In the late summer of 1938, Dr. Preston Barba was not particularly surprised to get a phone call from a local newspaper reporter.
As head of Muhlenberg College’s German department and a well- known expert on Pennsylvania-German folk-culture, he was often asked to talk about his research.
Having just returned from a summer’s study in Germany at the Deutsches Ausland-Institue (DAI) at Stuttgart, he had presented a well-received paper. In fact, he had a copy in front of him to discuss it with the press.
But when the reporter arrived, Barba’s scholarship seemed the last thing on his mind.
He began to pepper the professor with questions about the “situation” in Europe. What did he think about the rising tensions between Germany and Britain and France over Czechoslovakia? What exactly did the German dictator Adolf Hitler want? Would Europe 20 years after the last world war plunge into a second? What were his thoughts?
Barba professed to be totally ignorant of the political situation. “Dr Barba said that there appears to be more talk of war on this side of the ocean than in Europe,” the reporter’s story said in the next day’s Morning Call paper. It went on to quote him as saying that it was not until he returned to America that he was aware the crisis was impending.
Contemporary sources suggest it would have been almost impossible to miss the war fever in 1938. But Barba could just have been an absent-minded professor type, oblivious to the Germany around him at the Deutsches Ausland-Institue, or perhaps he assumed it was not something that was his business. He was after all a professor of Pennsylvania German folk-life, not political science, and he was not knowledgeable in current affairs.
But the DAI, which was founded in 1917, and according to one source at that time, “could scarcely be described as political or bellicose” and to which Barba had belonged since the 1920’s, underwent a radical change under the Third Reich.
The Institute was intended as a center to provide German nationals with emigration assistance as well was to conduct research and education. On coming to power in 1933, the Nazis ousted the DAI’s long-time general secretary for his “Jewish origins.” One source claims he then fled to South America. That same year Nazi thugs broke into the apartment of the DAI’S president and assassinated him. No one was ever prosecuted for the crime. Another officer in the group was “discharged” on being told the Fuhrer wanted to take the DAI in a different direction.
By 1938 the DAI had become a mouthpiece for the Nazis. By the end of World War II, it was under the control of the SS. According to a Library of Congress study in 1946, after reviewing and organizing DAI files, its role under Hitler was to, in a “through and efficient manner,” create “one great national ( i.e. National Socialist) community.”
Apparently in the 1930s, Barba felt he had to respond to some questioning Muhlenberg students about the rise of the Nazis. One of them, the late Randolph “Randy” Kulp recalled many years later Barba saying, “Now I know how you boys feel about these things, but you don’t know how really bad it was before.”
Exactly what “before” he was referring to, Barba apparently never said. Perhaps he was reflecting on the German hyper-inflation of the 1920s. Maybe to the chaos of the Weimar Republic where street fights between the Communists and Nazis thugs were common. Was it the change in German culture that was too radical and modern for his taste? Or was it something else? Nearly ninety years later, it is impossible to know.
If someone as close to the European scene as Barba was so oblivious to Europe’s troubles, it is hard to imagine that in 1938 ordinary citizens of Allentown and the Lehigh Valley with the cares of the Great Depression would worry about a foreign country whose name some could barely pronounce.
If they thought about European affairs at all, it was largely to stay out of them.
Since the 1920s many Americans concluded that the country had been “ suckered” by European (mostly British) bankers and “Merchants of Death” arms dealers into participating in World War I. In the 1930s Congress had passed Neutrality Laws designed to keep the country out of war. America would defend itself behind its ocean ramparts. Europe could be left to “stew in its own juices.”
There was nothing like the 24-hour news cycle of today. Newspapers were it. Radios would broadcast some news in the morning but that was all. As it had been since the 1920s, radio was a largely entertainment medium. But it was a result of the Munich crises of 1938 that the first steps toward what is known to today as broadcast journalism were taken.
Thanks to Edward R. Murrow at CBS, a group of knowledgeable journalists had gathered to report the news from European capitals. Among them was William L. Shirer in Berlin. For the first time news bulletins could break into regular programming with news about the ongoing crisis.
During 1938, most newspaper readers were fascinated by pilots and flying. On July 15th , a young man named Howard Hughes dominated the headlines in the Morning Call and other papers when he arrived in New York after a record-breaking round the world flight of 91 hours and 17 minutes. Page one showed the dashing young man being greeted by the city’s official greeter Grover Whalen.
Local folks were more amused by the accounts of the flyer Douglas “Wrong-Way” Corrigan who had flown across the Atlantic when his flight plan was to fly to California. That his plane was returned to America aboard a freighter named the “S.S. Lehigh” added interest locally.
As the summer went on, the papers were following the Hollywood gossip closely about the coming break up between actress Lupe “Mexican Spitfire” Velez and Johnny “Tarzan” Weissmuller. The pair had been known to be feuding for some time.
Locally a lot of attention was drawn to a big attraction coming to the Allentown Fair, Lucky Tetter and his Hell-Drivers. On August 18th, a packed house at Allentown’s Colonial Theater was on hand to hear that the newsreel film “Allentown On Parade” would be appearing shortly.
But events in Europe were taking place that would change the lives of folks in the Lehigh Valley and America forever.
Since 1933, dictators in Europe were on a roll. In Germany, Adolf Hitler at first claimed to be for peace. At the same time, he was creating a military force tearing up the World War I era restrictions imposed on that country, creating a large army, and establishing an air force.
It was his fellow dictator Benito Mussolini who went first, invading Ethiopia in 1935. The League of Nations issued mild sanctions, but the rest of Europe did nothing.
In 1936, Hitler sent his still untested force into the demilitarized Rhineland between Germany and France and once more nothing was done.
A civil war erupted in Spain between the Republic and rebel fascist forces led by General Francisco Franco. Germany and Italy sent supplies to him. France and England claimed to be neutral. And in March 1938, Hitler annexed Austria to Germany. And once more the former Allied powers did nothing.
In the summer of 1938, Hitler was using the German minority in Czechoslovakia as an excuse to disarm a country that he felt threatened his future role in the conquest of Eastern Europe. As he had before, he played on the fears of Britain and France.
Both countries had begun to re-arm but after the slaughter of World War I, their populations had shown a reluctance for war. In France, even though it had some weapons that were superior to what the Germans had, anti-war fever bordered on a mania. Britain felt that at least until the early 1940s, their military would not be ready. Therefore, they thought Hitler must be appeased until then. Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain said he was willing simply with a pencil to ask the dictators what they wanted and work to achieve a compromise.
On September 1, 1938, Hitler ordered the leader of the Germans in Czechoslovakia to reject offers of compromise from the Czech government. “Truce Plan in Crisis is rejected by Hitler Wants Speedy Action,” read the headline the next day’s Morning Call. Next to it was a story announcing Mussolini’s new “Aryan” racial policy. All Jews who had come to Italy since 1919 had six months to leave.
On September 6, Hitler held a rally at Nuremberg demanding Czechs allow Germans to become part of the “greater German Nation.” The Morning Call headlined its editorial “Will Hitler Rashly Invite War? “ On September 8, retired Marine Corps Gen. Smedley Butler addressing a group of veterans at the Allentown Fairgrounds predicted Europe would be at war by 1940.
Hitler continued to rant and rave. Despite promises that Britain and France would back the Czechs, Hitler was convinced they would not act. On September 14th, the Morning Call’s editors summed up the situation, saying Europe was on the brink of war with one man calling the shots:
“The question now is: will Hitler take the step that is part of the course which he has marked for himself and Germany? The crisis in Europe has not been eased one wit. It has merely been postponed till day of Mr. Hitler’s selection. It will be a miracle if Europe is not plunged into war within a few months. Hitler can be a miracle man if his wish for peace is as strong as his protestations on this subject.”
The next day British prime minister Neville Chamberlain stunned everyone by saying he would go to Germany and talk to Hitler. And so began a game of move-the-goal-post. Each time Chamberlain thought he had an agreement, Hitler walked away from it and demanded more.
That Sunday, Rev. William F. Kosman at Allentown’s Salem Reformed Church, gave an eloquent sermon on the horrors of war:
“The present policy of the United States should be one of aloofness from all European wars…If war comes, we must stay out! Our going in would only spread and intensify it. By staying out we may find ourselves in a position to salvage something of value afterward and apply healing salve to the wounds of civilization that otherwise might perish completely.”
But Hitler had no plans for America, at least not yet. He continued to ratchet up the rhetoric declaring he wanted no Czechs in the German Reich. Finally, he and Mussolini came up with a plan. He would draw it up, then turn it over to the Italian dictator and have him present it at a four- power conference as Mussolni’s own.
It would save Britain and France, “these little worms” as Hitler called them. And so, they gathered at Munich along with French premier Edouard Deladier to much fanfare and signed an agreement that eventually brought an end to Czechoslovakia. It gave Hitler all he claimed to want. Chamberlain returned to London declaring it was peace with “honor” and “peace in our time.” There was dancing in the streets of London and Paris.
On October 1st as Hitler’s tanks rolled into the soon-to-be former Czechoslovakia--he would gulp down the rest shortly--the world and the Lehigh Valley breathed a sigh of relief. Thanking the “clever and brainy Italian” aka Mussolini for coming up with plan that saved the peace, the Morning Call had this to say: “Peace in Europe has been maintained for 24 hours and so it is hoped…will be assured indefinitely.” World War II was less than a year away.