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White House to become Brown House: the April Fool Führer

On April Fools’ Day 1940, a speech broadcast by the BBC to Germany and Austria apparently by Adolf Hitler himself seemed to raise the prospect of the United States being drawn into WW2 more swiftly than had been expected. Citing his desire to protect the Czech and Polish minorities in New York, and the importance of German science and technology in his discovery of America, the Führer set out his demand that the United States become a German protectorate. In one fell swoop he also announced plans to reinvent the New York skyline, remove the Statue of Liberty to alleviate traffic congestion, and rename the White House the ‘Brown House’.

Miller.1/1/1. Typescript of 'Der Führer spricht' ('The Führer speaks'), 1940

Miller 1/1/1. Typescript of ‘Der Führer spricht’ (‘The Führer speaks’), 1940

The broadcast was received with consternation in the United States, where it led the CBS network to contact the BBC in a panic to ask after its source.1 It came, after all, as the German military build-up to the invasion of western Europe was reaching its peak: the invasion of Norway and Denmark followed just a few days later on 9 April, and that of Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and France only a month later, in May 1940.

The speech was, in fact, a spoof, written and performed by Martin Miller and commissioned for a live radio broadcast on the BBC’s European service, whose directors were keen to use it as part of their propaganda war against Germany. The April Fools’ speech, ‘Der Führer spricht‘, was the first in a series of Hitler speech parodies which Martin wrote and performed for the BBC between 1940 and 1942. Last year a tape recording of the 1940 broadcast was added to the collection and and digitised, and from this a video with English subtitles has been created. This is the only recording of Martin’s Hitler parodies to have survived, although a post about another of Martin’s spoof speeches can be found here.

Miller 2/16. BBC contract for Hitler speech parody radio broadcast, 1940

Miller 2/16. BBC contract for Hitler speech parody radio broadcast, 1940

Martin had in fact written the speech earlier in the year for a performance at the Austrian exile theatre, the Laterndl (photograph below), where it was seen by around 6000 viewers in the course of its three-month run in the cabaret show Blinklichter. In the audience at one of the performances was the BBC’s Head of the German Section of the Political Warfare Executive, Richard Crossman, who subsequently arranged for Martin to repeat the performance for radio broadcast.2

Miller 3/1/1/2. Martin Miller as the Führer, Laterndl, January 1940

Miller 3/1/1/2. Martin Miller as the Führer, Laterndl, January 1940

Laterndl audiences were perhaps more used to viewing satirical sketches relating to current events in Germany and Austria, as this was the core material of the Kleinkunstbühne. For most British audiences, however, the use of satire in the theatre to stir up anti-Nazi feeling was relatively new. Even in the late 1930s stage representations of Hitler were banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, and a number of theatres were refused licences for plays which critically depicted events in Nazi Germany. Developments in Germany were at that time still considered to be ‘no direct concern of ours’, and it was felt undesirable that a theatre should become a centre of anti-Nazi feeling.3 Just three years before Martin’s parody of the Führer was commissioned by the BBC, a British actor was prosecuted and fined for his humorous caricature of Hitler at the Kings Theatre in Hammersmith. The sentence was reported with disapproval in Germany, where the Nazi paper, Der Angriff, commented that it was a ‘lenient punishment for impertinence’ and that ‘England does her duty lackadaisically’.4 One can only imagine the Nazis’ reaction to Miller’s brilliant and biting satire of 1940 – this time it was not reported in the Nazi press!

Miller 2/8. Letter from Julius Bab to Martin Miller, 20 April 1940

Miller 2/8. Letter from Julius Bab to Martin Miller, 20 April 1940

Martin’s ability to capture the Führer’s vocabulary, rhythm, intonation in a speech containing the same warped logic of a real Hitler speech made his name as an actor in circles well beyond those in London’s Austrian exile community. The letter above from 20 April 1940 gives some indication of the impact that the parody had on anti-Nazis in the countries under the direct threat of invasion. Julius Bab, the German theatre critic and journalist with whom Martin had worked at the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Berlin, wrote from exile in Paris to inform him that news of his parody been reported by the prominent French journalist and historian, Geneviève Tabouis, at a conference in the city two days earlier.

The letter (roughly translated) reads:

This G. Tb. [Geneviève Tabouis] held a conference on 18 April 1940 in the Marigny Theatre [in Paris]. It was oversubscribed and has to be held a second time. She talked about Hitler’s plans. In the course of this she said:

In London there is now an excellent Austrian actor, Miller, who, at a cabaret club, does a splendid imitation of Hitler. He declared (as Hitler!) recently: ‘Columbus discovered America with a German compass. So America actually belongs to Germany!’

She continued with her account, in great detail. To much amusement! I thought you would enjoy hearing about this!

There can be no doubt that Martin would have been pleased with this news of the impact of the parody. As well as the reports of the reaction abroad, several British newspapers reported on the spoof broadcast, including the News Chronicle, which featured the story on its front page.5 Most importantly for Martin, it would have been a way of fighting back against the evil of National Socialism. On a personal level it also secured his reputation as a brilliant impersonator and actor at the BBC, the most important broadcasting institution in the country that was to become his new home.

Footnotes

1 Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigres: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism (London: Pimlico, 2003), p. 134.
2 Charmian Brinson, ‘The Go-Between: Martin Miller’s Career in Broadcasting’, in German-speaking Exiles in the Performing Arts in Britain after 1933, ed. by Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove, The Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 5 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013), pp. 3-16 (p. 4).
3 Dominic Shellard and Steve Nicholson, The Lord Chamberlain regrets …: a History of British Theatre Censorship (London: The British Library, 2004), p. 117).
4 Shellard and Nicholson, p. 120.
5 Brinson, p. 5.

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