people in Germany near a swastika banner

The Nazi who infiltrated National Geographic

Douglas Chandler, a WWII-era contributor to the magazine, harbored a treasonous secret.

Douglas Chandler's 1937 feature on Berlin for National Geographic magazine painted a citizenry content under Nazi rule. He later collaborated with the Nazis, working as a radio propagandist.

Photograph by Douglas Chandler, Nat Geo Image Collection

At around 10 o’clock on an April night in 1941, a strange radio program began broadcasting from Germany. American listeners tuning in to a shortwave station heard the melody of “Yankee Doodle” and the clopping of horse hooves, followed by a man speaking. “Tonight I, an American observer, come galloping on the radio,” the first broadcast began.

Every night but Saturdays after that, a man calling himself Paul Revere would address the nation in a vitriolic rant of pro-Nazi—and anti-British and anti-Roosevelt—propaganda.

About a month after the show launched, on the night of May 26, 1941, the host announced that it was his 52nd birthday. He was now, he said, “the exact age of Adolf Hitler, the most successful man in the world.” Then he introduced himself as Douglas Chandler, a contributor to National Geographic magazine.

At National Geographic’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., a memo was circulating among top editors with a newspaper clipping from the Washington Post: “Nazi ‘Paul Revere’ Proves Former Baltimore Man.” Letters began pouring in from magazine subscribers who had been listening to the disparaging broadcasts, in which Chandler had boasted about his employer while repeatedly railing against its leadership.

“I couldn’t have been more surprised if it had been the Annual Report of the Ladies’ Benevolent Society being ripped to ribbons!” wrote one concerned reader, who had heard the magazine mentioned a dozen times. “This is what I am curious about—how did the Nazis come to have such a spite against the ‘National Geographic’?”

Both National Geographic and the FBI had already been investigating Chandler’s Nazi ties. But now, with his radio reveal, the American public discovered that a National Geographic writer had—loudly—taken up the Nazis’ cause.

How He Was Hooked

Born in Chicago in 1889, Chandler served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, then dabbled in sales—mostly razors and skin creams. He found success as a stockbroker in the late 1920s, but his timing was unfortunate: The ensuing financial crisis tanked his savings, along with those of his wealthy wife, Laura.

So Chandler turned to journalism. He took a job at the Baltimore News-American writing a weekly news column, often in a poetic verse. He was known among his friends, editors, and fellow servicemen as charming but arrogant. In his writing and socializing he grew increasingly despondent about the state of America and began to blame his failures on the Jews.

In 1931, the Chandlers and their two daughters set sail for France, where Douglas would discover two new passions: photography and Nazism. He soon purchased a Leica camera and began a career as a freelancer. Then he visited Germany for the first time, where—according to historian John Carver Edwards’ book Berlin Calling: American Broadcasters in Service to the Third Reich—he was introduced to the Nazi Press Department’s attaché and the general consul in Munich. The latter took him on a tour of Dachau, one of the Nazi’s first concentration camps, where Chandler was impressed by the clean barracks. He left convinced that U.S. authorities were distorting conditions in Germany.

In 1936 Chandler sent photographs from a trip to North Africa to an acquaintance: John Oliver La Gorce, an associate editor at National Geographic. Chandler wrote that he was enjoying life abroad and planned to stay there, “pre-supposing that no general catastrophe is going to overtake poor Europe.”

La Gorce declined to publish the photos, but he proposed that Chandler write an article about Berlin. The magazine was looking for a story “picturing the life of the people, their amusements or hobbies, something of the café life, recreational interests, the business side, recent developments in architecture, how traffic is handled…”

<p>Young German girls walk Berlin's waterfront in this photograph taken by Chandler.</p>

Young German girls walk Berlin's waterfront in this photograph taken by Chandler.

Photograph by Douglas Chandler, Nat Geo Image Collection

Though political tensions were historically high, La Gorce urged Chandler to abide by National Geographic’s founding editorial rules, which dictated that stories should be “of a kindly nature” and, most important, apolitical. “It is realized that present conditions in Germany are decidedly controversial, and it is difficult to write about it without impinging upon politics and religion,” wrote La Gorce, “but we leave that to other publications to cover.”

