Television and Nazism at the 1939 World's Fair.

Social Issues

  • Author Allen Cornwell
  • Published July 9, 2024
  • Word count 2,438

In 1939, the iconic car maker General Motors used its exhibit, Futurama, to go much further than suggesting the future. “I have seen the future” was the message made into personal pins for the five million visitors who wandered through Futurama, amazed at the many futuristic vehicles and modes of transportation. The advertising people behind “I Have Seen the Future” would have been horrified if they had known what was coming.

1939 World Fair Postcard from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

“But it is a star of friendship, a star of progress for humanity, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international goodwill, and, above all, a star of peace.” Excerpt from President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech at the opening of the New York World’s Fair, April 30, 1939.

Great Depression

The 1930s saw the world struggle with one of the most consequential events in modern history: the Great Depression. Its economic devastation changed many societies’ social, cultural, and geopolitical trajectories. The hardships were such that few noticed that another evil was starting to grow and spread. This evil would be far worse. Before the good in the world stopped it, over 75 million people would have lost their lives. There were signs of impending doom throughout the decade. No one, however, stopped the monster. The 1939 New York World’s Fair was arguably the last chance.

Roosevelt and Hitler

In 1933, Franklin Roosevelt and Adolph Hitler rose to power simultaneously and at the height of the Great Depression. In America, one out of four workers was unemployed, and in Germany, the numbers were worse, one out of three. By 1935, FDR had begun implementing several federal programs, including hiring millions of unemployed to rebuild the federal infrastructure, including roads, bridges, airports, and national parks.

Germany

Adolph Hitler was doing the same in Germany. He was manipulating the numbers of workers to impress his supporters and secretly funding the rearmament of the nation while disguising it as job creation. Rearming the country was a major violation of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles terms.

Hitler’s Plan

Adolph Hitler began to unfold a plan, that included not just rearming his nation but also taking revenge and retribution, as well as channeling his hatred into targeting those he felt were inferior to the so-called Aryan race. Western leaders chose to ignore what Hitler was doing. By 1939, the Third Reich had built a navy and an air force, assembled the most powerful army in the world, and ended the economic issues in their country. The forces of good and evil were manifesting themselves, and then came the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

Birth of World Fair’s

Since their birth in 1851, World’s Fairs have used their platforms to bring nations together. And, to proudly display their unique cultures and technologies for the future. They call for world peace and push our imaginations of a new world. That world would be framed around the exciting new products and inventions, such as the telephone, Ferris wheel, the dishwasher, air conditioning, and even the introduction of the tallest tower in the world for its time- the Eiffel Tower.

1939 World Fair

In the 1939 New York World Fair, the iconic car maker General Motors used its exhibit, Futurama, to go much further than suggesting the future. “I have seen the future” was the message made into personal pins for the five million visitors who wandered through Futurama, amazed at the many futuristic vehicles and models of the highways of the future. Considering the events in Western Europe in 1939, the advertising people behind “I Have Seen the Future” would have been horrified if they had known what was coming.

I Have Seen the Future Pin, 1939, in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair Collection. This image is courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Participants

Sixty contributing nations and thirty American states all collaborated to present the World’s Fair, and excitedly declared the theme as “The World of Tomorrow.” With the clouds of war hovering over Europe, the 1939 World’s Fair organizers faced enormous challenges trying to get commitments from participants. The Italians were anxious to display their masterpieces. Their demands included Romano Romanelli’s bronze statue of Benito Mussolini. Mussolini, their Fascist dictator, stood tall upon a black marble pedestal in the very center of the Italian Pavilion.

Construction

Construction was underway for the Czechoslovakian Pavilion, and it was nearly complete when Nazi forces invaded their nation. The construction stopped, and it remained unfinished. Nervously, France and Poland opened their exhibits and held their breath. And, at the last minute, the Germans, despite years of planning, changed their minds and decided not to come. Their absence became the Expo’s “elephant in the room.” New Yorkers were still trying to make sense of what had happened earlier, in late February 1939, when a massive Nazi rally took place at Madison Square Garden. The two events were as different as night and day.

