Into the Darkness : An Uncensored Report from Inside the Third Reich at War
by Lothrop Stoddard
Chapter 17: I See Hitler
To meet and talk with Adolf Hitler, “Der Fuehrer” of the Third Reich, was naturally an outstanding item in my professional program when I went to Germany. I have already recounted how, my very first evening in Berlin, I met Herr Hewel, one of Hitler’s confidential men. I did not fail to discuss the matter with him, but his reaction was not encouraging. For a long time past, he said, the Fuehrer had been seeing very few foreigners except diplomats in his official capacity as Chancellor of the Reich. Since the outbreak of war, no nonofficial foreigner had been received; nor was such an audience then in contemplation. However, Herr Hewel expressed interest in my plans and promised to see what could be done.
The officials of the Foreign Office and the Propaganda Ministry with whom I had introductory talks during the next few days were equally dubious. They flatly told me that, while an audience was remotely possible, an interview was out of the question. Let me explain that, in journalistic parlance, the two terms have a widely different meaning. An interview is granted with the express understanding that much of what is said will be permitted publication in the press, though certain remarks made during the conversation may be withheld as being “off the record.” In an audience, on the contrary, everything said is “off the record” unless specific permission to publish certain remarks is granted. But there was no chance that such an exception would be made to me, because, when the current war broke out, a rule was adopted that any audience with the Fuehrer which might be given was with the clear proviso that no word spoken by him should be quoted. That logically excluded newspapermen, since for them an unquotable audience would have no professional meaning.
It looked as though I was up against a stone wall, but when I analyzed those conversations, I thought I saw a possible way through. Just one American writer had seen Hitler in the preceding two years. He was Albert Whiting Fox, well known for his magazine and press feature articles. After three months of diligent effort, Fox had seen Hitler shortly before the war. And, from what was told me, I gathered that Fox succeeded mainly because his purpose was to present a picture of Hitler the Man and his surroundings, rather than to get a statement of the Fuehrer’s views on politics or other controversial matters.
The Nazi officials liked that idea, because they favored anything which would present the human side of their Leader to the outer world. More than one of his close associates expressed regret to me that the foreign public knew and thought of him only in his official capacity occasionally declaiming over the radio, but otherwise an aloof, mysterious figure whom his enemies depicted as sinister, even inhuman. Indeed, these informants went on to say that they would have long since accorded reputable foreign writers and journalists permission to make firsthand studies of Hitler and his environment but for the opposition of the Fuehrer himself. It seems that Hitler dislikes having his intimate personality and private life thus publicized. He feels it would be undignified, and prefers being known to the outer world for what he officially says and does.
Realizing how these officials felt, I concentrated along that line. I pointed out that, though I had come to Germany as a journalist, I was there also with the intention of gathering material for a book and for lectures to the American public. In those latter capacities, the ban on quoting Hitler’s remarks were to me relatively immaterial. An audience would serve almost as well, if I were permitted to describe the circumstances and portray the man himself as I saw him. It is to these arguments that I ascribe chiefly the audience which, after two months, was granted me. Indeed, this audience, the only one granted a nonofficial foreigner since the beginning of the war, was given me explicitly in my capacity, not as a journalist, but as a writer of books and public speaker.
The memorable day was Tuesday, December 19, 1939. Shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon, a shining limousine drew up in front of the Hotel Adlon and a handsome young officer in dovegray Foreign Office uniform ushered me to the waiting car. Driving down the Wilhelmstrasse, the car slowed before the Chancery and blew a peculiar note on its horn. Like most public buildings erected under the Third Reich, the new Chancery is severely plain on the outside, with a high doorway flush with the wall and normally always closed. In response to the summons, however, the halves of the entrance opened immediately, and the car drove slowly inside.
What a contrast to the plain exterior! I found myself in a large paved courtyard. Opposite the gate was a broad flight of stone steps flanked by two impressive gray stone figures. The flight led up to an entrance. On the steps stood several lackeys in blue and silver liveries, while near the entrance doorway was a knot of high officers in regulation graygreen uniforms. Through the entrance I glimpsed a foyer ablaze with electric light from crystal chandeliers.
Emerging from my car, I walked up the steps, to bows and salutes, and entered the foyer, where more lackeys took charge of my hat and overcoat. I was here greeted by a high official with whom I walked through the foyer into a magnificent hall, without windows but electrically lighted from above. This lofty hall, done in light red marble inlaid with elaborate patterns, reminded me somehow of an ancient Egyptian temple.
At its further end, more steps led up to an enormously long gallery of mirrors lighted by numerous sconces on the left hand wall. Since this gallery was set at a slight angle, the effect upon me was of intense brilliance; much more so than a straight perspective would have afforded.
About halfway down the long gallery I observed a door on the righthand side, before which stood a pair of lackeys. Through this door I passed, to find myself in a large room which, I was told, was the antechamber to the Fuehrer’s study. In it were about a dozen high officers to whom I was introduced and with some of whom I chatted for some moments.
