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Adolf Hitler summary: Born on April 20, 1889, Adolf Hitler was Austrian by birth but became the leader of the German Nazi Party. He ruled the party from August 2, 1934 to April 30, 1945. He came into German politics and eventually was named chancellor by President Paul Von Hindenburg in January of 1933.
He served in the Bavarian Army (a part of the German military) during World War I. He rose to the rank of lance corporal and was awarded the Iron Cross First Class, an unusually high honor for one of his rank. He was wounded and was temporarily blinded by a British gas attack. He was recuperating in hospital when the war ended. In 1919, Hitler became part of the German Worker’s Party, later named the National Socialist Party (NSDAP, or Nazi Party), and became one of its leaders. On November 8, 1923, four years after he joined the GWP, he tried an overthrow in Munich to seize power in Bavaria as a first step to controlling all of Germany. Generally known as the Beer Hall Putsch (coup), the revolt was quickly suppressed, and Hitler spent nine months in prison. He used his trial to gain national political attention and spent his time in prison dictating a memoir, Mein Kampf (My Struggle), sales of which would make him a rich man although he concealed that fact from the German people. He restructured the NSDAP and by the end of the 1920s it had become a political force; by June of 1932, it was the largest political party in the German parliament, the Reichstag. Though Hitler lost the 1932 presidential election to war hero Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, he was able to use the power of the Nazi Party and its popularity among conservative voters to negotiate an appointment for himself as Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. His ideas of anti-Semitism, anti-communism and a purity-of-the-Germanic-race ideology found widespread acceptance in Germany and elsewhere.
Hitler Establishes The Third Reich
On February 27, 1933—less than a month after Hitler had been named chancellor—the Reichstag building burned down; blame fell on a young Dutch communist, but it may have been a Nazi plot. Hitler seized the opportunity to convince members of the Reichstag to approve an emergency decree that that legalized Nazi thuggery. Soon, he convinced the center-to-right parties of the Reichstag to grant the government the freedom to decree laws without parliamentary approval for the next four years. By July 1933 all political parties except the NSDAP had been dissolved. Following the death of President von Hindengurn in August 1934, Hitler combined the roles of chancellor and president and assumed control of the country’s military forces.
With complete control of the country, Hitler initiated a new German society that became known as the Third Reich; he proclaimed it would last 1,000 years. Not content to rule Germany, he followed a policy of Lebensraum (living room) to seize lands outside Germany to allow the German people to expand their living space.
Initially, his expansion was bloodless. He renounced the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that had ended the Great War and reclaimed land that had been ceded to France. When German tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia, it was to “liberate” the Sudetenland where the population was largely German. The Czechs expected Britain and France to stand by agreements to protect the country, but with memories of the slaughter that had marked the First World War, those countries chose to negotiate a settlement that preserved “peace in our time” at the expense of the Czechs. Austria was the next country annexed.
Hitler Invades Poland And Starts WWII
In September 1939, German troops invaded Poland. This time, Britain and France declared war. In far-off Asia, Japan and China were already at war. The invasion of Poland is often called the beginning of World War II. For the next two years, Hitler gambled on his opponents’ weakness, often against the advice of his generals, and won. The Nazi swastika symbol flew over the greater portions of Europe and parts of North Africa as well. Only Britain managed to keep the Nazi wolf at bay, fighting in the skies over Britain, in the sands of North Africa, and the waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean. On June 22, 1941, Hitler made perhaps his biggest gamble—the invasion of the Soviet Union. Two years after that, Hitler’s rule was riddled with defeat. By that time, six million Jews and another five million others of non-German origin were systematically murdered. Hitler married Eva Braun during the Battle of Berlin. A couple days later, he and his wife committed suicide. The policies he promoted were responsible for the cause of death of nearly 50 million people during the course of World War II.
He approved the formation of killing squads that followed his army to murder Jews and anyone not of German dissent. Auschwitz and many other concentration camps were set up to systematically murder those the army and killing squad had rounded up or to put them into slavery. There were many of these concentration camps set up across Europe and several were even devoted to only exterminating or murdering people. From the years of 1939-1945 the SS (part of the Nazi army) were responsible for deaths of 11-14 million people which included about 2/3s of the European Jewish population or 6 million people. In addition they killed between 200,000 and 1.5 million Romanis, often called gypsies. Most of which were gassed while others starved or died of disease.
Hitler and The Nazi Legacy
The widespread murder Hitler and his Nazis were responsible for is referred to as the Holocaust and is the topic of many classes, books, movies, plays and more. The name Hitler and the term Nazi have widespread association with physical and moral ruin or worse. Hitler has often been considered the person responsible for World War II and therefore the death of more than 50 million people. Many countries in Europe have made Nazism and the denial of the Holocaust a criminal act. Hitler made all of the major military decisions and is responsible for many Anti-Semitic laws. His leadership and personality traits are discussed both in history classes and in psychology classes. He had a tendency to foster distrust and competition among those in his army and the fact that he got so many people to follow him devotedly is a matter of much discussion.
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Hitler’s Greatest Blunders
By overruling his senior officers and achieving a string of stunning victories in the years leading up to World War II, Adolf Hitler came to be considered, and considered himself, a military genius. He masterminded the march into the Rhineland in 1936, the annexation of Austria two years later, the subsequent annexation and dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Poland in 1939. Hitler’s seemingly unerring political, military, and diplomatic judgment fed a messianic conviction of his invincibility.
When mixed with dictatorial power and a growing propensity to react to strategic differences with towering rages, the result proved a fatal brew—one that had the ironic effect over time of turning Hitler into one of the Allies’ most effective weapons. At almost every point where an important decision was required, the Nazi leader could be counted on to make the one that inadvertently benefited the Allied cause, and helped to doom his own. A complete catalog of Hitler’s failures as a war chief could fill a thick volume; a dubious honor roll of the worst of them follows.
Declares War on the United States
On December 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt went before Congress and asked for a declaration of war against Japan. Germany was never mentioned. There was little popular support to expand the war; unless Hitler made some gesture of monumental stupidity, the United States at the time had no official reason to declare war on Germany. British and American strategists were frustrated. They had always presumed that once the United States entered the war, defeating Germany would take priority over Japan. But now it appeared America would take on Japan first while Great Britain fought alone against Germany.
Fortunately for them, four days after Pearl Harbor, Hitler committed one of the most monumental blunders in history. While President Roosevelt needed 517 words to declare war and doom Japan, when Hitler went before the Reichstag he required just 334 to seal the fate of the Third Reich.
In the final month of 1941, a perceptive observer may have noticed the first glimmers of hope for the Allied cause, as German prospects took a turn for the worse. Britain was not only unbowed, it was actively counterattacking wherever possible. More worrying for the Germans was the Soviet counterattack in front of Moscow, where fresh Siberian divisions were tearing at the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center.
Despite these rapidly darkening skies, Hitler, upon hearing news of Pearl Harbor, left his Prussian headquarters—where he had gone to personally deal with the Russian winter offensive—and rushed to Berlin. On December 11, he went before the Reichstag to declare war on the United States. It was an act of suicidal hubris. Although Germany was already locked in a war against Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Hitler, when presented with the opportunity to declare war against a nation capable of producing as many munitions in one year as Germany could in five, did not hesitate or flinch. It was not his first serious blunder, nor his last. It was, however, his most colossal.
Why did he do it? This question has long puzzled historians. Hitler was certainly aware of America’s production potential, for he had written about it in Mein Kampf. The simplest answer is that despite this knowledge, he remained unimpressed with American military potential. In 1940, he had told Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov that the United States would not be a threat to Germany for decades—“1970 or 1980 at the earliest.” Moreover, Hitler had always believed that war with the United States was inevitable. For him, it was better to have that war at a time of his choosing, and when he could count on Japan siphoning off significant amounts of American power. So Germany, for the second time in a generation, found itself in a two-front war against the combined might of the world’s greatest economic powers.
Issues Halt Order at Dunkirk
Still, there was one brief moment when Hitler had it within his power to win the war on one front and remove both France and Britain from his list of antagonists. It had come more than a year and a half earlier, on the coast of northern France. On May 10, 1940, German spearheads brushed aside light resistance in the Ardennes Forest before smashing through the French defensive line at Sedan. Slashing across France, General Heinz Guderian’s panzers entered Abbeville, 20 miles from the English Channel, a mere 10 days later. The French army, cut in half and thrown off balance, never recovered its equilibrium.
But even as the Wehrmacht was finishing off France, Hitler’s next actions guaranteed the survival of another of his foes, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), thereby presenting his most committed opponent, Winston Churchill, with a gift of inestimable value: an army with which to continue the struggle.
On May 23, the leading panzer units were only 18 miles from the port at Dunkirk, closer to it than most British units. Although the German troops were exhausted from two weeks of continuous marching and fighting, local commanders judged that they could easily capture the port, and thereby trap the British Army in France. Sensing that a crushing victory was near, Wehrmacht commander in chief Walter von Brauchitsch ordered the city taken. But just before the tanks went forward, Hitler issued his infamous “halt order,” stopping them outside Dunkirk.
He never mentioned his rationale for the order; guesses include Hermann Göring’s assurance that the Luftwaffe could complete the destruction of the BEF, and Hitler’s reluctance to risk his valuable panzers in the unfriendly marsh terrain of neighboring Flanders. Whatever the reason, the halt gave the British two precious days to solidify their defenses around Dunkirk, permitting them to carry out the most famous sealift of modern history. In that end, the Royal Navy, assisted by some French warships and a flotilla of 800 private vessels, pulled 338,226 troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, including 118,000 French, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers. These rescued men provided a veteran core around which Britain rebuilt its army.
Overlooks U-boats’ Potential
With the Royal Navy protecting the English Channel and the Royal Air Force denying air dominance to the Luftwaffe, England was safe from invasion. Still, Hitler had one weapon that could take Britain out of the war: the U-boat. In 1917, U-boats came close to bringing Britain to its knees. Despite this, Hitler was slow to see their value. If, during the second half of the 1930s, he had taken the resources wasted on the construction of an almost useless surface fleet and instead applied them to the construction of U-boats, Germany could have started the war with hundreds of these silent killers, rather than 57.
Even with their paucity of numbers, the U-boats came within a hair’s breadth of knocking Britain out of the war. By the middle of 1940, Germany had only 25 U-boats left in service. Still, they managed to sink close to 700,000 tons of Allied shipping by the end of the year, or over 225 merchant ships. Despite that success, it was not until February 1941 that Hitler issued Führer Directive 23, ordering a crash program of U-boat production.
Germany went on to build more than 1,100 U-boats during the war, with over 450 still in service in 1945. By early 1943, the U-boats had Britain in desperate straits, and winning the Battle of the Atlantic became the Allies’ top priority. Then, in March 1943—almost imperceptibly at first—the tide started to turn. A combination of better tactics, new antisubmarine technology, and a broken German naval code turned the North Atlantic into a submarine graveyard.
U-boats continued sinking Allied ships until the end of the war, but their own losses were unacceptably high. In the end, Germany lost almost 800 U-boats and some 30,000 crewmen. Although they sank close to 14 million tons of Allied shipping, that impressive total was overwhelmed by the nearly 40 million tons of additional shipping the United States alone built during the war. Considering that the entire British merchant fleet in 1940 was less than 18 million tons, it is clear that if Germany had started the war with as many U-boats as it ended with, Britain could not have survived long.
Opens Vast Second Front
But Britain did survive, and was still defiant when Hitler made a blunder second only in folly to his gratuitous declaration of war against the United States: the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Slightly more than two decades had passed since Germany had last launched a two-front war—and suffered devastating consequences. It therefore took a stunning level of strategic incompetence on Hitler’s part to initiate a war in the East when the outcome in the West was still at issue. Tenacity, coupled with flashes of tactical and operational brilliance, kept the German army in the field for four bloody years. And once again, the German military almost made good on Hitler’s gamble. But such martial attributes were insufficient to overcome the fundamental strategic mistake that placed them deep into Russia to begin with. It took a number of additional blunders on Hitler’s part to crush German hopes of a Drang Nach Osten—“Drive to the East.”
Fails to Take Moscow
The first of those blunders came soon after Operation Barbarossa was launched. From the outset, Hitler’s military leaders knew that speed was of the essence: they were after a quick contest, not a protracted war. And their initial prospects of winning that race against time were promising: after smashing through the Soviet forward divisions, Army Group Center won a hard-fought battle at Smolensk. At its conclusion, more than 200,000 Soviet prisoners were marched into already overcrowded holding pens, and the road to Moscow was laid bare. Now was the time for a strong, direct thrust at the Soviet capital.
More than just a political objective, Moscow was the nerve center for the Communist Party, a major industrial center, and, most important, the nexus for almost every major rail line in the Soviet Union; if Moscow fell, lateral movement of Soviet forces would become impossible. Moreover, the defeat of Moscow would help cut western Russia off from the eastern armies, which were already beginning their move to the city’s aid. In 1812, Russia could give up Moscow to Napoleon and suffer few military consequences. Losing Moscow in 1940 would have been catastrophic to the Soviet cause.
But then Hitler shifted Germany’s strategic emphasis: rather than send his forces on to Moscow, at the end of August Hitler ordered General Heinz Guderian to take his Second Panzer Army south to assist the slow-moving Army Group South. By way of explanation, he pointed to the natural resources of the Ukraine and the oil in the Caucasus, both of which he saw as vital to the German war effort. When his generals persisted in protesting this shift in strategy, Hitler exclaimed, “My generals know nothing of economics!” Reluctantly, Guderian took his panzers south, netting another 600,000 prisoners in the Kiev pocket. It was the greatest tactical victory of war, but it was not without cost.
When the advance on Moscow—Operation Typhoon—was renewed on October 2, a precious month had been lost. A combination of stubborn Russian resistance, German overextension, and abysmal weather soon stalled the German offensive just short of its ultimate objective. In late November, when Typhoon was called off, lead German elements were less than 20 miles from Moscow. Only two weeks later, the Russians launched a crippling winter counteroffensive. Unlike Napoleon’s Grande Armée, which was shredded after its victory by both the Russians and the winter, Army Group Center did not disintegrate. It did, however, suffer horrific losses and was never again in a position to threaten Moscow. Hitler’s chance for a quick and decisive outcome in the East dissolved.
Overvalues Stalingrad as a Target
All hope for victory was not lost, however. In the spring and summer of 1942, a restored Wehrmacht launched a new offensive to secure the Caucasus oil fields. It was at this point that Hitler made a series of misjudgments that doomed a German field army and had dire effects on the overall war effort.
After chastising his generals about Moscow being a mere political target of little military consequence, Hitler, remarkably, allowed himself to be drawn into a battle of prestige for control of Stalingrad. Instead of focusing on the oil fields, he divided his force, sending one to head south toward Baku, the other to take Stalingrad. It was a battle he waged ferociously, long after the city had lost any military utility. Division after division was fed into the Stalingrad maelstrom, where whole battalions were virtually obliterated 24 hours after their commitment. For almost three months, the German Sixth Army pounded at the city until only a small sliver remained in Soviet hands.
