What's all this then?

My name is Victoria Stiles and I'm an Early Career Historian currently doing whatever odd research / consulting / outreach / tutoring jobs come my way. I blog here about some of the interesting texts I've found.
My research focusses on books about Britain and the British Empire which were in circulation in Nazi Germany but you'll also find a smattering of school textbooks, witchcraft beliefs, bog drainage, bemused travellers and weird illustrations that caught my eye.
Translations from German are my own. Comments are currently unmoderated and are mostly spam for leather jackets anyway.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

A German's view of America in 1943

(This post originally appeared on one of my other blogs, Violetta Crisis.)

Links for the lazy:

Right then, after a few months of "talking round the hot porridge" as the Germans say, we finally come to the main point of this blog: History. More specifically, old books which grab my interest at fleamarkets, mostly in Hamburg. All my rummaging around really paid off a few weeks ago when I discovered this book. I'd have bought it just for the cover but, fossilised moths excluded, there's enough material inside to keep me occupied for years of research. The title translates roughly as "What is being talked about in America" and it was published by Franz Müller publishers, Dresden, "in the fifth year of the war", 1943.

The book's stated aims

Here are the most informative parts of the blurb and foreword (apologies for the ugly translations):

Tausenden von deutschen Rundfunkhörern ist Kurt G. Sell bekannt, dessen regelmäßige Plaudereien viele jahre lang über die kurzen Wellen aus Washington zu uns kamen und uns ein anschauliches Bild über die für Europäer oft recht komplitzierten Entwicklungen in der USA. vermitteln. Kurt G. Sell war 15 Jahre lang der Vertreter des Deutschen Nachrichtenbüros in der Bundeshauptstadt der Vereinigten Staaten. In den letzten Jahren, als die Intrigen Roosevelts immer intensiver und die Beziehung zur Reichsregierung infolgedessen immer gespannter wurden, war es einzig und allein Kurt G. Sell, der täglich zu den Pressenkonferenzen von Cordell Hull und zweimal wochentlich zum Presseempfang von Franklin D. Roosevelt ging. Er hatte daher wie kein anderer Deutscher die Gelegenheit, amerikanischer Politik zu studieren und sorgfältig zu beobachten, wie Roosevelt in den zehn Jahren seit seinem Amtseintritt seine Ränke schmiedeten. Er kannte Land und Leute schon vorher aus längerem Aufenthalt in New York, Chikago und an der Westküste. Im Auto und Flugzeug hat er das weite Gebiet der USA. oft bereist und viiel Verständnis für die Eigentümlichkeiten des Amerikaners dabei gewonnen. Um so schmerzlicher war es für ihn, der so viele Jahre in Wort und Schrift für freundschaftliche Zusammenarbeit zwischen den beiden Völkern geworben hatte, in den letzten sechs Jahren zusehen zu müssen, wie egoistische und andere Treibe einen immer tieferen Keil zwischen Deutschland und USA. treiben. Seine Stellung in Washington wurde dadurch immer schwieriger, und am Tage nach Pearl Harbor wurde er, obwohl noch Friede zwischen Deutschland und USA. bestand, nachts von der Geheimpolizei Roosevelts aus dem Bett gerissen und verhaftet. Erst im Mai 1942 durfte er die Heimat wiedersehen.

Translation: Kurt G. Sell is known to thousands of German radio listeners via his regular chats which came to us for many years, over the airwaves from Washington, and provided us with a vivid picture of what were for Europeans often very complicated developments in the USA. For 15 years, Kurt G. Sell was a representative of the German News Office [DNB] in the capital of the United States. Over the last few years, when Roosevelt's conspiring became more intensive and, as a consequence, relations with the German government became increasingly strained, Kurt G. Sell alone went to Cordell Hull's daily press conferences, and twice a week to the press reception of Franklin D. Roosevelt. He therefore had more opportunity than any other German to study American politics and to carefully observe how President Roosevelt's plots were hatched in the ten year after his inauguration. He had already got to know the land and people through long stays in New York, Chicago and on the West Coast. He had often travelled the wide expanse of the USA by car and by plane and gained a deep understanding of the peculiarities of Americans. And so it was even more painful for this man, who had been arguing for so many years, in print and radio, for friendly cooperation between the two peoples, to have to stand by and watch over the last six years, as selfish and other urges drove an ever thicker wedge between Germany and the USA. His position in Washington became increasingly difficult and on the day after Pearl Harbor, even though there was still peace between Germany and the USA, he was torn from his bed at night and arrested by Roosevelt's secret police. It was May 1942 before he was allowed to see his home again.

Wenn wir erkennen wollen, was Roosevelts politische Schachzüge für uns bedeuten, so müssen wir schließlich wissen, wer diese Schachfiguren sind, mit denen er spielt und was dahinter steht, sowohl sowohl politisch wie wirtschaftlich, aber auch menschlich und charakterlich.
Das vorliegende Buch soll den Versuch machen, zu diesem Studium einige Beiträge zu liefern. ,,Worüber man in Amerika spricht" [...] soll den deutschen Leser von vornherein darüber berühigen, daß es sich bei diesem Buch nicht um Darlegung hochpolitischer Thesen handelt, auch nicht um ein Quellenwerk über die offiziellen Reden und Akte Roosevelts und seiner Trabanten, auch nicht um tendenziöse Agitation gegen das amerikanische Volk, mit dem wir uns durch die Schuld seines derzeitigen Präsidenten leider im Krieg befinden, sondern um möglichst objektive Betrachtungen über das amerikanische Volk von einem Deutschen, der sehr vieles in Amerika sehr gern mochte und manches sogar bewunderte und der herzlich wünscht, daß unsere beiden Völker eines Tages wieder miteinander in Frieden leben und sich gegenseitig ergänzen können.

Translation: If we are to recognise what Roosevelt's political chess moves mean for us we need to know who these chess figures are with whom he plays and what lies behind the game; politics as much as economics, but also people and characters.
This book is intended to make various contributions towards this study. The title Worüber man in Amerika spricht [...same as the series of radio lectures...] should reassure the reader from the start that this book is not a collection of high-political theses, nor source material such as official speeches or documents from Roosevelt or his staff, nor tendentious agitation against the American people, with whom we are unfortunately at war due to the actions of their current President. Rather it consists of the most objective possible observations, made about the American people by a German who found many aspects of America he liked very much, even some that he admired, and who dearly wishes that one day our two peoples could live in peace again and complement each other.

Kurt G. Sell and his radio series

A few days of internet searches haven't turned up all that much about Sell or his series of radio reports but I did find mentions in two books and an essay (see the links section at the end of this post). The following information is from these three sources and don't necessarily count as verified facts:

Sell lived from 1884 to 1949. He returned to Germany as part of an exchange of German and American diplomats in 1942. A radio series called either Wovon or Woran man in Amerika spricht ran every second Friday from 20.00 to 20.15, starting in September 1931. The US National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) had a "German Hour" every second Sunday, consisting of programmes from the Reichs-Rundfunkgesellschaft (RRG) and in return they offered reports from Sell, who was working for the Wolff Büro (WTB - similar organisation to Reuters) in New York. In one source he's described as Consul, in another as a former diplomat. Some of his work was funded by the Vereinigte Presseabteilung der Reichsregierung (the centralised government press office of the Weimar Republic).

The purpose of Sell's reports seems to have been to provide background information about recent events in the USA, covering subjects such as economics, society, general life, politics and sport and Sell is described as Germany's first foreign correspondent in the USA. The series seems to have be fairly popular, although one person complained that you could get more detailed, up to date information from good newspapers.

German news agencies under investigation

We can get an impression of the man and the world he worked in by looking at some of his colleagues and superiors, who certainly seem to have been in a precarious position, caught between the German and American political and press systems. For example, Sell crops up in a biography of diplomat Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff. According to the extract, Dieckhoff found that a report from "Washington DNB boss" Sell played down American attitudes too much, and so he tried to suppress it by sending it to the authorities, rather than to the newspapers:

Im Gegensatz zu Dieckhoff hatte Sell nicht nur die Ansicht vertreten, ,,daß Roosevelt [bei der kommenden Präsidentschaftswahl 1940] nicht wieder kandidieren wird", sondern zudem gemeldet, daß das amerikanische Volk ,,trotz teilweise sehr scharfen Kriik an Deutschland, bisher jedenfalls fest entschlossen "sei, nicht aktiv am Krieg teilzunehmen". (p.201)

Translation: In contrast to Dieckhoff, Sell not only expressed the opinion "that Roosevelt wouldn't stand for office again [in the upcoming 1940 presidential election]", but also reported that the American people, "despite occasionally very sharp criticism of Germany, have however so far completely made up their minds not to take part actively in the war"

Another important lead on Sell's life and situation comes from the foreword to Worüber man in Amerika spricht, which ends with the following:

Wir danken Herrn Dr. Joseph Hunck, den von 1933 bis zur Internierung im Dezember 1941 als deutscher Schriftleiter in New York tätig war.

Translation: Our thanks go to Dr. Joseph Hunck, who was worked as a German editor in New York from 1933 until his detention in 1941.

A search for the good Dr. Hunck brought me to an archive whose existence was a very pleasant suprise: Investigation Of Un-American Propaganda Activities In The United States Special Committee On Un-American Activities. Amongst the very varied interview transcripts (including one attempting to establish whether a Russian publishing house was paying royalties to Stalin) are several letters and telegrams concerning the Transocean News Service. The following extracts give an impression of their daily business, problems with anti-German sentiment in the US, and their hiring policies. (There were many typos in the original document, most of which I've corrected.)

"Exhibit No. 125 is a letter from Manfred Zapp to the Depeschen-Bureau Europapress in Frankfurt, Germany, suggesting to this organization that he, Zapp, could furnish his publication with news from the United States":

Dear Mr. Nuesgen: Yesterday I received through the Press Attache in the German Embassy in Washington your letter of January 15th addressed to him in which you request him to name a suitable racially pure German editor who could regularly furnish you articles and fillers from the United States.
Inasmuch as there are, unfortunately, only very few German editors in America who are not occupied 150 percent of their time, it is difficult to find an editor who would be available for this work. However, I have made great efforts in this direction. For the duration of the illness of Mr. Tonn, I have asked Dr. Joseph Hunck, who also works in our office here, to send you monthly two articles and one letter with fillers. Dr. Hunck will be glad to take this for the duration of the illness of Dr. Tonn. I have also discussed the matter with Tonn, who is leaving New York today in order to recuperate further in Florida. For the next two months it will be impossible to count on a return of Mr. Tonn.
I assume that you will handle the payments in the same manner as heretofore, and that you will transmit 150 Marks per month to Frau Hertha Hunck, Wilhelm Raabestrasse 12, Hamburg-Grossflottbeck instead of Mr. Tonn. I hope that this will serve you.
With kind regards and Heil Hitler!

"Exhibit No, 128 is a communication from Kreutzenstein to Mr. Tonn, under date of September 27, 1939."
The State Department is taking it upon itself to scare our American people away from us, and does not even stop at threats. Various people who have been recommended to me by Transocean, United Press and others refuse only a few hours later to work for us. Some of them opened up right away and said that one had scared them, and later on I learned through the United Press that Dorcy Fisher and McDermott of the Press Division of the State Department took particular delight in enlightening the people with what a "dangerous" enterprise they had become tied up and that soon it would go tough on them. Mr. Von Strempel is of the opinion that after the experiences which Mr. Sell allegedly already has made, that it would be better for us to have a female secretary for the office, who would also service the teletype while I move on the outside. I have another man in prospect for the beginning of next week but it is highly probable that before that time he will take it on the lam [sic]. By the way, there is a bullmarket for journalists with a little experience, and everybody is turning up their noses when I talk of $30. Just for that reason alone I had preferred to teach somebody the ropes so that afterwards I could be sure of him."

There's a full list of employees of the Transocean News Service but Sell's name does not appear. There are a few mentions of a "Kurt", including one where he speculates about American public opinion (which could be linked to the Dieckhoff argument) but there are rather a lot of "Kurts" mentioned in the archives.


Why am I so interested in this book that I've spent a few weeks of my life scouring the internet for all traces of it's author? Simply because it's a great source to sharpen my history skills on. It's a cultural guide to America, written by a man who spent years in the country and professes a great admiration for it, but who was arrested, imprisoned and shipped off home when the two countries went to war against one another. On the other hand, many sections of the book are strongly influenced by aspects of Nazi ideology. Over the next few weeks I'll post extracts from the book, grouped into rough themes, and (time permitting) discuss to what extent Sell was writing as a man of 1930s America, a supporter of the Nazi regime, or a man trying to get his book approved by the censors in 1940s Germany.

Obviously, any relevant information which is flung my way would be gratefully received.


Meanwhile, over in the States... "Pop Sensation" is a simple but brilliant blog of one man's vintage paperback collection. Bibliophiles rock!

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