“Hitlerland” and the Inability to see evil – then and now

One of the most puzzling and intriguing questions regarding evil is why some people perceive it and others are blind. When the evil is on an international plane, too often it’s the blind who have the greatest influence on policy with disastrous consequence.

I have just finished reading Hitlerland about American reporters in Germany in the 1920’s and 30’s, and while they saw the same characters and events, they reacted very differently, with the most respected and experienced journalists not necessarily the most clear-sighted. Karl Henry Wiegand, star reporter for the Hearst papers, “dean” of the journalist community, the first to interview Hitler (in 1921) and to take him seriously, nonetheless as late as 1939 was writing reassuringly in the U.S. magazine Cosmopolitan that Hitler posed no physical menace to the United States unless he allied with Britain or conquered her, both of which he said were only remote possibilities. S. Miles Bouton of the Baltimore Sun was totally off the mark despite the fact he had been in Germany since 1911 and even written a book on World War I. In 1930 he wrote that Hitler’s party “does not come into consideration at all as a government party” and when Hitler finished second in Presidential elections in March 1932 declaring that the real story was not being reported–the real story was the methods being used against Hitler which “make a mockery of all protestations of the men in power that they believe in democracy.” Bouton urged Americans not to be swayed by the anti-Nazi accounts of his colleagues: for Bouton, the real story was not the ideology and brutality of the Nazis but the attempts of the Weimar Republic to stifle them. To turn the Nazis into victims required blindness indeed. It’s no wonder another of the American reporters in Germany called him an “ardent Nazi.”

Edgar Mowrer

On the other hand, Edgar Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News (like his wife Lillian) was remarkably perspicacious from the moment of his arrival in 1923 until he was banished by Hitler in 1933. Indeed, Mowrer was shocked by the failure of prominent German Jews to recognize the danger. Commenting on a dinner in 1932 hosted by a Jewish banker in which several Jews boasted they had given money to Nazis, Mowrer told them he was “wondering how the People of Israel had managed to survive so many thousands of years when they obviously have a strong suicidal urge.” When his host said “But you don’t take this fellow seriously?” Mowrer replied “Unfortunately I do–and so should you.” Similarly William Shirer (famed after the war for his book Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, had no illusions. He was convinced Hitler wanted war with the United States, and said “The contest between tyranny and democracy is as inevitable as that of two planets hurtling inexorably through the heavens toward each other.” The Chicago Tribune’s Sigrid Shultz also had a sound ear. Shortly after Germany defeat in World War I Schultz reported on her interview with a German officer named Raeder who told her “You Americans need not feel proud of yourselves. Within twenty-five years at the latest, your country and my country will be at war again. And this time we shall win, because we will be better prepared than you will be.” Raeder would become Grand Admiral of the Germany navy under Hitler.

Although academics, alas, are not noted for their accurate assessment of evil (witness the long academic love-affair with Maoist China), University of Chicago political scientist Frederick Schuman could not be faulted. In his 1935 book The Nazi Dictatorship, based on eight months in Germany in 1933, Schuman predicted a new war inspired by Nazism’s “pathological hatreds, lusts, and longings for extinction.” He concluded that “Fascism itself will be consumed by its war-mad sons.”

Martha Dodd

Even reporters initially most receptive to Nazi propaganda could change their views fairly quickly under the impact of experience. Even Miles Bouton woke up and just over a year after Hitler came to power warned that the “truth [about Nazi tactics] is ten times worse than the reports.” When the German Foreign Ministry ordered him to change his style of reporting or leave the country, Bouton left. In the case of Martha Dodd, the daughter of the American ambassador, experience was filtered through her series of lovers. While carrying on with the head of the Gestapo, Martha shrugged off the scenes of brutality against Jews she saw on the street and joined marching Brownshirts to cry Heil Hitler. Once she shifted lovers to a young man from the Soviet embassy, Martha became a fierce opponent of Nazism.

So why do some see evil while others turn a blind eye? Why do some wake up while others never do? In her recent book, Alger Hiss, Why He Chose Treason, Christina Shelton writes that people develop scotomas to truth (scotoma means blind spot and comes from the Greek word for blindess) because of preconceived ideas and beliefs, other people’s preconceived ideas and past conditioning. Scotomas prevent a change in views because people gather information selectively to verify what they already believe. They want to hold on to their version of reality.

But if people can fail to see evil unfold because of selective perception (Germany was clean and inviting, prosperity replacing want, the residents friendly and warm to Americans), what can one say of people who refuse to face the reality of evil when the evil force has spent itself and all the facts are known? What is to be said of a Patrick Buchanan, who reinvents history to put more blame on Churchill than on Hitler for World War II, to deny the gas chambers, to seek to blind others through distortion, omission and careful selection of historical data. Is not this in itself a kind of evil? And if to this day he hasn’t understood the meaning of Nazi Germany, what credence should we put in his view of today’s Iran–obviously driving to become a nuclear power–as a country that will leave us alone if we leave it alone? The psychology of the Mullahs might be more akin to Hitler’s than we would like to contemplate.

Hitlerland – American Eyewitnesses To The Nazi Rise To Power by Andrew Nagorski (2012)


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