On his way up, the Nazi leader had help from a source steeped in American culture.

ON A COLD SPRING MORNING in 1906, a canoeist on the Charles River in Boston lost control in the swift current and tipped into the water. At that moment, several Harvard students were nearby on the shore trying out for crew; one young man immediately grabbed a boat and rowed to the canoeist, who was floundering badly. Fully clothed, the rower jumped into the frigid water and managed to push the man up into the boat. The next day, the husky, tall (6-foot-4) Samaritan discovered he was an instant local celebrity. A Boston Herald headline proclaimed: “Hanfstaengl, Harvard’s Hero.”

The beneficiary of this publicity, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, claimed that as a result of this incident he got to know Theodore Roosevelt Jr., a fellow Harvard student and elder son of the president. This, in turn, led to an invitation to the White House, where at a stag party in the basement Hanfstaengl played the piano so enthusiastically he broke seven bass strings on a Steinway Grand. This was a young man who loved the spotlight—and who would soon embark on an unlikely journey, from Harvard and the White House to the beer halls of Munich and the entourage of a rising firebrand named Adolf Hitler. Once he was at Hitler’s side, Hanfstaengl took on the role of court musician, spin doctor, and go-between—especially with American correspondents, diplomats, and visitors. “It is a far cry from Harvard to Hitler, but in my case the connexion is direct,” he would write years later. Or, as Putzi put it to one interviewer in recalling the chain of events that led him to Hitler, “All that is just by some artistry of fate.”

BORN IN BAVARIA IN 1887 and therefore a German citizen, Hanfstaengl called himself “half American” because he had a German father and an American mother. Putzi—the term in the local Bavarian dialect for “little fellow” that stuck as his nickname from an early age—was proud of his roots. On his father’s side, Putzi’s ancestors were “well known as connoisseurs and patrons of the arts,” he pointed out. His grandfather had been famous for his art reproduction work, a business his father expanded by opening galleries in London and New York. Putzi’s mother was a Sedgwick, of the very eminent New England family. Her uncle was General John Sedgwick, a Civil War hero. Her father, William Heine, a European-born architect, had fled his native Dresden after the Revolution of 1848, worked on decorations for the Paris Opera, emigrated to the United States, and joined Admiral Matthew Perry as an illustrator on Perry’s expedition to Japan. Heine, too, became a general during the Civil War.

Given such a lineage, it was hardly a surprise that young Hanfstaengl would be sent to Harvard, where he mingled with the likes of T. S. Eliot, Robert Benchley, John Reed, and Walter Lippmann. A gifted pianist, Putzi was equally at ease playing Wagner and Harvard marching songs. After graduating in 1909, he returned to Germany for a year of military service in the Royal Bavarian Foot Guards, followed by a year of studies in Grenoble, Vienna, and Rome, and a return to New York to take over the family gallery on Fifth Avenue. Eating often at the Harvard Club, Putzi met yet another Roosevelt—Franklin Delano, then a New York state senator. And he reconnected with the elder Theodore Roosevelt, discussing both art and politics. “Hanfstaengl, your business is to pick the best pictures,” he said the former president told him.“But remember that in politics the choice is that of the lesser evil.”With no sense of irony, Putzi wrote in his memoir that the phrase “has stuck with me ever since.”

In 1920, Putzi married Helen Niemeyer, a matronly but still attractive young woman he had met when she wandered into the Fifth Avenue gallery. The daughter of immigrants from Bremen who made sure she spoke German at home, Helen was born and raised in New York. Her American identity is on full display in family photos dated 1912–13, when she was around 20. She is decked out like a model for the Statue of Liberty, holding a large American flag on the steps of Hoboken’s City Hall. In 1921, after the couple’s first child, Egon, was born, they moved to Munich.

For Putzi, it was a disorienting homecoming. Postwar Germany was “riven by faction and near destitution…, a madhouse,” he noted. That madhouse was produced by Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the Weimar Republic’s chaotic birth and simultaneous economic collapse, with hyperinflation plunging millions of middle-class families into abject poverty— a perfect setting for demagogues of every stripe.

IN NOVEMBER 1922, Putzi met Hitler—and, yes, he did so through a Harvard connection.Warren Robbins, a Harvard classmate serving at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, called Hanfstaengl in Munich to ask him to assist Truman Smith, a young military attaché about to visit the Bavarian capital (see “Eye on a Juggernaut,” March/April 2012). Robbins wanted Putzi to help Smith cultivate contacts there, but before the men could get together the highly resourceful attaché contacted a broad range of political and military figures. One of Smith’s most interesting meetings was with Hitler, whom Smith described as “a marvelous demagogue…. I have rarely listened to such a logical and fanatical man.” Smith wrangled a press pass to a Nazi Party rally at a popular Munich beer hall.When Hanfstaengl and Smith did connect, on the latter’s final day in Munich, the Berlin-bound diplomat gave Hanfstaengl his pass to that evening’s event and urged him to go. Putzi had never heard of Hitler, but he decided to see what Smith found so compelling about this political newcomer.

When Putzi arrived at the Kindlkeller, he wasn’t sure what to expect. His first glimpse of Hitler left him distinctly underwhelmed. “In his heavy boots, dark suit and leather waistcoat, semi-stiff white collar and odd little mustache, he really did not look very impressive—like a waiter in a railway station restaurant,” Hanfstaengl recalled. But once Hitler took the floor, the atmosphere became “electric.” Hitler displayed a mastery of “innuendo and irony,” starting in a light conversational tone and then cranking up his rhetoric as he blamed Jews, communists, socialists, and Weimar republicans for Germany’s predicament, promising a national rebirth that would sweep away those enemies. Putzi observed how Hitler entranced his audience, “especially the ladies”—including one young woman who was “transfixed as if in some emotional ecstasy.”

“Impressed beyond measure,” Putzi afterward made his way to the speaker, who was drenched with sweat but relishing his triumph. After introducing himself, Hanfstaengl declared, “I agree with 95 percent of what you said and would very much like to talk to you about the rest some time.” Hitler couldn’t have been friendlier. “Why, yes, of course,” he replied, Putzi wrote later. “I am sure we shall not have to quarrel about the odd 5 percent.”

From that moment on, Putzi effectively joined Hitler’s movement, seeing his new acquaintance as a self-made man who could rally Germans to a cause that would prove a strong alternative to the communists, who were also pushing for power. Putzi would later maintain that his “5 percent” disagreement had to do with Hitler’s Jew-baiting, but no records indicate that anti-Semitism seriously troubled Hanfstaengl—quite the contrary. Hitler’s claims that Jews were profiting shamelessly from Germany’s misery was “a charge which was only too easy to make stick,” Putzi noted. He was more genuine in his disdain for the “dubious types” in Hitler’s entourage, like party ideologist Alfred Rosenberg. Putzi always believed he was more sophisticated and worldly than others in that group, and worked hard to ingratiate himself with its leader. He saw Hitler as an unconventional but gifted politician on the rise, and was eager to rise with him.

After selling his share of the family gallery in New York, Putzi put up $1,000 to turn the Nazis’ four-page weekly Völkischer Beobachter (People’s Observer) into a daily, hired a cartoonist to redesign the masthead, and claimed credit for coining the propaganda sheet’s original slogan, Arbeit und Brot (Work and Bread). Hanfstaengl also claimed that he tried to educate Hitler about the world, particularly the growing importance of the United States. “If there is another war it must inevitably be won by the side which America joins,” he told the Nazi leader, urging him to advocate friendship with the Americans.

But Hitler seemed less interested in Putzi’s political theories than in his skill at the piano. When Putzi first played Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg for him, Hitler started marching up and down, waving his arms as if conducting. When Putzi added Harvard songs, Sousa marches, and improvisations to the mix, explaining how at his alma mater music and cheerleaders helped whip crowds to the point of “hysterical enthusiasm,” Hitler became even more animated.“That is it, Hanfstaengl, that is what we need for the movement, marvelous,” he said, prancing about like a drum majorette. Putzi would later write several marches used by the Brown Shirts, including the one they played as they paraded through Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on the day that Hitler took power in 1933.

WHEN PUTZI introduced the Nazi leader to his Helen, he said the future chancellor “was delighted with my wife, who was blonde and beautiful and American,” Hanfstaengl recalled. Hitler became such a frequent visitor at the couple’s residence on Gentzstrasse that the Hanfstaengls jokingly referred to their apartment as the Café Gentz. In her fragmentary postwar notes, Helen wrote in a precise hand with unconcealed pride:“It seems he enjoyed our home above all others to which he was invited.”

Although Helen reported that her first impression was colored by Hitler’s “quite pathetic” appearance in cheap mismatched clothes, she was as taken by him as her husband was, claiming that the Nazi leader was “a warm person” who loved playing with Egon. Helen was fascinated by Hitler’s tendency“to talk and talk and talk,” as she put it, refusing to allow anyone else to get in a word. “His voice had an unusually vibrant, expressive quality, which it later lost, probably through overexertion.” She attested to its “mesmeric quality”as he expounded on his political vision.“His plans for the renaissance of the country sounded ideal for most citizens,” she declared, alluding to the chaos of the times. Nor did the main subject of those monologues put her off. “The one thing he always raved against was the Jews,”she said, recalling that he blamed Jews for preventing him from getting jobs when he was living in Vienna.“It began as personal but he built it up politically.”

Putzi, who believed Hitler had “no normal sex life,” came to think that the Nazi leader had developed “one of his theoretical passions” for Helen. Helen didn’t disagree, seeing Hitler as an admirer who was also probably “a neuter.” Whatever emotions flowed between Hitler and Helen, they led to one of the most bizarre episodes in the future dictator’s rise—and a moment that may have literally changed the course of world events.

Hitler was about to spend nine months in Landsberg Prison (an episode that would prove more productive break than punishment, allowing him as it did to dictate Mein Kampf). Few know that Helen Hanfstaengl, an American, may have kept Adolf Hitler alive at his lowest moment.

The evening of November 9, 1923, Hitler suddenly appeared at the Hanfstaengls’ country house in Uffing, about an hour southwest of Munich. He and his coterie, including Putzi, had just tried and failed to seize control of Bavaria. In a violent street confrontation that left 14 Nazis and 4 policemen dead, the authorities had quashed the rebellion. When the so-called Beer Hall Putsch failed, Putzi fled to Austria, but Hitler’s car broke down. He decided to seek refuge with Helen. “There he stood, ghastly pale, hatless, his face and clothes covered with mud,” she recalled. Hitler had dislocated his left shoulder, probably in a fall when the authorities opened fire on the Nazis as they marched arm in arm and the man at his side went down. A doctor and a medic tended to the injured insurrectionist during the night, and Helen could hear Hitler moaning as they forced his shoulder and arm bones back together.

The next morning, Helen’s mother-in-law, who lived nearby, phoned to say that the police were in her house. Helen went upstairs to alert Hitler that he was about to be arrested. The news devastated him.“Now all is lost—no use going on,”he exclaimed, picking up a revolver that lay on a cabinet. “But I was alert, grasped his arm and took the weapon away from him,” Helen recalled. Alarmed that her guest might have killed himself, she shouted, “What do you think you’re doing?” She berated Hitler for thinking of leaving his followers in the lurch. “They’re looking for you to carry on,” she said. Hitler sank into a chair, and Helen quickly hid the gun in the kitchen flour bin. The police did arrest Hitler, leading to the trial that made him truly famous. He took full advantage of sympathetic judges to proclaim his goal of overthrowing the Weimar Republic.

