Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s Harvard PR Flack

Putzi was the Nazi movement’s only Harvard man. Though a figure of fun among the more hard-core Nazis—Putzi played “Sam” to Hitler’s Bogart, entertaining him at the end of the day with his piano playing—he was instrumental in making Nazism salonfähig, or “presentable to society,” the upper classes who were a crucial source of funds for a party founded by a locksmith and led by a former army corporal. Hitler used Hanfstaengl’s affable nature and white-shoe pedigree to forge many of his important links to German and American rich people. While the Baltic Germans provided access to the Russian aristocracy, Putzi was the connection to old American, British, and German families. His mother was a Sedgwick, from the old New England family. (Two of his grandfathers had been Civil War generals; one of them, a German immigrant 48er, was a pallbearer at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.) His full name was Ernst Sedgwick Hanfstaengl. The name Putzi, which means “little squirt” in the Bavarian dialect, was given to him by his wet nurse. His father was one of the most prominent men in Munich in the late nineteenth century, and the Hanfstaengls had visitors such as Mark Twain, Richard Strauss, and Fridtjof Nansen, the famous arctic explorer and passport inventor, to their lavish villa. How on earth had this white-shoe boy gotten involved with a bunch of lower class, anti-Semite beer-hall politicians?

In 1908 Putzi had taken part in an Orientalist cross-dressing show at Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. For this show, called Fate Fakir, the WASP Harvard boys “cross-dressed” in two ways, some dressing up as girls and others as Hindu and Muslim fakirs. The hulking six-foot-five Ernst Sedgwick Hanfstaengl played a Dutch girl named Gretchen Spootsfeiffer. With him in the cast was a young man named Warren Robbins. Putzi and Warren went their separate ways after Harvard, one returning to Bavaria to serve in the Royal Bavarian Horse Guards and the other to join the American State Department. In 1922, when Robbins was working as a senior officer at the American embassy in Berlin, he called up his old chum “Gretchen” from the Pudding.

All the revolutionary nonsense down in Bavaria had the embassy concerned, Warren said, so they were sending down a young military attaché, Captain Truman-Smith, to have a look around. Would good old Gretchen mind taking care of the boy and introducing him to a few people in Munich? “He turned out to be a very pleasant young officer of about thirty, a Yale man, but in spite of that I was nice to him,” Putzi wrote in his 1957 memoir, Unheard Witness, and recalled his fateful lunch with the Yalie on the last day of his visit to Bavaria. The American had been interviewing anyone who was anyone in Munich, [and he gave Putzi a ticket to a talk that the American couldn’t attend]….

Putzi took the ticket and went to hear Hitler speak at the Kindlkeller that night. He remembered Hitler talking a lot about Kemal Ataturk in Turkey and the example of Mussolini. Putzi described the speech to the Yale man, as he’d promised, and then he joined the movement himself.

An inventive cheerleader for the Harvard football team, Putzi transferred that position to Hitler’s Nazi entourage. Among his many creative contributions to the early Nazi movement was turning the Harvard football song—”Fight Harvard! Fight! Fight! Fight!”—into the model for the chant “Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!” of the Nazi mass meetings….

One of the many early Nazis who were slated to be done away with by Hitler’s inner circle in the 1930s, Hanfstaengl escaped assassination by fleeing to Switzerland, then on to London and Washington, where he eventually went to work for the OSS—but only after proving he was not a homosexual by resisting the advances of Somerset Maugham’s boyfriend, Gerald Haxton, who was apparently sent in by the Feds to see if Putzi could be seduced. When interviewed in the 1970s, Putzi rolled out all the piano tunes that Hitler had most enjoyed hearing him play—from the Harvard fight song to Wagner overtures—and complained how the Roosevelt administration had refused to take his advice on the invasion of Italy in 1943.

SOURCE: The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, by Tom Reiss (Random House, 2005), pp. 261-264

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