I've got to this interview with a historian about the pre-war mood between the American reporters and this quote caught my eye:

If you look back to the very beginning of Hitler's rhetoric about Jews, it was all there -- the talk about extermination and vermin. He didn't spell out exactly what would happen in the Holocaust, but he gave a pretty good indication of its overall thrust. When someone lobs those kinds of rhetorical bombs, it's sort of a natural human tendency to say, "Oh, that's just a figure of speech. They don't really mean it. It's just a way to whip up supporters." Atlantic:Nagorski

Can anybody link me any specific quotes from the pre-war years that would support the notion that this was a common "interpretation" of Hitler among the U.S. journalists or public intellectuals?

  • 3
    Last year I read the book The Origins of the Second World War by A.J.P. Taylor. It was quite controversial when it first came out, because it disagreed with some of the standard assumptions about what Hitler was trying to do in the 1930s, how he meant to do it, why the French and the British (and FDR) were so reluctant to "get tough" to prevent him from grabbing territory, etc. I don't say Taylor is right about everything, but I do say that reading this book can be thought-provoking and informative regarding "why didn't someone try to stop Hitler's aggression much sooner?"
    – Lorendiac
    Dec 3, 2016 at 1:04
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    With all due respect, if you aren't trying to get into politics, is there a particular reason you chose to insert the all-important detail (which has nothing to do with history) that the context is "this year's US election warning"?
    – DVK
    Dec 3, 2016 at 2:04
  • @DVK From 2022, it all turned out just as he had feared... Jul 23, 2022 at 18:20

2 Answers 2


Boingboing.net might not be the most appropriate source for historical documents, but they share a picture from an article in the New York Times from Nov 22. 1922 with the following quote:

"Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler's anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded, and that he was merely using anti-Semitic propaganda as a bait to catch masses of followers and keep them aroused, enthusiastic, and in line for the time when his organization is perfected and sufficiently powerful to be employed effectively for political purposes."

The original article is available for NYT subscribers only on their website.

Alan Bullock (a British historian and contemporary of Hitler who later wrote a biography of Hitler) is quoted in an article by the German Newspaper "Die Zeit":

„Der Fehler, den wir alle begangen haben [..] war da wohl, dies für reine Rhetorik zu halten, obwohl es ganz wörtlich gemeint war"

which translates to

"The mistake, made by all of us, [..] was to consider it (sc. Hitlers political program as per "Mein Kampf") simply rhetoric, even though it was meant quite literally"

But that was said long after the fact.

I am still digging for German quotes, but so far it seems the only one who suggested to take Hitlers program not too seriously was Hitler himself when he promised to tone down and adhere strictly to the law in his bid for chancellorship.

Half an hour later and after digging trough the literature the closest German quote I can come up with is a editorial in the newspaper of the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens which commented after Hitler became Chancellor:

"Auch in dieser Zeit werden die deutschen Juden ihre Ruhe nicht verlieren, die ihnen das Bewusstsein untrennbarer Verbundenheit mit allem wirklich deutschen gibt"

In english:

"Even in these times, German Jews won't lose the peace and inseparable bond that they know exists between them and everything that is truly German

Even that this does not refer specifically to Hitler and sounds rather like a plea hoping that national socialist politics would not come to pass (quoted as per Friedländers "Das Dritte Reich und die Juden", translation by me).

All in all it seems that Adolf Hitler was taken pretty seriously in his home country.

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    Somewhat amazingly I have been unable to dig up a German quote - the prevailing notion in Germany apparently was that Hitler would be incapable of delivering on his plans, promises and threats, but not that he did not mean what he said (e.g. political writer Kurt Tucholsky said that "the man does not even exist, he comprises just the noise he himself makes").
    – user3769
    Dec 2, 2016 at 17:45
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    Tried to help with translation. I would be interested in the accuracy of the transcription of the quote you found (not your copy/paste skills, but the source's), since there are what I would consider slight spelling and grammar errors in it.
    – CWilson
    Dec 2, 2016 at 20:19
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    That last quote is a great way to Godwin a No True Scottman argument.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 3, 2016 at 0:26
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    @EikePierstoff I suspected as much, but 4 characters difference doesn't seem a good reason to me to sacrifice the readability of your answer by introducing an uncommon abbreviation. Also I feel that a formulation like "home country" is unnecessarily ambiguous in this case and doesn't do anybody any good (I think your alternative "adapted" is much better). Also, no need to be such a nazi about it, I merely wanted to make some suggestions that I thought could improve your answer, if you don't like them it's fine, no need to lash out and call anybody "anal-retentive".
    – user159517
    Dec 3, 2016 at 1:38
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    @T.E.D. Worth noting that "Godwin's Law" falls prey to its own reductio ad absurdum logic, because the longer any kind of discussion grows the more the probability of it involving any topic at all approaches 1. It's a cute joke (and that's about it) -- pointing out that comparisons to Hitler are commonplace and often inappropriate doesn't mean that all such comparisons are false or that anything involving a comparison to Hitler must be inappropriate.
    – goldilocks
    Dec 3, 2016 at 14:47

Here's a couple quotes from a 1932 article in Foreign Affairs called "Hitler: Phenomenon and Portent". This was written by Paul Scheffer, the Washington correspondent of a German newspaper called Berliner Tageblatt. The newspaper was shut down by the Nazis in 1939.

Hitler's adversaries are right in charging that such an audience can easily be misused. Hitler's utterances on the subject of propaganda, both from the platform and in print, show in fact that he is willing to use any means which he judges serviceable in winning adherents to his cause. He fans the flames of hatred just as unscrupulously as he arouses the most exaggerated hopes.


They hate "the plutocrats." Their battle cry is about what they call the "Jewish financial tyranny," an artificial scarecrow, devised ad hoc, and aimed at one individual or another. Propaganda requires such things.


The foregoing will perhaps help one to understand the simple primitive impulses on which Hitler continually plays in order to draw the masses to him. One may find them understandable, and even see in them much that is constructive for the preservation of Germany. But a person may well be shocked at the expression which Hitler and his people have given to the forces which they have mobilized, and wince at the anti-Semitism and the chauvinism which he is ever stirring up with such reckless skill.

It is important here to distinguish between the propagandist aspect of the Hitler movement and its realistic political aspect. On the one side it is devoted wholly to the acquisition of power, and so drives unscrupulously ahead as all such movements do. On the other side it has to consider the exercise of power, or at least preparations for such exercise. What National Socialism, once in power, will become under the pressure of adverse conditions, under the influence of the German temperament which is by nature disinclined to extremes, is the real question -- a question not answerable today, but which the student of foreign affairs must consider quite apart from watchwords of the moment.

It is evident that Hitler himself is impressed by the fact that his movement is predominantly of an emotional character and is held together by sentiment. His movement lives in opposition and on opposition. How will it act when it is called upon to deal with the tremendously difficult concrete problems which confront Germany both at home and abroad? Can the movement be carried over into practical politics?


Efficiency is to be rewarded with tolerance. Even a Jewish minister of finance -- the thing has actually been said -- is not beyond the range of possibility. As regards anti-Semitism, there are proofs that in matters political Hitler recognizes not only the absolute, but also the relative! In practical terms, trouble will be made only for the "immigrant Jew" who has not "fitted himself in."

  • Yes, I think the moods were very mixed, I read this document and the most suprising quotes put there
    – Probably
    Dec 4, 2016 at 7:42

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