Simon Taylor is a graduate student of Heritage Studies at the University of Amsterdam and recently finished a six-month internship with the Expatriate Archive Centre. His primary task was to help process the FAWCO collection; the following article is a product of his first-hand experience with the material.
Tea with National Socialists: How the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas Tried to Maintain International Peace in the 1930s.
by Simon Taylor
‘I believe (…) that the time has now arrived when American women in Europe can take a definite part in the larger and broader international issues — issues of an educational and humanitarian nature; not aggressively but quietly, they can exert an influence of a greatly useful nature in fostering world-thinking in international affairs.’
So began the preliminary conference of the Federation for American Women in Europe, soon to be re-named the Federation for American Women’s Clubs Overseas, or FAWCO. These words were spoken in London in the summer of 1931 by Mrs. Curtis Brown, the founder of FAWCO and an integral part of its early history. They neatly encapsulate the organisation’s original goals, but they are also indicative of the contemporary political climate in which they were spoken. Just two years prior, there had been an enormous economic collapse, unprecedented in its scale and reach. International tension was growing, particularly within Europe, and the memory of the Great War was still fresh in almost everybody’s minds. In America, as well as most countries in Western Europe (France being the notable exception), the fight for Women’s Suffrage had been won, meaning women now had the ability to directly influence national and international politics.
FAWCO was set up as a non-governmental organisation, with the aim of uniting American Women living abroad into a federation that could promote peace between nations, while also working to improve the political rights of American expatriates. The Federation ceased activities during and immediately after the Second World War, but since 1949 they have continuously worked on a variety of political and social causes that not only benefit American expats, but also the communities in their adopted nations.
Mrs. Curtis Brown’s speech is recorded in the report for the 1931 Conference, which is held in a scrapbook that also contains a large variety of pictures, letters, newspaper clippings and telegrams (among other things), all of which create a vivid picture of the conference, and the women who attended. Between 1931 and 1939 FAWCO conferences were held annually in different cities across Europe, and for each one an accompanying scrapbook was created. As part of my internship at the Expatriate Archive Centre, I catalogued these scrapbooks, item by item. In doing so, I built up quite a clear picture of the goals, beliefs and social lives of these women. But with the story of several American Women’s Clubs from across Europe teaming up for the promotion of international peace comes a different, opposing story, one that is only visible retrospectively: the gradual breakdown of the fragile peace achieved in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War, and the accompanying rise of vehement nationalism that would, before the end of the decade, lead to what was perhaps the most destructive conflict in human history.
As someone with an established interest in international political history, I felt compelled to bring this aspect of the FAWCO narrative to the fore. In a sense, the coming of the Second World War is only a small part of FAWCO’s rich history. Many of their greatest achievements, such as helping to obtain the vote for overseas U.S. citizens and forming the World Federation of Americans Abroad, occurred decades after the war ended. But it is quite clear from the earliest conference scrapbooks that combatting the rise of virulent nationalism and sectionalism within Europe was a principal driver behind the original formation of FAWCO. Even if FAWCO’s original raison d’être no longer reflects their current work, it is still an important part of their early history that should not be ignored.
But beyond exposing a more obscure part of FAWCO’s history, there are other reasons why this story is worth telling. Nationalism is again on the rise, not just in Europe but throughout the world. Dialogues between nations and cultures are getting less and less diplomatic; people in positions of power use intentionally incendiary rhetoric against certain nations and groups of people in order to gain and maintain popular support. Meanwhile, those in a position to perform decisive actions that may actually go some way to resolving this global breakdown in international and intercultural relations seem oddly reluctant to do so, due perhaps to a fear of being labelled a ‘radical’, or an earnest belief that such conflicts are a result of misunderstanding, meaning that both sides are equally to blame and should therefore strive to reach some kind of ‘middle ground’. All of this strongly echoes what was going on during the 1930s FAWCO Conferences. Of course, a great deal has changed since the 1930s, and any lessons learnt from the period should be adjusted accordingly. But as the historian James Burke argued, we must look to the past to prepare for the future ‘because there is nowhere else to look.’
Avoiding the historian’s fallacy
When reviewing documents such as those in the FAWCO Conference scrapbooks it is important not to fall for the so-called ‘historian’s fallacy’: to assume that those people who you are researching might somehow have been aware of exactly what was ahead of them. That being said, it would be a disservice to the members of FAWCO to assume that they were oblivious to the potential impact of this unravelling of international order. It is obvious from the scrapbooks that the members were all well-educated, well-read and intelligent women who had a good understanding of what it was they were campaigning for. Many were either the wives of diplomats or diplomats themselves. Above all, they had all experienced the lead-up to the First World War and so were capable of recognising the political atmosphere that immediately precedes war. While the members of FAWCO were, from the very beginning, concerned with maintaining international peace, this particular goal becomes more and more prominent as the 1930s progress.
The first official FAWCO conference was held in Berlin in May 1932. At that time Germany, also known retroactively as the Weimar Republic, was in complete disarray. Massive inflation had caused widespread poverty, and an increasing cynicism towards the political establishment had led many Germans to embrace more extreme ideologies, the most notable being Nazism. A report by Mrs. Carey, Chairman of the Federation’s Education Committee, gives a good account of the severe poverty that was present throughout much of Germany. She describes how, in many cases, the sanitary conditions are ‘shocking’ and how ‘many men have been out of work for three years’. Mrs. Carey captures the lack of national pride and identity that was endemic in Germany at the time when she describes how ‘household equipment, bedding, and clothing have all given out, and with the impossibility of replacing them, the morale and self-respect of the family begin to weaken’. It was this sense of despondency and lack of identity that the Nazis were able to exploit by establishing a new sense of pride in Germany and Germanic culture, while also blaming all of the problems currently being experienced by the nation on the Jews and the many international forces ostensibly associated with them.
There are no mentions of the Nazis nor any other extremist political faction in Mrs. Carey’s report, which is understandable since it is mostly focused on the social work done to assist those affected by the economic crisis. However, in retrospect such observations do seem rather prescient. In the same report she described the establishment by the Reichstag of Freiwillige Arbeitsdienst, a voluntary work service programme designed to assist unemployed young people by establishing work camps. While she doesn’t explicitly criticise the scheme, she does make a point of saying that ‘there are a great many objections to this service’, and expresses the concern that ‘it has been used for political purposes (…) and the camps have become breeding-places for unrest and political propaganda’. As it turned out, these concerns were well grounded: less than a year after this report was written, Adolf Hitler would be sworn in as Chancellor and go on to swiftly transform the Freiwillige Arbeitsdienst into the Reichsarbeitsdienst, or Reich Labour Service, which had the primary goal of militarising the German work force and indoctrinating it into Nazi ideology.
By the time of the next conference, which was held in Vienna in the summer of 1933, the Weimar Republic had essentially ceased to exist: the Enabling Act had been passed in March, giving Hitler and the Nazis almost unlimited political power. While it is safe to assume that many members of FAWCO were against this blatant abandonment of democratic values, it is interesting to note that it was not a topic of discussion at the Vienna Conference. The only real hint at any political disturbance in Austria at the time comes in a ‘running commentary’ of the conference, written by Helen French, who describes how ‘a large Hitler demonstration took place in Vienna, and on the following day there was a most impressive counter-demonstration’. There are several potential reasons why this might be the case. For a start, there is Mrs. Curtis Brown’s former assertion that she wants the club to act ‘not aggressively but quietly’ when it comes to international issues. In a 1933 article for The Vienna Herald and Austrian Advertiser, Mrs. Curtis Brown is quoted as saying that ‘there is much suspicion in the world today between nations. Our strong desire is to help overcome this and create new confidence’. It is plausible that Brown would have seen the condemnation of the Nazi regime as serving only to increase this sense of international suspicion that she viewed as the ultimate impediment to long-lasting peace.
Another explanation is that many members of FAWCO may not have viewed Hitler and the Nazis as a serious threat, while others may have even seen the rise of National Socialism as something positive for Germany and the maintenance of international peace, at least at this point in time. In the same article, a quote from Mrs. A. N. Connett, former President of the American Woman’s Club in Paris, reveals FAWCO’s slightly contradictory approach to promoting peace. Connett begins by explicitly stating ‘we are non-political and only work for the rights of women’. However, just a sentence later, she states that ‘we are absolutely against Bolshevism, which means the destruction of culture and all the good we are working for’. The members of FAWCO wanted to try and go beyond politics in order to secure peace, and yet their vision of peace is clearly (and perhaps inevitably) informed by their own political beliefs. One of the ways in which the Nazis gained and maintained authority in the 1930s was through their promise to act as a bulwark against the encroaching threat of communism from the East. Many people held the belief, somewhat justified, that if Germany were to become a communist state then the rest of Western Europe would soon follow. This idea proved sufficiently abhorrent to lead many Western Europeans and Americans to tacitly or explicitly support the fiercely anti-communist Nazi regime. Again, one must not fall for the historian’s fallacy: it was by no means obvious in 1933 that the Nazis were the greatest threat to world peace. However, it does illustrate the unfortunate contradictions that arise when any advocacy group claims to be ‘non-political’.
Quiet diplomacy in ‘the most talked of country in the world to-day’
In the years 1934–37, FAWCO conferences were held in Paris, The Hague, Zurich and Copenhagen, and in that time Nazi Germany was becoming increasingly authoritarian, and increasingly provocative in their explicitly expansionist aims. Meanwhile, reports of the widespread persecution of Jews and other ethnic minorities became harder and harder to dismiss as mere exaggeration or hearsay. And yet these growing crises do not appear as talking points on any of the agendas for these conferences. There are occasional references to Nazi Germany, but they are few and far between. Even the American Women’s Club of Berlin does not discuss them directly. This is not to say that the members of FAWCO were purposely turning a blind eye to what was happening in Germany, but it seems clear that they believed peace could only be achieved through international organisations, particularly the League of Nations. It is worth noting that after 1933, they also chose to stay largely silent on the issue of Bolshevism.
The members of FAWCO appear to have become increasingly committed to the view that it was not their business to interfere with the politics of the countries in which they were residing, and to do so would not only be impertinent, it would also risk impeding their long-term goal of ending international conflict. The problem is that maintaining international peace is a rather hollow achievement when there is ever-increasing violence and repression going on at a national level.
It is perhaps unreasonable to suggest that the members of FAWCO should have made a point of actively condemning the Nazi Regime. As has been previously mentioned, many members were married to ambassadors or diplomats, and so might risk embarrassing their husbands by publicly expressing a view that ran contrary to the American foreign policy towards Germany. Condemning the Nazis would also have likely created problems for the member-clubs located in Germany. But while this might explain why there was no active condemnation of Nazi Germany by FAWCO, it still seems a little odd that they would choose to hold their 1938 conference in Hamburg. By the summer of 1938, Nazi Germany had annexed Austria, violated the Treaty of Versailles by sending troops into the Rhineland, enacted the highly anti-Semitic and racist Nuremburg laws, and was actively pushing for war with Czechoslovakia. Germany had left the League of Nations almost 5 years prior, and all other diplomatic efforts to ease tensions in Europe were proving profoundly ineffective. It is possible that when the FAWCO delegates entered the Hotel Atlantic in Hamburg for the 7th Annual Conference, they did sincerely believe that their presence could do something meaningful to resolve this increasingly desperate international crisis peacefully, but it seems to me that, as well-educated women with a good grasp of international politics, they must have known it was unlikely.
It is hardly surprising that there are no signs of any criticism or condemnation of either Hitler or the Nazis during the Hamburg conference: to do so at that point in time in Germany would have been foolhardy, bordering on dangerous, even though all those present held American citizenship. A short article giving the highlights of the conference gives a strong impression of Nazi Germany in 1938 as well as the international political scene in which it existed. Referring to Germany as ‘the most talked of country in the world to-day’, the author of the article describes how, in Hamburg, she found ‘Sentry boxes in front of the hotel! Rumours! Whispers!’ and when invited to Berlin she just found ‘More rumours! Tension! Soldiers! Airplanes!’
Unlike the conference in Berlin 6 years earlier, the evidence of the Nazi Regime is impossible to ignore in the scrapbook documenting the Hamburg trip: a photograph of a hotel dining room reveals a large portrait of Adolf Hitler in the background, mention is made of tea being held with the NS-Frauenschaft (National Socialist Women’s League), and a trip is made to see two of Germany’s work camps. A series of photographs shows the FAWCO delegates being given a tour of these work camps, and it is a rather jarring sight: a group of largely middle-aged women, well dressed in nice coats and fashionably large hats, look around with polite curiosity as they are escorted through the various parts of the camp by young men in tall boots and military clothing. One photograph shows one of the workers, looking at the camera with an expression of tired bemusement. The delegates, committed to not judging the politics of a country in which they felt they were guests, make no comment as to the ethics of such a program.
The 1939 FAWCO conference was held in London and had a substantially reduced attendance. Many members had left Europe as the prospect of war began to seem inevitable. It was to be the last FAWCO conference for almost a decade: less than 4 months after the conference completed, Germany invaded Poland, igniting the Second World War and causing the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas to effectively disband. A letter sent in July 1940 by former FAWCO President Mary Volkmann describes the war in a single word: ‘unbelievable’.
It would be easy to say that the members of FAWCO became overly committed to Mrs. Curtis Brown’s dictum that the club should influence international issues ‘not aggressively but quietly’. Even taking into account the problems that might have resulted from directly criticising the Nazi regime (or any other contemporary authoritarian regime), it is difficult not to feel frustrated when one sees an organisation that was earnestly devoted to sustaining peace fail to respond in any meaningful way to the growth of ultra-nationalism and vicious bigotry that was leading the world to war. There is no doubt that the members of FAWCO were committed internationalists who genuinely cared about the welfare of other states, but their refusal to become directly engaged in the politics of nations other than their own appears to reflect the isolationism that had marked American foreign policy since the end of the First World War.
It would seem that, in their early years, the members of FAWCO had some difficulty in overcoming their own political biases, and became so focused on maintaining international peace that they were either unable or unwilling to see the oppression and warmongering that was occurring in the very countries they were visiting, and which were laying the ground for the Second World War. However, there are several problems with this view. For a start, it makes use of the aforementioned historian’s fallacy: in retrospect, the precursors of war seem blindingly obvious, but it can’t have been so for the FAWCO members. While the prospect of a Second World War did seem increasingly plausible for many following the Nazis’ ascension to power, it was never a sure thing. It is understandable that the members of FAWCO might try to be optimistic about maintaining peace. Also, the worst of the Nazi atrocities were yet to come, and many of their crimes against dissenters and ethnic minorities remained shrouded in a degree of uncertainty until long after the war ended.
Aside from the obvious parallels in the growth of nationalism and bigotry, there is also the fact that the members of FAWCO were paralysed by their refusal to judge the politics and cultures of other nations. While one can be sympathetic towards such a position, it robbed their work of a great deal of potency. Perhaps it is possible to learn from this, and see now that strong positions are sometimes necessary in contentious debates. It is worth noting that FAWCO’s insistence on remaining ‘apolitical’ — which I believe to be the root cause of their inaction — was addressed after FAWCO re-formed in 1949. Following a discussion at the 1949 Copenhagen conference, it was agreed that the FAWCO constitution would adjust its policy of disallowing ‘propaganda for political purposes’ to allow for the promotion of democratic ideals. While this comes with its own set of problems, it does at least get rid of the contradictions that come with being an ‘apolitical’ organisation that is seriously dedicated to promoting peace. It also suggests an evolution in the way these American expatriates saw themselves.
Previously, it seems that the members of FAWCO had largely seen themselves as guests in foreign countries who had no business commenting on that nation’s politics, no matter how extreme or abhorrent. After the war they seem to have felt that, by virtue of being an expatriate, they were able to bring their own knowledge and experiences into the political culture in which they resided. Personally, I feel that expatriation is a great way of spreading political ideals — although only if it is done ‘not aggressively but quietly’.