Chandler agreed, noting that he had already spent several days photographing the towns where Hitler was born, and where his parents had died, for “a comprehensive series of photos of all that concerned his youth.”

A few months later he sent a 9,000-word story titled “Berlin, City of Rivers and Trees” and a letter ensuring that he had “faithfully steered clear of those ‘controversial’ subjects against which your letter warned me.” La Gorce praised Chandler and deposited $500 in his bank account.

The resulting article—47 pages of dramatic images showing swastika-draped buildings and reverential descriptions of a city under Nazi rule—is among the most embarrassing in National Geographic’s history. The proposed title was swapped for “Changing Berlin,” but it failed to depict a country seized by totalitarianism and religious persecution. Instead, photos show Hitler’s birthday parade and a bunch of happy Berliners.

“To develop boys and girls in body and mind,” one caption reads, “and thus insure a sturdy race to defend Germany in the future, is a policy of the present government.” The only hint of trouble in Germany was a single line describing butchery practices: “Kosher killing is everywhere prohibited.”

Getting in Deep

In 1937, Chandler was introduced to Ulrich von Bulow, the man in charge of recruiting Americans and Brits for Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda ministry.

At the same time, he continued writing for National Geographic. He reported on Turkish democracy, Baltic culture, Belgian architecture, and a Yugoslavian monarch.

When Chandler returned to Germany, in 1938, he was pleased to see Nazism taking root. “I find a thrilling and admirable new social order in the process of burgeoning here,” he wrote to a friend.

In 1939, when the Chandlers were staying in an old castle on Korcula, an island off the Dalmatian Coast, they were visited by William Danforth, founder of the Purina pet-food company and a friend of La Gorce. When Danforth returned home, he wrote La Gorce to express his gratitude for the introduction, but noted that “[t]he disturbing thing to me … was that Mr. Chandler was more Pro-Natzi [sic] and Anti-Jewish than any man of any nationality that I met anywhere on our trip.”

(La Gorce’s suspicion may have already been aroused: The year before, Chandler wrote in a letter that the boycott of the Third Reich by American universities had brought him “shame and embarrassment.”)

He thanked Danforth for the tip and assured him that he’d “made it very plain … that The Geographic did not concern itself with political or religious controversies and its published articles must be without propaganda or bias.”

He then sent a staff member in Europe to visit the Chandlers and investigate the Nazi allegation. The Chandlers’ German leanings were soon confirmed.

La Gorce ordered correspondence with Chandler to be cut off, canceled an upcoming assignment to Albania, and made a full report of Chandler’s activities to the U.S. government.

Chandler, now living in Yugoslavia and Italy, was growing increasingly conspiratorial. When La Gorce stopped answering his cables and letters, he blamed the influence of Jews in the media. When he made his views too well known, neighbors on Korcula, where he was living, accused him of being a Nazi—and he decried himself the victim of a witch hunt led by Jews.

Fatherland Calling

In the winter of 1940, the U.S. consul in Italy ordered all Americans to return home. Chandler instead procured a visa that would take him and his family to Germany. When they arrived, he immediately offered his services—pro bono—to Goebbels’ propaganda recruiter, according to the book Berlin Calling.

Von Bulow arranged for Chandler to get a time slot on the Reich Broadcasting Corporation’s “USA Zone,” a program piped into the U.S. via shortwave radio that sought to turn public sentiment against involvement in the war. Upon hearing the news of Chandler’s hire, Laura wrote in her diary: “Thank God Douglas has this wonderful opportunity to serve the USA!”

Chandler was joining an army of propagandists waging war over the airwaves. In Japan, Tokyo Rose taunted American soldiers. In an office near Chandler in Berlin, William Joyce, an American-born Irish broadcaster who called himself “Lord Haw-Haw,” railed against Winston Churchill in a shrill upper-class accentIn April 1941, “Paul Revere” joined them.

Hitler and Goebbels had instructed Chandler to follow a five-point propaganda program—a “psychological weapon of war” that was later outlined at Chandler’s treason trial. It stipulated: “1) Bolshevism is public enemy No. 1 for the whole world. 2) Jews all over the world are supporting Bolshevism. 3) Germans are the happiest and best cared for people in the world. 4) Germany is invincible. And 5) England is economically and politically decadent.”

Specific material for the broadcast came straight from daily meetings led by Goebbels.

Around Berlin, Chandler was never seen without a swastika on his lapel. He drove a maroon Mercedes with an American flag painted on the side. A Time magazine reporter who caught up with him in Berlin described him as “a tall, handsome, crisp-mannered, crisp-dressed person, with crisp iron-grey hair.”

A Traitor Unmasked

A month into his program, Chandler revealed his identity, mentioning National Geographic nearly a dozen times in the process. Almost immediately, subscribers who listened began writing in to the magazine’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. La Gorce personally wrote back to many of them.

“It is a sickening commentary on human nature than an especially intelligent man would sell his birthright for Nazi gold,” he replied to one, “but as history has recorded, such things happen now and then.”

<p>Editors at <i>National Geographic</i> were tipped off to Chandler's true colors when a guest who stayed with his family described him as "more Pro-Natzi [sic] and Anti-Jewish than any man of any nationality that I met anywhere on our trip."</p>

Editors at National Geographic were tipped off to Chandler's true colors when a guest who stayed with his family described him as "more Pro-Natzi [sic] and Anti-Jewish than any man of any nationality that I met anywhere on our trip."

Photograph by Mark Thiessen

To another he wrote: “In his silly broadcasts he is probably trying to ‘smear’ us to build himself up in importance but isn’t getting anywhere. If and when he ever tries to return to the USA this renegade will be properly dealt with.”

In an editorial headlined “America’s No. 1 Traitor,” a former friend of Chandler’s named Albert A. Brandt wrote: “Extolling the righteousness, glory and invincibility of the Nazis, Douglas Chandler outdoes Goebbels.” (But, he noted, Chandler was “still an exceptionally handsome man.”)

While he was making a stir stateside, Chandler was dissatisfied with his set-up in Berlin. He was a hypochondriac and an insomniac who drank copiously without showing signs of inebriation. Each recording session, he claimed, made him physically ill.

“Within the first hour I would be seized by a violent nervous paroxysm which centered in my solar plexus and caused me during the time of writing a violent diarrhea each day,” he later wrote.

Chandler also complained endlessly to his superiors. He was bitter that the propaganda department had neither helped him find an apartment nor given him a proper office. And he disliked everything: the show’s music, the other announcers, being told what to say. His bosses suspended him and threatened him with a lawsuit.

War and Peacemakers

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor drew America into WWII.

Chandler’s car, branded with the American flag, was confiscated by the Germans. His activities now had potentially graver repercussions, but after a three-month hiatus he decided to continue with the show, reasoning that “at the end of the war when I go home, if the Democrats are still in power, I will definitely be persona non grata with officialdom but will be acclaimed by the masses of the people.”

His broadcasts the following year show he knew about—and supported—Hitler’s “Final Solution” to eradicate Judaism, and hoped it would be adopted in America.

“Yes, by all means let Pearl Harbor be avenged,” he said on the air. “But not upon the Japanese ... upon the real authors of this war: the Jews. The day is not far off the horizon when the Yankee cry will be for a plentifully purging pogrom, and the measures employed by the Reich will seem child’s play in comparison.”

As the U.S. fought German advances, Chandler’s claim that he was working in the best interests of America by dissuading its involvement in the war became obsolete. “My only thought during this period had been for ... the continued existence of what we called the American way of life,” he later told the FBI.

In 1942 the U.S. began prosecuting traitors. The next summer, Chandler and three others—including the poet Ezra Pound—were indicted. Chandler attributed this to the power of the Jews.

His broadcasts grew increasingly mild. He played classical music and launched a poetry series featuring the works of Walt Whitman and Alfred Lord Tennyson, noting that “poets and musicians were the ultimate peacemakers.”

