The best books by and about eyewitnesses to the rise of Adolf Hitler

Robert Teigrob Author Of Four Days in Hitler's Germany: MacKenzie King's Mission to Avert a Second World War
By Robert Teigrob

The Books I Picked & Why

Dispatches from the Front: The Life of Matthew Halton, Canada's Voice at War

By David Halton

Book cover of Dispatches from the Front: The Life of Matthew Halton, Canada's Voice at War

Why this book?

The story of a brave and insightful Canadian journalist sent by the Toronto Star to get a read on the Nazi regime shortly after Hitler’s 1933 seizure of power. As soon as he set foot in Germany, Matt Halton had a good sense of where this might be headed, and he remained in Europe for the next decade as Hitler ran roughshod over international treaties and norms and then plunged the continent, and much of the world, into war. You can sense the indignation in Halton’s public and private pronouncements – not just over Nazism’s outrages, but over the failure of politicians, other journalists, and the wider public to see what he was seeing. A timely reminder of why good journalists matter, and why authoritarian leaders hate them.


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Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

By William L. Shirer

Book cover of Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941

Why this book?

Another journalist dispatched to Europe in the 1930s, Shirer stayed until 1940 when, fearing arrest by the Gestapo, he packed his diaries from his tenure in Berlin and Vienna and fled. His account is full of shocking incidents of Nazi barbarity, inside information from off-the-record conversations, and, seemingly incongruously, tender scenes from his marriage to Austrian photographer Tess Stiberitz, as the young couple struggled to create an alternate realm of love and stability midst the horror and chaos. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is more famous, but can’t match the intimacy and poignancy of this one. We later learned that Shirer altered some of the earlier diary entries to downplay his initial appreciation for Hitler – not everyone was as prescient as Matthew Halton. 


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Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

By Bella Fromm

Book cover of Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary

Why this book?

Fromm, too, was a journalist alarmed by the rise of Nazism and Germans’ increasing embrace of hatred and falsehood. She differs from Halton and Shirer in that she was 1) born in Germany, and thus had a deeper perspective on Nazism’s place in German history and culture, 2) a woman, and thus expected to report on “society” and fashion stories, although her interests and abilities soon drew her to politics, and 3) Jewish, and therefore subjected to the daily indignities, threats, and violence that in 1938 led her to flee a land her family had inhabited for five centuries. Fromm seemed to know everybody, including Nazi bigwigs, and was continually astounded by the degrees to which foreign visitors fell for blatant Nazi propaganda. Mackenzie King should have been listening.


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Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

By Andrew Nagorski

Book cover of Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power

Why this book?

As the title suggests, this is a compendium of American visitors’ impressions of Nazism in the 1930s. Their reactions varied from confusion to rage to applause, but Nagorski notes that, sooner or later, most came to the realization that Germany was “a society undergoing a horrific transformation in the name of a demented ideology,” and feared the implications for humanity. Another useful reminder of the essential role of solid, independent journalism, and of the methods by which seemingly decent people and entire societies can be devoured by hatred and tribalism. It seems, sadly, that we need a lot of reminding about such things…


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In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

By Erik Larson

Book cover of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

Why this book?

Does Erik Larson really need another plug? I can’t help it – his work is popular for a reason, and this one is among his best. It is full of extraordinary and well-drawn characters who are struggling to make sense of what is happening to Germany. I initially found the main character, William Dodd, US Ambassador to Berlin from 1933 to 1937, a bit of a bore. He could be humorless, hectoring, sanctimonious, and arrogant (and a history professor to boot – yawn!). But as the story unfolds he emerges as the moral centre, a voice crying in the wilderness on behalf of sanity, reason, restraint, and humanity, even as his family, job, and host and home countries cease making sense, often to astonishing degrees. 


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