The Introduction of World War II to Amherst College

Guest post by Campbell Hannan ’21

In September of 1939, then-President of Amherst, Stanley King opened his convocation address in Johnston Chapel with a somewhat ominous proclamation. “This year we open with Europe at war,” he said. “What effect that war will have on America no man can tell. But that it will affect America profoundly we all know. It will affect this college.” I know this because his words were printed in the thirteenth volume of the Amherst Alumni Council News and a few weeks ago, I was assigned to capture and digitize it.

Excerpt from President King's 1939 welcome address in Johnson Chapel

I joined the Digital Programs student team last spring, and in my time here I have digitized several different types of publication. Most have been by the students themselves, but others, including the Alumni Council News, were published by the administration or outside groups on campus. It has intrigued me when I’ve found the different groups to publish articles, news, or information on the same topics. Of course there are the topics like a new President of the school, a new building, or the introduction of women into the college, but as bit of a history buff, I have been interested to see how each of the publications have first written on the beginning of World War II.

The Alumni Council News has published the president’s convocation speech in the first issue of each volume of their publication each year, so it follows that their first mention of the war would be President King’s remarks. He does not speak, however, on the politics of the war, or whether or not America should get directly involved. Rather, he uses the condition Europe is in to impress upon the student body its obligation to take advantage of the resources offered at Amherst and the privilege of getting such an education during this tense time. Consider the following passage:

Excerpt of King's discussion of rights vs. obligations

Second excerpt of King's speech on rights vs. obligations

President King here is asking each student to take stock of their lives and realize that they are lucky to be living and attending school in America, where they have the right to be an individual. So, during these times when that right is up for debate across the world, it is the American’s obligation to exercise it. It is an interesting sentiment to express to a college of young people who are only just gaining their rights as adults, but an important one. Since WWII, America has named itself the paragon of freedom and democracy, and that image begins with the individual. Showing the validity of rights is only possible if Americans exercise them. King is imploring Amherst, therefore, to set an example of what is possible when those rights exist. It is a point that I would argue is just as relevant today as it was then.

While the transcript of President King’s Chapel Address grants today’s reader a valuable insight into the attitudes of the faculty of the college, and the “official” mood regarding the war, the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly gives a unique perspective into the mood on campus in comparison to the war in Europe. The November 1939 issue of the Graduate’s Quarterly featured an article entitled “A European Sees American College Life,” written by Ernst G. Beier ‘40, a senior in the college who a footnote names as a “refugee student” from Germany. For me, reading his account of the differences between the environment at Amherst, where the war only touches tangentially, and the environment at a university in Europe, where the attitude is essentially just one of uncertainty, was extraordinarily eye-opening.

A European Sees American College Life publication header

A biographical footnote about Mr. Beier

He opens his essay with an observation on class sweaters. He sees students roaming campus in their “1943” sweaters, knowing that they will make it to that graduation day. That sentiment, of a certainty that May 1943 will come, Beier says is “the symbol of the antithesis to our European day.” Beier and his European compatriots “await with tension the next day, the next week, and hardly dare to think what will happen in the next month.” As a student in 2018, that sentiment, of not daring to look forward to your graduation day with any certainty, is startling. I consider sometimes the possibility that the world will end before I get my diploma, it’s hard not to when the state of the country can depend on a 3am tweet, but I still believe that the day will come.

Ernst Beier writes about how Europeans can right now only focus on the next day or week, not month or year

Beier speaks of the laissez-faire, casual nature in which Americans live. We share our lives with strangers we meet at the store, our professors engage in our lives outside of academics, and we allow our peers to see the way our emotions are affected everyday. The European, Beier contends, keeps himself contained and uninterested. He “observe[s] that the social life [in America] is easier to live, less bound by forms. It is healthier. Life is cheery. It is a different conception of life.” Although World War II was characterized as a total war, even before America entered, because we were not involved from the outset, we were able to forget about the death and the destruction for bits of time and live as a college student might today. In his address, President King contended that the student body would not be able to forget the war for longer than twenty-four hours, but a European of the same age would not be able to forget it at all. Beier’s piece reminds us that although Americans may recognize and hurt for those killed in the war, they themselves were at that moment not the ones dying.

