Book Review: A Cold, Descending Fog: Letters Home and a Memoir from Wartime Berlin, 1939-1940 edited by Stewart Herman III

[1] The summer of 1939 afforded Stewart Herman Jr. his last idyll as a pastor of the American Church in the heart of Nazi Germany, little though he knew it at the time. An opportunity to travel for six weeks through Scandinavia and the Baltic states, heading northward beyond the Arctic Circle, proved an invigorating break from Herman’s routine in Berlin, where he oversaw worship, the choir, informal social hours, Thursday evening presentations and concerts.  He also served as a listening board for those who had stories to share and those who sought his counsel.  Since his appointment in 1936, Herman had taken what was less a church than an elite club and turned it into what editor Stewart Herman III aptly describes as a “lively hub of American Christian fellowship.”

[2] In this volume, one of a series of handsomely produced books drawn from Herman’s letters home between 1936 and 1941, the focus is Herman’s daily life in Berlin in the aftermath of his summer sojourn. The letters that constitute the text were written to his parents back in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his father, Stewart Herman Sr., served as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church.  They commence with descriptions of a trip to Utrecht for a conference that attracted delegates from many countries to discuss theological issues and their thoughts on a European crisis about to explode into a world war.   Herman was back home in Berlin for only a few days when the Nazi regime manufactured a dispute in Danzig that presaged both a surprise “friendship” pact with the Soviet Union and the subsequent invasion of Poland on September 1.

[3] A Cold Descending Fog carries a reader closer to the everyday complications of life in a totalitarian country in wartime–that is, wartime with an asterisk. Though war was declared in September, 1939, until May 1940 it was less a “hot” war than a cold one, featuring occasional military thrusts and parry, a British naval blockade of German ports, and some bombing.  During the period covered in this volume (July 1939-July 1940), Herman does not feel the full brunt of war; neither do the Berliners he interacts with on a daily basis in shops, cafes, concert halls and the city’s  many parks.  That said, a war is on.  Herman says he believes a “disaster” is unfolding in Europe, though its full nature and outcome remain opaque.   His main hope is that the United States would “mind its own business” and let Europeans sort things out for themselves.  (p. 108)

[4] Herman has a clearer sense, even during the “phony war” period (Fall 1939-early Spring 1940) that his church has reached a “crossroads” (p. 25) Many congregants departed in the late summer of ’39 before and just after hostilities were formally declared.  The days of easy fellowship were over. Even planning minor improvements in the church’s infrastructure would have to wait, Herman concluded, until the war concluded.  Indeed, while attendance at services proved stable in the first year of the war, the only way the church could balance its budget was to (reluctantly) lease space to Christian Scientists who had lost their own building.

[5] Within weeks of his return from Holland in August 1939, Herman was offered a position in the American Embassy as a translator and factotum, with responsibility for helping, as best he could, a growing number of refugees and internees from all over Europe.  By accepting employment at the Embassy, Herman could cede back his salary at the American Church while continuing to deliver weekly sermons and tend his flock.  This new arrangement meant working a seven-day week, except for occasional breaks, but Herman was game.  Indeed, by late fall 1939 he tells his parents that he is preaching better than ever, making strong, even emotional connections between his Biblical exegeses and the daily challenges his congregants were facing.

[6] Herman’s responsibilities pulled him in many directions.  As reflected in his letters home and a second set of missives that were meant as the basis for a (never written) memoir, which take up Part II of this book, Herman seems to be making do without undue wear and tear.  Evenings in restaurants, or at home eating, drinking, chatting with friends and associates, raised his spirits.  Herman regularly attended operas, concerts, and the cinema, though at the cinema he was subjected to propaganda newsreels that left him disgusted at the obvious manipulation of facts, the better to serve an odious regime’s interests.  Herman read widely, too, including popular fiction like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, theological treatises, and articles in Christian publications, some of which (for example, The Lutheran and Christendom) he not only read but contributed his own articles relating Berlin’s American Church activities.

