Monday, March 8, 2010

360 World History: Documents

Papers Show Britain Feared Nazi Youth On Bicycles

Clouds of war were gathering over Europe, and the English police officer was concerned. A group of black-clad Germans had been spotted heading for London - by bicycle.

Newly declassified British intelligence files reveal the ripples of alarm that spread through the country as Hitler Youth cyclists toured Britain in 1937. Reports of sightings poured in from local police amid fears the teenagers might be two-wheeled "spyclists" scouting the country for a future invasion.

"The general image of fit young Germans with blond hair and leather shorts cycling through parts of England where nothing much had happened for years created quite a stir," said Christopher Andrew, author of the official history of MI5, Britain's domestic espionage service.

The Hitler Youth group aimed to instill the Nazis' racist and xenophobic ideals into young Germans, through a mix of indoctrination, outdoor activities and military-style training. Before World War II, members of the group visited Britain, and MI5 documents released Monday by the National Archives show that its leaders sought closer ties with the Boy Scout movement.

The dossier's dispatches about the group's activities in Britain read like a spy thriller - apart from the Boy Scouts and Rotary Club suppers.

One memo, sent by police Superintendent T. Dawson of Spalding, central England, to his superiors, is headed "Party of young Germans en route for London."

"I respectfully beg to inform you that a party of German youths arrived at Spalding on Friday the 30th of July 1937," he wrote. "They were entertained by the Spalding Rotary Club and camped for the night in Fulney Park, leaving the following morning and traveling south."

He enclosed a clipping from the local newspaper, which failed to convey much sense of menace. It recounted how "the homey atmosphere familiar at an English fireside at the Christmas season prevailed when the Spalding Rotary Club entertained a party of German youths to a sausage-and-mashed potato supper."

Another police report warned that the Germans were "in possession of cameras" and had been seen taking pictures.

Another document described how a Hitler Youth group was kept under surveillance as it arrived at London's Liverpool Street station, dressed in black shorts, brown shirts, backpacks and "various pictorial Scout movement badges." The undercover agent reported that "there was no untoward incident" as the Germans took the subway across town.

However, organized groups of Hitler Youth also toured other nations in the 1930s that eventually became the victims of Nazi aggression, such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Yugoslavia. They reportedly took part in reconnoitering roads and bridges and in other activities that helped the Nazis map their invasion routes.

Still, the MI5 spy agency did not appear to have been overly alarmed by the Hitler Youth presence. MI5 chief Vernon Kell responded to one report on the cyclists with a note: "Should they come this way, which is unlikely, I will let you know any information that I can obtain."

However, MI5 did keep an eye on the Hitler Youth in the years before Britain and Germany went to war in 1939, and investigated reports that German cyclists had been advised to memorize terrain and landmarks "for the benefit of the Fatherland."

That idea turned out to have come from exaggerated newspaper reports, one of which was headlined "Nazis must be spyclists."

British spies also tracked the group's efforts to forge ties with Britain's Boy Scout movement, with which it shared a fondness for shorts and outdoor exercise, though not a fascist ideology.

The file records a trip to Britain by Hitler Youth chief of staff Hartmann Lauterbacher and Nazi officials that included a visit to an army physical training school.

"I noted that their party smoked and drank double whiskies, and I wondered whether they did this when they were with the Hitler Youth," a British official observed.

The visitors also dined with Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the scouting movement, who reported that Lauterbacher had invited him to meet Hitler. He told Lauterbacher that "I was fully in favor of anything that would bring about a better understanding between our nations," but sought official advice on what attitude to take toward the German advances.

MI5 was noncommittal, hoping to use links with the Hitler Youth to get information on German activities.

By 1944, British spies were under no illusions about the nature of the group, whose members were increasingly being mobilized as troops to make up for heavy German casualties in the war.

200 JFK Letters Published

Among the 1.5 million condolence letters sent to President John F. Kennedy's widow after his assassination in 1963 were more than two dozen from Jane Dryden, a dogged and dramatic 11-year-old who churned out a letter a week for six months straight.

"I know that you hate the whole state of Texas. I do to," she wrote to Jacqueline Kennedy from Austin in January 1964. "I wish I lived in Washington, D.C. where maybe I could maybe see you standing on your porch. I am determined to move there as soon as I can. I would feel safer there."

Given the overwhelming volume of mail - 800,000 letters in the first seven weeks alone - most of condolence letters were destroyed. But at least one of Dryden's notes ended up among the 200,000 pages that were sent to the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, where they sat largely ignored until historian Ellen Fitzpatrick decided to write "Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation."

The book, released last week by HarperCollins, includes more than 200 never-before published letters divided into three categories: vivid recollections of the day Kennedy was killed; letters that express views on society, politics and the presidency; and personal experiences of grief and loss.

Larry Toomey of Upper Darby, Pa., didn't even wait until Kennedy's death was announced before starting his letter.

"My dear Mrs. Kennedy, Even as I write this letter, my hand, my body is trembling at the terrible incident of this afternoon. I am watching the CBS-TV news report. No official word as yet."

Writing two days later, eighth-grader Mary South described learning that the president had been shot just as she sat down to play the church organ at her Catholic school in Santa Clara, Calif.

"I tried to tell myself he would be all right but somehow I knew he wouldn't... the tears wouldn't stop. The slightly damp keys were hard to play but I offered it up that the President might live," she wrote.

In return for her letter, she received a small card printed with the words "Mrs. Kennedy is deeply appreciative of your sympathy and grateful for your thoughtfulness."

"Getting that back felt like: She saw this. Jackie saw this," South, whose married name is Mary Certa, said in an interview Thursday. "I felt good that I had done something. I just wanted her to know how upset we were and how helpless we felt."

When one of Fitzpatrick's researchers called and read her letter, "I started to cry all over again," said Certa, 60, of Campbell, Calif. "It was like I was right back there in 1963."

Fitzpatrick was at the Kennedy library researching a different book when she asked to see some of the condolence letters in hopes of getting a sense of how Kennedy was perceived by Americans in his own time. As soon as she started reading, she was hooked.

"It was like the roof came off the building, the walls dropped away, the floor came out from under me. I was absolutely floored by what I'd begun to read," she said Friday. "I have been teaching American history for 30 years, and I'm not sure I've ever seen a collection as powerful and that represented so many ordinary people speaking from the heart about their views about American society, and politics, and the president."

Fitzpatrick, a University of New Hampshire professor, soon discovered why the letters had never been published: she would have to get permission from each writer before including it the book. But after she whittled down her list of favorites from 3,000 to 240, only five of the 220 or so she was able to track down declined to be included.

"There have been so many books about the Kennedy assassination. We've heard from the experts, we've heard from the conspiracy theorists, we've heard from people in the Kennedy administration, but here are the voices of those voiceless, everyday Americans," said Fitzpatrick, who said she was surprised at the eloquence of the writers, no matter how uneducated or young.

"I'm just an average American - average mentality, average housewife, average housing, average size family, a year younger than you and perhaps a little more sensitive than some, but I will always have a warm spot in my heart for both of you as long as I live," wrote Marilyn Davenport of New York, who included her phone number "if you ever want to talk."

Barbara Rimer was 15 when she wrote "I promise you that I will give body and soul to perpetuate the very ideals President Kennedy lived for."

Rimer, now dean of the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Global Public Health, didn't even remember writing to Mrs. Kennedy until contacted by Fitzpatrick.

"When I read it, I thought, 'Wow, was I naive!' I don't know how many people write letters to the president today or to Michelle (Obama), but it seemed incredibly naive," she said.

But Rimer also realized that she has kept her promise to Mrs. Kennedy through her career in public health and by encouraging students to give back at the local, national and global level.

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5; HarperCollins: Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation.

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