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Inside Nazi Germany: An American Intellectual Finds Order, Reason, Humanity

How was Hitler's Reich viewed before the propaganda set in?

This article from our archives was first published on RI in April 2019

Into the Darkness, Lothrop Stoddard, Noontide Press, 2000, 311 pp.

Today it is impossible to dissent openly from racial orthodoxy without sooner or later being called a “Nazi.” Despite (or perhaps because of) the stupidity of doing so, egalitarians are quick to equate with Hitler anyone who endorses American racial views that antedate Hitler by centuries. Most liberals are not so silly as to call Lincoln a Nazi, but if he were to rise from the grave and restate his views from the debates with Douglas that is just one of many things they would call him.

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The idea of a racial nation was National Socialism’s point of departure, but from the outset it was a comprehensive theory of applied government designed to funnel the energies of every German into collective goals. It was similar to Communism in this respect, and similar also in the sweeping institutional changes it imposed. In its historical period, however, racial policy was not the most striking aspect of Nazism. In the 1930s, the view that race was an essential element of the nation was no more foreign to Americans than to Germans—indeed, no more foreign than it is to virtually every non-white living today. It was hardly the distinctive characteristic of the regime.

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What was distinctive? What, in fact, did racially aware Americans of the period — people whose ideas would, today, be called “Nazi”—think of the Third Reich? We have a fascinating answer in Into the Darkness, the last book by one of the most influential American champions of racial consciousness, Lothrop Stoddard.

Stoddard wrote this book—recently reissued as a trade paperback—after spending four months in Germany as a reporter during the “phony war” of 1939-40. A Harvard Ph.D. and foreign affairs specialist, Stoddard was particularly keen on understanding how war and Nazism had changed everyday life in Germany, and his account has a frank, contemporaneous quality untouched by the acrimony that became common after the United States went to war.

Many of Stoddard’s strongest impressions were colored as much by war as by the politics of the new regime. The title, for example, does not refer to a nation plunging into barbarism but to the rigorous blackout all Germans maintained against the possibility of night bombardment by the British. Darkness was, in fact, Stoddard’s first experience of Germany. Even the train by which he entered from Italy had to douse its lights at the border, and passengers crept about by the light of tiny blue bulbs. Stoddard couldn’t see the slightest glimmer from his train window, not even as he glided through Munich: “Passing through this great darkened city, the sense of unnatural silence and emptiness became positively oppressive.”

In Berlin, where he spent most of his four months, headlights of cars were heavily hooded, making it impossible to drive at night at speeds greater than a crawl. Pedestrians carried pocket flashlights to see where they were going, but were forbidden to shine them upwards to read street signs, since even a flashlight might catch the eye of a British bombardier. Stoddard hated the blackout, complaining that it had a “depressing, almost paralyzing effect. It must be lived to be understood.”

Another war-time measure Stoddard described in detail was the rationing regimen according to which everything including food and clothing was doled out with typically German efficiency. The government issued everyone—including travelers—monthly food coupons that had to be exchanged even for a restaurant meal. Coupons restricted quantity, not quality, so the rich ate better than the poor but not more. Stoddard found that when wealthy friends invited him to restaurants and paid for his meals, he still had to turn over coupons to the waiters because not even the rich had coupons to spare. Clothing and other goods were rationed the same way, in a system designed to “assure to the poorest German the basic necessities of life, while the richest cannot get much more than his share.”

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Stoddard complained bitterly about the poor quality and limited variety of the food—Germans drank roasted barley rather than coffee because of the British naval blockade—but confessed there was enough starch in a German ration for him to put on 12 pounds in four months.

If even the privileged position of a foreign correspondent seemed grim to Stoddard, it is not surprising that he found no enthusiasm for the war: “The Germans detest this war . . . This attitude is shared by Nazis and non-Nazis. On this point there is no difference between them.” He wrote that most Germans never believed France and England would declare war over Poland but that even ardent Nazis were willing to criticize Hitler for taking the risk. Stoddard noted that memories of “the Great War” were still fresh enough to keep any hint of romance or overconfidence out of this one. But Stoddard found as much resolution as privation:

No intelligent foreigner can be in Germany a week without asking himself: ‘How do these people stand it?’ When he has been there a month, he says: ‘How long can they stand it?’ After three months, his verdict will probably be: ‘I guess they’ll stand it a long time.’

The reason, concluded Stoddard, was that Germans were convinced defeat would mean extinction for Germany, and that even if the war had been a great blunder, it was a crisis of titanic proportions that called for heroism.

‘An absolute dictatorship’

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And what of Nazism itself? What most struck Stoddard was its revolutionary, authoritarian nature. “The National Socialist upheaval that has created the Third Reich,” he wrote “goes far deeper than the Fascist regime in Italy, and is perhaps a more defiant breach with the historic past than even the Communism of Soviet Russia.” “[I]ts leaders,” he added, “are revolutionists from the ground up.”

