Liz Smith: How Did Hitler Happen As America Watched? Andrew Nagorski’s New Book Tells All

And more from our Liz: Walt Frazier’s hot NYC restaurant … Lulu carries on, decades after “Too Sir, With Love”

“THE TIMES in which we live move too fast for the considered historian to record them. They move too quickly to permit the writing of long books about momentary phases. Ours is the age of the reporter.”

If you think that is a recent quote, a comment on our age of instant reporting, blogging and tweeting, you’re wrong. The above was written by Dorothy Thompson, the famous journalist (and wife of Sinclair Lewis) in 1932. She was explaining the big rush of her short book, I Saw Hitler!

Dorothy’s quote is culled from a longer book, coming from Simon & Schuster. It is titled Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power, written by Andrew Nagorski. This book chronicles observations — from letters, diaries, unpublished memoirs — of American reporters, embassy workers and even tourists who worked and played in Germany, from 1922 to 1941. It is riveting stuff.

Today, people continue to ask, “How could it have happened? How could Hitler have mesmerized a nation, planned a global conquest and attempted to exterminate the Jewish race?” Mr. Nagorski’s book goes a long way in explaining. With few exceptions, most people — even savvy journalists embedded in Germany — simply could not believe what they were seeing. They didn’t take Hitler seriously … they were isolationists … they didn’t really care that much. And anyway, no one man — certainly not one as physically unprepossessing as Hitler — could truly sway all of Germany, could he? (Only his icy blue eyes distinguished him.)

I read this book in one terrible gulp. You know what’s coming, and you want to scream, “Wake up before it’s too late!” There are never enough examinations of this period. It wasn’t the 14th century; it was the 20th, complete with cars and movies and most of the luxuries, modern conveniences and civilized attitudes we have today. Yet it happened. And yes, of course it could happen again. It does, in fact; “ethnic cleansing” has occurred in Bosnia and Africa. (Although the German people, after the humiliations of World War I, were inherently attuned and primed to follow a leader blindly.)

Amongst the cast of real-life characters there was one odd, infuriatingly flighty standout. Her name was Martha Dodd, daughter of William E. Dodd, who served as the American ambassador to Germany for a number of years. Martha was pretty and promiscuous, and spent her time in Germany bedding as many attractive men as possible — Nazi or otherwise. At first she was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Then she became disenchanted and switched her attentions to Communist Russia, which she considered an “ideal” way of life. She married an American financier, but became a Soviet spy! Eventually she and her husband fled the U.S. They both died in Prague many years after the war. Martha was kind of a thoughtless idiot, but as she kept popping up throughout the book, I wondered if her story might make an interesting film? The heroine doesn’t always have to be nice, after all.

In any case, Martha is only one of many who populate the pages of Hitlerland. This is an important, chilling book.

* * *

AND NOW for something lighter! Remember Lulu, the blonde Scottish singer whose rendition of “To Sir, With Love” helped that Sidney Poitier movie become a huge hit in 1967? Well, Lulu is still around, sounding almost exactly the same as she did as a 19-year-old, and looking remarkably youthful too. (If it’s surgery, it’s brilliant work.)

Lulu is currently touring with rock legend Lou Reed. This is just the latest in a series of concert collaborations — Elton John, Paul McCartney, Neil Diamond, Sting and Robbie Williams. Lulu is now mulling a one-woman show at the Palm Springs Follies Theater. She was encouraged by the recent smash appearance of another ’60s icon, Lesley Gore, at the Follies.

* * *

WE ARE always trying to emphasize that stars are real people with real feelings. With real feelings. They are. And so are the press reps who guide these stellar beings onward and upward. Or safely sideways, when things aren’t going too well. So naturally they want their credit, occasionally.

Last week at the always-crowded Michael’s restaurant, I spotted Katie Couric and the famous press rep Cindi Berger. I noted that both these women looked better than ever, fresh and vibrant. But I also referred to Cindi as Katie’s rep. Wrong. For the past six or seven years Matthew Hiltzik has manfully and skillfully done his duty for Miss Couric. He is smart and protective of his clients.

