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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.

A New Year’s message from Miller’s Führer: ‘Only I will decide when the year has ended!’

I mentioned in a previous blog that Martin Miller was asked to broadcast his parody of a Hitler speech on the BBC’s German Service radio as a follow-on from his original Hitler sketch at the Laterndl in January 1940. The first speech was broadcast on 1 April 1940, but the BBC regarded it as successful enough to have him perform several variations on the spoof over the following two years.1

Martin Miller as Hitler at the <em>Laterndl</em> in <em>Blinklichter</em>, 1940

Martin Miller as Hitler at the Laterndl in Blinklichter, 1940

There are numerous drafts of several of Martin’s parodic speeches in the collection. To mark New Year 2013 (well, just about!) I thought I would translate and post the first section of one entitled ‘Hitler’s New Year Message’, which was broadcast at 9.00 pm on 27 December 1941.

Spoof message from Hitler, December 1941

Spoof message from Hitler, December 1941

Roughly translated, the speech reads as follows:

Members of the armed forces and National Socialist German men and women! My message today coincides with the end of the year; of the year 1941, for which I have guaranteed you the final victory. But this year has only ended in calendar terms – in that Gregorian calendar, which was imposed on the German world by a Roman Pope by the name of Gregor, bribed by international Jewry and Freemasons!!! Should we National Socialists, who have given the world a new order, allow ourselves to be dictated to by shady foreign characters about when a year begins and ends? No, my fellow Germans, when a German year starts and ends, that will be decided by me alone!

This speech, like the other parodies of Hitler that Martin wrote and performed, captures the expressions, sentence structure and confused logic typical of Hitler’s orations. A German colleague of Martin’s at the BBC later stated that his imitations were brilliantly funny, because they were as realistic as they could get.2 The speech would certainly have been instantly recognisable as a mockery of the Führer to the secret BBC radio listeners in Germany and Austria.

The BBC began to use satire in their broadcasts as a part of their propaganda war against the Third Reich in 1940, and Martin’s impersonations appear to have been regarded by them as a significant part of this campaign. In a letter dated 6 October 1942 to the German and Austrian Labour Exchange, the BBC wrote that ‘when we wished to give an imitation of Hitler speaking, Mr Miller has both written a script and performed. He is the only man in London we have been able to find to do this’.

Footnotes
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 (pp. 130-131), and Charmian Brinson, ‘The Go-Between: Martin Miller’s Career in Broadcasting’, in Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, vol. 14 (Amsterdam: Rodopi, forthcoming).
2 Carl Brinitzer, Hier spricht London: von einem der dabei war (Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1969), p. 112.

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 http://www.soyfer.at/deutsch/auffuehrungen_1934-1945.htm.

<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.

 Footnotes
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.