Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick
LETTERS TO IOWA
One warm night early in June, a Midwestern speaker that sounded like any other voice heard in Rural America in 1940, came through “as clear as a bell” from Nazi Germany, directing his words to Iowans, to “friends in Dubuque and the Midwest.” Soon the programs were on the airwaves regularly, known as “Letters to Iowa,” and in them the broadcaster would address “Harry,” whom he claimed to be a childhood friend in Waverly.
“Don’t let the British drag America into this thing, Harry!” (meaning the widening war in Europe.) “Don’t pull Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire again!”
Renegades are regarded as mentally unbalanced, racists, cowards, misfits, partial failures and frustrates unable to distinguish between reality and hallucination. But this man saw himself not as a renegade, but as a messenger whose mission was to warn Americans of the dangers presented by Bolshevism. He was an oracle sent to clarify Nazi philosophy and combat Hitler's critics. Fascism was the new wave of the future and was capable of saving the US, Germany and the world from conspiracy!
It was a shock to many when it was learned that the broadcaster was an Iowa-born American named Frederick W. Kaltenbach who was born in Dubuque in 1895. Fred was the eldest son of a Presbyterian butcher who had emigrated from Germany four years earlier. The family were described as good, honest, hard-working, humble people. Frederick seemed to have a normal childhood as he grew up in Waterloo and eventually graduated from East High School in 1914. He was “studious,” and became a champion debater although he began to foster some communistic ideas. Kaltenbach earned a B.A. from Iowa Teacher’s College in 1920. Classmates there remember him as dogmatic and domineering, but in most respects he was a model citizen.
Fred Kaltenbach taught American History at Manchester. He voted, took part in local and civic projects, and took French courses at night. In 1939 he earned a Master of Arts degree from the University of Chicago. Near the end of his studies, he became a supporter of the Nazi party and married a German woman from an old military family.
Fred’s new wife had contacts within the Nazi party and was herself employed as a secretary on the staff of Herman Goering’s aviation journals. Within weeks of his marriage, Kaltenbach was hired as a broadcaster for Paul Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda. When the pair spent their honeymoon in the United States, all expenses were paid by the propaganda organization.
When the couple visited his relatives in Iowa, many were taken in by his suave talk and reasoning. His brother “Butch” was a teacher and basketball coach at Ottumwa High School. Fred took every opportunity to address local citizens. He spoke to both the Ottumwa Rotary and the Kiwanis Club in April 1939. He followed this with speeches to students at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. His father, who died in Waterloo in May, was very proud of his son’s work within the Nazi government.
In speaking about the virtues of Socialism, Kaltenbach referred to Germany’s occupation of the Rhineland as “moving into her own backyard.” He defended the Austrian Anschluss and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia as “self-determination” of the type that was advocated by Woodrow Wilson. When he bragged that the German government could and would take over the Polish Corridor and the free city of Danzig whenever they wished, he was met with boos and catcalls. Many listeners then openly denounced him as a Nazi agent and spy.
Fred cut short his visit to take part in Germany’s invasion of Poland. He continued his broadcasts, and by 1940 added to his radio roles “Jim, the smart-aleck Canadian” and “Honest American Fred.” He was heard throughout America and his propaganda tactics included an all-out but unsuccessful effort to influence voters against Roosevelt. He should have listened to his own words. "Don't bet money on the wrong horse, Harry! I'd hate to see my American friends grab the short end of the purse!"
What this did was bring Kaltenbach to the attention of many Iowans. It was eventually revealed that 300,000 Iowans listened and heard the Nazi broadcasts! Fred himself received abundant fan mail with regularity. Also listening, but not as fans, were members of the FBI. They compiled evidence by recording broadcasts and cutting the contents onto long-playing records for use by federal prosecutors. After the war, Fred was stunned by his indictment. “Technically, I suppose I am guilty of treason,” he admitted, “to treason against Roosevelt and his warmongers, but not to the American people.” (Annals of Iowa, Summer 1994)
As we would say today, Kaltenbach swung very far to the left. Perhaps because his propaganda machine did not change the minds of Americans, historians largely forget this traitor. Though many Americans shared some of his beliefs, few dared to take these thoughts to the extreme of treason for a cause. He clearly believed in what he preached and wanted to convince his beloved Iowans and Americans to change their beliefs to his propaganda, “for their own good.”
This is an old game used by politicians the world over. We must not be wooed by a couple of familiar tunes only to find that we have either jumped onto the wrong band wagon, or the bandleader has us marching to a different tune! If we don’t watch our steps and analyze all our words, we might end up as just another traitor on the cutting floor...like Fred!
Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick