If the destruction of European Jewry was the collective work, not just of Nazis, but of countless “ordinary men,” so too was the effort to prevent this great crime an accumulation of many individual acts by people whose stories have been lost to history. Raymond Geist was one such man.
An American consul who arrived in Berlin four years before the Nazi seizure of power and remained in the German capital for an entire decade, Geist processed visa applications for thousands of imperiled Jews including Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. But Geist was more than just a paper pusher. A collegiate actor and champion public speaker of German descent, he began his diplomatic career working for the American delegation to the post-World War I Versailles peace conference. He was then seconded to Vienna on behalf of Herbert Hoover’s private American Relief Administration. There, he was able to do an enormous amount of good for many desperate people, an experience that prepared him well for the challenges he would face in Berlin.
Geist’s story is recounted in The Berlin Mission: The American Who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within by Richard Breitman, professor emeritus at American University and co-author of FDR and the Jews. Long before the United States became a global superpower, Geist was, according to Breitman, the only fluent German-speaker in the State Department’s Division of Western European Affairs when he was dispatched to Berlin in 1929, an indication of just how green was the practice of American diplomacy in the interwar period. While a fledgling bureaucracy left the United States ill-equipped to deal with the seismic changes affecting Europe at the time, it also created opportunities for imaginative and enterprising diplomats, and Geist quickly became “the Foreign Service expert on Nazi Germany.”
Breitman charts Geist’s career, which intersected with seemingly all of the major events and personalities of Nazi-ruled Berlin, from the Reichstag fire (which Geist called “the funeral pyre on which the short-lived liberties of the German people were extinguished”) to Kristallnacht to an hour-long conversation between Herman Goering and a visiting Charles Lindbergh which Geist had the honor (or burden) of interpreting. Years later, after he returned to Washington yet before Germany declared war on the United States, Geist went on a State Department-sponsored speaking tour of major American cities essentially to rebut the pro-Nazi Lindbergh (whom he found “a little too stupid and dull for the conceited and verbose” Luftwaffe commander).
All the while, Geist was doing what he could (which, as a consular officer, was not much) to liberalize America’s scandalously tight visa regime for Jewish refugees, help as many German Jews as possible, and otherwise assist his fellow countrymen who happened to find themselves in Nazi crosshairs. Geist interceded on behalf of American visitors to Germany arrested for refusing to throw up a stiff-armed, Sieg Heil while observing Nazi rallies, a common occurence. In one instance, he even arranged safe departure for the family of a pro-German CBS correspondent whose son was attacked by a storm trooper after failing to display this sign of deference to the Fuehrer. On another occasion, Geist bluffed to Heinrich Himmler’s press officer, threatening that if the regime sent another American Jew to a concentration camp, he would personally instruct the State Department to invalidate all American passports to Germany. (“They think I have the power to do these things and therefore it is safe to use them as threats,” he wrote to his superior, Consul-General George S. Messersmith, in 1939. “One has to be constantly at it day and night and never leave go. I feel that I have got some of these Nazis by the neck and that I cannot leave go of my hold.”)
It helped that Geist was free of the anti-Semitism that infected so many of his countrymen, particularly those working alongside him in the State Department, up to and including his boss for a period, William Dodd. “I am no race antagonist,” the American ambassador to Germany wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull, “but we have a large number [of Jews] here, and it affects the service and adds to my load.”
When the hacking collective WikiLeaks released some quarter of a million diplomatic cables nearly a decade ago, something that stood out was the professionalism and perspicacity of the American diplomats whose communications were exposed. It is those qualities that were put on remarkable display during the recent impeachment hearings, as one career diplomat after another testified to the corrupt machinations of President Trump, his hotelier European Union ambassador, and personal attorney. Breitman places Geist in this tradition of the consummately professional foreign service officer, and the trait of his which most shines through is prescience. In a dispatch to Washington filed less than 18 months after Hitler became chancellor, Geist observes:
I cannot sufficiently emphasize what would happen if the present regime were able to create a strong Germany. This country under such conditions would certainly rearm and definitely prepare to wage a war against Europe in general which would change the course of history, if not of civilization, beyond what we even dream, if their supreme effort would be successful. The Germans are absolutely confident of their destiny; and they will make the attempt to establish a hegemony (or rather an empire similar to that maintained by the Caesars) in Europe unless forces beyond their control hinder the attempt.
Very few people were writing or saying such things in 1934. Breitman has also located a 1938 document, published in full as an appendix, which today reads with a terrifying clairvoyance. “The Germans are determined to solve the Jewish problem without the assistance of other countries, and that means eventual annihilation,” Geist wrote. This, Breitman says, amounts to the first, explicit warning of the coming Holocaust by an American official, and certainly qualifies as the book’s most significant contribution to the historical record.
Geist was also gay, a trait Breitman suggests may have endowed him with an empathy for those living on the margins of society. “By virtue of who he was and how much he observed, Geist was more sensitive than most to the wide range of victims of Nazi persecution,” Breitman writes. “He was an exception to the pattern in the Foreign Service and in the State Department.”
The Berlin Mission is all the more remarkable when one considers that its subject, who regularly interacted with the likes of Himmler, Goering, Reinhard Heydrich and other factotums of a regime that rounded up and exterminated homosexuals, shared a bed with a German man.
Geist’s career ended in 1948 at the age of 63. While he received nothing but the highest accolades from colleagues and superiors throughout his decades of service, Geist never attained the post of ambassador he coveted. Whether his discreet homosexuality was responsible for this plateau, Breitman does not say; Geist left the foreign service just on the cusp of the State Department’s purge of its gay and lesbian employees. (Breitman makes no note of the fact that the last ambassador to Germany for whom Geist worked, the slightly less discreet Alexander Comstock Kirk, was also gay.)
“His ability, honed on the stage and on the lecture circuit, to play different roles and make a strong impression turned out to be unusually useful where so many foreigners seemed bewildered by the totalitarian system or intimidated by Hitler’s successes,” Breitman writes. “Geist’s acting skills allowed him to charm and to please while concealing his thoughts and motives.” One suspects that Geist’s powers of dissimulation were not limited to the ones he learned treading the boards, but—like many a gay diplomat and spy of his era—encompassed those acquired in pursuit of a secret life.
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