The Berlin Mission

The American Who Resisted Nazi Germany from Within


By Richard Breitman

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An unknown story of an unlikely hero–the US consul who best analyzed the threat posed by Nazi Germany and predicted the horrors to come

In 1929, Raymond Geist went to Berlin as a consul and handled visas for emigrants to the US. Just before Hitler came to power, Geist expedited the exit of Albert Einstein. Once the Nazis began to oppress Jews and others, Geist’s role became vitally important. It was Geist who extricated Sigmund Freud from Vienna and Geist who understood the scale and urgency of the humanitarian crisis.

Even while hiding his own homosexual relationship with a German, Geist fearlessly challenged the Nazi police state whenever it abused Americans in Germany or threatened US interests. He made greater use of a restrictive US immigration quota and secured exit visas for hundreds of unaccompanied children. All the while, he maintained a working relationship with high Nazi officials such as Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Hermann Göring.

While US ambassadors and consuls general cycled in and out, the indispensable Geist remained in Berlin for a decade. An invaluable analyst and problem solver, he was the first American official to warn explicitly that what lay ahead for Germany’s Jews was what would become known as the Holocaust.


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On the evening of January 30, 1939, Adolf Hitler spoke from the podium of the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to the nearly six hundred deputies of the German parliament. High Nazi officials sat on the stage behind him, and on the back wall above was a mounted casting of a huge eagle clutching a large swastika.

About halfway through, Hitler thundered this prophecy: if “international finance Jewry”—Jews inside and outside Europe—once again plunged the nations into a world war, they would regret it. Gesticulating with his right arm and right index finger, he exclaimed: “The result will not be the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” The Nazi deputies, all of them men, applauded wildly.1

Some foreign dignitaries were on hand. Prentiss Gilbert, the senior US diplomat in Germany on that day, had chosen not to attend, fearing embarrassment if Hitler in his speech attacked the United States and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Gilbert arranged instead to have “certain Embassy secretaries” get their impressions firsthand.2 The longest serving of the six US embassy officials who held the title of secretary then was Raymond H. Geist; he had the best German language skills and he had lived in Berlin longer than the others. Hitler’s words in the opera house were consistent with what Geist had anticipated more clearly, and for longer, than any other American. He knew exactly what was foreshadowed and he brought this awareness to the heart of his mission: he was our man in Berlin during its darkest decade, and he would do far more than merely bear witness to it.


A young man, five feet ten inches tall with thick, dark-brown hair, intense blue-gray eyes, and a ruddy complexion entered the office of Wilbur J. Carr, director of the US Consular Service on April 21, 1921. This was Raymond Herman Geist, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lecturing at Harvard. He was soon hired as a vice consul, the lowest rung in the Consular Service. His long-shot job interview would later benefit Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and tens of thousands of German Jews. Few of them ever learned just how he helped them.

During his long stay in Berlin from December 1929 to October 1939, Geist negotiated occasionally with Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and Hermann Göring. Through his Nazi contacts, he accumulated vital information about the future course of the Nazi regime. His actions influenced not just President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Adolf Hitler as well. But his unconventional life and work remained buried in obscure files, barely registering with historians.1

Geist was a central figure in gathering information about questions that resonate in the twenty-first century. How much did Hitler and other leading Nazis plan their course, and how much did they improvise? What might the West have done to limit or reduce the toll from Nazi persecution and mass murder before war broke out? Was it possible to strike any kind of bargain with Nazi Germany?

Unlike the Swedish activist Raoul Wallenberg, who undertook dangerous rescue activities late in the Holocaust, Geist was a loyal US Foreign Service officer who tried to help Jews and others get out of Germany before the Holocaust. Geist probed the outer limits of what was possible within the system. His aspirations and experiences are still relevant today.

Geist’s efforts give us a better sense of what was possible in a time of demagoguery, mass murder, and dire threats to Western civilization. His story cautions us against simplistic solutions or partisan distortions retroactively imposed on history long after the events. Indiscriminate moral outrage and scapegoating do not help us learn to deal with our own problems, but the careful study of history might. History does not repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes.



