By this time (about 1 pm CDT on May 21) eighty-five years ago, Charles A. Lindbergh was just a few hours away from landing in Paris on his historic nonstop, solo flight across the Atlantic. He had been airborne (and awake) for more than 30 hours, and he had finally caught sight of land–the southwestern tip of Ireland–for the first time since passing over Newfoundland and out over the open ocean.
In The Spirit of St. Louis (1953), Lindbergh writes about flying over a little Irish village in nearly ecstatic terms.
People are running out into the streets, looking up and waving. This is earth again, the earth where I’ve lived and now will live once more. Here are human beings. Here’s a human welcome. Not a single detail is wrong. I’ve never seen such beauty before–fields so green, people so human, a village so attractive, mountains and rocks so mountainous and rocklike. . . . I haven’t been far enough away to know the earth before. For twenty-five years I’ve lived on it, and yet not seen it till this moment. . . . During my entire life I’ve accepted these gifts of God to man, and not known what was mine until this moment. It’s like rain after drought; spring after a northern winter. I’ve been to eternity and back. I know how the dead would feel to live again.
Hitlerland, the new book by Andrew Nagorski (Simon & Schuster, 2012), is subtitled “American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power.” Naturally, I expected to find Charles Lindbergh within its pages, and sure enough, here he is–visiting the country five times during the 1930s, being taken on tours of military aircraft factories and airfields, producing his frank assessments of German air power at the behest of his American host, Truman Smith, the U.S. military attaché at the American Embassy.
Lindbergh’ subsequent vocal campaign to keep the United States out of the war in Europe, his involvement with the isolationist America First movement, and his conviction that the Soviet Union represented the real threat to European civilization–and that, in a war between those two powers, “a victory by Germany’s European people would be preferable to one by Russia’s semi-Asiatic Soviet Union”–only confirmed how well he had been played by the Nazis. His critics were right that he had become, in effect, an apologist for Hitler. Ironically, though, the flyer’s political blindness also allowed him to to help Smith and his team gather more data on the Luftwaffe’s modernization and ambitions than any of their counterparts in other embassies. For his part, Lindbergh was pleased to be part of this effort; as he saw it, this information on Germany’s growing strength only bolstered his argument that the United States should wavoid any new conflict with that country.
While Hitlerland doesn’t contribute anything especially new to the Lindbergh-in-Germany narrative, the book is valuable for filling in the larger context: on-the-ground witnesses to events in pre-war Germany. Many of these Americans–reporters, embassy officials, exchange students, and athletes competing in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin–were, like both Charles and Anne Lindbergh, surprisingly sanguine about the direction the country was taking, though most also remarked on the Nazis’ suppression of political opposition and their virulent campaigns of anti-Semitism.
Several obituaries this week for children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak have revealed a connection between Sendak and Charles Lindbergh. According to the obituary in the Washington Post, “Sendak was shaped foremost by a sickly and homebound childhood in Depression-era Brooklyn, the deaths of family members in the Holocaust and vivid memories as a youngster reading about the kidnapping and murder of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son.
Sendak’s book Outside Over There, about a girl named Ida who tries to rescue an infant sister who has been stolen by goblins, was based on the Lindbergh kidnapping.
But other children in Sendak’s books also face danger. Not just Ida, but also Max in Where the Wild Things Are and Mickey in In the Night Kitchen together represent the fearful idea that parents are unaware of the crises their children face. The Lindbergh kidnapping–which happened when Sendak was not quite 4 years old–was to him “the fullest expression of the danger that children live in — the fear that we could be taken away.”
Spike Jonze’s 2003 interviews with Sendak for an HBO documentary revealed “Sendak’s strange obsession with death, that he feels that death has always been a part of his life, and talked about the profound effect seeing a picture of the corpse of the Lindbergh baby had on him as a young child.” (The baby’s body was found about 6 weeks after the March 1, 1932, kidnapping. Some newspaper reporters and photographers bribed their way into the morgue where the baby’s decomposed body was taken, and shot some gruesome photographs.)