In 1940, These Pittsburghers Offered A Million Dollar Reward For Hitler's Capture

May 1, 2015

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Credit Via The Associated Press

The letter appeared in The New York Times on April 29, 1940. It was brief — a couple of column inches — mixed in with opinions on higher subway fares, workers’ rights and risky mortgages. But the headline was hard to miss: “Reward for Hitler Capture.”

"He offered a million dollars to anyone 'who will deliver Adolph Hitler, alive, unwounded and unhurt, into the custody of the League of Nations for trial before a high court of justice for his crimes against peace and dignity of the world.'”

The letter appeared in The New York Times on April 29, 1940. It was brief — a couple of column inches — mixed in with opinions on higher subway fares, workers’ rights and risky mortgages. But the headline was hard to miss: “Reward for Hitler Capture.”

"He offered a million dollars to anyone 'who will deliver Adolph Hitler, alive, unwounded and unhurt, into the custody of the League of Nations for trial before a high court of justice for his crimes against peace and dignity of the world.'”

Lu Donnelly read from the "The History of the Duquesne Club," a book she co-wrote, that includes this unique proposition to halt German aggression during the Second World War. The letter’s author, and one of the club’s more colorful members, was Samuel Harden Church. President of the Carnegie Institute, and a friend of Andrew Carnegie, Church controlled the museum, library, music hall and technical college, said Barbara Burstin, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.

"He was a very renowned, important figure," she said. 

Who, judging from newspaper sources, was not constrained by his public role.

"This was a man whose thoughts were a little out of the mainstream," said Burstin.

Those thoughts led Church to,do something concrete and objective,” Jack Labovitz wrote in a 1943 edition of The Jewish Criterion.

"Church was a very outspoken individual," said Burstin. "Church had said in 1919 that Germany was a murderer of civilization. He wasn't just talking about Jews. And clearly he sees them again in 1940 as a murderer of civilization."

By 1940 a second global conflict seemed imminent: Italy had forcefully annexed Ethiopia, Japan had invaded China and Germany had invaded Poland. Church couldn’t stand idly by. Donnelly reads from an interview with Church in the May 1 New York Times.

"I believe in my heart that Mr. Hitler is the common enemy of mankind and should be brought to justice accordingly. He has in his brain the same criminal motive which has guided the destroyers of civilizations of other times."

The million-dollar reward was only good for the month of May. The offer’s brevity was meant to encourage quick action: Church had received word that Hitler intended to attack Western Europe, an act that would cost thousands of lives, said Burstin.

"Church foresees that the circumstances are now presenting themselves where Hitler can indeed carry out what he has threatened in his writing and speeches to do," she said. 

Church had read Hitler’s "Mein Kampf," and Donnelly said he couldn’t abide the thought of war.

"Both Carnegie and Church were very much a part of the peace movement," she said. 

But could this group of Pittsburghers really encourage the abduction of a world leader, bad guy cred notwithstanding?

"It’s very gutsy, to say the least," laughed Charles Jollah, an associate professor of international law at Florida International University’s College of Law.

"Private citizens have always felt that they could try to influence governments," he said. 

The idea of holding a world leader accountable for crimes against peace in a court of justice was ahead of its time; war was the norm, said Jalloh. 

"Remember, this is how business was done," he said. 

Church didn’t think Hitler’s capture was likely, but even a slim chance of averting bloodshed was worth encouraging. By June 1, no one had laid claim to the reward. At the close of WWII, the United States pushed for Nazi leaders to face justice at the Nuremberg Trials instead of summary execution. Jalloh said it was a revolutionary idea, and set the precedent for creation of the International Court of Justice.

"Countries are supposed to go to court to settle their differences," he said. "Peacefully before judges, not with guns and ammunitions and weapons."

The International Court of Justice convenes in the Peace Palace at The Hague. Its construction was funded by a donation from none other than Andrew Carnegie.

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