Review of “Against Time: Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939” from CHOICE, A Publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries


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I am delighted that the following review appeared on May 1, 2016, in CHOICE, a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.  


AGAINST TIME:  Letters from Nazi Germany, 1938-1939,  by Francis W. Hoeber

Francis Hoeber possesses, apparently, decades’ worth of materials from his family’s history.  However, he has chosen to publish only letters from 1938 and 1939, because they are truly exceptional in foregrounding human experience in the face of obliterating fascism.  His father, Johannes, had emigrated from Germany in 1938, with the idea that Elfriede would follow with their young daughter.  Complications arose.  Eventually they united, lived in the US, and raised their family.  That is a passive, objective summary.  In contrast, these letters, written by two literate, gifted writers, construct a deeply experienced history entwined with significant world events.  Genuine, emotional, human, rational—the letters exemplify precisely why published history needs such primary material. We can read or view synthesized historical accounts in textbooks or documentaries; we can summarize and categorize, intellectually.  However, only by absorbing the personal narratives of people who recount the events they lived through can readers approximate the feelings, the vibrant presence, the individual acts that enliven historical experience.  Through self-expressed microhistory, whether routine (running a business) or epochal (Kristallnacht), readers feel the macrohistory viscerally.  Hoeber provides relevant context in footnotes and summaries to orient readers.

Summing up:  Highly recommended.

–J. B. Wolford, University of Missouri—St. Louis

More information about Against Time is available by clicking here.

You can order the book directly from the publisher by clicking here.

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“The issue in this election … is the people against special privilege.” — President Truman’s 1948 speech written by a German refugee.

President Harry S. Truman, inscribed to Johannes U. Hoeber, February 2, 1949

Less than ten years after his arrival in America, Johannes Hoeber became a speech writer for the President of the United States.

In the brutal 1948 presidential election campaign, incumbent Harry Truman was the underdog.  A small group of researchers and speech writers helped him achieve his unlikely victory.  When the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt made Truman president in 1945, the Republican old guard launched a concerted attack on the social welfare achievements of Roosevelt’s New Deal.  Programs for the poor, the elderly, children, farmers, all were slashed by the Republican dominated 80th Congress.  President Truman fought back hard.  Though Truman lacked Roosevelt’s charisma, he had a sharp understanding of the needs of American working people and a plain-spoken manner that mass audiences could understand.  He launched a hard-hitting but fact-based campaign for reelection directed at the understanding and common sense of the American electorate. They rewarded his respect for their intelligence with a solid majority of votes in the November election.

To help President Truman articulate his message, the White House created a small research and writing staff headed by former liberal Pennsylvania congressional candidate William L. Batt, Jr.  Bill Batt selected five more people for the Research Division, as it came to be called, including his Philadelphia friend, Johannes Hoeber.    Johannes had gotten out of Nazi Germany in late 1938, but was fluent in English and versed in social democratic political principles.  Within weeks of his arrival he was enmeshed in a political reform effort in Philadelphia, and by 1943 was writing campaign speeches for the liberal Democratic candidate for mayor, William Christian Bullitt.  In 1947, Johannes became a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and president of its Philadelphia chapter.  For many years, the ADA provided national leadership in the struggles for civil rights, education, health care and services for the poor. Bill Batt met Johannes through the ADA, and sought out his research abilities and writing skill for Truman’s 1948 campaign.

The Research Division office was in a hot, noisy building near DuPont circle in Washington and its members were housed in a cheap, seedy hotel nearby.  This was before air conditioning, and Washington’s heat and humidity in July and August were formidable.  Nevertheless, the Research Division cranked out speech after speech, sending dozens of speech outlines as well as complete scripts to the White House for final editing by the President’s personal staff.

Speech drafted by Johannes U. Hoeber, as delivered by President Harry S. Truman, September 30, 1948

In late September, on short notice, Truman’s campaign staff added a stop for a major speech in Louisville, Kentucky.  No one else being available, Johannes wrote most of the speech himself, working through the weekend to get it done for the White House to review.  Johannes’ files include a note from the Research Division secretary saying how pleased his colleagues in the Division were that the President delivered the speech with few changes from Johannes’ draft.  You can read the full speech here. The Truman Presidential Library interviewed Johannes in 1966 about his work for the Research Division; you can read that interview here.

After President Truman’s reelection, Johannes and Elfriede were invited to the Presidential Inaugural Ball on January 20, 1949.  Their income, however, was far too modest to allow for the purchase of the obligatory ball gown, so Elfriede made her own .  She stitched a floor-length skirt of black velvet and a low-cut brightly colored top of remaindered upholstery fabric, and with it wore an antique cameo with pearls she inherited from Johannes’ mother.  Years later Elfriede recalled proudly that the materials for her Presidential ball gown cost her less than ten dollars.

