To Americans, Hitler et al. were a confusing bunch. The National Socialists were Germans, and Germans had a reputation for refinement, industry, and order....

To Americans, Hitler et al. were a confusing bunch. The National Socialists were Germans, and Germans had a reputation for refinement, industry, and order. After all, many Americans were of German descent, and they surely thought of themselves as refined, industrious, and orderly. The Nazis, however, seemed un-German in important ways: they were, apparently, racist thugs bent on destroying democracy, conquering Europe, and murdering millions of innocents in the name of “purity.” If the Nazis weren’t Germans, who were they? If the Nazis were Germans–that is, had somehow sprung out of deeply German cultural roots–then who were the Germans?

As Michaela Hoenicke points out in her fascinating book Know Your Enemy. American Debate on Nazism, 1933-1945 (Cambridge UP, 2009), Americans high and low thought a lot about these questions before and during the war. Their answers, as you will see, were not entirely consistent. Sometimes the Americans took the “Good German” line seriously and said that the Nazis were insane bandits who had hijacked Germany. Sometimes they identified the Nazis with the Germans, arguing that Nazism had deep roots in German culture. And at still other times they just threw up their hands.The wonderful thing about this book is that it doesn’t pretend there was a monolithic “American view of the Nazis.” Instead, it demonstrates that there were a great variety of competing interpretations.The “American view of the Nazis” depended on the American you asked (FDR or a St. Louis dock worker?), what that American knew (or thought she knew), and when you put the question (1941?, 1942?, 1943?). In hindsight, it seems like “we” (meaning Americans) always understood that the Nazis were evil to the core and enjoyed considerable support among the “Good German” people. But things weren’t so clear in the rush of events between 1933 and 1945.

This is an excellent book, and one that should be widely read by those interested in American foreign policy, American understanding of parts foreign, and World War II.

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