When Raymond Herman Geist came for his fateful interview in 1921, he brought with him a letter of introduction written by an assistant to Herbert Hoover, who had just become secretary of commerce. Geist had worked on the successful presidential campaign of Warren Harding, who had taken office one month earlier, so he had some connections in the capital.1 But the State Department had no familiarity with his work or credentials.

Geist liked the idea of becoming a diplomat,2 but in the 1920s US diplomats were almost without exception wealthy men. On top of their duties dealing with the broad issues of foreign relations, negotiating with foreign government officials, and reporting to the State Department, they were expected to entertain frequently, largely at their own expense. Inevitably, most diplomats then came from private schools and Ivy League universities.3

Although Geist was lecturing at Harvard, he was a graduate of Oberlin and Western Reserve (now Case Western Reserve), and he had no money to speak of. Maybe for that reason, Wilbur Carr discouraged Geist from a diplomatic position during their interview, but he suggested Geist might manage quite well as a consul.4 At that time the Consular Service was entirely separate from the Diplomatic Service, handling mostly visa matters and specific issues or problems of US citizens and American commercial interests abroad. Consuls were also commonly looked down upon by the diplomatic corps for their perceived lower class. One diplomat who later became undersecretary of state cattily observed that consuls had a fondness for YMCA standards and phraseology. Another waspishly compared a nervous, sweating person to “a consul at an embassy dinner.”5

That would start to change three years later when Carr, among other key State Department officials, arranged the merger of the Consular and Diplomatic Services into a unified Foreign Service. The lines between diplomats and consuls began to blur as consuls were allowed and sometimes encouraged to write economic or political reports to the State Department, and a few crossed over to the diplomatic side. Social distinctions were harder to erase, but the consuls, to the extent they could, began to adopt the style and standards of the diplomats.

Carr noted after the interview that Geist had impressed him.6 However, in the following months, as Geist took and passed the oral and written exams for the position, Carr became more cautious. Geist was a little old and academically overqualified to be taking a junior position. Nonetheless, in view of all the testimonials and Geist’s references, which included letters from Admiral William Benson, the retired chief of naval operations, and Charles Haskins, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard, he agreed to give Geist a trial run.7

A major part of a consul’s work was the administration of the visa process and deciding the eligibility of visa applicants. Government officials, tourists, businessmen, and others who sought short-term stays in America applied for temporary visas good for up to six months. The consul had to determine that the applicant had a valid reason or purpose for entering the United States and intended to return to his or her native land. Those who sought long-term or permanent stays applied for immigration visas and had to show, at a minimum, that they met the physical, mental, and moral standards under US immigration laws to become productive residents, and that they had no police record. The burden of proof lay with the alien; the decision rested with the consul.

The visa system changed fundamentally in the 1920s. Only weeks after Geist’s 1921 interview with Carr, Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act to reduce European immigration to the United States and to change its distribution. Each European country received an annual quota, and the size of its quota depended upon that nationality’s share of the American population according to the census of 1910. This law favored countries of northern and western Europe, particularly Britain, and it reduced immigration from southern and eastern Europe, which had boomed in the decades before World War I.

The pseudoscientific doctrines of that age established a hierarchy of races and determined Jews to be a lower one. In his testimony before the House Immigration Committee, Carr himself had singled out eastern European Jews as “filthy un-American and often dangerous in their habits,” economically and socially undesirable, “abnormally twisted,” and “inclined to become agitators.” There was no Jewish quota, because there was no religious or racial category in the law, but the 1921 bill reduced Jewish immigration through a new ceiling on total immigration and through low national quotas for eastern European countries with large Jewish populations. Carr, reflecting the pro-eugenic orientation of many Americans of that era, helped to push this law through. However, one country with a Jewish population of more than half a million was granted a large quota under the new law: Germany. Raymond Geist’s grandparents had immigrated to the United States after the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 in the German states, as did hundreds of thousands of others, all of whom counted as German Americans in the 1910 census. The annual quota for Germany was set at fifty-one thousand.8