Myopically focused on capturing the city named for his mortal enemy, Hitler took no notice of the buildup of Soviet reserves on Sixth Army’s weakly held flanks. When the Soviets launched an attack to encircle Sixth Army—Operation Uranus—in mid-November, they quickly shattered first the Romanian and later the Italian and Hungarian armies flanking the city. Two days later, Soviet pincers met at the nearby town of Kalach, entrapping the Sixth Army. For several months the doomed army slowly starved, before finally surrendering on February 2, 1943.
Hitler’s maniacal insistence on seizing and holding Stalingrad had cost over 750,000 causalities, and the loss of an irreplaceable field army. It was, up to that point, the greatest single disaster the German army endured.
Gambles All at Kursk
Eventually, the Soviet Stalingrad offensive petered out, and the Germans were given breathing space to consolidate a new defensive line and restore their depleted forces. If they were to have any chance of negotiating a favorable peace, now was the time to fortify in depth, build mobile strike forces for counterattacks—such as Erich von Manstein’s successful counteroffensive at Kharkov in February–March 1943—and husband their strength to meet the next Soviet offensive.
Instead, Hitler became fixated on a massive summer offensive aimed at an enormous bulge in the Soviet line around the city of Kursk. Ordering simultaneous thrusts from the north and south, he hoped to trap the Soviet forces within the bulge, or salient, and to tear a gap in their line, allowing the offensive to continue to the east.
If it was the Battle of Stalingrad that decided Hitler would not win the war, it was the Battle of Kursk that decided he would lose it. Aware of the massive preparations the Russians were making around Kursk, many German generals were reluctant to attack; even Hitler had doubts, admitting that the thought of the attack made him feel ill. Despite his foreboding, Hitler eventually ordered it to go forward.
It is a testament to German tactical ability that for 10 days the Wehrmacht pushed doggedly ahead. And for one brief moment, it even seemed as if the horrific losses inflicted upon them would not be in vain. The final defensive belt was breached and the armor of the Fourth Panzer Army massed for the final push. It was at this moment that the Russian commander, General Georgi Zhukov, unveiled his final surprise. The Soviet reserve, comprising the 5th Guards Tank Army, was ordered forward to seal the breech. Near the village of Prokhorovka, the Soviet tanks collided headlong with the onrushing Germans. In what became known as the “Death Ride of the Fourth Panzer Army,” both sides fought a close-quarters knife fight with tanks. When it was over, German offensive power in the east was extinguished. The panzer divisions, reconstituted at great cost in the first half of 1943, were shattered. With them went Hitler’s hopes of victory.
Reinforces Afrika Korps Too Late
Even as the Germans plodded forward at Kursk, Allied forces were landing at Sicily. That they were able to make relatively short work of the island’s defenses and follow up with a rapid invasion of the Italian mainland can be attributed to another of Hitler’s blunders. Since early 1941, Hitler had allowed the commander of German forces in North Africa, Erwin Rommel, to conduct an economy-of-force operation there. For two years, Hitler’s reluctance to commit more than a trifling amount of troops to the North African sideshow forced Rommel to make his reputation by fighting and generally winning despite being heavily outnumbered.
It was only after the Battle of El Alamein was finally lost, and in the wake of the successful Allied landing in western North Africa—both in early November 1942—that Hitler suddenly decided to massively reinforce Rommel’s army. Tens of thousands of German troops were flown and shipped into Tunisia in a forlorn attempt to keep a toehold in North Africa. Hitler’s decision came long after all hope of victory had vanished, and had predictable results. Approximately 230,000 Axis troops surrendered at Tunis in May 1943, including most of Rommel’s legendary Afrika Korps. These veterans were desperately needed and sorely missed in the contest for Northern Europe.
Hesitates at Normandy
By early 1944, it was apparent to the German general staff and even Hitler that the final contest for control of Northern Europe was not going to be delayed much longer, and that the Allies would soon attempt a Channel crossing. In one of his flashes of intuition, Hitler predicted that the invasion would come at Normandy. Unfortunately for German military planners, he did not have the courage of his convictions. When the Allies actually landed at Normandy, Hitler suspected it was a deception and that their real target was northeast of there, in the Pas-de-Calais region. The upshot for the Allies was that 19 nearby German divisions, including six powerful panzer divisions, spent D-Day idle. Their early commitment to Normandy would have made the Allied beaches a living hell, and might even have thrown the invasion back into the sea. Over the succeeding weeks, Hitler became ever more convinced that the Normandy invasion was a ruse, and it was not until the end of July that he finally approved the movement of a single division from Fifteenth Army, which was guarding the coast near Pas-de-Calais. Once again, it was too late. By the time reinforcing divisions arrived, the German line was hanging by a thread.
In a further blunder on Hitler’s part, he had ordered the Normandy front held at all cost. This ensured that when his forces inevitably did give way, the surviving skeleton formations would be incapable of conducting mobile operations or making a stand much short of the defensive fortifications along Germany’s western prewar borders.
Issues Prophetic ‘Stand and Die’ Order
But Hitler’s “stand and die” orders had more fateful consequences on the Eastern Front.