Many of the Nazi policies seemed similar to Communism: “Agriculture has basically been socialized,” he wrote, adding that the Nazis “co-ordinated everybody connected with industry into a huge vertical trust.” He wondered whether Hitler Youth programs and National Labor Service did not turn the lives of young people into one long Nazi summer camp. He complained about “the liquidation not only of the Catholic youth organizations but of most of the parochial schools as well.” He shuddered at the words of Bernhard Rust, Reich Minister of Education: “All forms of instruction have one aim—the shaping of the National Socialist human.” (emphasis in the original)

Stoddard was bemused by Strength Through Joy, or workplace-based leisure: “This is the most gigantic scheme of organized, state-directed entertainment that the world has ever seen. It includes a wide variety of activities, from ‘highbrow’ art and music to popular amusement, travel, and sport.” Germans seemed to enjoy it, but he added that “to the individualist Anglo-Saxon, all this regimented ‘leisure to order’ may not sound particularly attractive.”

By the end of his stay, Stoddard believed he had found the answer to riddles that baffled experts: “Nazi achievements in finance and industry are generally regarded as deep, dark mysteries abroad. To me, the answer is very simple: An absolute dictatorship over an industrious, resourceful people.” (emphasis in the original)

What about racial policies? As Rachel Dixon points out in a useful new introduction to this edition, Stoddard had been cool towards the Nazis from the beginning. In 1935 he wrote:

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These [racial] ideas, however, are so mixed up with an ulcerated nationalism and are so surcharged with mere emotion that the resulting compound is hard to evaluate. Ever since the [First World] war, Germany has been highly abnormal in almost every respect.

One of the final passages of Into the Darkness suggests that four months of direct observation did not greatly change his views. When he finally found himself back among Americans on a steamship bound for home, he was delighted by creature comforts but by something else, too: “Even more deeply satisfying is the sense that you are among your own kind who are not worried and harassed and ulcerated by nationalistic hatreds.”

Stoddard writes surprisingly little about Jews, perhaps because he had little material:

The average German seems disinclined to talk much to the foreign visitor about this oppressed minority. However, I gathered that the general public does not approve of the violence and cruelty which Jews have suffered. But I also got the impression that, while the average German condemned such methods, he was not unwilling to see the Jews go and would not wish them back again.

Stoddard spoke good German, had lived in Austria, and generally liked Germans, but was not often impressed by Nazis. He concluded that polished and capable party members gravitated to Berlin but the provincial leavings were a sorry lot. He described officials he met in Weimar:

Few of them could have amounted to much before they landed a Party job. Even more revealing were their womenfolk . . . Most of them were pretentiously dowdy. They exemplified better than anything I had yet seen the fact that National Socialism is not merely a political and economic upheaval but a social revolution as well. To a very large extent it has brought the lower middle class to power.

Stoddard took an immediate dislike to a Gauleiter he met in Deusseldorf: “He was a distinctly sinister-looking type; hard-faced, with a cruel eye and a still crueler mouth. A sadist, if I ever saw one. I imagine how unpopular he must be among the good-natured, kindly Duesseldorfers.”

Stoddard managed to interview several top Nazis, including Hitler—who seems to have disappointed him by being insufficiently mesmerizing. He contrasted the Führer to Mussolini:

[Mussolini] uses his big, compelling eyes; thrusts out his chin; aims to semi-hypnotize you. It’s all very intriguing. Perhaps, to an Anglo-Saxon, it’s a bit too obvious. But it flatters your ego, just the same.

Nothing like that with Hitler. Though always pleasant and courteous, he makes no obvious attempt to impress or win you.

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Of the top Nazis, Goebbels seems to cut the most distinctive figure: “This lithe, brunet Rhinelander, with his agile mind, cynical humor, and telling gestures, is an excellent person to interview. He is mentally on his toes every instant, and he is full of what the journalist calls ‘good lines.’”

Stoddard notes the Nazi’s accomplishments—resurrection of an inert economy, a clampdown on crime, full employment—but bestows little unqualified praise. The closest he comes to enthusiasm is his report on the proceedings of a eugenics court. The law provided for mandatory sterilization of people with certain hereditary disabilities, but sterilization decisions could be appealed. Stoddard spent a day at the appeals court and was impressed:

The thing that struck me most was the meticulous care with which these cases had already been considered by the lower tribunals. The dossier of each case was voluminous, containing a complete life-history of the subject, reports of specialists and clinics, and also exhaustive researches into the subject’s family history.

The “subject,” of course, was the candidate for sterilization who was, in every case, present at the appeal and questioned once more by officials. Stoddard thought that, if anything, the courts were overly hesitant to order sterilization for “subjects” who appeared to him obviously defective, but he gave the process high marks: “On the evidence of that one visit, at least, the Sterilization Law is weeding out the worst strains in the German stock in a scientific and truly humanitarian way.”

Although the United States was not at war with Germany and Stoddard did not hope for war, he was continually sizing up Germany as a potential opponent. He speculated on how long its food-stocks would last, whether Buna would work as a rubber substitute, and tried to keep his fingers on the pulse of civilian morale. At the end of the book he wrote:

Most Germans are unwilling to admit even the possibility of defeat. Those who do, couple it with remarks which amount to some such phrase as: ‘If we don’t win, there will be no victor.’ What that means is about as follows: ‘If this war is fought to the bitter end, all Europe will be plunged into chaotic ruin. Then, with everybody down in the ditch together, we Germans, with our innate sense of organization and discipline, willingness to work hard, and knack of pulling together, can lift ourselves out of the ditch quicker than anyone else.

The poignant accuracy of this passage is not surprising, coming from a man who so clearly foretold the consequences of policy choices in the United States. Stoddard was a keen observer whether at home or abroad.

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