So there. That’s settled. Now, Matthew — how about some news on the adorable Katie?

* * *

ON APRIL 1st, there will be a big red carpet rolled out in front of Clyde’s, the new upscale sports-bar eatery that is the brainchild of Knicks icon Walt “Clyde” Frazier. The spot, which features American cuisine with a touch of Asian, is located on 38th Street and 10th Avenue — the increasingly deluxe and well-populated Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan. (The place is already open for business, but the fancy-schmancy star-studded stuff happens on the 1st.)

But I’m not telling you this just to plug a restaurant I haven’t visited yet. I am giving a shout-out to Clyde’s manager, Jennifer Jordan. For twenty years, this beautiful blonde dynamo managed the El Rio Grande Tex-Mex place right downstairs in my Murray Hill building. Jennifer became El Rio to me, although I’ve been in this building over thirty years and frequented El Rio even before Jennifer arrived. Ms. Jordan could be mistaken for a taut-bodied teenage girl at times, despite the fact that she is the mother of five children. I recall that she rarely took much maternity time off. Running a restaurant is hard, serious work. (Recently, she got into Zumba — it works!)

All of us who have made El Rio a second home of sorts — warm, inviting and, oh, that chili! — we miss Jennifer’s presence terribly. But El Rio — a great institution in my neighborhood — will go on under the guidance of the very nice Diane Francesca Giovannone. And Clyde’s is lucky indeed to have Jennifer on board. I’ll be dropping by soon. (Both restaurants are run by the same company, so Jennifer has stayed in the “family.”)

Maybe, even though he’s a football star, I’ll meet Tim Tebow at Clyde’s, now that he’ll be a Jet and a New Yorker. I guess I can only pray.

11 comments so far.

  1. avatar KarenR says:

    You might view Martha Dodd as flighty and a thoughtless idiot, but she was attentive enough to leave 70 linear feet of documents to the Library of Congress. Since you seem unfamiliar with her I take it you haven’t read Erik Larsen’s latest In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin which follows the Dodds throughout Wm Dodd’s Ambassadorship.

    A more satisfying read than that, though, is The Long Night: William L. Shirer and the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Steve Wick. This telling of Shirer’s experience as a foreign journalist operating out of Berlin helps fill in the blanks of Shirer’s own carefully censored diaries.

    • avatar D C says:

      Thanks for those other titles Karen.  I have several family members who would probably enjoy all three books.  Great gift idea!

  2. avatar J Holmes says:

    Karen, I too was anxious to mention Erik Larsen’s book while reading MS Smith’s article; so glad someone else thought of it too. I am looking forward to reading “Hitlerland…”. Not only must we keep asking “How could this happen” we must look at our current world & stay informed, question our leaders, not blindly look away, etc

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      No one “looked the other way” in Germany. Or anywhere else for that matter. A friend’s mother had the good fortune of having a father who opposed Hitler from the beginning but was revered by the German people and so they “traveled” during the war. Her father worried about her and her brother if he spoke out. But he did speak out. But not in Germany. No one cared. Which Hitler probably knew they wouldn’t.  We could have offered “safe habro” to the jews aboard the St. Louis. But didn’t.  Which Hitler probably knew we wouldn’t. It was a deliberate and very devious ploy on Hitler’s part. “Who will take the Jews?” It also signalled to him that the world didn’t care.  Quite a few embarced Hitler in the beginning. Quite a few hoped to make fortunes off of Hitler. He could have attacked us and they wouldn’t have cared. In fact some of them might have actually hoped he would. They didn’t like democracy. And still don’t. Preferring oligarchy. They only cared once he started seizing their fortunes.

      As for the “shock” of the Holocaust, well, as my friend’s mother put it once, “No one had read Mein Kampf?”

      We love to revise history. To suit our purpose. But also to allow us to “remain polite.” Nothing polite about the Holocaust. Or what followed.  The survivors who came here in many ways felt as if they were still in Nazi Germany.

  3. avatar HelliePie says:

    Alice Miller, philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist, made understanding child abuse and its effects on society her life’s work; in For Your Own Good; Hidden Cruelty in Child-rearing and the Roots of Violence, she examines the child-rearing practices that shaped Hitler and his cohort. No wonder that they became brutes; they were all raised to venerate abusive and authoritarian parents in the name of “honoring thy father and mother.” I look forward to reading “Hitlerland.”

    On a sweeter note, I’m glad to see mention of my distant cousin, Marie McDonald Laurie, aka Lulu. What a belter! (I mean that in the best of all possible ways.) Yes indeed, she has only grown more beautiful with the passage of time… what can I say, it’s a family trait!

  4. avatar O E says:

    “The heroine doesn’t always have to be nice, after all.” I believe Liz meant “the protagonist”. A heroine would nice by inference, since a hero is one who risks his own life for the welfare of others.

  5. avatar Lila says:

    Interesting, but not surprising, that outsiders knew about Hitler’s progressive descent into one of the worst human-rights abusing dictatorships of the 20th c.

    And how timely, even as Congress mulls whether US intelligence agencies should be allowed to keep information on US residents and citizens – even if they have no evident ties to terrorism – beyond the current five-year limit. This, on top of things like the Patriot Act or the Total Information Awareness Database, or the TSA’s ever-changing and increasingly nonsensical and abusive… um… well, not “rules,” exactly… whims?

    In inter-war Germany, the people followed a leader who promised and delivered on getting Germany back on its feet. The Nazi party supported such FDR-like programs as public schooling, socialized medicine, and social security. Hitler built the first autobahn, a massive public-works project, and put a lot of government money into the military-industrial complex… which meant much-needed jobs for a Germany struggling out of the Depression and saddled with war reparations costs. As things took a darker turn, some Germans stopped supporting him, or actively opposed him. Many others intentionally did not seek out any of that negative information; in essence, they averted their eyes and ears. This is why so many Germans claimed, following the war, that they did not know about the camps and the exterminations. My Dad was there in the early 1950s, and over and over again he heard this “excuse.” It was unbelievable to him, but the Germans who claimed it seemed totally sincere.

    Fast-forward to 2001-2012, and a new phenomenon is at work, this time in the US. I’ll just let Ben Franklin do the talking here: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” -1775

    • avatar Lila says:

      PS. Another interesting thing: the German Nazi Party had its little activities in the US as well. Especially trying to win over the hearts and minds of German-Americans. My Dad was half German, and one of the many poor during the Great Depression years. One day a family acquaintance told his parents about a chance for the youngster to attend a summer camp for free. There would be sports, and camping, and new friends, and cost free thanks to his German heritage!

      They were so naive and well-meaning; they had only intended for him to have a fun summer experience and could not afford trips or vacations. Well. It was essentially an American version of a Hitler Youth camp. They wore their little brown shirts and marched around and sang patriotic German songs. Yep. Right here in the good ol’ USA. Dad realized what it was, but never, ever told his parents. He also never, ever told his potential employers about it… how the hell to explain that one? “Have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” “No, but I spent a few weeks with the Nazis at a summer camp…” Given the horrors that later followed… and he did serve in WWII… it was nothing he could ever own up to.

      Funny how certain things get buried in history. Curious? Look up German-American Bund.

  6. avatar Rho says:

    Just seeing the name Hitler makes me sick.  I lost a lot of family in the holocaust. (:

  7. avatar calgal says:

    How did Hitler happen while America watched? We also watched Rwanda. The Sudan. We’re watching Syria and North Korea. We can’t fix it all. But we do need to keep our eyes open here because the same things all those oppressors did to their countries can and do happen here. The Patriot Act, for example, promoted by those abused-children-turned-bullies Cheney and Bush. We’re watching Americans flock to the ‘righteous’ oppressions promised by Santorum. Don’t just watch. Speak up. Vote this fall.

  8. avatar maytaguide says:

    Liz,
    Sometimes you are toooo funny. Do you really want to meet Tim Tebow?

    The NY Giants are the class of NY football and the NE Patriots the class of all football, so maybe you can arrange a great chili lunch with Eli Manning and Tom Brady for some worthy cause.