1876 -Telephone

At a glance, some of the past World’s Fairs share similar themes of science, technology, and modernization, all with the hope for a peaceful tomorrow. The 1876 Philadelphia Expo proudly proclaimed America’s 100th anniversary and unveiled the telephone to the world.

Previous Expo’s

The 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced the Ferris Wheel to the world. Also presented, were new foods such as Cracker Jack, Quaker Oats, and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. The theme of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair was “Science Finds, Industry Applies, Man Conforms.” It unveiled new automobile designs, houses of the future, and babies living in incubators.

1939 New York World’s Fair. Flushing Meadows, New York. This image is in Public Domain.

Expectations

Living up to its predecessors, the 1939 New York World’s Fair used the hopeful slogan “Dawn of a New Day.” The international exposition was partly a trade show where companies showcased their latest technology. That included the newest car models, home appliances, color photography, air conditioning, and more. Nations displayed their national art, culture, and industry. The event was also a fair in every sense of the word, complete with food and amusements.

Exhibits

The exhibits forecasted the houses and cities of tomorrow. The pavilions housed dynamic displays that honored factory production, technology, and speed. It also presented streamlined trains, modern highways and bridges, and even talking robots. There was exciting news about another new technology. It would soon turn the world upside down.

Television

Television began a new era. Its technology would not just revolutionize the planet–it offered the potential of millions of new jobs. The American business icon Radio Corporation of America used the 1939 World Fair to launch its product and discuss television’s value to the world. A lucky 1,000 New Yorkers watched President Roosevelt’s televised remarks in amazement. The invention would redefine freedom of speech. In time the viewing public would be able to see a variety of entertainment, news stories, as well as images of war, on small units in their homes.

People waiting in line for the Futurama ride at General Motors Highways and Horizons pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939. This image is courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York. X2010.7.1.18077

The pride of the American developers was clear when they decided to tie the Expo’s opening to a historic moment in United States history. April 30, 1939, was enthusiastically selected as the opening date since it marked the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s Presidential inauguration.

Nazi Rally

George Washington represented everything good about America. In a distorted way, the Nazi rally leaders embraced that idea, too. They included a 30′ tall George Washington statue-like image at the Madison Garden venue. It was flanked by a blaze of swastikas and Nazi salutes. In a twisted way,it was the perfect backdrop for Fascist speakers to inspire an American pro-Nazi crowd.

Speaker platform for American Nazi Rally, February 20, 1939. Madison Square Garden, New York, New York. The photo is in the Public Domain.

Star of Peace

On the opening day of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Roosevelt’s speech, “The Star of Peace,” was a wishful desire for peace; it was one that the Expo developers had fully embraced from the beginning. They had worked hard to encourage cooperation from nations to participate, regardless of political ideology. There was a moment of hope in the negotiations, and the Germans expressed some willingness to cooperate, but after much effort and difficult negotiations, they refused to attend.

American Jewish Committee

There was, however, another moment that did reflect peace, grace and overall decency. When the bosses of the Nazi rally approached the owners of Madison Square Garden to argue for the right to use their venue, it was the American Jewish Committee who stepped up and voiced their support for the Nazis. They despised their message, but even Nazis were entitled to freedom of speech, they felt.

Czechoslovakia

In Nazi Germany, changes had already begun, and many professional Jewish people, amongst them nurses, dentists, and other medical providers were no longer allowed to work, and the forces of the Third Reich had already invaded the free republic of Czechoslovakia. Back at the Expo, the representatives of the Czech Republic were stunned by the violence and the sudden takeover of their beloved nation.

Hate

The Nazi rally took place on February 20, 1939 and attracted over 22,000 individuals. Many were hard core Nazis, others were fresh recruits, some were journalists, and the rest were just curious. There were over 100,000 anti- Nazi protesters standing outside in the cold and rain trying to stop them from entering the building.

The rally leader, Fritz Kuhn, began by calling for a “socially just, white, Gentile-controlled United States” and “Gentile-controlled labor unions, free from Jewish Moscow-directed domination.”