Timed to closely coincide with the Allied invasion of Normandy, Stalin had ordered Operation Bagration—the destruction of Germany’s Army Group Center—to commence on June 22, 1944, the anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. Prior to the Soviet attack, Hitler’s generals advised him to pull back the army—then trying to hold the city of Minsk—to shorter and more defensible positions, so as to let the offensive hit empty space. Failing to persuade him of the necessity of moving out of the way of the Soviet juggernaut, they begged for permission to establish a defense in depth.
Instead, Hitler ordered most of his forces to hold in their forward positions and countenanced no requests for withdrawal, no matter how desperate the situation. The result was calamitous. In one month’s fighting the Soviets obliterated Army Group Center, annihilating 20 divisions in the opening weeks of the offensive—almost as many as the Allies were fighting in Normandy. Only exhaustion brought the Soviet horde to a halt on the Vistula River, across from Warsaw. There they restored their strength and prepared their next big move, into the Reich itself.
Loses Second Gamble at the Ardennes
There was, however, a decent probability that Hitler could have spared East Germany almost two generations of Soviet occupation, if not for his next major misstep. By the end of 1944, Allied armies were poised to enter Germany from both the east and west. Through a maximum effort, the Wehrmacht managed to refit several of its panzer divisions and build a mobile reserve with which to meet the onslaught. The refitted armored formations fell far short of what Germany required to turn the tide of the war. But if these divisions had been deployed to the Eastern Front, they could have held off the Russians just long enough for the Western Allies to advance and occupy most of Germany.
Of course, such thinking never concerned Hitler. Instead, he launched his armor that December at a weak sector of the American front—in the Ardennes Forest—in what has become famous as the Battle of the Bulge. Attacking through the Ardennes was a forlorn hope and doomed from the start. It might delay the Allies, but it had no real chance of reenacting the glorious advance of 1940, which had driven over the same ground. All Hitler gained was a foothold in Belgium that could not be sustained. For that he squandered the bulk of his mobile forces and, with them, Germany’s last hope of salvaging something from the disaster about to envelop it.
In the end, it’s striking that despite blunder after blunder, Germany resisted the combined might of the world’s greatest powers for almost half a decade. This is a testament to the operational capabilities of the German army, which demonstrated remarkable recuperative powers throughout the war. Even as late as 1945, the battered Wehrmacht proved capable of lashing out viciously at its tormentors, inflicting more than two battle losses for every one sustained in the war’s final months. But it was all in vain. Prowess on the battlefield could not overcome incompetence at the top. Nor could it erase the fact that the Wehrmacht’s vaunted fighting capabilities were harnessed to a vile cause. Humanity should remain forever thankful that that cause was led by one of history’s greatest military blunderers.
Jim Lacey is the Professor of War, Policy, and Strategy at the Marine War College. A former U.S. Army infantry officer, he is the author of several books on military history, including the forthcoming First Clash on the Battle of Marathon and Keep From All Thoughtful Men on World War II strategy.
Truman Smith: The American Who Saw Hitler Coming
At six foot four inches tall, Truman Smith cut an imposing figure, and possessed an impressive pedigree. Smith’s grandfather had served as a U.S. senator, and his father was a military officer who was killed in action in the Philippines in 1900. Young Smith was no slouch himself: he graduated from Yale in 1915, and might have become a history professor. But after he joined the New York National Guard, his regiment was called up for duty on the Mexican border in 1916. This ended his graduate studies and led him to a military career instead. He became a battalion commander in World War I, and earned a Silver Star.
Smith was an avid student of German language and culture, and his expertise earned him postings to Germany during two of its most momentous periods. He first served as a political adviser to the U.S. Army in Coblenz in 1919, then served in the Berlin embassy from 1920 to 1924. About a decade later, he returned to Germany to work as a senior military attaché in the crucial run-up years to World War II—1935 to 1939.
During Smith’s first stint in Berlin, Adolf Hitler’s name was just beginning to be heard around the country. Those were the early days of the Weimar Republic, a period of chronic political and economic unrest that offered plenty of opportunities for violent extremists on both the far right and far left. Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party was only one group of radicals among many others.
That would change, of course. In Berlin, the American ambassador Alanson B. Houghton, an industrialist-turned-congressman-turned-diplomat, was deeply troubled by the turmoil in Germany and, in particular, by the political unrest in the southern part of the country. In the fall of 1922, there were rumblings that General Erich Ludendorff, who had led the German army in the later half of World War I, might be planning to topple the government and impose a right-wing dictatorship. After a brief exile following Germany’s defeat, Ludendorff returned to Munich and took up with Hitler and other rabble-rousers. Against the backdrop of Benito Mussolini’s ascent in Italy, Germany’s political far right seemed on the rise. “Something is brewing in Bavaria and no one seems to know exactly what it is,” Houghton wrote in his diary.
To keep an eye on the situation, Houghton turned to his young assistant military attaché, Truman Smith. Smith would later point out that most foreign diplomats in Berlin at the time had written off the National Socialists as “being without significance,” and described the party leader Adolf Hitler as an “uneducated madman.” Houghton, in contrast, “seems to have had, even at this early date, a premonition that the movement and its leader might play an important role in the disturbed Germany of the early twenties.” Ambassador Houghton and the embassy’s military attaché, Smith’s immediate superior, urged Smith to “try to make personal contact with Hitler himself and form an estimate of his character, personality, abilities, and weaknesses.”
