Cataloguing the Martin Miller and Hannah Norbert Miller Archive

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July 2020

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.


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.

Refugee life and organisations

The Millers were most closely associated with the Austrian exile theatre company, the Laterndl, but their papers also contain documents relating to a number of other political and cultural organisations established by members of the 30,000-strong Austrian refugee community.1 The organisations shown here had various aims, including helping other potential refugees still in Nazi-occupied territory to escape, improving the daily life of the refugees in the UK, and focusing attention on how to build a better Austria after the war. Such organisations would also have fulfilled a much-needed social function for the members themselves, as they created a sense of community and helped refugees overcome feelings of loss, hardship and alienation.2 

Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

Miller 2/151. Letter from Austrian Self-Aid, 1938

Probably the earliest document in the Miller collection relating to the refugee organisations is the above letter, which documents some of the desperate attempts by refugees already in the UK to help more victims of Nazi persecution to emigrate, as the wave of Nazi terror in Vienna increased in 1938. It was written by the founders of ‘Austrian Self-Aid’, a ‘charitable, non-political organisation with the aim of providing assistance and information for other Austrian refugees in Britain’.2 Although the exiles who established it were mainly Communist Party members, they gave their political views a low profile in order not to alienate members of the general refugee community and to avoid difficulties with the British authorities. Unfortunately the second page of the letter is missing so the reason for writing is not certain, but since it was written in English and describes the difficulties of dealing with the immense demand for help given the group’s limited resources, it seems likely that it was intended for British supporters of the Austrian cause to request financial support.

British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (front), 1939

British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

Miller 5/3/3. British Council carol concert programme (inner), 1939

Another document in the collection, which illustrates one way in which the British authorities interacted positively with the refugee groups, is the above programme for a carol concert held at Sadler’s Wells Theatre on Christmas Eve 1939. The concert was organised by the Resident Foreigners’ Committee of the British Council, which had recently been established to provide educational and cultural support to refugees and allied service personnel.3 As the programme shows, the concert included performances by Czech and Polish choirs, an ad hoc group of German-speaking actors (most of whom were members of one or other of the established German-language exile theatre companies in London) led by Martin Miller, as well as the well-travelled British singing group, Fleet Street Choir 4 Below is a letter from the British Council to Martin sent after the event, congratulating him on the success of the production and thanking him for the Austrians’ hard work.

Letter from the British Council, 1939

Miller 2/17. Letter from the British Council, 1939

For many Austrian refugees, the heart of the exile community was the Austrian Centre (AC). Located in Westbourne Terrace in Paddington, London, it was set up by Communist refugees as a self-help organisation to provide support for the community. The above flyer for the AC, dated 30 July 1942, gives information on the Centre’s events, facilities and publications. It shows, for example, the range of Austrian specialities on the menu of the Centre’s restaurant, such as ‘Fridattensuppe’ (broth with sliced pancake), ‘Polsterzipf’ (sweet pastries) and ‘Faschiertes mit Spinat’ (minced meat with spinach). It lists entertainment events organised by refugees at the AC, such as the Laterndl’s production Spiel im Schloss and the première of a farce by Franz und Paul von Schönthan: Raub der Sabinerinnen. It also notifies readers of forthcoming information events concerning the British internment of refugees as enemy aliens, and of a new translation service provided by the AC for members needing to have their documents translated into English.

Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

Miller 1/2/3/2. Austrian Centre info sheet, Jul 1942

Also advertised on the AC flyer is the Centre’s own German-language newspaper, the Zeitspiegel, which was claimed to be ‘unentbehrlich für jeden Emigranten’ (‘indispensible for every emigrant’). This was a weekly paper focusing on topics of most relevance to the refugees, such as antisemitism, the internment situation, and events in Austria and Germany. For example, this edition from the collection (below) reports on developments in Vienna, where hunger, exhaustion and sabotage were apparently dramatically reducing war production.

Miller 5/4. "Zeitspiegel" (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

Miller 5/4. “Zeitspiegel” (no. 46, 15 November 1941)

Finally, this flyer from 1941 highlights some of the key political issues that were considered of particular importance by at least some of the Austrian refugee community at the time. It advertised a series of public debates organised by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’ (‘The coming Austria’), at the Mary Ward Settlement in Tavistock Place, London. The discussion topics included the position of the Austrian Communists with regard to unity in the fight against Hitler; the prerequisites for a Central European federation; and the legal position of Austrian refugees and their incorporation into war production and civil defence.

