Since monstrous despots seem self-evidently inhumane, many of us fail fathom why many millions of generally decent, ordinary folks followed the likes of Hitler and Stalin. We too easily fancy that had we been there we would have responded quite differently—discerning their deviancies and resisting their allure. So reading first-hand accounts of folks close to them enables us to better appreciate how easily they fell prey to these despots’ charms and manipulative powers. Ernst Hanfstaengl, in Hitler: The Memoir of a Nazi Insider Who Turned Against the Fuhrer (New York: Arcade. Kindle Edition, c. 1957, 2011), gives us fascinating insights into this phenomenon. The author’s mother was a blue-blooded New Englander, his father German. The Hanfstaengls were prominent Bavarians with important political ties who owned a successful art-publishing house in Munich, dealing mainly in high-quality reproductions.
Since his father wanted him to take over the New York branch of the business, it was decided that, after attending school in Germany, Ernst would go Harvard University to finish his academic work and get fully acquainted with his mother’s country. In 1905 he did so and there “made friends with such outstanding future figures as T. S. Eliot, Walter Lippman, Hendrik von Loon, Hans von Kaltenborn, Robert Benchley, and John Reed” (p. 26). He also made friends with Teddy Roosevelt’s eldest son, who told the President that Hanfstaengl had composed a song the Harvard football team adopted, featuring him playing his piece before the games. (Ironically, this little tune was appropriated by the Nazis, who changed the words “Rah, rah, rah!” to Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil!). Subsequently he was invited to the White House to entertain the household and would spend time with Teddy after he left Washington. One time they “got to talking about art, literature, and politics, and the ex-President came out with the phrase which has stuck with me ever since: ‘Hanfstaengl, your business is to pick out the best pictures, but remember that in politics the choice is that of the lesser evil’” (p. 28).
Later, running the family business in New York and dining in the Harvard Club, he made friends with the young Franklin D. Roosevelt, giving him still more important connections. When FDR won the 1932 election, he knew Hanfstaentl was close to Hitler, so he dispatched a private emissary, urging him to “do my best to prevent any rashness and hotheadedness. ‘Think of your piano-playing and try and use the soft pedal if things get too loud,’ my visitor quoted. ‘If things start getting awkward, please get in touch with our ambassador at once. The message heartened me enormously, and in due course I was to do just that” (p. 188). He also developed a deep respect for the United States and her industrial powers. When World War I broke out an anti-German hysteria gripped America, and the government seized “the assets of the Hanfstaengl firm in the final months of the war. They were worth half a million dollars and were sold at auction for about $8,000” (p. 30).
Following the war Hanfstaengl stayed in New York for three years, running a small business he established. But in 1921 he returned to Germany, finding a war-ravaged land with a demoralized populace. Hoping to support politicians who would help the country recover, he attended a rally in Munich featuring a relatively unknown orator, Adolf Hitler. Hanfstaengl was overwhelmed by “his gifts,” for “he had a command of voice, phrase and effect which has never been equalled, and on this evening he was at his best” (p. 34). The crowd responded enthusiastically. “It sounded like the demoniacal rattle of thousands of hailstones rebounding on the surface of a gigantic drum. It had been a masterly performance. I had really been impressed beyond measure by Hitler. . . . . With his incredible gifts as an orator he was clearly going to go far, and from what I had seen of his entourage there seemed no one likely to bring home to him the picture of the outside world he manifestly lacked, and in this I felt I might be able to help” (p. 37).
Greeting Hitler after the speech, Hanfstaengl offered his help, thus beginning a complex relationship that endured until 1936. They saw each other frequently and Hitler often visited the Hanfstaengl home. Hitler especially liked Hanfstaengl’s young son and seemed to have a special fondness for children. But he most enjoyed Ernst’s ability to play the piano. “Probably one of the main reasons why he kept me near him for so many years, even when we began to differ radically over policies, was this particular gift I apparently possessed of playing the music he liked in exactly the orchestral style he preferred.” Hitler cared little for Bach or Mozart, but he had an insatiable craving for Wagner’s Meistersinger, Tristan and Isolde and Lohengrin. “I must have played them hundreds of times and he never grew tired of them” (p. 50). In those days, he confesses: “I was an idealistic National-Socialist, I make no bones about it. It is a term which meant many things to different men, and I was no politician, but a piano player and art lover with ambitions to become a historian. I had a better eye for effects than causes. I had seen Germany degraded and destituted, and wanted to see the return of the comfortable and traditional values of my youth, combined with an honoured and respected position for what were then still called the working classes. Behind a cloud of words and threats and exaggerations, I thought this was what Hitler wanted. Above all, in his second surge of political activity, I was convinced again that nothing was going to prevent him from reaching the top. If only the radicals like Strasser and Goebbels and the crackpots like Rosenberg and Hess could be off-set by people of more cosmopolitan views, in which I included myself, I believed the social revolution he preached would be orderly and beneficial. I was convinced, to use the old phrase, that there was every possibility of this poacher becoming a reliable gamekeeper” (p. 172).
In those early years there was much about Hitler to admire, though his close associates were less attractive. They were petty-minded and constantly juggling to get power, willing at any time to slander or eliminate their rivals. Many had immoral, “unsavoury habits” which Hitler disregarded. His main ideological guide, Alfred Rosenberg, was “intrinsically illiterate, carried along by his ridiculous Nordic race resentments.” Though Hitler considered him a great philosopher, to Hanfstaengl: “‘It is tripe,’ I insisted, ‘and tripe remains tripe.’ I really did talk to him like this, any number of witnesses will confirm it. . . . . Rosenberg is a dangerous and stupid man and the sooner you get rid of him the better.” As events turned out I might just as well have been talking to a brick wall” (p. 122). Detailing a decade of Nazi development and showing how Hitler evolved into an increasingly dictatorial leader, Hanfstaengl’s portraits of men such as Himmler, Goering, Goebels, Hess, et al. reveal his deepening concern for the trajectory of the movement. When Hitler gained strength in the early 1930s, he needed someone capable of interacting with the world’s press corps, so he arranged a meeting and said: “’Herr Hanfstaengl, I have come to ask you to take over the post of foreign press chief of the Party. Great things are before us. In a few months, or at the most in a couple of years, we must irresistibly sweep to power. You have all the connexions and could render us a great service’” (p. 152). Ever hopeful of injecting some balance and wisdom into the movement, Hanfstaengl thought that “this was my best opportunity of entering on the ground floor on equal terms with the wild men of the Party whose influence I had always feared, so in the end I agreed” (p. 152).
His hopes foundered, however, as Hitler took control of the country in 1933. Hanfstaengl was effectively aside by the “wild men of the Party” and only occasionally saw Hitler himself. Any cautionary notes he might sound, any restrained policy he might suggest—particularly if it dealt with the Jews—were quickly disregarded. Hanfstaengl further detected a shift in Hitler’s rhetoric, as when he said: “‘Now it is the heroic Weltansehauung which will illuminate the ideals of Germany’s future. …’ I pulled myself together with a start. What was this? Where had I read that before? This was not Schopenhauer, who had been Hitler’s philosophical god in the old Dietrich Eckart days. No, this was new. It was Nietzsche” (p. 206). A few months earlier Hitler had visited Nietzsche’s aged sister, who had given him her brother’s last walking stick. It was as if something shifted within him, and he soon began spouting “Nietzchian catch phrases” such as “Wille zur Macht, Herrenvolk, Sklavenmoral—the fight for the heroic life, against formal dead-weight education, Christian philosophy and ethics based on compassion” (p. 208).
Sadly, Hanfstaengl confesses: “Too many of us realized too late that the regeneration of the national life and economy was only part of the goal. Hitler and a majority of his followers really believed their anticlerical, anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevist, xenophobic catch-phrases and were prepared to keep the whole country in uproar in order to put them into practical effect” (p. 232). Mid-way through 1934, after the killing of Ernst Roehm, it became clear to him that Hitler was a “pathological murderer” who must be opposed. Hanfstaengl had naively helped bring “to power a bunch of dangerous gangsters” who would do incredible harm. Two years later he slipped across the Swiss border and determined to live in exile so long as the Nazis controlled Germany. He and his son managed to find refuge in England, but when the war broke out he was placed in various internment camps. Later he was relocated to Canada. While there he managed to get a message delivered to President Roosevelt, offering his assistance and was brought to a hide-out near Washington in order to provide intelligence. But before long the British demanded he be returned to their custody, and after the war he was sent to yet another internment camp in Germany. So for nearly a decade he suffered rather shabby treatment in various camps. Finally freed, he wrote his book on Hitler, offering us a unique perspective on the man and his movement.
