Column: Men who spoke up against popular opinion
WORTHINGTON -- Adolf Hitler "is a real friend of the common man in Germany." Adolf Hitler "has done more for the German people ... than any past or present ruler in Europe." Herr Hitler "walks quite democratically down the street, and men and women stop in their tasks to look, smile and shout the equivalent of 'Hi there, Hitler!'"
If these sound like lines from the show tune, "Springtime for Hitler," they are not. A retired Worthington railroad man, A. H. Nazarenus, returned to his native Germany to visit relatives for nearly nine months in 1938. America -- and Worthington -- were nervous about Adolf Hitler. Don't worry, Mr. Nazarenus assured in an interview after he returned home. "The ruthless Hitler pictured to the American people is all a farce."
TV's political chatter boxes are spellbound another time by what political candidates and their backers are saying about wars and about foreign leaders who give them goose bumps. "What is John McCain really saying?" the TV talkers ask. "What is Hillary Clinton really saying?" "What is Barack Obama really saying?" Do the candidates support the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war or do they want to end the wars?
Politics these days brings to mind once again the old Worthington railroader, Mr. Nazarenus, who recognized good in Der Fuhrer. The current political scene calls to mind voices from the local region who, in one war and then another, spoke up against prevailing opinions and courageously offered their own views.
Week by week through 1918, the local region sent young men by the score to do battle with Germany and the Kaiser. Judge L. S. Nelson, Nobles County's Red Cross chairman, was told the young soldiers needed sweaters, scarves, socks, wristlets. He urged local women to knit 250 of each.
"Don't do knitting for pick-up work. Make knitting your most pressing duty for one month," the Judge pleaded. The women met his goal.
In the face of this -- knitting mothers; draftees going to war, some to their deaths; local leaders rallying war support -- Nobles County's treasurer refused to buy a Liberty Bond and then resigned his office. It remains a singular act of bravery in local history.
The Treasurer, Harm Rust, issued a statement:
"It has been said, because of my refusal to buy a Liberty Bond, that I am pro-German and disloyal. These charges are absolutely without foundation in fact. I am not pro-German and I am not disloyal, but I am opposed to war on any grounds whatever. ... I regard war as utterly at variance with the teachings of the Master ..."
Mr. Rust gave $500 to the Red Cross. He left his office and went on to become a respected Worthington resident, a pastor of the Mission Baptist congregation through 20 years, as well as a pastor to prisoners in the county jail. He never drove. He hated only war.
It was in that same era that George W. Bennett, an organizer for the Non-Partisan League, came to Nobles County arguing the Great War was "a rich man's war" and generally discouraging war support.
On Memorial Day, 1918, Bennett was at Adrian. A group of young men painted his Ford yellow. The men were arrested, brought to court and fined. Bennett, who had testified against the young men, walked out of the court room only to be arrested by Nobles County's sheriff. He was charged with interfering with the draft. Bennett spent a day in the Nobles County jail and was released on a thousand-dollar bond.
In October, Bennett appeared before the court of Judge Nelson, the Red Cross director who had appealed for the knitted goods. It probably was the most momentous case Judge Nelson ever considered. Bennett was charged with violating a law -- "... It shall be unlawful for any person to teach or advocate by any means" that Minnesotans should aid "public enemies of the United States ..."
Judge Nelson dismissed the case. He agreed the "the language claimed to have been used by Bennett (at Adrian) did not constitute an offense ..." Of course the Judge angered many people. He knew he would.
(As evidence that old history really is not old history, Judge Nelson's house still can be seen at 1310 Sixth Ave.)
Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.