A Rare Facility for Language

Professor Harold J. Laski's Letter of Recommendation for Johannes Höber, at the time an Exchange Student from Heidelberg University, 1927

As discussed in prior posts in this series,  Johannes Höber made a very rapid adjustment when he reached the United States in late 1938.  Within weeks of his arrival he was writing research and policy papers for the Philadelphia City Charter Committee and in less than a year he published an article on Pennsylvania politics in the National Municipal Review.  Knowing English before he arrived made all the difference.

Johannes’ education was a fortunate one.  After completing his third university year at Heidelberg in 1926, he was selected to be an exchange student at the London School of Economics.  He was 22, and he was the first German following World War I to be accepted as a university exchange student in England.  While he had some knowledge of English before he went to London, the experience there cemented his fluency both orally and in writing.  The year abroad also solidified Johannes’ political views.  He was influenced by the Fabian Socialists and met Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the latter a cofounder of the London School of Economics.  Most significantly, he had the opportunity to participate in Professor Harold J. Laski’s political science seminar.

Laski was a political theorist and author and, by the accounts of his students, a brilliant teacher who challenged his students to pursue clear thinking and rigorous analysis of political questions.  He was a leader in the British Labour Party and later in his life became a prominent public advocate for India’s independence.  In Laski’s seminar, Johannes had to argue with his fellow students and learned to articulate positions clearly and rationally — in English.  Writing about Hegel is a challenge for any university student, and it must have been an unusual paper to draw Laski’s accolade contained in the letter above.  Johannes must have worked very hard to write it in clear and accurate English.

After he returned to Germany from London in 1927, Johannes rarely had the opportunity to use his English over the next ten years.  He retained enough of what he learned, however, to be able to summon it up when he left Nazi Germany behind in 1938 and adopted America as his new country.  His ability to articulate political ideas in English led him to unusual opportunities, to be described in the next post here.

Johannes had an exceptional facility for languages, but he was also totally unconcerned about appearing foolish if he didn’t know someone’s language.  He was undaunted in communicating any way he could.  Many years after the events described above, in the 1950s, our family traveled to Mexico and Johannes got around surprisingly well by speaking Latin to the Mexicans he encountered!

A Rapid Entry into the Life of the New Country — Philadelphia Reform, 1939

Johannes U. Hoeber, arrived in the United States on December 22, 1938 at the age of 35.  Just nine months later, he published his first article on American reform politics in the National Municipal Review, a professional journal of public administration.  How did he accomplish that so quickly?

Johannes was had  intelligence, energy, and a good education (Ph.D. from Heidelberg) as well as a good knowledge of English acquired during a year at the London School of Economics.  And he worked hard.  And he was lucky.

Within a few weeks after his arrival, Johannes landed a position as a researcher/writer for the Philadelphia City Charter Committee.  The city had been under the thumb of a corrupt Republican Party machine for 60 years, and reformers believed a new Charter was the best way to revitalize municipal administration.  Although an independent commission had drafted a new Charter that would allow the city to modernize its government, approval of the State legislature was needed before Philadelphians were allowed to vote on it.   The City Charter Committee Johannes worked for led the fight for the adoption of the Charter.  As has often happened, however, the Republican legislature in Harrisburg blocked Philadelphians’ attempts at reform and good government.  The new Charter would have outlawed the old political patronage system, under which every city employee paid 10% of his salary to the Republican Party.  It was no surprise, then, that the Party wouldn’t let the Charter come to a vote.

Undaunted, Johannes — new immigrant that he was — wrote an analysis of the Charter, the benefits it would have brought to his adopted city and the rotten politics that killed it.   “With the adjournment of the 1939 Pennsylvania legislature, ” he wrote, “the curtain fell on another battle for municipal reform in America’s third largest city, Philadelphia.”  In a section of his article captioned “City Services Poor,” Johannes wrote, “It might be understandable … that a city of the size and economic resources of Philadelphia incurred [a huge] amount of debt if as a result its citizens had received exceptionally good municipal services.  But at present some of these services are below the standards reached in other cities. ”  At the time, this was an understatement:  trash was still being collected by horse-drawn wagons as it had been in the nineteenth century.

It would take another 12 years of fighting Harrisburg before Philadelphia got its new Charter — and the reform administrations of Mayors Joseph S. Clark and Richardson Dilworth.  But Johannes, with an immigrant’s optimism and belief in democracy, saw that as inevitable:  “There exists … throughout all great American cities a very definite trend away from the patronage [system] which may have been … endurable thirty or forty years ago, and towards a system of public service which alone may be regarded as adequate to cope with the social and economic conditions of the present day.  Philadelphia, traditionally hesitant to accept innovations, may follow this trend more slowly than other cities, but it is bound to follow it soooner or later if it is to hold its place among the great cities of this country.”

Pretty fluent writing for someone less than a year off the boat.  The editors of the National Municipal Review seemed to agree.

Click here to read the whole article:  PhilaCarriesOn – 1939 Article