Smith did just that. He was the first American diplomat to interview Hitler—and in the 1920s he wrote uncannily prescient reports about the future leader of Germany. What’s more, during his second posting in Germany, Smith cleverly used Charles Lindbergh to obtain a firsthand look at the country’s aviation capabilities, enabling him to produce a steady stream of largely accurate assessments of the Luftwaffe as well as Hitler’s rapid military buildup in the late 1930s. However, the Roosevelt Administration, aware of the isolationist mood at home, paid little attention to Smith’s reports. Some columnists and politicians would even claim that Smith had been taken in by propaganda and thus exaggerated his accounts of Germany’s strength. This might explain why Smith receives only passing mention in the major historical works about the prewar period—and was never adequately credited for his early warnings about the German juggernaut.
Truman Smith arrived in Munich on November 15, 1922, and quickly met a diverse group of people, recording his discussions and impressions. The 29-year-old diplomat asked everyone about Hitler. Summarizing the views of Robert Murphy, the acting U.S. consul, Smith wrote: “Hitler thoroughly understands the Bavarian psychology. Whether he is big enough to take the lead in a German national movement is another question; probably not.”
General Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein, the artillery commander of the German army’s 7th Division, told Smith he hadn’t met Hitler but had the impression that the man was “an oratorical genius.” He added that “Hitler was not as radical as his speeches made him out,” and that he was anti-Semitic in “a healthy sense” since he wanted to keep Jews out of government positions. Barring some mistake, Kress von Kressenstein told Smith, Hitler’s movement had “a great future before it.” Friedrich Trefz, chief editor of the newspaper Münchner Neueste Nachrichten (Munich Latest News), agreed. He told Smith that Hitler was a “marvelous speaker. None better.” Trefz said that he’d gone to a National Socialist meeting and sat between a general and a Communist; both had attended out of curiosity, and afterward both signed up as party members. Trefz’s conclusion: “The National Socialists present no immediate danger to the government. The ground is fertile, however, and the party will grow.”
Smith next ventured to the informal headquarters of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, at Georgenstrasse 42. There he met with Max Erwin von Scheubner-Richter, an early confidante of Hitler who claimed that the party had 35,000 members in Munich, 200,000 sympathizers, and a “militarily organized” underground armed with clubs and pistols. The American was then invited to watch Hitler review his paramilitary troops, the Brown Shirts. It was “a remarkable sight indeed,” Smith noted. “Twelve hundred of the toughest roughnecks I have ever seen pass in review before Hitler at the goosestep under the old Reichflag wearing red armbands with Hakenkreuzen (swastikas).” The Nazi leader gave a short speech, vowing to defy anyone trying to stop the movement. “He then shouts, ‘Death to the Jews’ etc. and etc. There was frantic cheering. I never saw such a sight in my life.”
At 4 p.m. on Monday, November 21, Smith met Hitler at the party headquarters. The diplomat was startled by Hitler’s quarters, which reminded him of a dreary back room of a New York tenement house. Smith’s impressions that day, which he recorded in his notebook once he had returned to his room in the Hotel Marienbad, were right to the point. “A marvelous demagogue,” he wrote. “I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man. His power over the mob must be immense.” Hitler’s message was unequivocal: “Parliament and parliamentarianism must go. No one can govern with it in Germany today. Only a dictatorship can bring Germany to its feet.”
In a report he filed after returning to Berlin, Smith added this assessment:
The question whether Hitler’s National Socialists can play a role in Germany equivalent to the role of the Fascisti in Italy can still not be answered with any degree of certainty. In the limited area of Bavaria, south of the Danube, Hitler’s success cannot be gainsaid…. It is believed that not only in Munich but in all Germany, there is a fertile field even among the factory workers for a national movement…. It seems hardly probable, furthermore, that with the results already achieved, there will be any lack of money for the propagation of the idea of a national dictatorship. These facts, coupled with the magnetism and oratorical ability of the National Socialist leader, speak for a rapid and consistent development of the German “Fascisti.”
The ensuing years confirmed Smith’s observations. By the time he and his wife Katharine, known as Kay, returned to Berlin in 1935, Hitler was fully in command. They were immediately struck by how the capital had changed since the early 1920s. Berlin “was the same yet not the same,” Kay wrote in her memoirs, which were never published and reside in the archives of the Hoover Institution. “The streets, the buildings were all as I had known them. But now no more shabby fronts and broken fences. All was clean, freshly painted…. The crowds well dressed, the people looking well nourished, energetic.” But Kay Smith also detected “a certain tenseness” in the air, the product of a regime that was ready to target anyone.
Unlike many of his counterparts in other embassies, Smith had no budget to pay for spies. What he did have was a long list of German contacts—officers he had met during his first tour in Germany and later when he was an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, from 1928 to 1932. The assistant commandant of the Infantry School was George C. Marshall, then a lieutenant colonel, who treated Smith as an aide and translator when it came to dealing with visiting Germans.
