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Lindbergh’s Nazi Controversy

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

One can hardly help being impressed with A. Scott Berg’s recent biography of Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, inventor, and amateur statesman. As with Berg’s previous books, this one is meticulously researched and rendered with a fluent biographical style that does not force readers to be aware of how much information is being handed to them or of the lengths to which the author must have gone when assembling it. Most Americans, familiar with Colonel Lindbergh only for his flight across the Atlantic, the tragedy involving his infant son, and his unpopular political views during the war, will find something new on each of the book’s pages. In addition to the details of his life that any competent, diligent researcher could root out, there is also the mass of information that was made available to Berg alone, through an exclusive agreement with the Lindbergh estate. It would be futile to start listing the bits of knowledge about Lindbergh’s life that are packed into the book, because they certainly number into the millions.

Yet, for all of this thoroughness, some reviewers have complained that Berg’s biography does not let readers really know what the man thought of himself or of the world around him. There are things that can easily be assumed from his life—for instance, the fact that the Lindbergh’s move to Europe after their son’s murder was motivated by disgust with the United States. But there are other issues that reviewers have found even more problematic. The most obvious of these involve Lindbergh’s ties to Nazi Germany. Berg presents this segment of the aviator’s life as a huge misunderstanding, during which those favoring America’s entry into the war for their own selfish interests made a scapegoat of him, presenting his isolationism as sympathy for Hitler’s government. In fact, Berg does give one piece of evidence after another, including numerous quotes from journals, clearly indicating that Lindbergh actually was sympathetic with the Germans.

There may seem to be overwhelming evidence, but the biographer can always prove such a simplistic assumption wrong. There is room for discussion about how Lindbergh felt about the policies of the German government in the middle 1930s, especially so if, like Berg, one spent months immersed in the complexity of his personality, his thoughts, and his humanitarian behavior. The casual observer may want to give in to the temptation to find that final clue that settles the question of Lindbergh’s beliefs once and for all. Common observers should not rush to judgement; the biographer must not rush to judgment. Still, even with that in mind, there is a lot of information in Lindbergh that suggests Lindbergh’s comfort with the Nazi regime and little to refute the charges of these leanings except for Berg’s unwillingness to believe the facts are damning.

One point of a biography is to free its subject from any gossip or innuendo that he might have labored under in his life. Berg is clear that this is his goal regarding Lindbergh’s political leanings during the pre-war years. One way that he does this is to show how common it was, in 1936, for an American to be enthusiastic about the Third Reich. ‘‘In the afterglow of the Berlin Olympics,’’ he writes, ‘‘Lindbergh’s feelings toward Germany were hardly unique.’’ Berg goes on to name a few others who were ‘‘swayed by Hitler’s magnetism,’’ including Arnold Toynbee and Lloyd George. In a sense, effective biography writing is all about making today’s readers understand actions in terms of their times. People can only act with the knowledge available to them. For instance, some people may look at the writings of former civilizations that accepted narrow definitions of ‘‘citizenship’’ and try to accept that they excluded people. Some of history’s most revered literary figures were racist, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic. Is it or is it not fair to think they should have known...

(The entire section is 6,592 words.)