The Missing Fascists

Surprising to no one, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia announced his intent to run for re-election in 1937. Having narrowly won over a very divided field in 1933, the mayor faced a splintered Democratic Party four years later. Borough leaders favored entrepreneur Grover Whalen in the party primary while Tammany Hall's leadership supported U. S. Senator Royal Copeland.

Eventually, in an effort to unite the party, both camps settled on former New York Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah T. Mahoney. Now president of the Amateur Athletic Union, Mahoney unsuccessfully led the fight to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. LaGuardia would go on to defeat Mahoney by almost half a million votes in November, but, the mayor's re-election didn't seem that inevitable that spring.

On March 3, LaGuardia spoke at the second annual luncheon meeting of the women's division of the American Jewish Congress at the Hotel Astor. 1,000 individuals paid $20 a plate, raising funds to combat Nazism in the United States and maintain a clubhouse for German refugees.

In his address, the mayor supported the idea of a religious freedom pavilion at the upcoming 1939 New York World's Fair propagated by Michael Williams, editor of the Catholic publication The Commonweal. However, LaGuardia went a step further. The mayor suggested constructing a "Chamber of Horrors" annex climaxing with "a figure of that brown-shirted fanatic who is now menacing the peace of the world."

LaGuardia asserted world peace was rightly a concern of the United States. "When any nation goes wild because it is morally and financially bankrupt, it is time for America to call attention of it to the world." The speech received wild applause.

Reaction from Germany was quick

Goebbels' Nazi mouthpiece, Der Angriff (The Attack), noted "the feeling of nausea (the mayor) arouses in our stomachs" and labeled him a "Jewish ruffian" who conspired with his "Communist Jewish gangster comrades." Hypocritically the paper stated, "We do not intend to descend to the gutter where La Guardia gets his expressions."

Under the headline "Dirty Talmud Jew Becomes Impudent," the German paper Beobatcher called for Americans to place the mayor in an insane asylum or prison. However, in the United States, the German-American Republican League simply urged New York voters to defeat the mayor at the polls in November.

The New York Times' editorial page referenced Thomas Mann's Nobel Prize address cautioning speakers that "improvisation was a violation of esthetic economy." The editors expressed concern over LaGuardia's single sentence towards one "whom criticism is intolerant." But the mayor refused to bow to any political pressure.

"I stand by what I said. Mr. Hitler's government was quick to recognize that I meant him. I don't know whether this was because of a guilty conscience or of my powers of description." And a week later LaGuardia declared the German chancellor was not "sotisfaktlonsfachig," a German term he rendered as "beneath accepting a challenge to duel" but more commonly translated as "a cad" or "a yellow dog."

Das Angriff retaliated. The news source compared Hitler's accomplishments in Germany to those of George Washington in the United States. The paper further emphasized, "We Germans demand that in dealing with us courtesy be employed to which we have been accustomed for 2,000 years." With unseemly haste, Secretary of State Cordell Hull issued an apology disavowing the mayor's remarks from federal government policy.

The New Republic compared Hull's response to "the bow in a minuet, that (has) become traditional in the diplomatic charade." The magazine urged the German press to reciprocate. However, the only response by the Germans was to publish a photograph of Chancellor Hitler discussing the rebuilding of Berlin with Albert Speer.

Bad feelings between the German dictator and the New York mayor continued throughout the decade. In 1939, a German-American received a letter from a friend in Germany containing a list of Americans scheduled for the concentration camps when Hitler arrived in the United States. Mayor LaGuardia headed the list, followed by Walter Winchell and Dorothy Thompson.

LaGuardia generally received support throughout the nation's press. The (Orange City, Iowa) Sioux County Capital breathed an editorial sigh of relief that after making faces at each other "the Atlantic Ocean between them (would) soften their expressions." However, the Lima (Ohio) News while finding the whole incident amusing still worried "it does give us one more nudge in the direction of emotional preparedness for war." And the Titusville (PA) Herald hypothesized that "both Hitler and LaGuardia may be looking for jobs" by the time of the fair in 1939.

While the two nations' governments and press grappled with the mayor's comments, the concept of a Chamber of Horrors at the world's fair detailing Nazi atrocities captured the public's imagination. George Ross'"In New York" column informed readers entertainment entrepreneur Billy Rose sat at his favorite table in New York's Versailles restaurant, planning just such a pavilion.

The fair's president, Grover Whalen, quickly squashed any opportunity to further the plans, however. In a letter addressed to the co-chairmen of the Joint Boycott Council, Whalen responded to a request for space to erect a "chamber of horrors" exhibit. He rejected the application of "a building different in character and use from any that our rules permit." Whalen's continued to hope Germany itself would exhibit at the fair.

Of the major world powers, only China, Spain and Germany had deferred plans following President Roosevelt's invitation to attend the exposition. Concerns increased about German participation when Dr. Johannes Borchers, consul General for Germany in New York City, failed to attend a dinner hosted by Grover Whalen at the Metropolitan Club.

Dr. Borches wrote "Circumstances arose which were self- evident and which made me revise my original acceptance." Later that year, Herbert S. Houston relayed to the American Chamber of Commerce Germany's concern "because of something Mayor La Guardia might say or do." Mr. Houston remarked that the United States cooperated in the German Olympics "without racial or religious bias in any way" and urged the organization to impress this idea upon its members.

In mid-December, 1937 a representative of the German government arrived in New York City to negotiate space for a national pavilion. By the end of the month, Dr. Borchers signed an agreement in Grover Whalen's office to lease 100,000 square feet in the fair's government zone. Dr. Borchers expressed: "Today augers well for a cordial relationship in the years to come between this great country and my own." On December 31, flags of the sixty-two participating nations, including the German swastika, flew for the first time over the Queens fairgrounds.

On the fifth anniversary of Hitler's ascension to power, the Joint Boycott Council of the American Jewish Congress and the Jewish Labor committee met at the Manhattan Opera House. The response of the meeting was sent to Whalen declaring that if the world's fair did not withdraw its invitation to Germany, the fair would be "picketed by a walking Chamber of Horrors." The threat was unneeded.

Four months later, Germany's plans changed dramatically. A new mindset seemed to form within German governmental circles: a New York world's fair without Mayor LaGuardia or a Fascist boycott of the same.

In a meeting in the Washington office of Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles, Germany's ambassador, Dr. Hans H. Dieckhoff, informed the U. S. government Germany had decided to withdraw from the 1939 fair. The ambassador regretted this decision, citing currency exchange problems. The excuse didn't hold water in American minds.

Germany had allocated $1,000,000 for its pavilion and exhibits and another million for daily expenses. U. S. bankers surmised the German government was hording those appropriations in a "war chest." Inside sources noted an undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the United States' refusal to allocate helium to the German government.

Grover Whalen, when informed of Germany's decision, said the allocated parcel would now be divided among smaller nations who had previously been excluded due to lack of available space. Those in line to participate were Chile, Venezuela, Portugal, Switzerland, Hungary and China. And Mayor LaGuardia stated in a speech in St. Louis that despite the government's withdrawal from the fair, Germany would be represented by its arts and sciences contributed to the world over the years.

With no formal German presence at the fair, a movement soon developed for a "Germany-in-Exile" pavilion to be constructed. Thomas Mann, the prominent Noble Prize winning refugee, proposed the pavilion would be an opportunity to show that German exiles were more than critics and victims of an evil system. They were doers and creators. The New York Times editors allowed they would not run short of material.

By early January, 1939 the "Germany-in-Exile" ideal morphed into the "Freedom Pavilion." At a cocktail party at the River Club, supporters presented plans to raise $250,000 by popular subscription to erect the pavilion. Subtitled "Germany Yesterday – Germany Tomorrow" the detailed project was hailed as "a tribute to the Germany which enriched the world by its achievement."

Former New York Governor and presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith expressed the opinion of those present that "I have never believed and I never will believe that the present government of Germany is in keeping with the heart of the German people."

The committee sought the 30,000 square feet of exhibition space fronting on Rainbow Avenue recently vacated by the Libbey – Owens – Ford Glass Company. Plans called for a café staffed by waiters and waitresses in Viennese costumes serving to an orchestra playing Viennese waltzes.

The German press decried the idea of the "Freedom Pavilion" as the work of Jewish emigrants trying to bait Germany. It hypothesized the "Germany of Tomorrow" portion would display "nothing of the world accomplishments of the Third Reich". The government also claimed the "Germany of Yesterday" would not emphasize the reality of a "Jewish-managed colony" of the Allies.

Within three weeks, the idea of the "Freedom Pavilion" was abandoned. Although the committee featured many prominent sponsors, including Mayor LaGuardia, Marshall Field, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Robert Moses and Nicholas Murray Butler, with funds to proceed lacking and the opening date of the fair set at April 30 the project seemed an impossible quest.

Frieda Kirchwey lamented in The Nation: "The death of Freedom Pavilion carries its own moral. It was only an idea and it required a lot of money. (However) very rich people don't like ideas that create controversy and threaten to disturb the status quo."

And so the 1939 New York World's Fair opened on April 30 without formal German representation. William Ritt wrote in his column: "Hitler is ignoring New York's World of Tomorrow. Now if he'd only let the World of Today alone, too!" And another take on Germany's absence, this time by columnist Henry Beckett, brought to light the national characteristics of the threatened independent countries with special fervor.

The Nazi salute brought about an unusual amount of controversy at the fair. The Seminole Indians, situated in the Entertainment Zone, protested that for generations the salute of the raised hand with an open palm meant that Indians were meeting one another without arms and in real friendship. Frederick Liebler, the leader of the New Jersey Bund, countered that he and his followers did not think of Indians, but Germany, when raising their hands in salute.

The Art Guild uncharacteristically suggested an official world's fair salute to counter "the Heil Hitler." The organizations advocated putting the thumb and forefinger together making a circle and then placing the middle finger straight out – like the Trylon and Perisphere.

During the July 4 ceremonies in The Court of Peace, Mayor LaGuardia, who seemingly started the whole ruckus with Germany, had the final words on the matter. "How does a dictator start on his way? By first picking the weakest minority, abusing and oppressing it; then moving on to another. Here in this land our children from every country have put aside the vices of their ancestors and held fast to their virtues."