Dorothy Thompson

During the hate-filled rants by the rally leaders, the New York Times columnist Dorothy Thompson was ejected from the meeting because she laughed during a Nazi speech. Interviewed later, she said “We came here because it was a public meeting. At such meetings, one may react as one chooses. So we laughed. I laughed because these Nazis were exercising free speech, which one day they would deny everyone.” Ms Thompson was allowed back inside once she was identified as a news columnist, and she continued to laugh at many of the speeches given by the Nazi members.

Dorothy Thompson, journalist, testifying before Congress. 1935. This image is in the Public Domain.

Desire for Peace

The planners of the 1939 Expo dreamed about an event that would lift spirits and offer hope for jobs and secure futures. They wanted a broader vision of world peace and freedom, and, most importantly, they could imagine how the boundaries of free speech would change, hopefully expand, with the innovation of television. On the other side of the world, Adolph Hitler began the silencing of free speech and human rights altogether, of innocent individuals whom he felt were inferior, including Jews, Romani, gay people, and others. Concentration camps, also referred to as “death camps,” were already built or in the process of construction. In time, millions of innocent men, women, and children were tortured and murdered by the horrible policies of the Nazi regime.

David Sarnoff, President of RCA, introduced television to the world. New York World’s Fair, April 20, 1939. Image is Courtesy of New York Public Library.

Technology

On the grounds of the World’s Fair and in front of the RCA Pavilion, the company president, David Sarnoff, spoke excitedly about how television will change the world. Also, he spoke directly about the destructive forces that were forming in Western Europe referring to television as the “torch of hope in a troubled world.” The unfinished Czechoslovakian pavilion reminded the millions of World Fair visitors of Nazi aggression that was spreading in Western Europe.

Nazi violence was still fresh in the minds of many New Yorkers. The well-publicized public beating of protester Isadore Greenbaum was on the front page of the New York Papers. At the Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, Greenbaum mounted the stage. He attempted to reach the podium but was grabbed, beaten, and stripped by uniformed Bund members. Greenbaum was in attendance at the rally and became incensed when the Nazi speaker began making vicious and disgusting comments about Jews and Judaism. ” I lost my head,” he told the judge the following day. “When he began attacking my religion, I couldn’t take any more of it.”

Isadore Greenbaum being beaten and subdued by Nazi storm troopers at Madison Square Garden, February 20, 1939. This image is in the Public Domain.

Tensions

Tensions were mounting in Western Europe as Hitler continued to spread terror, destruction, and death. In response, the organizers of the Expo decided to have a second season. Starting in 1940, they boldly stated a new theme – “For Peace and Freedom.”

Meanwhile, the Soviets had constructed the popular Arctic Pavilion, which was the largest and most expensive – so big it covered 3 venues. Now, the Soviets chose not to participate. Instead, they pulled their enormous structures down quickly, leaving empty lots. In September 1939, the Soviets joined with the Germans to invade Poland, officially starting World War II.

Soviet Arctic Pavilion, New York World Fair, 1939. This image is courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Now without countries, the representatives of Czechoslovakia and Poland carried on and ran their pavilions with a sense of national pride. By the Spring of 1940, the Nazi machine had attacked Denmark and Norway. Their forces were already occupying the countries of Holland and Belgium. On June 14, 1940, once-feared, France collapsed in less than 30 days from the German invasion.

Many of the exhibitors, who were without nations to return to, resettled into the willing homes of Americans. The Expo had a somber mood, and black flags draped the flags of the nations impacted. The New York Times reported that 13 countries, including the Soviets, had withdrawn from the 1940 New York World’s Fair.

Theme

Although the new theme of the World Fair hoped to achieve world peace, it fell short of that goal. The Germans had breached the terms of peace under the Treaty of Versailles, and because of that, other nations—England, France, Australia, and New Zealand—were at war, too. In time, other countries would join the fight.

German forces and Polish civilians on the outskirts of Warsaw. In the background of the photograph, the city burns as a result of the German military assault. Warsaw, Poland, September 1939 United States Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD

Courtesy of the National Archive

Resources:

NYC Department of Records & Information Services – Archives.NYC

U.S. History Scene

Time

The New York Times

Life

The Atlantic

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