Three years after the immigration bill, the American public and Congress grew even more critical of the ramifications of US involvement in the Great War. They shunned postwar European problems, and they feared the spread of communist radicalism to American shores. President Calvin Coolidge and a Republican Congress made the national origins quotas permanent over the objections of Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who fretted over inaccuracies in the data and the “hardships” it would result in for American relatives of prospective immigrants. The bill that effected this change, the Immigration Act of 1924, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, lasted until the 1950s. It reduced the maximum annual immigration from Europe to 153,774. Legislators also tinkered with the national quotas indirectly by using the outdated 1890 census as a basis for determining them.9

The effect of this change was that the annual quotas for Russia, Poland, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and Yugoslavia together totaled about ten thousand. Germany suffered too, with its quota sliced almost in half to 25,957. The law allowed for certain categories, such as children or spouses of US citizens, as well as ministers and professors, to qualify outside the quota, but the loopholes were modest. It also created some preferred groups within the quotas, especially relatives of US citizens. Initially, the State Department and the consuls controlled entry. The Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization in the Department of Labor took over jurisdiction only when visa holders reached American shores.10

In September 1930, amidst deteriorating economic conditions and a general climate of hysteria about foreigners, President Hoover asked his cabinet how to cut immigration radically without going back to Congress. State Department experts, led by Carr, now an assistant secretary of state, recommended a provision of the Immigration Act of 1917 barring anyone “likely to become a public charge.” Originally aimed at individuals with physical or mental disabilities who would be unable to support themselves in the United States, the public charge regulation allowed Hoover to determine that, under prevailing conditions, only those bringing substantial wealth with them or whose close American relatives had sizable assets (and were willing to support them) could enter. Anyone else who would have had to work was considered likely to become a public charge. Issuing a press release, the White House indicated that consuls should apply this regulation and deny visas to those without substantial resources. The State Department duly sent revised instructions to consuls in Europe.11

From July 1, 1929, until June 30, 1930, the annual German immigration quota was filled and the monthly allotments of the annual quota were nearly used up for the next few months. But after the consuls received the new instructions in September, the monthly numbers dropped sharply. By the end of the fiscal year (June 1931), fewer than ten thousand visas had been issued, still too many for the Hoover administration.

Geist was sent to Berlin as a consul in 1929, and he quickly drew praise for his work. After just six months, his outgoing superior called him “a distinct credit to the Service” and a man of mature judgment who would have advanced further if he had entered at an earlier age.12 In mid-1930, Geist was joined in Berlin by George S. Messersmith, a Pennsylvania-born descendant of Rhineland Germans who had come to the English colonies in the eighteenth century. Messersmith was an experienced consul general who had served in Belgium and Argentina, and as his superior, he became Raymond Geist’s ally in Berlin.13

Messersmith tried to placate the Hoover administration’s increasingly stringent immigration demands. He suggested that in the future he could hold visas to 10 percent of the quota, but that he did not want to do away with visas for applicants without US relatives as the administration suggested. He argued that some of these applicants would make good citizens and benefit the United States. The State Department’s Visa Section responded that some of the regular visa recipients were nonetheless likely to become public charges. Messersmith bowed to the pressure, even as he held onto the principle that some nonrelatives were qualified. In the year ending in June 1932, only 2,068 individuals received immigration visas under the German quota; the majority of them had relatives already living in the United States.14

Reacting to the tense political mood in Washington, the Consulate General in Berlin reviewed its long waiting list for immigration visas. Most applicants were told they were now defined as potential public charges and advised to either to drop their applications or defer consideration of their cases until economic conditions in the United States improved. The waiting list shrank considerably as a result. In March 1931, Messersmith reported that it was down to nothing. Millions of Americans were destitute; the plight of foreigners was not viewed charitably. In such circumstances, the awarding of any kind of visa could become a charged and highly politicized act.

