In the 1920s and 1930s Americans thought of Hitler as a joke. His shrill voice and jerky hand movements made it difficult to take him seriously. But some of the first people to meet him didn’t feel the same way.
Junior military attaché Truman Smith said, “This is a marvelous demagogue who can really inspire loyalty.” Karl von Wiegand was the first American journalist to interview Hitler in 1922. He felt the same way as Smith. They were both struck by Hitler’s oratorical skills and his ability to drive people into a frenzy.
The Nazi Party finally emerged as a major contender for power after the great depression hit, but Americans still considered Hitler to be a clown. Most people believed that if Hitler gained power, German politicians would take control of him. Reassessments unfortunately came soon thereafter.
Chicago Daily News correspondent Edgar Mowrer frantically tried to warn readers worldwide, saying, “What he’s saying about the Jews is serious. Don’t underestimate him.”
American correspondents in Berlin were living in relative luxury. The good correspondents and diplomats worked hard to gather information, although it was becoming progressively more difficult and dangerous to obtain.
Edgar Mowrer took huge risks to get information by meeting with a German-Jewish doctor. During regular doctor visits, the doctor would slip him notes when his assistant left the room. The notes contained information about who had been arrested, presumably journalists. The meetings became too risky, and the two moved their meetings to a public restroom where the doctor would drop the note and Mowrer would retrieve it undetected.
Not all correspondents and diplomats were so brave as to obtain dangerous information. Most felt constrained and didn’t wish to put themselves in jeopardy. The mainstream media was used against the people, and those brave enough to report the truth were subject to the ultimate consequence.
Reporters were slow to write about things they had witnessed firsthand. After Hitler took power, there were attacks on Americans who refused to give the Hitler salute. Radio broadcaster Hans Kaltenborn believed that the reports were an exaggeration – until his teenage son was beaten up for the refusal to salute. The Nazis apologized and told Kaltenborn, “I hope you won’t write about this.” Kaltenborn was reluctant to do so, most likely because the apology was really a warning.
Charles Lindberg was among the Americans that believed Hitler was helping to get Germany back on its feet. Amazed at how orderly Germany had become, Lindberg was also providing real-time intelligence for the U.S. He became part of the America First movement, and tried to keep America out of the war by giving information to American diplomats that he thought would urge Washington to stay away.
American journalists were often the first to warn German Jews what danger they were in. Mowrer was run out of Germany after he kept advising Jews to get out quickly. But German-Jews were also urged by non-Jewish industrialists to give money to the Nazi Party. They were told that it would be a way for them to protect themselves. Like most Americans, German-Jews didn’t believe what was happening. That’s the power of state-controlled media working hard against the people.
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