Unlike most books about Americans abroad, Andrew Nagorski’s Hitlerland is less interested in the Americans themselves than in what they saw or didn’t see while they were away from home. Once the Nazis come onstage, everyone else tends to become a minor player, and Nagorski’s Americans are no exception. Hitlerland, therefore, is about perceptions of Nazism’s origins and evolution from 1922, when the first American official interviewed an obscure agitator named Adolf Hitler, until December 1941, when every American national was expelled from the Reich.
Prominent among those who failed to see the impending catastrophe was Charles Lindbergh, the heroic emblem of aviation’s glamorous present and brilliant future. Lindbergh, who had moved his family to Europe following the kidnapping and murder of his eldest child, visited Germany five times between 1936 and 1939. Officially lionized, taken on tours of airfields and factories, lavishly entertained by Air Marshal Hermann Göring, and awarded one of the country’s highest civilian honors, Lindbergh made no effort to distance himself from Nazism. Hitler, he wrote to the banker Harry Davison, “is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe he has done much for the German people.” Nagorski is perhaps a bit too kind to Lindbergh: he overstates the value of the information Lindbergh provided American intelligence about German airpower and underestimates the toxicity of the Lone Eagle’s anti-Semitism. Lindbergh was not a Nazi, but he was much more than an unwilling dupe of the regime.
A few of Nagorski’s eyewitnesses merit a page or two simply because of their later prominence. Twenty-year-old John F. Kennedy, for example, spent no more than a week in Germany, during the summer of 1937. The few diary entries that provide a documentary record of this sojourn are mercifully brief: we do not learn more about the female “bundle of fun” who accompanied the future president on his travels, and we can only guess why a nightclub in Munich was “a bit different.” Kennedy’s political insights are not memorable. He believed that Hitler, like Mussolini, was popular largely because of his skills as a propagandist; as for the Germans themselves, he thought they “are really too good—it makes people gang against them for protection.”
Among the scores of American observers who appear in Hitlerland, no one loved Germany more than the novelist Thomas Wolfe. Drawn by a powerful sense of historical connection, Wolfe visited Germany six times between 1926 and 1936. During the two months he spent there in 1935, Wolfe, lulled by his love for German culture (and elated by Germans’ positive response to his novels), overlooked what had changed since Hitler took power two years earlier. But when he returned the following summer, he could no longer turn away from the brutal face of the new Reich. In a novella entitled I Have a Thing to Tell You, published in The New Republic in 1937, he …