Frederick W. Kaltenbach and Nazi Short-Wave Radio Broadcasts to America, 1939-1945
by Clayton D. Laurie
Many Iowans were surprised to learn that the broadcaster they could hear several times each week on the short-wave radio was one of their own, an Iowa-born American named Frederick W. Kaltenbach, who worked for the U.S.A. zone of Paul Josef Goebbels’ Ministry of Propaganda. Kaltenbach was one of eight “radio traitors” and one of 141 other Americans accused of having committed treason by aiding the Axis during World War II.
During the immediate postwar years these “renegades” were thought to be mentally unbalanced, calloused and ego-maniacal malcontents, racists, cowards or misfits, “partial failures or frustrates” unable to discriminate between reality and hallucination. Foreign correspondent William L. Shirer, who knew many of the renegades before the war, described most of them in a 1943 article as being no different than other “human derelicts” who were drawn to Nazism during the interwar years “as a flame attracts a moth”. All were believed to be rootless individuals incapable of integrating into normal society.
Some renegades were indeed mentally unstable or were driven by anti-Semitism, greed, unrequited love, or opportunism; but others, including Frederick Kaltenbach, appear to have been motivated by ideological zeal and political conviction. Kaltenbach sincerely believed that fascism was a new, youthful and vigorous form of government representing the wave of the future. Fascism, he was convinced, was capable of saving Germany, the United States and all of western civilization from a worldwide Bolshevik conspiracy. To Kaltenbach, and to many disillusioned Europeans and Americans during the 1930s, fascism promised to end the social, economic and political lethargy that characterized the seemingly feeble and plodding liberal democracies. To those who had suffered through two decades of war, revolution, economic depression and civil unrest, Hitler and Mussolini offered visions and ideas that some believed could lead Europe back to the security, stability and prosperity not known since before 1914. Kaltenbach saw himself as a messenger whose mission was to warn Americans of the dangers presented by Bolshevism. He also saw himself as an oracle sent to clarify the Nazi philosophy for the American public while simultaneously combating Hitler’s critics. Unlike many of the renegades, however, Kaltenbach was an educated man from humble circumstances who gave few indications during his youth that he would one day become a traitor in the service of the Third Reich.
Frederick W. Kaltenbach was born in Dubuque, Iowa, on March 29th, 1895, the eldest of four sons and one daughter born to John Kaltenbach, a Presbyterian butcher who had emigrated to the United States from Germany four years before. Within a year of Frederick’s birth, the Kaltenbachs, who were described by a neighbor as good, honest and humble people of the lower class, settled in Waterloo, Iowa. Frederick seems to have had a normal childhood, attending the Waterloo Public Schools prior to his graduation from East High School in 1914. He was “a studious, introspective youth” and a champion debater, although one neighbor later claimed that Frederick was an “uncouth and rather sordid person” who was “always antagonistic and ‘Communistic’ [sic] he could get along with no one”.
As a high school graduation present from their father, Frederick and his younger brother Gustav went on a bicycle tour of Germany. The youths were in Germany when the Great War began in August 1914 and were arrested by the authorities on suspicions of espionage. They were detained until December while the family, with the aid of an Iowa congressman, sought their release. In spite of this ordeal, and even though he was born and raised in American, Frederick loved Germany. He wrote that during his first visit “I was swept by a powerful emotion and something inside me said I am going home”.
On his return to the states, Frederick began a lengthy term of academic study by entering Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. During his three years as an undergraduate he demonstrated his talents as both an orator and a debater. He was known to his classmates as “the Kaiser” and, according to later reports, did not mix well with the rest of the student body. Kaltenbach spent much of his free time earning the considerable sum needed to finance his education by working as a janitor. In addition, as was so common in the prewar years when military preparedness was stressed on campus, Kaltenbach drilled with one of the three military units formed at Grinnell.