Geist, however, found a way to keep the hopes of would-be immigrants alive, allowing people to apply informally, without paying the application fee. These individuals were temporarily inadmissible, but their files would be activated once US unemployment declined substantially. In effect, he converted an active waiting list to an inactive list, without jeopardizing the immediate cutback.15

With the issuing of immigration visas effectively shut down, State Department officials worried that some temporary visitors would intentionally overstay their visas. They called on consuls to submit information sheets on each individual visitor, and Messersmith and Geist complied.16

In this charged atmosphere, a world-renowned physicist sought to come to the United States. The case of Albert and Elsa Einstein raised political issues on both sides of the Atlantic, and it landed on the desk of Raymond Geist. Before Hitler came to power, the Nazi Party had excoriated Einstein as a Jew, a leftist radical, and a pacifist—and they didn’t like his theory of relativity either. Although Albert and Elsa had invested most of their savings in their house near Potsdam, in 1932 they tentatively agreed on a new academic base at what was to be the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Albert also accepted for the third time a short visiting professorship at the California Institute of Technology.17 He needed a temporary visa, but there was a good chance he would stay permanently if allowed.

The German government had sponsored Einstein’s earlier visits to the United States, giving him a courtesy diplomatic passport. Getting a temporary visa for the United States was routine, and the shipping line had handled it. But in December 1932 Einstein was a private citizen who might, one way or another, become an immigrant. Getting a new visa would be much more complicated. While Einstein had other options for a new home and base of scientific research, he did not have all that much time to get out of Germany. The rising tide of anti-Semitism was worrying.18

Reports of Einstein’s impending trip to the United States mobilized the Woman Patriot Corporation, a fading bastion of upper-class, right-wing American prejudice with a history of fulminating against perceived radicals at home. Mrs. Randolph Frothingham, widow of a former Massachusetts congressman and chair of the corporation, denounced Einstein at length to the State Department and various congressmen as an atheist, anarchist, and communist and declared him inadmissible under several different provisions of immigration law. She also contacted the press.19

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently had ruled any member of a communist organization inadmissible into the United States. As a result, despite the fact that Einstein was the most famous scientist in the world and obviously a huge intellectual asset to any country he lived in, Carr wanted strict examination of the Einsteins’ possible communist connections. He instructed the Berlin Consulate General that if the Einsteins should apply for any kind of visa anywhere in Germany, the consul would have to ensure they had no links to the Communist International (Comintern). Beyond that, he would have to check with Washington before he granted them visas.20

In late November, the shipping line that would take Einstein to the United States, the Hamburg-American Shipping Line (Hapag), asked the Consulate General in Berlin if the Einsteins had to appear in person to apply for visas. The response was yes, unless they held diplomatic passports. On December 2, the Consulate General warned Hapag that time was getting short if the Einsteins expected to make their booked departure the following week.21

With their personal interviews looming, the Einsteins decided that they too would use the media to swing the ruling in their favor. They gave an interview to the lead Associated Press correspondent in Berlin, Louis P. Lochner, whom they knew well. Directing his fire at the Woman Patriots, Albert Einstein declared satirically that the fair sex had never before rebuffed him so sharply, and that, as a pacifist, he was opposed to all war except the inevitable one with his own wife. In a letter written days afterward, Lochner reveled in the humor and called it one of the finest scoops he ever had.22

Albert and Elsa showed up visibly nervous at the Berlin Consulate General on December 5 to meet with Geist. Messersmith had a previous commitment to inspect the US consulate in Breslau; despite the high-profile nature of the scheduled Berlin visitors, he did not change it. Afterward, he explained that he normally did not conduct visa interviews anyway, and he knew Geist to be courteous and discreet.23 Messersmith either did not want to alter his schedule to accommodate the eccentric physicist, or he tried to duck what he saw as a no-win situation.

