Jews Failed to Spot Hitler's Menace

Americans and Germans Were Slow To See the Nazi Danger

Rising Menace: Despite the obvious writing on the wall, many American and German Jews failed to adequately recognize the devastating threat posed by Nazism.
getty images
Rising Menace: Despite the obvious writing on the wall, many American and German Jews failed to adequately recognize the devastating threat posed by Nazism.

By Andrew Nagorski

Published June 19, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.