Following the close of his junior year Frederick enlisted in the U.S. Army and was inducted into the service at Waterloo on June 10th, 1918. Because of his level of education and his prior student military training, Frederick was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Coast Artillery. Don Beams of Ames, Iowa, one of Kaltenbach’s bunkmates while they were stationed at Fort Tilden, New York, told the Iowa Legionnaire Magazine in 1942 that “Kaltenbach was a heel then, as well as now”. Due to his late enlistment and particular branch of the army, Kaltenbach never saw service overseas, as the armistice ending the war was signed soon after his commissioning. He left the service in April 1919 along with the tens of thousands of other soldiers honorably discharged in the rush to demobilize after the war. Soon after he returned home he joined the Waterloo post of the American Legion and the field artillery reserve, maintaining memberships in both organizations until 1936.
In the fall of 1919 Kaltenbach resumed his education at Iowa State Teachers College (now the University of Northern Iowa) in Cedar Falls, where he earned his B.A. in 1920. Classmates remembered “Fritz” Kaltenbach as a dogmatic and domineering personality who was an average student. After graduation, Kaltenbach worked for seven years as a farm appraiser. Then he turned to teaching. He first obtained a position as a high school American history instructor in Manchester, Iowa. Then in 1931 he obtained a better job teaching business law, economics, history and debate at Dubuque Senior High School. Still single at age 36, Kaltenbach lived a simple life: he resided at the YMCA, took French language courses at night, and earned an M.A. in history from the University of Chicago through courses completed during his summer vacations. In most respects he appeared to be a model citizen who worked hard, kept out of trouble, voted in local and national elections, and served the community, most notably as the first president of the Waterloo YMCA, which later struck his name from its records.
In June 1933 Kaltenbach received a scholarship from the University of Berlin to work on a Ph.D., so he was granted a two-year leave of absence from teaching to pursue graduate study in Germany. Germany had changed considerably since his 1914 visit, having endured the First World War, revolution, hyperinflation, political instability and the worst effects of the Great Depression. The American was shocked by the conditions he observed, but encouraged by the promise he saw in the new Nazi regime. “There was unemployment everywhere” he wrote, “and in the industrial areas everyone of them [workers] were Communists, while Jews were living in luxury. Then Hitler came and gave the German people a new lease on life”.
Following two years of study, during which time he observed firsthand the changes made by the Nazis, Kaltenbach returned to Dubuque. Immediately he set off a storm of controversy. In the fall of 1935 he formed a high school student group named the Militant Order of Spartan Knights. While the organization was innocently named after the school’s mascot, it bore the unmistakable characteristics of the Nazi Hitler Youth movement. Under Kaltenbach’s leadership the co-ed group held secret initiation rituals, dressed in brown military-style uniforms, and allegedly carried menacing walking sticks during their weekend hikes. The group’s activities raised the suspicions of the local community. Hoping to ally them, the Americanism Committee of Dubuque’s American Legion called Kaltenbach to appear before the group to explain his actions. The meeting did not go well. According to one Legionnaire, “as he [Kaltenbach] stepped from the Legion platform, after lecturing on his doctrine of leadership, a Legionnaire floored him with a blow to the jaw. Other Legionnaires also got in a few licks in registering what they termed an active protest before order was restored”. Kaltenbach allegedly threatened the post commander and promised revenge. The school board subsequently disbanded Kaltenbach’s youth group and in June 1936 terminated his teaching contract.
Following his dismissal, Kaltenbach returned to Germany to resume his studies. He supported himself as a free-lance writer and translator who on occasion worked for the short-wave radio network of the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda. During this period Kaltenbach also wrote a monograph titled Self-Determination dealing with the controversial territorial settlements of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In that work he condemned the Allied powers and the language tests, ethnological statistics, and election returns used to determine postwar national boundaries and ethnic memberships. To Kaltenbach, “Nationality” was “a state of mind, a subjective psychological feeling that transcends race”, and was largely sentimental. It was not something that could be arbitrarily created by diplomacy. “Blood is thicker than water” Kaltenbach wrote, “and those who lightly choose to disregard this do so at their peril”. Kaltenbach said that writing Self-Determination convinced him of the justice of the Nazi cause. Already a German ultranationalist, he became an indiscriminate supporter of the Nazis.
As Kaltenbach neared completion of his studies in February 1939, he married Dorothea Peters, a 38-year-old German woman from an old military family. His new wife had contacts within the Nazi Party and was herself employed as a secretary on the staff of one of Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering’s aviation journals. Within weeks of their marriage, Kaltenbach was placed in contact with those controlling the U.S.A. Zone of the Nazi short-wave radio network and was hired as a broadcaster along with several other Americans living in Germany. Soon thereafter the newlyweds went on a honeymoon in the United States with all their expenses paid by the Ministry of Propaganda.
During their trip to America, the Kaltenbachs visited all of Frederick’s siblings, stopping first to see his brother Gustav, a clergyman with the First Presbyterian Church in Ironwood, Michigan. The elder Kaltenbach prevailed upon his younger brother to allow him to speak from the pulpit, where he presented a lecture on the Nazi philosophy. Frederick and his wife next went to Ottumwa, Iowa, to visit another brother, Erwin J. “Butch” Kaltenbach, a teacher and basketball coach at Ottumwa High School. Kaltenbach took every opportunity to address local citizens’ groups on National Socialism. In early April he spoke to both the Ottumwa Rotary and Kiwanis Clubs and to student groups at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. While his comments were generally received negatively by his audiences, one concerned citizen later claimed that many people, especially the impressionable students at the University of Iowa, “were actually taken in with his suavity and reasoning”.
Kaltenbach’s last stop was at his hometown of Waterloo, where he visited his dying father, a widower since 1930, and other nearby siblings. Kaltenbach’s father, who died on May 20th, 1939, while Frederick was en route back to Germany, was an ardent German nationalist until the day he died, even though he had been a naturalized American citizen since 1896; and he was reportedly quite proud of his son’s work for the Nazi government.
During his stay in Waterloo, Kaltenbach addressed a May Day Rotarian luncheon at the Russell-Lampson Hotel. In his speech on the virtues on National Socialism, he referred to Germany’s 1936 reoccupation of the Rhineland as “moving into her own backyard”, and then he defended the 1938 Austrian Anschluss [“Annexation”] and 1939 dismemberment of Czechoslovakia as self-determination in the strictest sense as advocated by Woodrow Wilson. In perhaps one of his more ominous statements, he told the Rotarians that “Germany will take over the Polish Corridor and the Free City of Danzig whenever she wants to”. For his lecture Kaltenbach received twenty-five dollars and, according to one source, a round of jeers and catcalls. Many in the group openly denounced him as a Nazi agent. Within days the Kaltenbachs cut short their plans to stay in Iowa all summer and hurriedly returned to Germany, allegedly to aid in the preparations for the Nazi attack on Poland set for September 1st, 1939.
Shortly before the war began Kaltenbach went on the air as a propagandist. Slowly, over the course of months, he was identified by radio monitors employed by the Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service of the Federal Communications Commission (FBIS/FCC) in the United States. By Thanksgiving 1939 Kaltenbach had revealed enough about himself in his monitored Monday night broadcasts to be identified as an American from Iowa. He later removed any doubts when he sent a postcard to the Waterloo Daily Courier informing Iowans when they could hear his four weekly broadcasts over Nazi short-wave stations.
Soon after the war began, State Department officials contacted all Americans living in Germany, including Kaltenbach, to encourage them to return home before they were stranded abroad. Kaltenbach ignored this advice and asked instead that his residence visa be extended until February 1940, a request that was granted. When this term expired and Kaltenbach was once more encouraged to return to America, he again declined, stating that he was very busy ith his work as a translator and broadcaster and that he wished to remain in Germany for the duration, citing plans to publish a book on the recent Polish campaign. During questioning he reaffirmed his loyalty to the United States and claimed no love for Nazism. He did, however, declare the deepest sympathy for the German people. When inquiries were made about his employer and his role as a radio broadcaster, Kaltenbach stated that ever since visiting Germany in 1914 he had done what he could to “further the relations between the land of my father, Germany, and my native land, America. I love them both”. He told American officials how proud he was of his Nazi Party affiliations and employment with the Ministry of Propaganda. Taking into account his employment by a foreign government, the State Department refused to grant a new extension of Kaltenbach’s visa when it expired in April 1940.
How far Kaltenbach had converted to National Socialism by 1939 is not clear, but he had publicly voiced strong Nazi sympathies in the past, and, like most Nazis, he was an anti-Semite with an arrogant disdain for democracy. Yet he continued to claim a dual patriotism and saw his service to the Nazis as being in the best interests of both Germany and the United States. It was evident that Kaltenbach saw no conflict of interest between his work for the Nazis, his German heritage and his American citizenship. As he had written to a friend in 1937, “We German-Americans with our traditional conservatism cannot stand by and see our American spiritual heritage threatened by Bolsheviks like labor leader [John L.] Lewis and his ilk. We still cling to those ideals of homespun Democracy which Lincoln stood for. The German element helped Lincoln save the union. Maybe we are today called to save America”. Kaltenbach also indicated a strong belief that National Socialism represented a bulwark against Communism. He viewed the leaders of the Soviet Union as blood-stained criminals who were seeking to overthrow the West in league with Jews and other anti-Nazi elements. Like many other Europeans, Kaltenbach believed in the slogan “Better Hitler than Stalin”. Stung by American criticisms of Hitler that he thought were unjust and without merit, Kaltenbach claimed publicly that such rhetoric was motivated by American jealously of Germany’s renaissance during the 1930s. “Roosevelt” he explained, “knew he could not tackle the social ills the way the Americans thought he could and should, and the only way was to blame Hitler and his [Roosevelt’s] failure and to detract public criticism by focusing attention on an imaginary threat from the other side of the ocean”.
American journalist Joseph C. Harsch, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, claimed that Kaltenbach was “the most effective [radio traitor] from the German point of view because he… is also sincere in his Nazism”. Commenting on Kaltenbach’s engaging personality and “courage—even when it comes to differences of opinion with his employers”, Harsch recalled that Kaltenbach had “preached and argued it [Nazism] with me most of the way from Berlin to Paris on a three-day bus trip”. William Shirer, who also knew Kaltenbach, agreed that the Iowan was “most sincere in his conversion to Nazism. He really believed in it… He remained essentially German in outlook and like so many other Germans was early attracted to the mysticism—or whatever it was—of Nazism”. Shirer, a fellow Iowans, later recalled that Kaltenbach was present when the French surrendered to the Nazis at Compiegne on June 22nd, 1940. Shirer would “never forget him [Kaltenbach] standing by my side outside the little railway carriage… Through the car windows you could see [Wilhelm] Keitel read the French the armistice terms. Kaltenbach, as if in a trance, gazed longingly at his Fuehrer as other men might gaze toward their god. It was no surprise, then, when he elected to remain in Germany and betray his country”. “He was” Shirer concluded, “a born Nazi”.
Kaltenbach’s radio work soon became an integral part of the Nazis’ worldwide propaganda campaign intended to undermine enemy morale and influence public opinion in the United States against intervention in the war. Paul Josef Goebbels, as the Reich Minister of Propaganda, controlled the German overseas short-wave broadcasting network (Deutsche Kurzwellensender) that employed 250 people to produce and broadcast 126 hours of propaganda daily in 14 languages. From their studio at Naven, Germany, and from ten short-wave transmitters located near Berlin at Zeesen, Nazi broadcasters were beaming twelve hours of short-wave broadcasts to the United States each day by 1939.
Nazi propaganda policy was developed by Goebbels at daily staff conferences followed by smaller meetings dealing with each targeted geographic region. The heads of the U.S.A. Zone would then brief broadcasters and commentators heard by North American audiences. According to U.S. analysts, Nazi propaganda sought to split Americans from their leaders and pit labor against management, blacks against whites, and Gentiles against Jews. Clear attempts were made to enflame American isolationist passions against interventionists, all the while enhancing the image of Nazi Germany. To find broadcasters who could make their propaganda palatable to American audiences, the Nazis looked for individuals with a knowledge of the country and its culture, selecting Americans like Kaltenbach or Germans who had resided in the United States for an extended period.
