Years after Adolf Hitler had been Germany’s dictator, many Americans still couldn’t take him seriously. They’d seen him in newsreels, waving his arms and screaming, acting like a complete lunatic. They’d laughed at his imitators — Moe Howard of the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin — who’d portrayed him in movies as a ranting, bumbling egomaniac. Far from the realities of life in Europe, Americans found it hard to take Hitler seriously, particularly when the media liked presenting him as a humorous sidelight in the news.
This was how he was treated when the Post first took notice of him. Sensing the whole National Socialist Movement was a quaint joke, the Post editors sent a writer who’d present the Nazis as humorously as possible.
Kenneth L. Roberts was a frequent contributor and a critic of just about anything new or foreign. The editors could rely on him to write a scathing report of extremist politics in Weimar Germany. They couldn’t have been disappointed with his dismissively titled “Suds,” which appeared in the October 27, 1923, issue. Asserting that beer was the guiding force in German politics, the article was illustrated with two barmaids demonstrating their remarkable grasp of the issues. (Click Here to read the entire article from the Post.)
Roberts opened his piece by establishing his contempt for Germans. “In certain respects Berlin is the center of Germany. It is the seat of government. There the heads are the squarest, the prices are the highest, the banks are the largest, and the buildings belong to the most violent neo-German school of architecture. … There is more depravity in Berlin than elsewhere in Germany, more gloom and depression, more of the newly rich off-scourings of other races, more of that wild German nightlife that is about as spontaneous and joyous as a Monday morning in a morgue. In such ways as these Berlin is Germany’s heart.”
Having sharpened his scorn on the German capital, he closed in on the southern province of Bavaria.
“One finds cement-headed plotting and foggy intrigue at its very apex. There is always a plot on foot in Munich — either a plot to push France into the Atlantic Ocean or to shove Russia across the Ural Mountains or to shoot somebody or to seize something. In Munich one finds the thickest ankles, the most peculiar garments … the wildest rumors, the roundest heads … and a more passionate devotion to the consuming of beer than exists in any other part of the known world … that beer plays a more powerful part of the life, custom, and activities of the Bavarians than almost anything else.”
His condescension toward Germany probably arose from the contempt many Americans felt for the country they had defeated in the last war. Americans had little understanding or sympathy for the country’s civil unrest, unstable government, skyrocketing inflation, or the German character.
“A Bavarian,” Roberts continued, “who is full of an evening’s accumulation of his favorite bräu will frequently burst into tears over the most trivial occurrences. … [When] a flannel-mouthed German orator becomes inflamed by beer and feels obliged to rise to his feet and find fault with the world in general … the beer drinkers pound the table with their firsts, hiccup openly, and agree vociferously that the speaker has given tongue to the Wisdom of Solomon.”
Hitler was, to Roberts, just another flannel mouth. A very ordinary person, he concluded, but a great talker with a detailed agenda. As leader of the National Socialist Workers’ Party, Hitler had made a list of demands to the Allied powers, which naturally included releasing Germany from the penalties imposed by the Versailles Treaty. It also demanded punishment for war profiteers, non-Germans, and, especially, Jews.
“There are several other demands on Hitler’s list,” Roberts wrote, “including a few that are never made public. In fact, whenever he thinks of anything new to demand he demands it. Demands don’t cost anything”
Roberts frankly admired the fascists of Italy and thought that a little fascism — if such a thing is possible — would be good for America. But he had only scorn for these Bavarians, who did little more than issue demands and play soldier. When the weekend came, “the Bavarian Fascisti sportively line up in military array,” Roberts wrote, “march 10 or 15 miles into the country until they reach a likely terrain, and then proceed to march, countermarch, issue hoarse orders, discipline each other, kick dust up each other’s backs, dream, hope, conspire, plot, and otherwise have a full day of South German sport and social activity.”
Roberts had the perspective of a man who viewed foreigners with contempt. He also had the view of a man who regarded Germany without getting out of his car. For example, he believed everything you needed to know about Bavarians could be learned by how poorly they gave travel directions. Ask anyone in France for directions, he said, and they “almost invariably understand the question and instantly hurl back accurate answers. The Bavarians, no matter of what age or condition of life, never understand, don’t particularly want to understand, and are usually incapable of answering after understanding has been forced on them.” He didn’t like the bicycle riders any more. “Finding himself directly in the path of an approaching automobile … the Munich bicyclist rides serenely on his way, leaving it to the automobilist to run his machine into a tree, drive it through a shop window or drop dead from heart failure.” He probably thought the Sauerbraten was overdone, the beds were lumpy, and — from what I’ve read of him — the waiters were insufficiently respectful.
With Hitler and the Germans portrayed as such laughable goons, it’s no surprise Americans dismissed the Nazi threat for so long.
Step into 1939 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post 75 years ago: