The Pulpit Meets the Newspaper

In 1939, Lewis Dunnington was in his 11th year as pastor of Endion Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota. He was married to Helen French Dunnington and the father of four boys ranging from 6 to 14 years of age.

1939 was also a pivotal year in world history. Hitler had signed the Munich Agreement in 1938, in which the Allies accepted Germany’s claim to the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in return for German recognition of Czechoslovakia’s remaining borders. But In March of 1939, Hitler violated this agreement by invading what remained of Czechoslovakia and creating the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. This effectively gave him total political and military control of what had been Czechoslovakia.

The question for the rest of the world was how far and how fast Hitler would eventually expand his reach, with the focus on Poland whose borders were increasingly threatened.

The editor of the Duluth Herald decided that one way to answer this question would be to send Pastor Lewis Dunnington to Europe to find out. Lew had a Master’s degree in history and his personal commitment to witnessing world history had already led to three earlier trips to Europe.

One would think that sending a Methodist minister with four young sons to an area where Nazi armies had already obliterated two national boundaries would be a non-starter, but on June 28, 1939, correspondent Lewis Dunnington left Duluth for Europe.

Off to Europe

Photo accompanying Lew’s August 8, 1939 Duluth Herald story

The plan was for Lew to spend two months on a “vagabonding” tour with potential stops in Hamburg, Berlin, Danzig (Gdansk), Warsaw, Moscow, Krakow, Odessa, Bucharest, Vienna, Prague, Leipzig, Eisenach, Wilmar, and Cologne.

Table card in German nightclubs demonstrating forbidden dancing styles

Armed with Associated Press contacts from the AP head in New York City and a letter from the German Consul-General in Chicago requesting that German officials give him complete cooperation, Lew set sail for Hamburg, Germany on July 2, 1939.

The 11 articles that Lew sent back to the Herald reflected the gap between Nazi propaganda concerning the living conditions of the German people and the grimmer situation on the ground.

He was able to travel to Berlin, Bavaria, Munich, Warsaw, Danzig (Gdansk), and Vienna mostly by train and automobile. In the German cities he visited, Lew was assigned official Nazi handlers. Even when he was in unoccupied Poland, he was always aware of observation by the Gestapo.

For the articles that were published while Lew was still in Nazi-occupied territory, he kept his observations circumspect and acceptable to German censors.

It was in his fifth of eleven articles, dispatched from Warsaw, that Lew was able to report the intense propaganda he had been surrounded by in Germany. His succeeding articles described the discrepancies between supposed “full iceboxes” of everyday Germans and the food shortages he found on the ground. He was also free after this to give full vent to his feelings that the Nazis obviously meant to take Poland by force.

Lew mixed with workers’ families and party officials. He observed that American movies and art were banned. He forwarded an image of a folded card found on night club tables with diagrams of ballroom dancing which was acceptable and jitterbugging which was not. No make-up was allowed on women. “There is no jazz orchestra in all of Germany. Thank God for that!” he wrote in his August 8th dispatch.

In Poland, Lew met with an unnamed “high Polish official” in Warsaw who predicted that German invasion of Poland was imminent and that Poland would fight back with or without Allied support.

Czechoslovak Press Visa

Nazi-issued travel pass in Warsaw for four-week entry to occupied Czechoslovakia

The biggest coup for Lew during this trip was to secure a visa to enter the former Czechoslovakia whose borders had been closed since the March takeover. Lew knew of only one US correspondent still living in Czechoslovakia – A.R. Parker, who reported for the New York Times, but whose dispatches were carefully circumscribed to get past censors. Other journalists seeking entry had been denied.

Lew’s letter from the German Consul-General in Chicago, and the fact that he had already purchased his transportation from German officials on the German boat coming over, convinced the German ambassador in Warsaw to grant him his visa for a ten-day stay.

He was always shadowed by the Gestapo, but arranged to spend some days in the country with a travelling salesman and meet with a “leading economist” who outlined the shortages created by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia and their increasing need for the resources of Poland. Lew had spent several months with Czechoslovak soldiers when he was in Russia in 1917, so he had a particular warmth for the people he met. Most of the stories he heard from his contacts reflected the disappearance of citizens who would not do as they were bid and the increasing repression by the Nazis on all fronts.

He was able to smuggle out an underground copy of the “Czech Ten Commandments” which urged resistance to the Nazis. He hid it in a train car ashtray under the still-wet pits of prunes he had just eaten. He also described how Czechs resisted Nazi anti-Semitism by tearing down anti-Jewish signs and flooding a public beach that was supposed to only be used by Jews.

Quick Trip Home

Lew stayed in Czechoslovakia until August 13, 1939 when the rumblings of war became too insistent and his vagabonding tour was cut short without ever reaching the Soviet Union. He made his way back to New York on one of the last German ships leaving Hamburg in peacetime.

On Sept 1, 1939, Hitler’s and Stalin’s armies invaded Poland. France and the UK declared war on September 3rd and World War II began.

Reporter Lewis Dunnington returned to Duluth in early September with the conclusion in his August 30 dispatch that “For 20 years I have pleaded Germany’s cause. But I have now seen the stranglehold that the brutal and sadistic Nazi party has upon its own people. War, therefore, seems inevitable – and soon. It hurts to have to say it, but the only language the Nazis understand is that of cold steel.”

I think my grandfather’s reporting was a success in terms of informing readers of the Duluth Herald. It also proved another example of Lew’s deep commitment to understanding his place in the secular as well as the spiritual world. How he reconciled this adventure as a war correspondent with his role as pastor, husband, and father of four children remains a mystery to me.