In the very early 1920s, when Adolf Hitler was still only a local rabble rouser in Munich, two men from Munich’s American consulate made a point of observing his rallies: Robert Murphy, the young acting consul, and Paul Drey, a German employee who was a member of a distinguished Bavarian Jewish family.
“Do you think these agitators will ever get far?” Murphy asked his colleague.
“Of course not!” Drey replied. “The German people are much too intelligent to be taken in by such scamps.”
Since the recent publication of my book “Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power,” many people have asked me why American diplomats and journalists were often slow to recognize the threat that Hitler represented. It’s a legitimate question, requiring more than a simple answer. But an equally legitimate question is why many German and American Jews were often just as slow in waking up to the Nazi danger.
Or slower. In fact, some Americans living in Germany were more alarmed by what they were witnessing than German Jews appeared to be. In late 1932, as Hitler was close to taking power, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, the Chicago Daily News correspondent who was one of the most perceptive observers on the scene, attended a dinner at the home of a prominent Jewish banker. All the other guests were also Jewish bankers, and Mowrer was startled to hear that some of them had given money to the Nazis at the urging of non-Jewish German industrialists.
When Mowrer expressed his astonishment at his dinner companions’ “strong suicidal urge,” his host insisted that Hitler shouldn’t be taken seriously. The implication: The Nazi leader would never act on his most extreme rhetoric, and besides, the donations would keep him reasonable. To Jews who were more willing to listen, Mowrer’s advice was unequivocal: “Get out, and fast.”
True, many German Jews understood the danger early on and were all too eager for others to understand their dire situation, as well, including the relatively rare American Jewish visitor like labor organizer Abraham Plotkin. When Plotkin arrived in Berlin in November 1932, German Jews peppered him with questions about Jewish life in the United States. When he said there was anti-Semitism there, too, they scoffed at the notion that it was at all comparable. “Do they ever throw Jews out of subway cars in New York?” they asked, enumerating other acts of violence.“There is hardly a Friday night that we pray without trembling.”
And yet when Plotkin went, on December 16, 1932, to see a Nazi rally, which featured chief propagandist Joseph Goebbels, he found the event anticlimactic. “I confess my disappointment,” he wrote in his diary. “I had come to see a whale and found a minnow.” On January 30, 1933, Hitler was named chancellor.