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, 'Das kommende Österreich'

Miller 5/3/7. Flyer for a series of discussion evenings hosted by the association, ‘Das kommende Österreich’

This figure is from Anthony Grenville, ‘The Emigration of Austrians to Britain after 1938 and the Early Years of Settlement: a Survey’, in Immortal Austria: Austrians in Exile in Britain, ed. by Charmian Brinson, Richard Dover and Jennifer Taylor, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 8 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2006), pp. 3-17 (p. 3).
2 Andrea Reiter, ‘Introduction’ in ‘I didn’t want to float; I wanted to belong to something.’ Refugee Organisations in Britain 1933-1945′, ed. by Anthony Grenville and Andrea Reiter, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 10 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), pp. ix-xvi (pp. x-xi).
3 Charmian Brinson, ‘Eva Kolmer and the Austrian Emigration in Britain, 1938-1946’, in German-speaking Exiles in Great Britain, ed. by Anthony Grenville, Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 2 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2000), pp. 143-169 (p. 145).

The Laterndl re-alights at 153 Finchley Road

Three months after the government’s enforced closure of theatres at the start of the Second World War, the rules were relaxed as it appeared there was no immediate danger of bombing raids. In January 1940 the Laterndl reopened in new and larger premises at 153 Finchley Road in Hampstead, north London. The company’s first production there was their second Kleinkunst revue-style show, Blinklichter (or Beacons), which was composed of sketches by Albert Fuchs, Karl Stefan, Rudolf Spitz and Peter Preses. One sketch in particular was to spread Martin Miller’s name far beyond the bounds of the Laterndl and its audiences. His impersonation of Hitler at the Laterndl in this show led to his invitation to broadcast the speech on BBC radio.1

<em>Blinklichter</em> programme, 1940 (photocopy)

Blinklichter programme, 1940 (photocopy)

It was at 153 Finchley Road that Hannah first became actively involved with the Laterndl. Until then, Hannah had only been to the Laterndl as an audience member and had only met Martin briefly whilst working on a play in Austria. She accepted the role of English language conférencier (the term for ‘master of ceremonies’ in European cabaret) for Blinklichter, a job for which Fritz Schrecker and Martin Miller had tracked her down specially, knowing that she spoke good English.2 She then went on to take her first acting role on a London stage in two of the sketches in the company’s third Kleinkunstprogramm: Von Adam bis Adolf in February 1940.

Scripts for <em>Laterndl</em> shows 2 and 3, 1940

Scripts for Laterndl shows 2 and 3, 1940

The Laterndl’s new premises also saw the start of a programme of organised evenings dedicated to particular writers who had taken a critical stand against the growing National Socialistst threat to Austria in the 1930s. A series of evenings was held for Jura Soyfer, for example, who was an Austrian Jewish socialist journalist who had written plays for the cabaret stage in Vienna in the 1930s. Soyfer was known personally to some of the Laterndl players, and after his death in Buchenwald in February 1939 they were determined to keep alive his memory through the staging and reading of his works.  The three Welttheater shows performed in January 1940 were composed of his plays Der Lechner Edi schaut ins Paradies, Vineta, die versunkene Stadt and Der treueste Bürger Bagdads. For more information on Soyfer see

<em>Laterndl</em> events programme January 1940

Laterndl events programme January 1940

The last show to be performed at 153 Finchley Road was Brecht’s Dreigroschenoper in May 1940, one of a number of a number of full-length dramas the company would produce as part of their Weltliteratur evenings. However, the players were now confronted with a problem facing all refugees from Germany and Austria in 1940: the internment of enemy aliens.  Rehearsals saw the part of Mack the Knife played by three different male actors, as the first two actors were interned and had to be replaced. The loss of its main actors made it too difficult for the company to continue, and the Laterndl closed again, this time for 15 months.

1 Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove, ‘«Just about the best actor in England»: Martin Miller in London, 1939 bis 1945’, in Exilforschung: ein internationales Jahrbuch, ed. by Claus-Dieter Krohn (Munich: Text und Kritik, 1983- ), XXI: Film und Fotografie, ed. by Claus-Dieter Krohn and others (2003), pp. 129-140 (p. 130).
2 Archive of the Institute of Germanic and Romance Studies, University of London, Exile Archive, Interview with Hannah Norbert Miller by Charmian Brinson, December 1995.

The opening of the first Austrian exile theatre in London

Some of the most interesting items in this collection are the scripts, photographs, theatre programmes and press reviews that the Millers accumulated whilst working in exile theatre companies in London in the late 1930s and 1940s. This post gives a brief history of the opening of the main theatre company with which the Millers were associated, which was also the first German language exile theatre to be established in London: the Laterndl (or Lantern).

The Laterndl was founded by three Austrian refugees who wanted to keep alive the tradition of Viennese theatre and provide a home for Austrian drama and literature: Fritz Schrecker, Franz Schulz and Franz Hartl (a.k.a. Franz Bönsch).  The latter, Franz Bönsch, later explained that they were driven by the desire to take part in the fight for an independent and free Austria. They also viewed the establishment of a German-speaking theatre as a way of relieving the uprooted and desperate exiles’ homesickness, giving them hope and a belief in the future.1

<em>Laterndl</em> advert

Laterndl advert 1939

 The Laterndl‘s first performance took place on 21 June 1939 with the role of director undertaken by Martin, who had arrived in London in March of that year. In these early days of the company’s existence, its home was the Austrian Centre near Paddington, a self-help organisation set up by Austrian refugees to provide assistance and advice to other exiles. The photograph below is the only photograph I have come across which shows the interior of the rooms where the Laterndl performed at the Austrian Centre. In it you can see Martin with Grete Hartwig watching a rehearsal of the first Laterndl production, Unterwegs (On the Road), a revue-style composition of nine short sketches. The photo gives some idea of the limited space the company had in which to practise and perform: the auditorium held 60 to 70 seats, and the stage measured just five by three metres.2

<em>Laterndl</em> rehearsal for <em>Unterwegs</em> at the Austrian Centre, 1939

Laterndl rehearsal for Unterwegs at the Austrian Centre, 1939

Unterwegs was typical of many of the Laterndl’s productions in the early years of its existence, when the group was heavily influenced by the Viennese version of cabaret known as Kleinkunstbühne. This was a politically-charged, often satirical form of revue theatre which had grown out of the politically and culturally repressive conditions of the Austrian capital in the mid- to late-1930s. The Laterndl’s Kleinkunst shows consisted of short plays and sketches written  by members of the group which attempted to stoke political awareness of the situation in Austria and Germany.

Cultural roots of the <em>Laterndl</em> 1939

Cultural roots of the Laterndl 1939

As the Laterndl’s published list of patrons and participants shows, the company was supported by influential figures in the British and Austrian cultural scenes from the beginning. It gained patronage from the playwright Ashley Dukes, the film actress Luise Rainer, the Times journalist Wickham Steed, and the London PEN Club (on which see for more information). Amongst the visitors on its opening night were the Austrian writer and novelist Stefan Zweig, the Austrian parodist Robert Neumann, and the English authors H.G. Wells and J.B. Priestley.3

<em>Laterndl</em> patrons and participants, 1939

Laterndl patrons and participants, 1939

Although the prime target was the German-speaking exile community, the comments below republished from the British press indicate that it was not only they who appreciated the contribution the Laterndl was to make to London’s wartime cultural life.

Media reaction to <em>Laterndl</em>, 1940

Media reaction to Unterwegs, republished in Laterndl advert 1940

The Laterndl’s first production was considered a great success and the company went on to perform it to full houses almost 60 times between June and August. However, these activities were curtailed by the outbreak of the Second World War in September, when all theatres and places of public entertainment were forced to close because of the potential danger from air raids. Even in the relative safety of London, the refugees’ activities were shaped by the actions of the regime from which they had escaped.

1 Franz Bönsch, ‘Das österreichische Exiltheater ‘Laterndl’ in London’, in Österreicher im Exil 1934 bis 1945: Protokoll des internationalen Symposiums zur Erforschung des österreichischen Exils von 1934 bis 1945, abgehalten vom 3. bis 6. Juni 1975 in Wien, ed. by Helene Maimann and Heinz Linzer (Vienna: Dokumentationsarchiv des Österreichischen Widerstandes und Dokumentationsstelle für Neuere Österreichische Literatur, 1977), pp. 441-450, (p. 441).
2 Richard Dove, ‘Acting for Austria: the Laterndl and other Austrian theatre groups’, in Out of Austria: the Austrian Centre in London in World War II, ed. by Marietta Bearman and others (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2008), pp. 113-140, (p. 114).
3 Dove, p. 114.