The story of Raymond Geist (1885-1955), United States consul in Berlin from 1929 to 1939.
Breitman (Emeritus, History/American Univ.; co-author: FDR and the Jews, 2013, etc.) maintains convincingly that Geist was the most competent American diplomatic figure in Germany, especially after the Nazis took power in 1933. A professional actor and scholar (Harvard doctorate), he was overqualified in 1921 when he joined the Consular Service, at the time separate and inferior to the Diplomatic Service, concerned mostly with visa matters and problems of American citizens. During Geist’s assignment in Berlin, these duties became a matter of life and death. Few colleagues knew how to deal with the Nazis, and the ambassadors were callow political appointees. Far more educated, fluent in German, and a natural schmoozer, Geist became so valuable that superiors kept him in Berlin for a decade even though consuls usually rotated after a few years. Most scholars agree on the value of Geist’s reports to U.S. officials, in which he emphasized the Nazi regime’s brutality, predicted Hitler’s intention to go to war, and described the vicious persecution of Jews, warning that it would end in mass murder. He worked hard and often creatively to process the avalanche of requests for U.S. visas, but, a loyal civil servant, he obeyed America’s restrictive immigration laws. The sad truth is that most Americans, including members of Congress, overwhelmingly opposed admitting refugees, and many high officials in the State Department were anti-Semitic. Although sympathetic, Franklin Roosevelt refused to twist arms. “In the fiscal year from July 1, 1933, to June 30, 1934, 891 people got US immigration visas in Berlin,” writes Breitman. “This means that somewhere around twelve thousand people were either formally rejected or, more commonly, placed on the informal and inactive waiting list.” The author deplores this heartless policy, but he mostly praises Geist’s efforts, which were admirable but never heroic.
A vivid chronicle of 1930s Germany conveyed through the life of a lesser-known historical figure.