By Published on .

A remarkable man named John Weitz, who in his 70s keeps reinventing himself, has a new biography coming out from Little, Brown this month in which he gives us a revealing and in some ways unexpected look at Hjalmar Schacht, whom Weitz calls "Hitler's Banker," and whom William Shirer called, "the only brilliant and, next to Hitler, the most interesting Nazi."

More about Schacht. But first, something about Weitz.

He is a German Jew, born in Berlin, who as a boy got out of Germany with his family just in time. In England young John attended a good school and picked up the slightly upper-class accent and manners he employs to good effect today. When the family eventually settled in New York, Weitz, for reasons known only to him, became a fashion designer, in time one of the seminal creative forces in American and world sportswear.

Then, inconveniently, along came a war and he joined the American Army. And since even the Army occasionally does something right, he was enrolled in the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS, which later on would become the CIA. Since Weitz spoke perfect German and was and is a tall, well set-up and rather dashing fellow, with handsome features as Aryan as those of Robert Redford, the OSS thought here was a splendid chap to drop behind the German lines to do nasty things.

Weitz was discharged after the war as a captain and went right back into designing clothes. I met him in the 1960s when I was publisher of Women's Wear Daily and Weitz was at the top of his game as a designer. Even while, from time to time, feuding with my boss John Fairchild. And when he wasn't designing sportswear Weitz raced cars, sailed his 50-foot yacht, staged exhibitions of his photography, painted, got married three times, had four children, invented things and wrote books, both novels and non-fiction.

It was his book about von Ribbentrop, "Hitler's Diplomat," a few years back that inspired the new bio of Dr. Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht.

Mother Schacht was a Danish baroness and his father a Frisian who got out of Germany to avoid military service and ended in New York where (his girlfriend having followed him) they married and became naturalized Americans.

Since their local hero was Horace Greeley, when Hjalmar was born (back in Europe by then), he got his American middle names.

The young man made something of a reputation in banking and by the time Hitler appeared, Schacht was already quite a famous man. Weitz portrays an equivocal character, one drawn to power and yet snobbishly finding Hitler beneath him and somewhat distasteful, wearing Nazi insignia and accepting honors, yet claiming to despise the Party. As head of the German national bank Schacht was called upon to get the ailing economy back on the rails and provide the money for rearmament, all the while stiffing the Allies on German war debts (from the First World War). As Hitler once said over lunch, "Schacht was very good at screwing people."

As for Germany's Jews, Schacht opposed their "mistreatment" and protected Jewish friends and employees, but conceded they were a "foreign" element and not true Germans. He and Hitler had their fallings-out but on the eve of the Austrian takeover Schacht re-upped as the country's top banker and as late as April of 1943, while out of office, was still sucking up to the Fuhrer. Which didn't prevent his being sent off to a concentration camp the following year. Nor did that unhappy occurrence prevent the Americans from arresting Schacht after the war and trying him with Goering and Speer and Ribbentrop, a situation the arrogant Schacht found absurd; his attitude being, "how dare they?"

In the end he got off (most of the others were hung) and lived to a great age counseling emerging Third World nations on their economies and running a German bank.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, reading Weitz, says, "Schacht was the economic brain behind Nazism and John Weitz's perceptive biography draws a telling portrait of this most consummate of artful dodgers." While Tom Wolfe writes, "Few writers have probed so deeply the personal dramas of the Nazi era as John Weitz."

As for me, I am simply stunned that a man I know can do so many things and do them rather well.

As for the conclusions of history, the bio left me a bit unsure just where Weitz stood on Schacht. So I called him at home and asked. "Without Schacht," John said, "Hitler would not have lasted the first year in power. The great problems were unemployment, industrial drought, a non-existent army and air force, and the Versailles Treaty (with its punishing monetary penalties). Within one year's time, Schacht cranked up industry thereby helping solve all the other problems.

Most Popular