Brief Encounters

Short reviews of Hitlerland and Yazoo
May 28, 2012

Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power | By Andrew Nagorski | Simon & Schuster | 385 pages, $28

As Adolf Hitler trans-formed himself from a failed regional politician to the most feared tyrant of the 20th century, Americans were on hand to observe, report, and warn. Andrew Nagorski, a Newsweek veteran and now head of a public-policy think tank, has ingeniously stitched together the story of the diplomats, journalists, and other expatriates who worked in Germany during the two decades that ended with America’s entry into World War II. There are many fascinating figures—the ill-prepared American ambassador, William E. Dodd, and his scandalous daughter, Martha, who slept her way into becoming a spy for Moscow; the consul general in Berlin, George Messersmith, fervent opponent of the Nazis. But the American correspondents, numbering an astonishing 30 or more in the prewar years, were the ones who most urgently warned their country of the growing menace.

Senior among them was Karl von Wiegand of the Hearst newspapers, who was initially impressed with Hitler but changed his mind. Sigrid Schultz of the Chicago Tribune remained through the entire period. Others were pushed out—Edgar Ansel Mowrer of the Chicago Daily News was expelled soon after Hitler took power in 1933; Dorothy Thompson was never welcome for very long. Working in Berlin was often hard—dodging the thugs who assaulted people for failing to give the “Heil Hitler” salute; tolerating the slithery embrace of Hitler’s half-American press agent, Putzi Hanfstaengl. In the end, 15 American correspondents remained after Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war. They were interned and exchanged for German counterparts in May 1942.

Summing up their work, Nagorski concludes that, whatever their lapses, most of the Americans “came to understand what was happening around them, even if they often found it hard to grasp the full implications…of a society undergoing a horrific transformation in the name of a demented ideology.” He gives particularly high marks to William Shirer, who was censored in his CBS Radio broadcasts but unmasked the Third Reich in his best-selling Berlin Diary (1941). Note: Nagorski mentions a few American turncoats, none professional journalists. But there was one exception he overlooks: Robert Henry Best, a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and winner of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, who remained in Germany when the others went home and did broadcasts for the Nazis; he was convicted of treason after the war and died in prison.

Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town | By Willie Morris | University of Arkansas Press | 204 pages, $19.95

Willie Morris, of Yazoo City, MS, arrived in New York in 1963 glowing with promise, having been a Rhodes scholar and editor of the dissident Texas Observer. While writing a memoir, North Toward Home, that at once became a classic, he went to work for staid old Harper’s Magazine and in 1967 became its youngest editor at 32. He scored an early coup in March 1968 by devoting an entire issue to Norman Mailer’s article, “The Steps of the Pentagon,” which became the Pulitzer-winning nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

He lured into Harper’s a galaxy of aggressive young writers, among them David Halberstam and Seymour Hersh, giving them space to display their wares, and helping to develop the genre that has come to be known as long-form journalism.

In 1969, Morris returned to his hometown to report on the state of race relations and school integration and in June 1970 published in Harper’s an article, “Yazoo…Notes on Survival.” He visited Yazoo City again later in 1970, but already clouds were gathering around him. There was political and financial friction with his magazine’s owners, and Morris resigned in March 1971. Two months later, Yazoo: Integration in a Deep Southern Town was published.

The book, now in a new printing by the University of Arkansas Press, reflects little of the turmoil in Morris’s own life or the radicalism of the magazine he was editing. He was a loyal son of Yazoo City and wanted very much to see its citizens overcome the racial disgrace of the early 1960s. He talked to all factions, black and white, and was pleased when massive integration of the schools, ordered by the courts, seemed to work. Yet, as his widow, Joanne Prichard Morris, observes in her deft afterword, Willie Morris lived to see Yazoo City resegregated, with almost all the white students enrolled in private academies. Near the end of his life—he died in 1999—Morris conceded that he got it wrong. But read as journalism created in its own moment, Yazoo was right and remains so, a tribute to the better angels Morris saw in his hometown.

James Boylan is CJR’s founding editor.