On December 20, 1924, the guards at Landsberg released Hitler. He promptly came to dinner at the Hanfstaengls’ elegant new home on Munich’s Pienzenauerstrasse. Both Hanfstaengls were there to greet him; as soon as the authorities made clear they would not arrest other Nazis over the abortive putsch, Putzi had returned from Austria. At first Hitler turned on the charm, apologizing to Helen for the episode in Uffing. But once he had eaten a turkey dinner followed by his favorite Austrian pastries, he launched into one of his tirades. “We will reduce Paris to rubble!” he thundered.“We must break the chains of Versailles!”

Putzi insisted much later that he felt “almost physically sick” whenever Hitler started in that vein. “He seemed to have come out of Landsberg with all his worst prejudices reinforced,”he concluded. As was typical, Putzi was trying to portray himself as morally and intellectually superior. He argued that hangers-on like Rosenberg and Rudolf Hess had unduly influenced the Nazi leader, arousing Hitler’s “latent radical tendencies.” In fact, Putzi’s postwar recollections are transparently self-serving, as he tries to justify his infatuation with the dictator-in-waiting and argues that he somehow was trying to push the Nazi leader in a moderate direction, particularly regarding the United States. Putzi claimed he alone could reason with Hitler, an effort the others constantly undermined with their racialist harping. “He had failed to absorb any of the information I had kept trying to give him and merely regarded America as part of the Jewish problem,” he wrote. Yet none of this kept Putzi from working for Hitler; he insisted later that his aim was to guide “this unpredictable genius.”

ALTHOUGH HITLER WAS BACK, as the German economy began to recover, events increasingly marginalized his movement. In the May 1928 parliamentary elections, the Nazis won a paltry 12 seats, compared with 153 for the Socialists and 73 for the Nationalists. Then came the Wall Street crash of October 1929. In September 1930, the Nazis won 107 of 577 parliamentary seats— and Hitler’s march to power began in earnest. This turnaround renewed interest in the Nazi leader among American correspondents, diplomats, and visitors. And for most Americans, the key go-between for personal meetings and interviews with Hitler was, of course, the “half-American” Putzi.

Hanfstaengl wanted his American contacts to come away impressed with Hitler’s leadership qualities, but the face-to-face encounters he engineered often had the opposite effect. Accompanied by Putzi, Rudolf Hess, and Hermann Göring, Hitler met with U.S. Ambassador Frederic Sackett on December 5, 1931. The envoy later said he was struck by the fact that this “fanatical crusader” never looked him in the eye. Should Hitler come to power, “he must find himself shortly on the rocks, both of international and internal difficulties,” Sackett predicted. “He is certainly not the type from which statesmen evolve.”

In the same vein, Putzi had arranged for Dorothy Thompson, the era’s most famous female foreign correspondent, to interview Hitler in November 1931. Thompson’s immediate judgment: There was no way, given his “startling insignificance,” that Hitler would lead Germany. “He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure,” she added. American radio newsman H. V. Kaltenborn, another of Putzi’s Harvard friends, emerged from an August 1932 interview with Hitler that his former classmate had set up for him and two other American reporters convinced that the Nazi leader was an unlikely threat.“After meeting Hitler I myself felt almost reassured,” Kaltenborn recalled. “I could not see how a man of his type, a plebeian Austrian of limited mentality, could ever gain the allegiance of a majority of Germans.”

Americans gravitated to Putzi, mocking him even as they sought him out. “Fussy. Amusing. The oddest imaginable press chief for a dictator,” Thompson wrote. Once Hitler took power in 1933, he and Putzi did awe some Americans, like Martha Dodd, the 20-something daughter of the new U.S. ambassador, William Dodd. Others had the opposite reaction. William Shirer called Hanfstaengl an“immense, high-strung, incoherent clown.” U.S. Consul General George S. Messersmith dismissed him as pompously arrogant and a notorious womanizer, calling Hanfstaengl out when he caught him fondling a female tablemate at an embassy dinner party.

Putzi fought back by spreading rumors that Messersmith and correspondents critical of the new regime were Jews. Despite his postwar attempts to distance himself from Nazi anti-Semitism, here Hanfstaengl left a trail of damning evidence. “The Jews are the vampire sucking German blood,” he told James G. McDonald, visiting head of the New York–based Foreign Policy Association, in March 1933.“We shall not be strong until we free ourselves of them.” Quentin Reynolds of the International News Service admitted he initially found Putzi “a likeable fellow,” until he drew the mouthpiece’s wrath for filing a story about a mob that savaged a German woman for wanting to marry a Jew. Reynolds concluded,“You had to know Putzi to really dislike him,”

MANY OF THE TOP NAZIS who knew Hanfstaengl from the early days had reached the same conclusion, although they had to wait until Hitler began losing interest in Putzi before they could undercut him. Joseph Goebbels, the regime’s propaganda chief, made no secret of his contempt for Hanfstaengl and his desire to cut the Bavarian out of the inner circle. As Goebbels’s influence grew, Putzi’s diminished. “The evil genius of the second half of Hitler’s career was Goebbels,” Hanfstaengl complained. Soon Putzi’s foreign press office had been unceremoniously moved away from the Reich Chancellery, leaving him feeling isolated. After Helen divorced Putzi in 1936 he felt he had lost another connection to Hitler, who still had a soft spot for her. Hanfstaengl’s ever more tenuous position led him to start smuggling gold and platinum objects to London. He claimed later that he had lost faith in Hitler’s policies, but the real source of Putzi’s disillusionment was his own dwindling stature.

Fittingly, Hanfstaengl’s abrupt exodus from Germany in February 1937 plays as either drama or farce. Informed by the Chancellery that he was to go to Spain to help German correspondents covering the civil war there, he was rushed aboard a military transport plane and instructed to strap on a parachute. Once they were aloft, the pilot said he had orders to drop Putzi “over Red lines between Barcelona and Madrid.” Alarmed, Putzi protested that this would be a death sentence. The pilot gave Hanfstaengl a meaningful look as he turned off one engine and landed, ostensibly for repairs, at a quiet airfield near Leipzig. Under cover of darkness, Putzi slipped away and hopped a train, fleeing first to Munich and then to Zurich. Putzi arranged for his son Egon, who was at boarding school southwest of Munich, to follow him to the neutral country. In Switzerland, Putzi received a letter from Göring claiming that the whole affair was “a harmless joke” and that if he returned he would be safe.

Helen had returned to New York. Putzi moved with Egon to London. Egon continued his schooling in Britain until 1939 when, following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled at Harvard.

When World War II started, Putzi was among Germans in Britain rounded up as security risks. Interned in Canada, he contrived to smuggle out a plea for assistance that reached the desk “of my Harvard Club friend, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,”as Putzi grandiosely put it later. His bold move worked. The Canadians transferred him to American custody. When he arrived in Washington he was met by Egon, who had interrupted his studies at Harvard to join the U.S.Army. Sergeant Hanfstaengl greeted his father in uniform. From 1942 to 1944, Putzi provided information to American intelligence officials on Hitler and other Nazi leaders, along with analysis of German broadcasts. At war’s end he was sent back to Britain and eventually interned again, this time in Germany, before being released on September 3, 1946.

Neither Putzi nor Helen ever quite lost their sense of wonderment that they had been so close with Hitler. In the mid-1950s Helen left New York for Munich a second time, dying there in 1973. Putzi and Helen’s grandson Eric, born in 1954 in New York but raised in Germany, lives in the house on Pienzenauerstrasse where the Hanfstaengls feted the future dictator after his release from prison. Eric recalls his grandfather endlessly regaling listeners about the old days, in effect boasting of being an intimate of the Führer. While Putzi could be jovial and entertaining, Eric said,“most of the time he was on the Hitler trip—it was terrible.” In an interview with Hitler biographer John Toland in 1971, the elder Hanfstaengl declared that Hitler was “still in his bones.” He died four years later at 88. ✯

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.