The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has acquired the diaries and papers of James G. McDonald, who raised early concerns about Nazi persecution of Jews and resigned his diplomatic post to protest the world’s failure to intervene.
McDonald, who became the first U.S. ambassador to Israel, was appointed in 1933 to be the League of Nations’ high commissioner for refugees who came from Germany and other countries. He met Adolf Hitler and others then to discuss the plight of Jews in Germany.
But frustrated by failure to address the mistreatment of Jews, he quit in 1935.
“In many parts of the country there is a systematic attempt at the starvation of the Jewish population,” he wrote in his letter of resignation.
Two years before, he had heard from George Messersmith, then U.S. consul general in Berlin, about a conversation with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s top deputy. According to McDonald’s diary, Goering told Messersmith he regretted that so few of the regime’s opponents had been killed.
“Now whenever an individual is hurt, there is an international sensation,” McDonald recorded Messersmith as quoting Goering. “Had we let the blood run for a few days during the revolution, that would have been finished and the world would soon have forgotten it.”
McDonald himself had heard something similar not long before from Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengel, a close friend of Hitler whom McDonald had known when he and Hanfstaengel were students at Harvard.
Hanfstaengel said then, according to McDonald’s account, that a storm trooper had been assigned to each Jew in Germany and that “in a single night it could be finished.”
“He did not explain,” McDonald wrote, “but I assume he meant nothing more than wholesale arrests and imprisonments.”
McDonald also reflected on his 1933 meeting with Hitler in his diary, and wrote that the Nazi leader had looked at him half-suspiciously.
Hitler said he was fighting on behalf of the world.
“We are not primarily attacking the Jews,” Hitler told him, “rather the Socialists and Communists. The United States has shut out such people. We did not do so. Therefore, we cannot be blamed if we now take measures against them.”
McDonald described his impression of Hitler: “The man does have... the eyes of a fanatic, but he has in addition, I think, much more reserve and control and intelligence than most fanatics.”
A month later, McDonald reported to President Franklin Roosevelt, who told him of a plan to appeal to the German people over Hitler’s head. But this was never done.
McDonald became U.S. ambassador to Israel in 1948. He died in 1964.
Over 10,000 pages of his writings were given to the museum by his daughters, Barbara Ann McDonald Stewart and Janet McDonald Barrett.