After the Nazis took power in 1933, they forbade any German officer from visiting the house of a foreigner unless he knew the foreigner previously. This meant most military attachés were effectively prevented from inviting German officers to their homes. But Smith was already well established in that circle: When he held a party upon the couple’s return to Berlin, Kay Smith recalled that “the other attachés were dumbfounded to find so many German officers at our reception. They were green with envy and Truman became their prime target in their attempt to get news.” By comparison, Kay noted, the British and the French, who relied heavily on paid spies, “were remarkably bare of contacts.”
Now a colonel, Smith worked obsessively to learn about the German military. Early in his second tour, he carefully noted the insignia of regiments that were displayed on the shoulders of German officers, piecing together valuable information, and even enlisting Kay and their daughter Kätchen to help with this task. “Whenever we drove out in the car together she [Kätchen] would take one side and I the other, our faces pressed against the window pane,” Kay wrote. “It made an amusing game for us and we had the feeling of helping solve the riddle.”
Early on, Smith realized there was one picture he could not put together. He had few contacts with the Luftwaffe and “negligible” knowledge of the German air force’s organization, tactics, or technical capabilities. Captain Theodore Koenig, the American assistant attaché responsible for monitoring Germany’s growing air power, was a capable officer. But Smith worried that his team was too small and poorly equipped to effectively analyze the Luftwaffe—an urgent task as Hitler pushed to reassert Germany’s might.
In May 1936, two months after German troops had moved into the demilitarized Rhineland, Kay and Truman were having breakfast when she pointed out a front-page story in the Herald Tribune about Charles Lindbergh’s visit to an airplane factory in France. Truman wondered if the famous airman, whose transatlantic flight had captured the imaginations of people everywhere, could gain the same kind of access to German factories. He checked with aides to the supreme Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring, who said they would be pleased to show Lindbergh their combat units and factories. Smith wrote a letter to Lindbergh on May 25, relaying this invitation.
Smith had never met Lindbergh, but didn’t hesitate to make a forceful case. “I need hardly tell you that the present German air development is very imposing and on a scale which I believe is unmatched in the world,” he wrote. Pointing out that the Luftwaffe’s buildup had been shrouded in secrecy until recently, he added that the Germans had demonstrated a greater openness to Americans than to representatives of other nations. “General Göring has particularly exerted himself for friendly relations with the United States,” Smith added. “From a purely American point of view, I consider your visit here would be of high patriotic benefit. I am certain they will go out of their way to show you more than they will show us.”
Smith’s appeal to Lindbergh, who was then living with his wife Anne in England, would prove to be a brilliant and fateful initiative. Lindbergh replied that he would be “extremely interested in seeing some of the German developments in both civil and military aviation.” Smith was aware that the Germans would seek to exploit Lindbergh’s visit for propaganda purposes, but he could do nothing to prevent it. He focused on persuading the Germans to allow Lindbergh to inspect a long list of airplane factories, research facilities, and Luftwaffe units, accompanied by himself or assistant attaché Captain Koenig. That way, the American attachés would be able to scrutinize the installations and make valuable new contacts.
When the Lindberghs flew to Berlin aboard a private plane in July 1936, they were greeted by Ministry of Aviation officials, Deutsche Lufthansa airline executives, and other representatives of German aviation. The Smiths put the Lindberghs up in their apartment, and the two couples struck up a friendship. “Colonel Smith is alive, questioning, and talks well,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh recorded in her diary, adding of Kay, “She is observant, intelligent, and amusing.”
The most important social event during Lindbergh’s visit was a formal luncheon at Göring’s official residence on Wilhelmstrasse. It was attended by top aviation officials, including the legendary World War I pilot Ernst Udet. The Lindberghs and the Smiths were treated as honored guests. For Truman Smith, this was the first time he had the chance to observe and talk with the Luftwaffe’s chief—and he took full advantage of the occasion. “Göring showed many facets of his personality,” he noted. “In turn he was magnetic, genial, vain, intelligent, frightening, and grotesque.”
Lunch was an elaborate affair, and after the meal, Lindbergh asked Göring if the guests could see his pet lion cub. The host happily obliged. They were ushered into the library, and the doors were dramatically opened for the young lion. “I want you to see how nice my Augie is,” Göring announced. “Come here, Augie.” Göring was sitting on a sofa and the lion bounded to him, jumping onto his lap and licking his face. Kay Smith later recorded what happened next: “The startled lion let loose a flood of yellow urine all over the snow white uniform!” Göring pushed the cub off him and jumped up, “his face red with anger, his blue eyes blazing.” Emmy Göring rushed over, putting her arms around him. “Hermann, Hermann, it is like a little baby,” she pleaded. “There are too many people!” Göring calmed down, and rushed off to change. Returning, he was dressed “in a pongee suit, whiffs of eau de Cologne, and a diamond pin,” Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote. The lunch allowed Smith to start a relationship with Göring that lasted for the rest of his tour of duty in Berlin.
Lindbergh proved to be just the intelligence wedge Smith needed. The real payoff came from the American pilot’s visits to Germany’s air installations. At the Heinkel factory in Rostock, for instance, Lindbergh and Koenig were allowed to inspect the new He 111 medium bomber. Lindbergh concluded that it was comparable to British and American bombers, and superior to French ones. They also watched Udet fly a new He 112 fighter prototype—and saw the plane disintegrate during a dive, forcing the famed pilot to parachute to safety. Still, based on what they saw of those and two other Heinkel planes—the fast and versatile He 70 and the He 118 dive-bomber prototype—along with the company’s modern factory for navy planes at Warnemünde, the Americans were impressed. “I have never seen four planes, each distinct in type and built by one manufacturer, which were so well designed,” Lindbergh told Smith.
The aviator was clearly swayed. Writing to a family friend, Lindbergh pointed out that “we have nothing to compare in size to either the Heinkel or Junkers factories.” In a letter to his lawyer, he professed he was struck by “a spirit in Germany which I have not seen in any other country.” After his first visit, he wrote again to the family friend, “While I still have many reservations, I have come away with a feeling of great admiration for the German people.” As for Hitler, he wrote, “he is undoubtedly a great man, and I believe he has done much for the German people.”
Thanks to the Lindbergh entrée, Koenig visited various airfields and factories, which in turn enabled Smith to produce increasingly detailed reports about German air capabilities for officials in Washington. After Lindbergh’s second visit, in October 1937, Smith asserted that if current trends continued, Germany would “obtain technical parity with the USA by 1941 or 1942.” If the United States slowed down its program, he warned, “German air superiority will be realized still sooner.”
Göring may have deliberately exaggerated some of his claims about Germany’s capabilities, but Lindbergh took them seriously. At a cocktail party, Lindbergh was overheard telling Udet: “German aviation ranks higher than that in any other country. It is invincible.” No wonder German officials boasted that Lindbergh would be “the best promotion campaign we could possibly invest in.”
Lindbergh made four more visits to Germany before the start of World War II, and was treated like royalty during each. This might help explain his subsequent vocal campaign to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, his involvement in the America First movement, and his conviction that the Soviet Union represented the real threat to European civilization—and that, in a war between the two powers, “a victory by Germany’s European people would be preferable to one by Russia’s semi-Asiatic Soviet Union.” His remarks confirmed what his critics had suspected: the aviator had become, in effect, an apologist for Hitler.
For his part, Smith was convinced that Washington needed to understand the breathtaking scope of Germany’s military buildup, but his reports were often dismissed as alarmist. To be sure, not all of the intelligence Smith gathered was on target. He made some erroneous assessments about the degree of disaffection between the Nazis and the military, and was certainly off when he described “Hitler’s realistic and reticent foreign policy,” as he put it in 1937. But on balance, the regular intelligence reports Smith sent to Washington were clear-sighted and trenchant. Thanks to the factory doors Lindbergh had opened, he was the best-informed attaché in Berlin on the Luftwaffe.
But the diplomat’s association with Lindbergh also brought him grief. Like the aviator, Smith was accused by some of being a Nazi dupe. After he was diagnosed with diabetes and left Berlin in April 1939, Smith was assigned to Washington by General George C. Marshall, then the army chief of staff, to serve as an adviser on the German military. As Hitler’s armies swept across Western Europe, Smith heard from colleagues in army intelligence that Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter and secretary of the interior Harold Ickes were behind attacks against him written by the influential columnists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell. They charged that Smith was pro-German and was writing Lindbergh’s isolationist speeches after Germany invaded Poland. Smith also heard reports that the two officials had urged Roosevelt to have him court-martialed.
Nothing of the sort ever happened, for good reason. While Smith maintained his friendship with Lindbergh, he never played any role in the aviator’s political activities. And he began getting a measure of the recognition he deserved for his reporting from Berlin. On Marshall’s recommendation, Secretary of War Henry Stimson awarded the Distinguished Service Medal to Smith in January 1945. Five months later, one of FDR’s advisers wrote to General Marshall: “How well and how timely were his warnings about German preparations! And what little attention we paid to them!”
Smith retired from the military in 1946 and moved back to Connecticut. He made a run for Congress, but lost the Republican primary. He had more success writing articles on military affairs, but remained shadowed by suspicions related to his Berlin service, despite testimonies to his outstanding performance.
Long after World War II, Smith wrote The Facts of Life, an autobiographical manuscript that he tried but failed to publish. Fourteen years after his death in 1970, it would finally appear in print, along with his Munich notebook and his military reports, in a Hoover Institution Press volume called Berlin Alert: The Memoirs and Reports of Truman Smith. In The Facts of Life, Smith recalled his meeting with Hitler in 1922. “The diary I kept in Munich indicates that I was deeply impressed with his personality and thought it likely he would play an important role in German politics,” he wrote. “I must confess, however, that I did not see him as the future ruler of most of Europe.”
He may have got that and a few other things wrong—but the overarching point of his reports was right on target: Germany was remilitarizing faster than most of Washington realized, and represented a growing danger. The perceptions of a man who once aspired to teach history were validated by the historical record.
Andrew Nagorski is the former Newsweek Berlin bureau chief, and is now vice president and director of public policy at the EastWest Institute. He is the author of The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II (2008). His article is adapted from his forthcoming book Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power (Simon & Schuster, March 2012).