Elsa insisted on doing most of the talking, and Geist struggled to pose questions directly to her husband. Both Einsteins said they regarded it as humiliating to have to appear in person to get a visa. Unable to explain his constraints, Geist assured them that they simply had to fill out certain forms at the consulate and that he wanted to help them. Both Einsteins repeatedly rose from their seats as if to leave during the course of the interview. Geist, with some difficulty, persuaded them to stay put while he filled out the forms with their answers.24

He asked about Albert’s membership in nonscientific organizations. Albert said he belonged to none, but Elsa corrected him: there were some social and political organizations. Asked if he belonged to any anarchist organizations opposed to government, Einstein replied that he belonged to only pacifist organizations. His affiliation was loose; he did not know if he really supported them. Both he and Elsa denied an alleged connection with the World Congress against Imperialist War, an organization nominally protesting Japanese aggression in Manchuria. It had a communist organizer, and Albert had written a friendly greeting for its August 1932 meeting.25 Elsa said she alone knew which organizations her husband belonged to, because she handled all their correspondence. Geist had the Einsteins read the relevant provisions of the Immigration Act of 1917, and Albert said he considered himself admissible under those provisions. He pursued his pacifism through peaceful and legal means and took no part in (radical) politics. Messersmith, in contact by phone with Geist during the day, wrote afterward that the Einsteins were anxious that some of Albert’s political affiliations might jeopardize their visas.

It wasn’t just Messersmith who eagerly watched the proceedings from afar. During this interview, Lochner called Geist to get his side of the issue, but Geist could not talk.26 (He could not have commented on the record in any case.) When the Einsteins finally finished the paperwork, Geist told them he would let them know as soon as possible, and that he would return their passports with proper visas. The Einsteins had wanted an immediate decision, but they left the office amicably.

Elsa telephoned later with a correction that her husband was a member of Workers’ International Relief, affiliated with the communist movement. But now that he knew how this would affect his visa application, he would leave the organization. She also added that unless they received visas by noon the next day, they would withdraw their applications and hold the Consulate General responsible for breaking their contract in the United States. Geist expressed regret for any inconvenience and said that he would get a decision as quickly as possible.

In spite of his faultlessly polite demeanor, he sprang into action immediately after his conversation with Elsa. He telegraphed both the State Department and Messersmith, declaring that the Einsteins qualified for temporary visas. Meanwhile the Einsteins continued to pursue their campaign in the press, not only through the AP, but with the New York Times and others. Elsa denounced the “Consul General” (Messersmith) for his rudeness—even though he had not even been present at the interview. A front-page article on the December 6 edition of the Times blared: “Professor Albert Einstein was so angered by forty-five minutes of questioning at the United States Consulate General as to his fitness to visit America that he refused to submit to further interrogation and returned home.”

Einstein did indeed get a visa shortly afterward, but the subsequent Times headline, “Einstein’s Ultimatum Brings a Quick Visa,” was misleading. Washington had responded on the morning of the sixth with their approval after Geist had speedily prepared a telegram to the State Department, hours after his interview with Elsa and Albert Einstein. Their public ultimatum had nothing to do with it.27

The publicity about the Einsteins’ visas had its own repercussions. Walter Lippmann, the prominent columnist, demanded Messersmith’s recall over the affront to the Einsteins. Unbeknownst to the public, Messersmith had in fact pleaded with the State Department to support Geist and the Foreign Service. On hearing about the events in the Berlin Consulate General, the outgoing secretary of state, Henry Stimson, was incredulous that Carr had sent instructions to question Einstein. He held a background press breakfast in Washington on December 10 to clarify the situation that was being badly misunderstood by the public. Touching lightly on the stupidity of the proceedings, he compared those who demanded scrutiny of Einstein to those who insisted on draping nude statues. In any case, Stimson told the attendees that the consul—he did not remember Geist’s name—had treated the Einsteins with the utmost courtesy. He completely exonerated the Consulate General. Carr then bowed to higher authority and telegraphed the State Department’s appreciation for the visa work in Berlin.28

The American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, the American Women’s Club of Berlin, and the American Club of Berlin protested what they called grossly exaggerated US press descriptions of the Einsteins’ visa interview. Sigrid Schultz, a Berlin reporter for the Chicago Tribune, called earlier press reports shoddy because they blamed the absent Messersmith. She also complimented Geist.29

Messersmith privately explained again and again that the Einsteins received their visas within twenty-four hours of their appearance at the Consulate General and that in questioning them Geist had done only what Washington and regulations required. In fact, Messersmith felt it was the Einsteins who had subjected Geist to an “ordeal,” and he deserved a gold medal for his tact and skill.30 In effect, Geist had brought about the best result and as quickly as possible; he understood the rules under which he was obliged to operate, managed them deftly, and secured the result in the best interests of natural justice and the United States. He knew the Einsteins were far better off in the United States, and he must have known the United States was better off for admitting them. It was a textbook example of discreet diplomacy. The consul’s touch was almost impossible to discern, but somehow the right result was achieved with the minimum of disruption. It was a signature quality of Raymond Geist’s tenure. He had become not just “our man in Berlin” but to many Germans in peril he was theirs as well.

Arriving in California in January 1933, Einstein was obligated to give a lecture at Caltech with the goal of improving German-American relations—one of the terms of a grant the university had obtained. Three weeks later, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Two months after that, Einstein renounced his German citizenship. In May, Nazi storm troopers ransacked the Einsteins’ Potsdam home. In November 1933, the Gestapo announced it had confiscated the Einsteins’ property under laws directed against communists and enemies of the state.31

Einstein was unique, but other Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants from Nazi Germany contributed greatly to the well-being of the United States. Operating under serious political and legal constraints, Geist helped many to get in. He failed with others. His efforts, his successes, his failures are in part their story.



Geist’s public service began with what his generation called the Great War. He was eager to serve his country after the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, but he ran into obstacles when he tried to enter what later became the Foreign Service.

Germany had stoked American paranoia about German Americans. Americans changed German names of towns, streets, and individuals; the government interned German aliens; a mob even lynched one pro-German speaker in Illinois.1


  • "Breitman has...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."—James Kirchick, Tablet
  • "Inspiring...This stirring history, which unearths a little-known role model of resistance, will move readers."—Publishers Weekly
  • "A vivid chronicle of 1930s Germany conveyed through the life of a lesser-known historical figure."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "No American knew Nazi Germany better than Raymond Geist--and no one is better qualified to tell his story than Richard Breitman. As the long-serving US consul in Berlin, Geist served as the trusted intermediary between terrified Jews and their Gestapo tormentors. One of America's leading Holocaust historians, Breitman has skillfully pieced together Geist's extraordinary, largely untold life, including a politically risky homosexual romance. A thrilling read, and a great achievement."—Michael Dobbs, author of The Unwanted: America, Auschwitz, and a Village caught in between
  • "In Berlin Mission, Richard Breitman tells us the riveting story of Raymond Geist, an American diplomat stationed in Nazi Germany throughout the pre-war years. Based on entirely new documentation, the book presents the difficult path of an official in charge of visas to the United States, who witnessed and understood the growing plight of German Jews and helped many to reach the American safe haven, notwithstanding a restrictive immigration policy. Geist's efforts became the more crucial as, in early as in December 1938, he deduced from his contacts at the highest ranks of the Gestapo that the Jews remaining under Hitler's domination would ultimately perish. He conveyed his assessment to Washington. In our times of moral uncertainty, this book is a must."—Saul Friedländer, professor emeritus in history, UCLA

On Sale
Oct 29, 2019
Page Count
336 pages

Richard Breitman

About the Author

Richard Breitman is distinguished professor emeritus in History at American University and the author or co-author of twelve books and many articles in German history, U.S. history, and the Holocaust. Apart from his latest book, FDR and the Jews, co-authored with Allan J. Lichtman, he is best known for The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution and Official Secrets: What the Nazis Planned, What the British and Americans Knew. He lives in the D.C. metro area.

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