By Ruth King
In this issue, historian Rita Kramer reviews Eric Larson’s Garden of the Beasts–a narrative of the experiences of the American ambassador to Germany during the years 1933-1938.
In the book, Ambassador Dodd records how the Nazis–from lower communications agency bureaucrats up to Goebbels and Hitler himself–were deeply unsettled by the American State Department’s inability to thwart a mock trial of Hitler, sponsored by the American Jewish Congress and the American Federation of Labor on March 7th, 1934.
The twenty thousand people that packed Madison Square Garden on the evening of March 7 included many prominent early opponents of Hitler. Among them were New York’s Senator Robert Wagner and Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, Bainbridge Colby, Secretary of State under President Woodrow Wilson, former New York Governor Al Smith, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, many American Federation of Labor leaders and members of the Protestant and Catholic clergy.
Officially the trial was named “The Case of Civilization Against Hitler” and the proceedings began with the words ”Hear ye, hear ye… All those who have business before this court of civilization, give your attention and ye shall be heard.”
And they were heard, in spite of the number of journalists and legislators and State Department officials who chose to remain silent in the face of all Ambassador Dodd’s early warnings. The next day a column headline in The New York Times read: “Hitlerism Denounced as Crime Against Civilization” and the report stated that the trial “rendered solemn judgment that the Nazi Government stood convicted before the world of a crime against civilization.” Similarly, The New York Evening Post announced that Hitlerism was guilty of “high crimes against civilization.”
Apparently, they heard this at Harvard University as well.
Among the frequent guests to Ambassador Dodd’s home–and to his daughter’s bedroom–was a chap named Ernest “Putzi” Hanfstaengl who flits in and out of the pages of Larson’s book. Hanfstaengl, an alumnus of Harvard (1909), was a devoted Nazi and friend of Hitler who was godfather to Putzi’s son Egon. Putzi helped finance Mein Kampf and boasted that he developed the “Sieg Heil” salute. His official title was head of the Foreign Press Bureau in Berlin, a post to which he was well suited due to his many connections in America and England and his skills in duplicity and disinformation. Although William Shirer, the historian of the Third Reich, described him as “an immense, high-strung, incoherent clown,” Putzi retained friendships with many Americans, including Ambassador Dodd.
In June 1934 Putzi attended his 25th Harvard reunion. He was to have been class vice- marshal but protests and shouts of “Down with Hitler” hounded him until he resigned from that honor. However, Putzi had his fans: the Harvard Crimson suggested that “he has risen to distinguished station,” and it would have been appropriate to award him an honorary degree. Hanfstaengl was actually cheered by several admiring classmates when he gave the Nazi salute and he took tea at a reception at Harvard President Conant’s home.
That August Putzi penned an article in Colliers Magazine that was a full throated paean to Der Fuhrer.
The antagonism shown toward Putzi must have angered his anti-Semitic fans, including then Harvard President James Bryant Conant, who ignored every opportunity to take a stand against Hitler. (In fact, in a particularly egregious incident in March of 1935, the Conant administration permitted Nazi Germany’s consul in Boston to place a wreath bearing the swastika in the Harvard chapel.)
Harvard decided to hold its own mock trail of Hitler on October 25th, 1934. The Harvard Crimson reported the results:
"Mock Trial Hits Hitler On But Two Of Four Charges"
“Chancellor Adolph Hitler, present in spirit if not in body at the Lowell House Common Room last night, was found guilty of two crimes against humanity and acquitted of two others by a ‘bench’ of five educators on evidence and arguments presented by members of the Harvard Debating Council at their mock trial last night.
“On the charge of killing Kurt von Schleicher and his wife without giving opportunity for trial, he was found guilty 4-1.
“Charged with imprisoning men in concentration camps without definite charges against them, he was found guilty, 3-2.
“A 3-2 not guilty verdict was rendered on the charge of murdering or instructing his agents to murder 77 German citizens.
“On the charge of invading sanctity of homes without warrant, he was found not guilty 3-2.
“All testimony concerning the Nazi leader’s persecution of Jews was ruled out as irrelevant to the immediate questions.“
And then there was this pithy statement about the trial: “Before the start of the testimony and arguments, it was agreed that decision would be rendered solely on the basis of the arguments and not on the personal merits of Der Fuehrer.”
Putzi survived the war through guile and chicanery. He was imprisoned as an enemy alien in England, later moved to a prison in Canada and in 1942 he was turned over to the United States where he provided information on the Nazis to President Roosevelt. His information included many details of Hitler’s personal life. After the war he returned to Germany.
In 1959 Putzi attended his 50th reunion claiming (to the Crimson) with undiminished hubris “But this time it will be different. I expect to have a swell time, and get a warm welcome. Why not? I’m as anti-Nazi now as they come.” And, by the way, he even made it to his 65th reunion at Harvard and a jolly time was had by all.
The ambassador’s daughter Martha, Putzi’s one time lover, married one of the dozen or so “great loves of her life”, became a spy for Russia and was exiled in Prague until her death in 1990.
The next great reunion could be in hell–with some of Putzi’s Harvard pals on hand.