President King and Ernst Beier offer two very different perceptions of the way the war affected Amherst College in its first months. Yet they are compatible. By maintaining the very American attitudes that Beier describes, Amherst students are adhering the the obligations espoused by President King. They appreciate their peers and professors, and enjoy life at Amherst despite the totality of war just at the edge of their minds. A student in 1939 likely would have been present for President King’s address, certainly a freshman would have been, but they probably did not read Beier’s piece in the Graduate Quarterly. As an Amherst student in 2018, I have to opportunity to read both, and get two very different perspectives on the state of Amherst College as the world descended into war.

The final publication I would offer is The Amherst Student. The student-run newspaper has been running since 1868, and in September 1939 offered its first observation on the presence of the war at Amherst. (In the previous issue, the editor recognized the war in a lead in for fraternity recruiting, but September 21, 1939 was the first issue that contained a full article.) The article, “Tribute Paid by Nazi ‘Friends’ Dubbed As Good Propaganda,” begins, “‘This program is being sent by friends in Germany to friends in Massachusetts with special greetings to Amherst College.’ Thus in broken English a Reich announcer began an Amherst ‘tribute’ via short wave [sic] from Berlin to the U.S.A.”

Headline: Tribute Paid by Nazi "Friends" Dubbed as Good Propaganda

In 1939, at the beginning of the war, a Nazi propaganda radio station broadcasted directly to Amherst and the U.S., proclaiming its love for the college. Never let anyone tell you Amherst doesn’t have important alumni. I’m sure Karl Schwarz, an exchange student in 1933 who in 1939 was found to be the editor of Geist der Zeit, a newspaper published by the Berlin Institute of International Education, was not the ideal picture Amherst wanted of their alumni at the time, but today he is extremely valuable. The Berlin Institute of International Education was created to handle “cultural relations” abroad, and was essentially the foreign broadcast arm of the Nazi propaganda machine. Not exactly who you want featured in your yearbook, but exactly who is fascinating to come across eighty years later.

In his broadcast, Schwarz included “a dramatization of the life of a German student who attended Amherst six years ago” that featured moments such as his arrival on campus, convocation, his experience in a fraternity, a performance by the orchestra and chorus, a football game, and the poems of Robert Frost, among others.

Excerpt of Amherst Student article on Nazi propaganda broadcast

Excerpt of Amherst Student article on Nazi propaganda broadcast
Although a transcript of the broadcast is not included in the article, I am sure the tone of Schwarz’s “dramatization” is very different from Beier’s account in the Graduate’s Quarterly. Whereas Beier was writing for previous Amherst students about the conditions of the college in comparison to the tense environment of war-torn Europe, Schwarz is speaking of his experience likely to gain sympathy or garner attention from not only Amherst College but the greater community. It speaks to the reputation of Amherst that a Nazi broadcast chose to target its airwaves and its legacy. Though this article in the Student may teach a contemporary reader more about Amherst’s legacy than about the attitudes on campus during the war, it is interesting that it is the first article published in the the Student about the war. Propaganda, from all sides, was a huge part of WWII, but much of it was not as explicitly documented as it was here. Immediately recognizing the Nazi broadcast as propaganda hopefully speaks to a strong anti-Nazi attitude on campus that could not be affected by a persuasive alumnus.

Working in the Digital Programs department gives me a unique insight into life at Amherst throughout its history, even if I’m not combing through every article in every publication I digitize. Those concerning World War II caught my eye because that is such an important time in all history, not just Amherst’s. To read the words given by King, written by Beier, and broadcasted by Schwarz, the contemporary Amherst student can gain a more thorough understanding of where Amherst was in the months following the declaration of the Second World War. Hopefully, too, they can learn what went right and what went wrong, and use that information to inform the now.

Campbell Hannan ’21 is a sophomore at Amherst College. She is originally from Chapel Hill, NC and is majoring in Political Science. She has worked for the Digital Programs Department since Spring 2018.