s, it is inconceivable that the Nazis could have got away with it. Contrast information flows then with instant reports of political actions and violence in North Africa and the Middle East today.
Larson focuses on one family, US ambassador to Germany William Dodd, his wife, son and daughter Martha; Nagorski on a range of US diplomats, State Department officials, newspaper and radio correspondents and others present in Germany. The story of Dodd is as much about Martha who used her various assets to court lovers among the diplomatic community and Nazi party wheeler-dealers. After returning to the US in 1938, she married Alfred Stern, a left leaning rich American. They ended up living in Prague. Martha eventually became disillusioned with both the Nazis and Communists, but not before sampling the males on their menus.
As both authors show, some in the US and UK supported the rise of Hitler, others like Dodd and Churchill fought it as best they could. In the US, support for Germany came from within the State Department, by those who were anxious to ensure that Germany paid their reparations bill, by those who saw Nazism as preferable to Communism, and by part of the German immigrant community.
Dodd, appointed ambassador by Roosevelt in 1933, after others had declined the offer, was often opposed by his department in part because he chose to live and entertain frugally in Germany, while his wealthier colleagues considered him to be of a lower social standing than previous ambassadors. The State Department promoted a cult of elitism among its recruits, some of whom held anti-semitic views. Many of the US diplomats and those from other liberal democratic countries mingled freely with Nazi officials who courted them diligently and often successfully.
Nagorski, covering a longer period and more observers, found among them both those who supported the Nazi rise to power, while others issued dire warnings, observing not only the harsh treatment of Jews but those with disabilities and others who criticized Nazi actions. Once the Nazis gained power, foreigners in Germany, correspondents and others critical of the party, would also experience pressure to have them removed from their appointments, at times making it dangerous if they stayed in Germany. For example, foreigners who refused to salute Nazi officials, were often beaten up by the “brown shirts.” and this became an issue that had to be dealt with by the foreign diplomatic representatives.
There were two types of governance procedures which prevailed during this period, the bureaucratic atmosphere in the US State Department and the poisonous atmosphere among the Nazi high officials. Erik Rohm, friend of Hitler and head of the SS, a paramilitary organization, was murdered by Hitler’s aides for his attempted power grab in July 1934, two weeks before I was born. Canada in the 1930’s had no direct representation in Germany, relying on the UK for diplomatic reports and interventions.
The answer is that some outside Germany did see it coming but for various reasons chose to ignore it or felt that Nazism was preferable to the alternative. Some within Germany also saw what was happening, but felt that Hitler could not possibly prevail in the long run, and eventually became too terrified to oppose him openly. Ambassador Dodd received wide applause from Germans for an historical lecture on the dangers of dictatorship without actually mentioning conditions in Germany. His audience knew what was happening but were too afraid to oppose it openly.