“I can only say today that the clouds are darkening as never before”

This is the English translation of the letter my father sent to his parents in September 1938. Read the full story here.

Dear Parents, Otto and Opa,

If I gave you the impression in my last postcard that there was hope that the international situation was slowly improving, I can only say today that the clouds are darkening as never before. If nothing exceptional happens to ease the present tension before Saturday, we will certainly be at war.

When Chamberlain came back from his first visit to Germany in Berechtsgarten with proposals in his pocket to hand over the German region in Czechoslovakia and the subsequent acceptance of this proposal, it was believed in that country that the worst, namely war, might be avoided. Then the Poles and the Hungarians demanded the same rights for their minorities, and the collective public press in
these countries emphasized that this was going too far. When Chamberlain returned from Godesburg after his second visit to Germany and as he said the negotiations had to be suspended because of the continuing unrest in Czechoslovakia, one receives the impression from local reports that England,
France and Russia are still hoping for a peaceful outcome, but in the case of a mighty German raid on Saturday – if the Czechs do not give in to the demands of the Fuhrer – willing and ready to fight against Germany. Meanwhile Roosevelt has tried to reduce the tension through renewed proposals. I have the
impression from local reports that further peace proposals will be in vain if they do not accede to the immediate demands of the fuhrer. Hence the situation looks like that Germany and Italy on one side against France, England, Russia and Czechoslovakia on the other, with all the material support of America.

There can be no doubt that the Fatherland with its great unity can protect itself from the Allies, though the press here makes the error of thinking that a lengthy war would lead to a revolution in Germany, especially in the Austrian province.

In this unusual situation it is naturally impossible for me to complete my work sensibly and to follow my orders exactly. Prof Jewkes has sent me to London again and I will be working here in the British Museum until Saturday. If war really breaks out, what happens to me will then be decided. I believe it is wrong to leave my work now and so give the English the impression that I think war is unavoidable. So long as I receive no direct order to return to Germany, I will stick to my job. Since I very much like he English in my immediate circle and as they have been exceptionally helpful to me, I hope still to avoid detention in a prison camp. If in spite of all the personal sympathy, that is impossible , then I ask you not to forget the address of Mary’s parents who in case postal communication with me is not possible, would be best able to give you news of me. I have made
arrangements for my books and personal possessions to be kept safely with Mary’s parents.

Without you expressly saying it. I can well imagine your concern, it must be a time of courage for you. It must be the same as for many people in London. From morning to evening, cars with loudspeakers are driving through the streets, ordering people to obtain gas masks from designated places. They say that if one doesn’t obtain one by Saturday, there will be no more available. Some underground stations are closed til further notice and will be converted into gas-proof shelters for the local population. In Hyde Park and other open spaces, shelters for the people are being put up.

Every 3 hours, news-extras are being being sold to communicate the latest news. I am very concerned about you and naturally about Otto. Doubtless he will be one of the first to be called up. As an individual he is like many others in Germany and also in this country, only a player in the games of the statesmen. People are not asked what they want, and must therefore go ahead with the common fate of all people. However much one can understand the rightness and sense of a conflict, for the individual, the helpless and the unprotected abandoned to the bombing of fast fighter planes, war must be a senseless and mad undertaking.

Whatever fate demands, Otto, keep a clear head, and be on guard ! I am still hoping that war can be avoided, but I fear – to go by public opinion here, which is very much against the ultimatum of the German Fuhrer and chancellor – that the likelihood of preserving peace is very small.

This evening I saw Mary again for the first time in a long time. I am living in the house where Fraulein Seifert originally lived, for the simple reason that tomorrow Mr Campion and Prof Jewkes are coming from Manchester to London and I must take every opportunity for instructions, If that were not the case, then I would certainly would have looked for lodgings near Mary in Wembley.

I have not heard from Jack in a long time and I received a postcard from Barbara in which she expressed concern about the current situation . If it doesn’t come to a crisis on Saturday, I plan to meet Barbara’s father on 18/10 in Manchester, where he will give a guest lecture.

I travelled by night train from Manchester to London and it was horribly cold. Otherwise I am well. If you see Peter, Wolf, Bauert, Magga or Skiyra, greet them heartily from me, as well as Opa and our family and friends.

If the events of the next few days lead to catastrophe, so that for a time correspondence by letter is not possible, so you must certainly be assured, dear mother, father and Otto that you are constantly in my thoughts; and I know that your thoughts include me.

In fearful expectation of the coming events. I remain with the most loving greetings,

Your Hermann.


4 comments on ““I can only say today that the clouds are darkening as never before””
  1. noelhillmann515 says:

    That was really interesting dad.

    Even though I know the outline of Opa’s life, to read his account of events running up to the outbreak of war, and fear he could be detained, is fascinating. You get a real sense through Murrel’s translation of the thoughts and considerations running through his mind for what’s to come. Opa was clearly very close to the centre of what decision making was likely happening and consequences of war to come.

    It’s a great early article for your blog.


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  2. Mike Bettle says:

    How come I never knew about this? This is such an amazing, personal insight into what was going on at the time, thanks so much for sharing Miles. That was quite a bike ride from northern Germany to Esbjerg, I’ve actually been on those roads! What an inspiration, so sad about your Uncle Otto!

    All the best my friend and thanks for starting up this blog to share your wealth of business knowledge!


    1. Mike
      Good to make contact. Are you likely to be over this way in the near future or do I need to come to the USA? Keep in touch

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