Postwar Reckoning

The hunt for wartime traitors began soon after the U.S. declared victory in Europe. Authorities found Chandler and his family living in a Bavarian village. According to Berlin Calling, Chandler spent the first 15 minutes of his apprehension staring at the captain who’d been sent to retrieve him, dumbfounded. Then he asked how the Americans had liked his program.

Chandler was taken to a U.S. Army detention center, where he wrote a 48-page autobiography. He was one of 11 Americans prosecuted for treason after WWII. His case went to trial in 1947 and captivated the country. The American government hadn’t given much credit to the Nazi broadcast blitz, but it was later estimated that between 150,000 and 300,000 Americans had heard the programs.

“A verbal picture of Douglas Chandler as an eccentric insomniac who contemplated suicide, and imagined Jewish agents were following him was drawn on the witness stand in federal court here today,” the Boston Traveler wrote during the trial’s third week.

War had taken its toll on Chandler, who was then 58. An account in Berlin Calling read: “At first glance the shrunken, somewhat cadaverous man who stood before the court seemed like a startled rabbit. Those who had expected a satanic presence were disappointed ... If Chandler represented anything at all, he illustrated the poetic truth of the Platonic doctrine that evil is incompleteness of being.”

Chandler’s lawyers argued that he’d exercised his First Amendment rights, and they defended him as “a true paranoiac.” Four psychiatrists testified that he had an “obsessive fear” of Jews. One doctor argued that Chandler was not “capable of resisting the opportunity of broadcasting his views on Jews.”

As the trial wore on, National Geographic was still trying to separate its name from his. Chandler told the FBI that the magazine had requested he “survey” various countries for articles, and its name was dropped frequently in the trial. Newspaper reports referred to him variously as a “European correspondent,” a “special representative,” and an “editorial staff member.”

At this point Theodore F. Koop, chief of the magazine’s news bulletin service, sent a memo to Boston newspapers: “The facts are that Chandler never was any of these things, or had any other connection with the National Geographic magazine except that of a freelance contributor who was offered several articles before the war started.”

Chandler’s insanity defense didn’t hold up against testimony from 20 witnesses, including 16 of his former German colleagues. Before the judge ruled, Chandler stood up and said: “I am of course not insane, but I have permitted them to defend me on the grounds they chose. It is the tragedy of my life that the warnings I gave my country were not, and are not, yet accepted. Time, however, will vindicate me.”

He was sentenced to life in prison and a $10,000 fine. Fifteen years later, Chandler was the only “radio traitor” still imprisoned. The U.S. attorney general announced that the 73-year-old would be released into the care of one of his daughters.

The only matter left was the fine. An Episcopal minister appealed directly to President John F. Kennedy, and five days later Chandler’s sentence was commuted. He returned to Germany.

A Ghost Returns

But National Geographic hadn’t rid itself of this embarrassing episode. In 1970 Chandler wrote to Editor Melville Bell Grosvenor, requesting $200 to $300 for expenses incurred on an assignment that had been canceled after his Nazi sympathies were discovered.

“This letter has been sitting on my desk for some days, and frankly I haven’t the slightest idea how to answer it,” Grosvenor wrote in a memo to a deputy. “Chandler must be an old man now, and it appears he is really desperate for funds.”

Little is known of Chandler’s life after this letter. But a few other remnants have resurfaced online.

In an early 2000s blog, two commenters shared their tales of meeting the then-forgotten propagandist. One of them claimed to have shared a train carriage with Chandler in Germany in the 1970s. By then Chandler was in his 80s and reportedly living in the Canary Islands with a younger German wife. They got to talking, the commenter said, but it appeared that prison hadn’t changed Chandler’s politics.

“He was an unrepentant Nazi, to the end,” the commenter wrote. In fact, he was still calling himself “National Geographic’s ‘representative’ in Europe.”

Chandler's infamous story "Changing Berlin" was published in our February 1937 issue. Read it with Nat Geo PLUS, subscribing members' all-access pass to the archive and more.

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