Not all the Germans of the Third Reich agreed with Hitler on the “Jewish question,” he wanted me to know.
It is hard for a journalist to admit that he didn’t know a story when he spent an evening with it. I had that experience, sad to say because the story was no less than the imminent honeymoon of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin.
On a July evening in 1939 my wife and I gave one of our frequent Saturday get-togethers—big on talk and drink, given our finances, less lavish on food. The guests were mostly newsmen and their spouses, and the talk mostly about where Hitler would strike next, weekends being high on his calendar for that activity. “The Füfchrer takes a country in the weekend,” it was being said, “while the English take a weekend in the country.”
Not long before the gathering, one of the guests, an old friend, called to ask whether he might bring along an acquaintance just in from Baltimore with a chap in tow who likewise hoped to be included. The latter was a German, but, I was assured, a decent sort. “As long as he’s not a Nazi,” I said, “bring them both along. There’ll be enough beer to go round.”
The German, it turned out, was a baron—even more surprising, a Baron Müfcnchhausen. Barons were scarce in an uptown Manhattan apartment house on Claremont Avenue—and especially in that Bohemian, mildy raffish company. He stood out, his title and courtly manner befitting the descendant of one who had some two centuries before made the Müfcnchhausen name synonymous with tall tales told about impossible adventures.
As the evening wore on, the baron gradually took up a jocular defense of his government’s way with the lesser tribes of Europe. A favorite target were the Czechs, who were, thanks to the overpowering attentions of the Third Reich, a nation then much in the world news. When a Czech is still in the cradle, he explained, a violin and a beer mug are placed on either side of him. By noting which object first gets the babe’s attention, one can readily predict his future career—fiddler or town drunk.
The sally went over none too well, but the group was fairly high by then and all too little was made of the baron’s Teutonic jest. As a staff member of The Nation , which had been long and constantly demanding that the world stand up to the brutal Reich, I had grown more and more wary of the baron and was inclined to break up the evening as soon as an opportunity presented itself. At the same time I was alerted enough to probe his Durooses a bit further.
After another interval of hand-kissing charm on the part of the dubious guest of honor and a slightly dampened jollity around the room, the evening’s proceedings came to an unexpected climax. One of the group, just beyond the stage of mellowness, undertook for no good reason to reintroduce us one by one to the baron: this one was a Socialist, that one a New Deal liberal; here a mild Republican, there a man who might as well be a Communist; and so forth.
In acknowledgment the baron rose, bowed, and delivered himself substantially as follows: Never mind what you call yourselves. 1 am sure all of you are leftists of one sort or another and you think of my country as the great enemy. But let me just say this: soon, very soon, we will all be friends.
For some weeks, to be sure, there had been murmurings about the possibility of a trade agreement between Germany and Russia, but few on the American Left thought even that was conceivable after the years of free-flowing venom between them. Anything more than the merest financial deal was of course the fancy of deranged minds—very likely unhinged by “Trotskyite” propaganda.
When the party broke up, Miinchhausen asked whether he might come around the following morning and have a private chat now that we were friendly acquaintances, but I declined to issue an invitation, convinced that he was here, officially or unofficially, to spread the soft soap in the journalistic ranks. If he had anything to communicate, I said, he could come to my office the following week.
It was an unpleasant surprise to find him, nevertheless, at the door the next morning, bouncy and smarmy as ever. An unexpected call, he explained, was taking him out of town, and since he would be unable to meet me at the office, he trusted it would not be an imposition if he dropped in on a Sunday morning after all. Whereupon he clicked heels, kissed my wife’s hand, and patted my infant’s head, like a long-lost and eccentric family connection working the stiffness out of an unexpected reunion.
He wanted me to know, he said, that the Germans of the Third Reich were not all louts, as my colleagues of the press generally depicted them; many were cultivated and well-mannered even if they happened to be holding down lesser jobs in the civil service. And not all of them, by the way, agreed with Hitler on the “Jewish question.” He, for example, would be just as pleased if those Jews who chose to assimilate were allowed to do so and those who didn’t were encouraged to leave (about as good a deal as the Spanish Inquisition had offered). Sure, Hitler was a fanatic in this area, he implied, but we all have our blind spots, don’t we? I had, I know, but since they didn’t include a tolerance for smoothies like the baron, I sent him on his way.
I never found out whether or not he was a paid missionary from the office of Dr. Goebbels, futilely dispatched to modify the hostility of American reporters. But as a prophet he suspiciously had his points. Only a few weeks later Ribbentrop went to Moscow and the Hitler-Stalin pact was signed. The way had been cleared for World War II.