German broadcasting, according to widely distributed programming guides, consisted of “a choice assortment of broadcasting viands, sparkling musical champagne and other tasty delicacies… as well as the regular news features”, including four hours daily of the spoken word. Morning programs began at 6 a.m. (EST) in the United States and lasted for three hours, after which time signals from closer radio stations interfered with audio quality. The evening schedule would begin anew at 4:50 p.m. and continue until 1 a.m. In addition to broadcasts beamed directly at America, U.S. citizens could also receive Nazi transmissions to Britain beginning at 2:15 p.m.
Programs were tailored to a wide range of tastes and all levels of culture, although the language and arguments differed according to the intended audience. For highbrow audiences Berlin produced topical talks, dramatic monologues, and questions-and-answer periods; and a special series for intellectuals called “The College Hour” presented lectures such as “British Disregard for American Rights”, “Paul Revere Rides Again”, “Germany as I See It—By an American in Berlin” and “The U.S. and Germany—Past and Present”. Yet most programs were aimed at common folk and were presented in folksy, idiomatic language, packed with wisecracks appealing to the lowest common denominator. Programming always focused on simple themes and ideas that were repeated frequently. For homemakers the Nazis produced the “Zeesen Women’s Club”, business people had an “Economics Review” program, German-Americans had German language programs, while gossips and scandal-mongers were entertained by “Charley’s Cabaret” and “Mr. O.K.” Anti-Semites gained perspectives on the “Jewish question” in a program called “The Jew in American History”, and “for those who like Vox Pop or Amos’n’Andy”, according to one guide, “Berlin presents colloquial dialogues between ‘Jim and Johnny’, ‘Fritz and Fred—The Friendly Quarrelers’, and the ‘Letters to Iowa’”.
It was the “Letters to Iowa” program that introduced Kaltenbach to Americans, in particular to residents of the Midwest, who were thought to hold more isolationist views than Americans elsewhere. Kaltenbach was particularly suited to these programs, given his Midwestern accent and radio style that was described as “informal, larded with American idiom”. He was fond of puns, jingles, name calling and gag lines, and often ridiculed Prime Minister Winston Churchill as “Roly-poly Windsy” and former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain as “the Umbrella Man”. The BBC was the “Bullitt-biddle Corporation—Atrocity Manufacturers Unlimited”, and listeners were encouraged to join the fictitious “British Lion Tamers’ Club opened to East Indians, Irishman, Japanese and all others who had opposed British hegemony”.
The 1939 to 1941 “Letters to Iowa” programs consisted of purely anti-Roosevelt, anti-British and isolationist propaganda subtly disguised as Kaltenbach’s letters home read over the radio because his mail was allegedly routinely intercepted, censored or destroyed by the British. The programs opened with “greetings to my old friend, Harry, in Iowa”. One such broadcast in 1940 asked Harry “How are all the folks and how is our schoolmaster?” Attempting to evoke nostalgia and establish his Iowa roots, thereby making his information seem more “down home” and trustworthy, Kaltenbach once asked Harry if he remembered the pumpkins pies they used to eat together. “German housewives don’t make pumpkin pies” Kaltenbach revealed, “but they get swell eating out of pumpkins in other ways”. Kaltenbach would usually push propaganda in the form of advice, stating on one occasion “Don’t fall for any British propaganda, Harry… It’s all the bunko cooked up by that liar Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Sea Bottom”.
Kaltenbach’s broadcasts also were heard in Great Britain, where he was soon nicknamed “Lord Hee-Haw” to distinguish him from the more prominent Nazi propagandist of Irish-American extraction, William Joyce, who already was dubbed Lord “Haw-Haw”. Kaltenbach welcomed the publicity and began to sign off using his new nickname. While most listeners characterized his broadcasts as light, simple, direct, unemotional and devoid of vituperative outburst, two radio monitors had a different assessment. “Kaltenbach’s delivery and speech are marked by a certain ponderousness of approach and a heavy Teutonic brand of humor” they noted. “He is a typical representative of the bulk of German transmissions for North America. Nearly every one of his broadcasts conveys this atmosphere”.
By mid-1940 Kaltenbach had become so useful to the Nazis that his radio roles were increased to include Jim, the “smart-alecky Canadian”, and “Honest American Fred” of the “Jim and Johnny” and “Fred and Fritz” programs. Later, Kaltenbach announced the topical talks and hosted the Saturday-evening “Military Review” programs as well as a series of broadcasts titled “British Disregard for American Rights”. He could be heard throughout America on Monday and Saturday evenings and Thursday and Friday afternoons.
Kaltenbach was a part of the major Nazi propaganda effort launched in 1940 to prevent President Roosevelt’s re-election to an unprecedented third term of office, an event the Nazis knew would ensure continued support for Britain. When Nazi propaganda failed to bring about Roosevelt’s defeat, the broadcasters shifted the emphasis to attack the efforts of the president and the interventionists to aid Britain, especially during the campaign surrounding the Lend-Lease Bill in March 1941. Concerning the Lend-Lease Act, Lord Hew-Haw remarked to Harry over the airwaves,
Now that Roosevelt has signed the Lend-Lease Bill I suppose the Germans should be bowing before the new lords of the universe, George VI and Emperor Roosevelt I. The Germans have been too busy dropping their iron pellets on Englishmen to worry about the “Union Now” boys in Washington. There is no doubt, however, that Bill 1776 cancels out the year 1776. Compared with the patriots of 1941 Benedict Arnold was a mere piker. All he did was to betray a fort to the Redcoats. The “Union Now” boys have betrayed a whole country.As U.S. support for Britain increased in 1941, Kaltenbach and his colleagues sought to convince Americans that Britain was lost and that any attempts to aid them would embroil Americans in a disastrous and bloody war with Germany. In the “Letters to Iowa” programs Kaltenbach urged Harry “not to bet his money on the wrong horse, because I’d sure hate to see my American friends grab the short end of the purse”.
The “Letters to Iowa” programs fell far short of the goal of keeping the United States out of the war, and they failed to mold public opinion in favor of the Nazis. Yet they did bring Kaltenbach to the attention of many people in the Hawkeye state. Although it was originally thought that few Americans listened to Nazi broadcasts, it was later revealed that 150,000 to 300,000 Americans heard them. Until it was closed in June 1941, the German Library of Information in New York City mailed out 75,000 free bilingual program guides and 3,000 matrices each week, largest to the East and Midwest, as part of its “zone services”. These guides contained information on shows and features, broadcast times and gossipy articles on short-wave personalities. Americans newspapers and radio magazines also carried program schedules. In return, the Nazi short-wave system allegedly received 50,000 letters annually from Americans, while the NBC station in New York City, one of the nation’s most powerful transmitters, received only 20,000. Kaltenbach himself received regular fan mail sent to his business address given as “Iowa. In care of the German short-wave station, Berlin”. He in turn was a stickler for acknowledging fans in his broadcasts, and he encouraged more letters via air mail, “where British snoopers can’t get at them”.
Kaltenbach’s audience, however, included far more powerful groups than British censors and Iowa farmers. The FBI had taken an interest in Kaltenbach as early as January 1940, when Iowans began to write unsolicited letters to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover informing him of Kaltenbach’s radio broadcasts and his promotion of Nazism, especially during his 1939 visit. Hoover in turn informed Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle that although the FBI was not actively investigating Kaltenbach’s activities, it was interested in any information the State Department had. Hoover also sought the State Department’s advice on how to deal with Kaltenbach if he were ever to return to the United States. Meanwhile, other federal offices were taking notice of Kaltenbach as well, including the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Foreign Information Service of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (FIS/COI) under William J. Donovan. The FIS/COI (later the OSS and CIA) regularly tuned in to the radio traitors and in October 1941 compiled for President Roosevelt an extensive study on Americans broadcasting from Berlin.
Even though Kaltenbach was an American citizen conducting anti-American broadcasts for a foreign government, his activities were not yet illegal. As a citizen he could accept employment by a foreign government and exercise his right to free speech over the airwaves, regardless of how odious that speech was to his fellow Americans. That changed once the United States entered the war against Germany on December 11th, 1941. Yet Kaltenbach and the radio traitors continued their broadcasts, even though they had failed in their main goal of keeping the Americans out of the war and stifling aid to Britain. The new Nazi goal was to undermine America’s morale and will to resist with the same tactics used against Britain. Now, however, Kaltenbach’s patently pro-Nazi, anti-Allied and anti-American broadcasts were no longer mere objectionable exercises of free speech by an American overseas; they were suddenly transformed into acts of treason committed by a citizen serving a nation with which his country was at war. After 1941, each time Kaltenbach spoke into a live radio microphone he committed an act of treason punishable by death.
Within a week of the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt wrote to Coordinator of Information Donovan, asking him to “talk with State and Justice [Departments] as to what should be done, now that we are at war… in the case of American citizens who are working for enemy governments”. Several months later, J. Edgar Hoover suggested in a memo to Assistant Attorney General Wendell Berge that Kaltenbach and two other radio traitors be indicted for treason and tried as soon as they entered the United States. Hoover insisted that some immediate action be taken in 1942 to bring indictments because “if the matter is approached in a lackadaisical manner and no action taken until after their return, it is feared that postwar lethargy may prevent adequate attention being given to this matter”. Treasonous scoundrels such as Kaltenbach should be severely punished, Hoover believed, to prevent others from imitating their actions. “This situation” he argued, “has arisen largely as a result of totalitarian methods developed since the last war for the purpose of influencing the home front. Due to the high development and efficiency of the radio, traitors to the American way of life, who are well fitted by language and background, are obviously being exploited by the Axis powers to further their own purposes”. Within months of Hoover’s memo, Roosevelt repeated his idea to Attorney General Francis Biddle that “there are a number of Americans in Europe who are aiding Hitler… on the radio. Why should we not proceed to indict them for treason even though we might not be able to try them until after the war?” Others expressed similar opinions, adding that the death penalty was more than justified for those convicted of treason. Even federal judicial officials, such as Special Prosecutor Oscar R. Ewing, who had recently obtained convictions of several pro-fascist leaders, echoed the calls for indictments and capital punishment on conviction.
Roosevelt’s memo prompted Biddle to order Hoover to launch an investigation of Kaltenbach and his fellow collaborators in late 1942. The FBI immediately dispatched agents from Washington, D.C., and seven field offices to interview Kaltenbach’s former employers, classmates, siblings, neighbors and acquaintances in nine Iowa cities and locations in four other states. Agents crisscrossed the nation trying to locate anyone who had ever had contact, however slight, with Lord Hee-Haw, including “Harry”, the Waverly lawyer addressed in the “Letters to Iowa” programs.
Among those questioned were Kaltenbach’s brothers and sister. All of the siblings told the FBI that they were not in sympathy with what their brother was doing and that he was motivated more by money than ideology. These explanations were well known and had already appeared in the Des Moines Register when the Kaltenbachs were interviewed in late 1939. One brother thought that Frederick was perhaps “sympathetic with the Nazi cause, but that the rest of the family lives in America and believes in American principles”. “We’re Americans” Frederick’s sister said. “We cannot be responsible for my brother’s opinions”. The FBI received little new information from the family, none of whom maintained contact with Frederick after 1941. None had listened to his broadcasts, even though Lord Hee-Haw was heard four times each week in their area. The subsequent FBI report stated that “the immediate family… has an excellent reputation for loyalty to the United States”. One brother, the FBI revealed, was serving with the U.S. Army, while the other brother, Rev. Gustav A. Kaltenbach, had entered the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps.
The FBI’s evidence was supplemented by articles gleaned from newspaper morgues in Waterloo, Dubuque, Des Moines, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York, and by transcripts of Kaltenbach’s programs that were intercepted and recorded by the FCC’s Foreign Broadcast Intelligence Service (FBIS) Monitoring Station, code-named “Shinda”, at Silver Hill, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C. Every broadcast that Kaltenbach made after December 11th, 1941, was recorded, and by the following October more than 126 long-playing records were available for the use of federal prosecutors. Each revealed the time, date, station frequency, call letters and origins of the broadcast, the subject and program title, its length and language of delivery, and the identity of the announcer. The FBIS characterized these broadcasts as “generally critical of the Allied war leaders”; they were clearly “intended to raise doubts in the minds of American citizens over the wisdom of participating in the war at all”. Witnesses were available, the FBIS added, “who have heard the broadcasts and/or can recognize the Subject [Kaltenbach], and/or can identify that they have seen the Subject in Germany”. In order to get an exact recording of Kaltenbach’s voice that could be scientifically confirmed as his, the FBI made anonymous appeals via fan mail that Kaltenbach spell out, letter-by-letter, the names of American POWs during one of his broadcasts rather than just recite their names. Kaltenbach, not suspecting the true reason for this request, fully complied, slowly and clearly enunciating the letters in the names of several POWs during an April 1943 program. This recording was added to the growing body of evidence against him.
On January 13th the Justice Department confirmed abundant rumors that the FBI was investigating those accused of being Nazi propagandists. The FBI had sought to compile an overwhelming mass of material to ensure treason indictments; the FBI file on Kaltenbach alone eventually exceeded five hundred pages. The evidence was presented to a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1943, and indictments were returned against Kaltenbach and eight others on July 26th. No warrant was issued for Kaltenbach’s arrest since he was still in Germany, but Hoover intended to have a warrant ready and waiting the second he set foot on U.S. soil.
Hoover sent information on Kaltenbach and the other indicted traitors to the U.S. Office of War Information, to Criminal Investigation Corps (CIC) officers in the 12th Army Group, and to officers of the Psychological Warfare Division (PWD/SHAEF) in Europe so they could apprehend Kaltenbach when Germany fell. PWD/SHAEF already had compiled their own list of 46 Americans and 45 British renegades suspected of collaborating with the Nazis; that list eventually grew to include 141 Americans. PWD issued detailed instructions for the treatment of these renegades once they were captured, and encouraged its personnel to scour all captured radio facilities in occupied Europe and Germany for evidence in the form of recordings, correspondence, pay vouchers and employment records that could aid in convicting each suspect.
Kaltenbach was stunned when he heard the BBC announcement of his indictment. He broadcast a reply on July 30th, 1943, sounding, to William Shirer, “as though he were hurt”. “Technically I suppose I am guilty of treason” he conceded, “of treason to Roosevelt and his warmongers, but not to the American people”. Kaltenbach declared that he served the Reich “out of a genuine desire to promote good relations between Germany, the land of my father, and America, the land of my birth”.
To have deserted the German people would have been an act of treason against my conscience. Thus on December 8th, 1941, I was suddenly confronted with the choice of committing a possible act of treason against my native America, or of deserting the German people in their hour of need. If I had taken the easy way out, I could have ceased my broadcasting activities with the excuse that as an American I should not be expected any longer to plead the cause of a country with which America was at war… It was not easy to turn my back perhaps forever on my friends in the United States, never to see the land of my birth again. I made then my choice, and I have never regretted that choice for an instant. Not even now.In closing, Kaltenbach refused to make “apologies for doing my allotted bit to help the German people to a better future”. “I am not an enemy of the American people” he reiterated, “but I shall remain an impossible enemy of those forces in America who wish to deny Germany her rightful place in the European sun”. He closed by using Patrick Henry’s words: “If that be treason, make the most of it”
As a Nazi propagandist, Frederick
Kaltenbach was an abject failure. His work for the Nazis did little to
dissuade Americans from supporting the war effort, and he accomplished
little unique during his life other than earning himself a place among
the small numbers of Americans who betrayed their country during wartime.
Unlike Benedict Arnold or even his contemporary, the poet-turned-propagandist
Ezra Pound, however, Kaltenbach is largely forgotten by history.