[7] Subjects that remain under wraps in Herman’s correspondence home include his social life with eligible women in his orbit,  Hitler, the Nazi regime, and the sufferings of Berlin’s Jews, much less any expression of outrage about the latter.  Herman alludes occasionally to decrees limiting when Jews can shop or even be on the street, and he references the plight of individual Jews.  It is obvious that he is not in sympathy with the Nazis when it comes to the “Jewish question.”  For example, Herman tells his parents that he disliked a September 1939 Hitler speech denouncing the Jews. His empathy for German Jews is limited and his references to them throughout the correspondence suggest that Jews, per se, were a people apart from the Aryan population.  This sense of detachment from the “Jewish problem” in Germany is even more pronounced in Herman’s letters published in the antecedent volume in this series, The Swiftness of Living: Letters Home from Berlin, 1938-June 1939.

[8] It is not easy to sort out what Herman should have done under the circumstances, given his awareness that speaking out publicly would terminate his tenure in Berlin.  His job as pastor was to tend his flock, which did not include Jews.  His job at the American Embassy connected him more frequently to refugees’ suffering and that of POWs.  Given the modus operandi of the German military, there were severe limitations to what he could say and do in response to perceived injustices.  Both at church and his embassy job, periodically traveling to assess conditions in different camps, Herman provided aid—advocating for better conditions, providing reading matter–as best he could.  He must have felt it a waste of time to be constantly outraged, when practical tasks demanded his time and attention.   About the worst he has to say about Hitler is that his speeches are filled with lies and that his reputation will likely be ruined by allowing the Russians to “Bolshevize” the Baltic states. (p. 209)

[9] Mildred Harnock, an American woman in Berlin during Herman’s tenure at the American Church, occasionally attended services while Herman was pastor.  But her life took a very different course.  In secret, Harnock devoted herself to resisting Hitler’s regime, as part of a small anti-Nazi international cell, in ways similar to the more famous White Rose martyrs—and with the same tragic results.  Harnock’s moral courage in this dark period in German history provides a striking contrast to Herman’s steadfast pragmatism.  (See, in this regard Rebecca Donner’s riveting book, All the Frequent Troubles of Our Days: The True Story of the American Woman at the Heart of the German Resistance to Hitler [New York: Little, Brown, 2021].)

[10] Neither dissident nor spy, Stewart Herman had his own distinctive role to play.  He kept the American Church afloat, maintaining a sense of normalcy on special occasions like Christmas, and at weekly services and social gatherings.  Herman’s letters document his persistent efforts at the Embassy to assure that interned French and British citizens were treated humanely.  His response to individuals seeking his help proved, in large ways and small, meaningful, notably in providing essential funds for maintenance or documents offering a way out of Germany.

[11] One comes away from this book with a more nuanced understanding of Germans at war but not yet feeling its full impact.  Because of the British blockade of German ports, from September 1939 forward, average Germans had to make do with less of almost every commodity they most enjoyed and had, prewar, taken for granted—for example, coffee, tobacco, butter and meat.   Yet shops, cafes and nightclubs remained packed.  Cultural events went on as though there was no war.  Even air raids were more the exception than the rule.  By late Spring 1940, moreover, as Germany launched its successful Blitzkrieg, German “swagger” was evident, notably when victorious troops paraded through the streets of Berlin.  Herman found Germans’  “confidence and gratification” on these occasions off-putting. (113, 125) More severe privations and personal travail lay just ahead, beyond the parameters of this work – as did Herman’s own loss of freedom for several months following American entry into the war in December 1941.

[12] It is, perhaps, too easy to take Stewart Herman Jr. down a peg because he was not more biting in his letters about the Nazis, more ardent in his defense of Jewish rights, or more cognizant that American engagement was a key to opposing totalitarian hegemony and ultimately crushing a vile regime.  As a Christian and quasi-pacifist, Herman focused on doing the doable.  He was not the King of the World.  He would persevere to the best of his ability, commenting on life as he lived it in a perceptive and candid way.  We are fortunate he did, and fortunate also that his son Stewart Herman III has made this distinctive record readily available to scholars, students, and general readers.

[13] A Cold, Descending Fog is chronologically fifth in a series of six volumes of letters written home by S. W. Herman, Jr, to his parents from Germany during his years there, 1935-1942.  The Swiftness of Living (1938-1939), Going to Extremes (1939), and Fragments of Shells Pattering (1940-1942) are already in print, while last two, as-yet unnamed, volumes (1935-1937), are projected to appear in late 2023.








Michael J. Birkner

Michael J. Birkner is professor of history at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania.