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Culture

When Americans Thought Hitler Had Been Killed — In 1939

On April 1, 1939, Hitler was in a very bad mood.

The previous day the Führer had learned that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had grown something resembling a spine. After reversing Britain’s policy of appeasement on March 15, following Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia, on March 31 Chamberlain made a pledge of Anglo-French support to Poland should the Nazis threaten the country’s independence. It began to look like the Reich’s plans for unchecked expansion would no longer be tolerated.

Though in a foul temper at that news, on April 1 Hitler was engaged to speak at the launch of a battleship in Wilhelmshaven in Lower Saxony. He appeared in the port town as scheduled but, sensing a tirade coming, ordered the radio broadcast of his remarks cancelled and replaced with a speech to be recorded later.

What happened next, as recounted in William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall Of The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany,” was a nasty April Fools day surprise. While Hitler’s demands were met, the news of the change came too late for the American broadcast.

Instead, the relay to American stations cut off after Hitler had already begun speaking, leading to the false impression in New York that the dictator had been interrupted by a bomb or bullet.

Crazier still, Shirer, who was embedded in Germany for CBS, got a call from his station in New York 15 minutes after the speech gave way to dead air to check in on the status of his Hitler assassination report.

“I could easily deny it because through an open telephone circuit to Wilhelmshaven I could hear Hitler shouting his speech,” Shirer wrote in “Rise and Fall.” “It would have been difficult to shoot the Fuehrer (sic) that day because he spoke behind a bulletproof glass enclosure.”

Hitler would live another six years and 29 days, surviving numerous attempts on his life before ending it himself in a bunker in Berlin. In the intervening years, his military ambitions and genocidal programs brought death to millions across Europe. But, for a brief and shining 15 minutes 80 years ago, Americans tuned into the speech might have believed the outbreak of war had been averted. History is cruel that way.

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture intern. He can be reached at grisar@forward.com

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