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One of the most distinguished scholars in the post-WWII era, Robert Nisbet, examined an important aspect of that war in Roosevelt and Stalin: The Failed Courtship (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, c. 1988). It’s a deeply tragic story, showing how the arrogance of an American President harmed millions of innocent people by imagining he could charm and manipulate a devious dictator. Ignoring the advice of well-informed advisors who actually knew a great deal about the Bolsheviks and their leader, condescending to Winston Churchill, who represented to him an antiquated imperialism, FDR thought he could win the war and reshape there post-war world through his personal finesse. Much that he did, the experienced diplomat George Kennan said, grew out of groundless assumptions and a manifest “puerility unworthy of a statesman of FDR’s stature” (p. 6). But as FDR told a former ambassador to the USSR, William Bullitt: “‘I think if I give him everything I possibly can, and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy’” (p. 6). To bank on noblesse oblige from a mass-murderer shows the depth of the president’s naïveté!
Soon after the United States entered WWII Roosevelt wrote Churchill and assured him “‘that I think I can personally handle Stalin better than either your Foreign Office or my State Department’” (p. 15). He’d never met Stalin, nor did he know much about Russia, but he had no doubts he could handle things! Throughout the 1930s the New Deal liberals such as Harry Hopkins had perennially praised and supported the Bolsheviks, so Nisbet says: “It is impossible to understand the wartime White House or even Roosevelt’s leadership in the war without reference to Harry Hopkins as friend, adviser, envoy, and trusted confidant to the President” (p. 20). Hopkins, of course, was a social worker turned bureaucrat with decidedly socialistic propensities. He had visited Moscow in July, 1941, and returned totally enthralled by Stalin, who had treated him royally, ao he continually prodded FDR to treat the USSR as a favored nation and to support its tyrant.
Stalin hated Churchill, but he developed a superficial rapport with Roosevelt. But he distrusted virtually everyone, even including eminent Bolsheviks who occupied prominent positions within the regime, and he easily learned how to manipulate the American. Stalin desperately needed supplies only America could provide and wanted the Allies to open a second front in Europe to ease the Nazi’s military pressure on Russia. So when FDR suggested face-to-face meetings he was happy to oblige. They first met, along with Churchill in Teheran, Iran, in November 1943, where Stalin schemed to see FDR three times before the official sessions began, allowing the two of them to make decisions without Churchill’s participation. In these sessions Roosevelt promised to allow the USSR to exercise control over Poland and the Baltic states when the war was over. In return, FDR gained support for his vision of a post-war United Nations. These private talks undermined both Churchill and the Anglo-American military leaders, and throughout the official sessions FDR unfailingly supported Stalin while poking fun at Churchill. “‘If the tale is true,’ writes Keith Eubank, ‘Roosevelt had insulted Churchill who admired him, and demeaned himself before Stalin who trusted neither man. In his craving for Stalin’s approval and friendship, Roosevelt imagined the joke had been on Churchill and that Stalin had laughed with him. More probably Stalin had laughed at the President of the United States for belittling an ally to find favor with a tyrant’” (p. 49).
In Nisbit’s judgement, “Teheran can be compared to Munich in 1938,” when Chamberlain appeased Hitler, and it marked the beginning of the Cold War. “What would take place at the later Yalta summit meeting would be little more than a formalizing, a moralizing, to cover what had essentially been decided between Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran” (p. 49). Admiral King, one of the American chiefs at the meeting, “said at the end: ‘Stalin knew just what he wanted when he came to Teheran and he got it’” (p. 50). Unlike FDR, Churchill hated Communism and had gone to Teheran believing Germany would lose the war; so “‘The real problem is Russia. I can’t get the American’s to see it’” (p. 50). He left the conference depressed and pessimistic, realizing what would soon come to pass. Churchill also thought the “total war” strategy of Stalin and Roosevelt, designed to utterly destroy Germany, would prove disastrous. But FDR’s plan as promoted by America’s Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, gained authorization; it called for “the complete pastoralization of Germany,” confiscating all of her industrial equipment and permanently occupying the country. “At Teheran, Roosevelt had agreed with Stalin that Germany must be dismembered and perhaps divided into half dozen or more small and separate states” (p. 55). As one observer noted, it would replace “factory workers with shepherds and goat herders.” Though this did not actually happen following the war, since Harry Truman was President, the Morgenthau proposal shows the degree to which FDR and Stalin wanted to radically re-frame the post-war world.
Roosevelt and Stalin also opposed Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy, whereby the Allies would move quickly from Africa through Italy into Germany. This would potentially defeat the Nazis and simultaneously deter the Soviets from occupying Eastern Europe—a strategy eminent generals such as Mark Clark strongly favored. Following the war Clark wrote: “A campaign that might have changed the whole history of relations between the Western world and the Soviet Union was permitted to fade away” because the decision had been made at Teheran to open a second front instead (Calculated Risk, p. 368). German officers, talking after the war, were mystified by this decision, but Stalin knew it would keep the Allies out of the Balkans, delivering them to the Red Army. So he and FDR determined the Allies would invade France and move eastward. “It is safe to say that had Churchill’s vision been allowed to prevail, the postwar history of eastern Europe and also central Europe, not to forget the Cold War against the West, would be somewhat different” (p. 61). Opening a second front in France gave the Red Army time to march deep into Germany and seize Berlin. Even then, given the rapidity with which Ike’s Anglo-American troops swept eastward, they might have reached Berlin earlier, for an American army reached the Elbe River, 60 miles from Berlin. The Germans were furiously battling the Russians and left a path to Berlin relatively free for the Americans. General Simpson recalled that he “had six or seven divisions” on the Elbe with sufficient supplies to “have gone right on to Berlin within twenty-four to forty-eight hours easily’” (p. 87). Still more: “I have the feeling that maybe the Germans would have welcomed us’” (p. 87).
However, General Eisenhower stopped him, giving the German capital to the Russians. “Stalin’s joy must have been intense. He knew very well the value of Berlin and the crucial importance of being first to reach the bunker that housed Hitler” and others. “The Soviet capture of Berlin, courtesy of General Eisenhower, would be a crowning completion to a larger Soviet plan to assume hegemony in all of central Europe—Vienna and Prague included. Stalin knew this; and he knew that Churchill had been working against its possibility from early in the war.” Stalin also knew that Ike would have made his military decisions in accord with the East-West policies of FDR. “Stalin might well have considered it another generous gift from the President, in accord with their private discussion at Yalta” (p. 84). Churchill protested, knowing full well what would follow, but he could do little about it.
Though the truly major decisions had already been made at Teheran, “Roosevelt’s courtship of Stalin proceeded apace at Yalta. Of all the episodes of the Second World War, the Yalta summit in early February 1945 probably has the worst odor” (p. 69). As ever, FDR scoffed at the “experts” who cautioned against trusting Stalin and charted his own course, granting “moral legitimation” to the Soviet occupation of territories conquered by the Red Army by issuing the Declaration on Liberated Europe. Under its provisions, Timothy Garton Ash says, the peoples of “liberated” East Central Europe would be “‘compelled to abandon their hopes of Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government—to use Churchill’s own list’” (p. 71). Churchill later termed the document “fraudulent” inasmuch as it served only one purpose: to justify Soviet control over East Central Europe. In private conversations FDR granted Stalin’s every request. Anxious to involve the USSR against Japan, America’s President promised to give Stalin the southern half of Japan’s Sakhalin Island and the Kjurile Islands. Amazingly: “If Churchill is to be trusted, Roosevelt’s faith in Stalin even reached the point where he expressed intent to share the secret of the atom bomb with the Soviet leader” (p. 74).
The iron fist of Stalin (the word means “hammer”) appeared wherever Soviet troops prevailed. A month after the Yalta accords “mass arrests were taking place in Cracow, with whole trainloads of Polish intellectuals, priests, professors, and labor union leaders being taken to a huge prison-work camp” (p. 78). Similar things happened in the Baltic states and Rumania. Churchill wrote FDR a long letter informing him of such developments, stressing that: “‘we are in the presence of a great failure and an utter breakdown of what was settled at Yalta,’” (p. 79), but Roosevelt would not join the British Prime Minister in opposing Stalin, for appeasing the Soviets shaped FDR’s policies. He rejected not only Churchill’s advice but that of his own ambassador to Moscow, Averell Harriman, who wrote, just a month after Yalta: “‘I feel the time has come to reorient our whole attitude, and our method of dealing with the Soviet government. Unless we wish to accept the 20th century barbarian invasion, with repercussions extending further and furthers and in the East as well, we must find ways of arresting the Soviet domineering policy.’ In a separate message, Harriman wrote: ‘We must come to clearly realize that the Soviet program is the establishment of totalitarianism, ending personal liberty and democracy ads we know it’” (p. 81).
FDR died on April 12, 1945, just two months after Yalta. Would he have reconsidered his relationship with and promises to Stalin had he lived longer? Probably not, because one of his deepest desires was to accomplish what Woodrow Wilson failed to do—remaking the world. FDR wanted, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett says, not only to “‘establish the United Nations but to superimpose upon it an American-Soviet alliance which should dominate world affairs rot rather detriment of Britain and France, and to this end he made copious concessions to Marshal Stalin’” (p. 95). In quest of that goal he consigned millions to misery for four decades. Courting a monster inevitably entails falling prey to his machinations.
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