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.