The whole buildup thus far had been so magnificent and the attendant psychic atmosphere so impressive that by this time I really did not know what to expect. I had the feeling that I was being ushered into the presence of a Roman Emperor or even an Oriental Potentate. The absurd thought crossed my mind that I might find Der Fuehrer seated on a throne surrounded by flaming swastikas.
At that moment I was bidden to the Presence. Turning left, I passed through double doors and entered another large room. To my right hand, near the doorway, was an upholstered sofa and several chairs. At the far end of the room was a flat topped desk from behind which a figure rose as I entered and came towards me. I saw a man of medium height, clad in a plain officer’s tunic with no decorations save the Iron Cross, black trousers, and regulation military boots. Walking up to where I had halted near the doorway, he gave me a firm handshake and a pleasant smile. It was the Fuehrer.
For an instant I was taken aback by the astounding contrast between this simple, natural greeting and the heavy magnificence through which I had just passed. Pulling myself together, I expressed in my best German my appreciation of the honor that was being shown me, calling him Excellency, as foreigners are supposed to do. Hitler smiled again at my little speech, motioned to the sofa, and said:
“Won’t you sit down?“,
himself taking the nearest chair about a yard away from me. My German evidently made a good impression, for he complimented me upon my accent, from which he inferred that I had been to Germany before. I assured him that he was correct, but went on to say that this was my first view of the Third Reich. To which he replied, with a slight shake of the head:
“A pity you couldn’t have seen it in peacetime.“
The conversation of about twenty minutes which followed these preliminaries naturally cannot be repeated, because I had given my word to that effect. Hitler, however, told me no deep, dark secrets. Heads of States don’t do that sort of thing with foreign visitors. I think it is no breach of my agreement to say that much of his talk dealt neither with the war nor politics but with great rebuilding plans which the war had constrained him temporarily to lay aside. His regretful interest in those matters seemed to show that he still had them very much in mind.
Even more interesting than what Hitler said was his whole manner and appearance. Here I was, in private audience with the Master of Greater Germany, and able to study him at close range. Needless to say, I watched intently his every move and listened with equal intentness to his voice. Let me try to depict as clearly as possible what I observed.
There are certain details of Hitler’s appearance which one cannot surmise from photographs. His complexion is medium, with blond brown hair of neutral shade which shows no signs of gray. His eyes are very dark blue. Incidentally, he no longer wears a cartoonist’s mustache. It is now the usual “toothbrush” type, in both size and length. As already remarked, his uniform is severely plain and seemingly of stock materials.
In ordinary conversation, Hitler’s voice is clear and well modulated. Throughout the audience he spoke somewhat rapidly, yet never hurriedly, and in an even tone. Only occasionally did I detect a trace of his native Austro-Bavarian accent. The audience was not a monologue. Although naturally he did most of the talking, Hitler gave me plenty of chances to ask questions and put in my say. He did not at any time sharply raise his voice. Only when discussing the war did it become vibrant with emotion; and then he dropped his voice almost to an intense whisper. He made practically no gestures, sitting for the most part quietly, with one hand resting on the arm of his chair and the other lying relaxed in his lap.
Hitler’s whole appearance was that of a man in good health. He certainly did not look a day older than his fifty years. His color was good, his skin clear and unwrinkled, his body fit and not overweight. He showed no visible signs of nervous strain, such as pouched eyes, haggard lines, or twitching physical reactions. On the contrary, appearance, voice, and manner combined to give an impression of calmness and poise. I am well aware that this description tallies neither with current ideas nor with reports of other persons who have seen and talked with him. Very likely those reports are just as true as mine, since Hitler is said to be a man of many moods. Perhaps I saw him on one of his good days; perhaps, he intended to make a particular impression upon me. All I can do is to describe accurately what I myself saw and heard.
Three other persons were present during this audience. First of all, there was Herr Schmidt, the official interpreter, present at all meetings of the Fuehrer with foreigners and reputed to be master of many languages. This time his services were not needed, so Herr Schmidt sat quietly beside me on the sofa without uttering a word the entire time. Equally silent were the other two, who sat in chairs some little distance away. They were Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop and Herr Hewel, who had done much to bring the audience about. Hitler terminated the conversation by rising, shaking hands again, and wishing me success in the balance of my stay in Germany. He then turned back to his desk, whither von Ribbentrop had already gone and where two other men were standing. At some point during the interview a photograph had been taken of Hitler and myself in conversation. So unobtrusively was this done that I was not aware of it at the moment. The first thing I knew about it was when a copy was presented to me with the Fuehrer’s compliments as a souvenir of the occasion. Since it was given me with the express understanding that it was not for publication, I cannot reproduce it here, as I should like to have done. I regret this, for it shows an interesting pose and would have helped greatly to visualize what I have attempted to describe.
From this audience emerge two outstanding contrasts. First, as already indicated, that between the magnificently staged approach and the simple, undramatic, almost matter of fact meeting with the man himself. Very likely this contrast was also deliberate staging. Anyhow, it made a striking effect.
The second notable contrast which occurred to me was that of this audience with Hitler and one I had years ago with his fellow dictator, Mussolini. The two audiences were complete opposites. There isn’t much stage setting in reaching Mussolini at the Palazzo Venezia. The dramatic buildup really begins when you go through a little antechamber door and find yourself in an immense room, darkened by half closed blinds, and with no furniture except a desk and a couple of chairs at the far end of the room. From behind that desk rises Mussolini, just like Hitler, but there the resemblance abruptly ends; for, instead of coming to meet you, you have to walk all the way across the room to him.
However, from the very start, you feel that Mussolini is intensely human. You get the fact that he is interested in you as a person. Also you sense that he is trying to sell you, not only his ideas but also himself. He wants to win your interest and admiration, and to attain that he employs the arts of a finished actor uses his big, compelling eyes; thrusts out his chin; aims to semi-hypnotize you. It’s all very intriguing. Perhaps, to an AngloSaxon, 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. When he talks, his eyes get a faraway look, and he sometimes bows his head, speaking abstractedly, almost as though to himself. Whatever he may be to his friends and intimates, I came away feeling that, however interested Hitler may be in people collectively, he is not interested in the average individual, as such. Of course, that is a personal impression. After all, I was just a foreign journalist who meant nothing to him or his scheme of things, and whom he had seen only on the advice of subordinates. But the same was true of Mussolini, who had shown a personal interest.
Another factor: personal charm. Mussolini has it. At least, he turns it on even in casual audiences. I felt his magnetic aura when I was two yards away from him. I didn’t get any such psychic reaction from Hitler neither did I get any emotional “lift” from his conversation. This was perhaps the most surprising thing in my whole audience with him, because all that had been told me pointed to the exact opposite. My very first evening in Berlin, Herr Hewel had descanted to me on the inspirational value of personal contact with the Fuehrer, and all who were closely connected with him spoke in the same way. Dr. Ley, for instance, described at great length the need of continuous personal contact with Hitler, not only for specific advice but even more to drink in and be inspired by the constant creative emanations from the Fuehrer’s constructive genius. For instance, Ley said that Hitler had once said to him:
“If you wait until I summon you about something, then it is already too late.“
As a matter of fact, the Nazi inner circle foregathers with Hitler almost every day, especially at lunch time. The midday pause in Berlin’s official life is admittedly timed to this in time luncheon period.
Now I do not attempt to explain this seeming contradiction between my personal impression and that of all privileged Nazis. At first, I thought their statements on this matter was a sort of “Party Line.” Yet the idea was expressed in so many diverse ways and with such differences in detail that I am inclined to think they really meant what they said. It’s just one of those mysteries that you run into so often in presentday Germany. Like the Third Reich which he has created, what you first see in Hitler by no means indicates all that lies behind.
One last aspect connected with this audience its rigid confidentiality. Long before I saw Hitler, I had had to give my word of honor that everything he might say when I saw him would be kept scrupulously “off the record.” As the time for the audience approached, everybody concerned said to me in substance:
“You know, by recommending you, we have in a sense vouched for you. If there should be any misunderstanding on your part, it would be most embarrassing for us.“
I was given to understand that the Fuehrer felt strongly on the matter.
The climax to all this came when I returned to the Adlon after my audience and found a message from Herr von Ribbentrop, stating that he would like to see me later that same afternoon. At the hour appointed he received me and wasted no time getting to the point.
“You understand, of course, Dr. Stoddard,” said he, “that today’s interview with the Fuehrer must not be quoted in any way.“
I was slightly nettled. “Mr. Minister,” I answered, “long before this audience, I informed your subordinates and the officials at the Propaganda Ministry of my journalistic experience and my reliability for keeping a confidence and keeping my given word. I assume your subordinates have informed you favorably.“
“Of course, of course,” replied von Ribbentrop hurriedly.
“But,” even this is not the whole story. Three days after my audience with Hitler I left for a Christmas holiday at Budapest, Hungary. Magyar newspaper colleagues of mine in Berlin had telephoned their editors I was coming, and naturally the audience had made me “news.” So two editors of leading Budapest papers promptly gave me a fine luncheon, after which they proceeded to interview me with the introductory remark:
“Now let’s hear all about your interview with Hitler.“
“Gentlemen,” I had to tell them, “before I say another word, please understand that it was not an interview but an audience, and that everything said was very much ‘off the record.’ You must give me your word that, in whatever I say, you will publish this statement textually. If you agree, I will tell you what the Fuehrer looked like and under what circumstances I saw him.“
They agreed, and, like good Magyar gentlemen, they did just what they promised. Their press accounts were, of course, promptly transmitted to Berlin. I knew nothing about it till I got back ten days later. Then I did, because officials met me with unusual cordiality.
“What nice statements you made in Budapest,” was the general refrain.
Thenceforth, all doors seemed to be open to me. In my last month in Berlin I got my most important interviews. Which would seem to indicate that, in Germany as elsewhere, keeping faith is a good thing at least for a journalist to do.