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Posted on 13 Feb 2024 in Non-Fiction | 0 comments

RACHEL MADDOW Prequel: An American fight against fascism. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Rachel Maddow’s account of how Nazism gained a foothold among US politicians in the 1930s holds lessons for the present.

 When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in early 1933, he embarked on a long-term plan not only to keep the United States out of a future European war, but also to seed internal dissent that would bring down its system of government and establish a fascist American state. Hitler initially set up operations on the West Coast, where there were large concentrations of German Americans and World War I veterans. An organisation called the Friends of Nazi Germany was established. The Nazis held their first open meeting in Los Angeles in July 1933, where the virtues of the New Germany were extolled and ‘the Friends’ pledged to save America by defeating the country’s two greatest enemies: Jews and communists.

Various Nazi front and homegrown American fascist organisations distributed a steady stream of Nazi propaganda supporting American isolationism (‘America for America; Europe for Europeans’), attacking President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, promoting claims that the US government and many businesses and other organisations were dominated by communists and Jews, and inflaming conflict and discord in the United States by tearing at its weakest political and cultural seams – the divide between haves and have-nots, the fear and hatred of immigrants, and the existence of white supremacists, race hate and anti-Semitism. Hitler said, ‘The great issue was to liberate the world from the poison of democracy, with its degenerating doctrine of liberty and equality.’

Initially, most of this material was paid for by the German embassy. With the passage of time a cheaper and more efficient way was found to distribute propaganda. There were two dozen members of Congress and the Senate who acted as agents on behalf of the Nazi cause. Legislation enabled members of both houses to distribute material by post free of charge under what was called their personal franks (which were stamped on material they posted). These members would make speeches written for them by American-based Nazi sympathisers or sent from Berlin. The speeches would then be printed at a subsidised rate (paid by American taxpayers) and posted out free of charge (again, paid by American taxpayers). Other material could also be sent out under the politicians’ franks.

Mailing lists were developed of potential sympathisers. Rachel Maddow cites postwar reports found by the Department of Justice in Germany revealing that American Nazis built up mailing lists:

… containing the names of 650,000 teachers, 157,000 clergymen, 162,000 physicians, 144,000 lawyers, 73,000 dentists, 46,187 of the largest investors, 21,345 newspapers, 15,000 municipal officers, 11,687 millionaires, 11,000 libraries, 7,419 members of state legislatures, 7,000 accountants, 5,500 judges, 4,612 college fraternities and sororities and … more than forty other lists ranging from breweries to chain butchers.

Maddow estimates that more than 3 million separate pieces of pro-German mailing were distributed by this method, all paid for by the American taxpayer.

There was a second strand to Nazi tactics. Across various parts of the country gangs were established to carry out the same sort of work as the Brown Shirts in Germany. Training sessions were organised and lists of Jews and others compiled for pending execution. It was believed that once such groups started their killing sprees, other right-minded American patriots would join the revolution. Much of this strategy was based on obtaining armaments from military sources (stealing or receiving them from like-minded persons). Maddow reports that there were many Nazi sympathisers within the armed forces, the police, the FBI and National Guard. One general had even organised a vigilante organisation inside the US Army.

Maddow is mainly interested in the relatively small number of people who became aware of these activities, perceived the inherent danger to American democracy and initiated action to put a stop to them. One of the more interesting aspects of Maddow’s account is how these individuals had to struggle to gain support from within the American state. Police forces and other regulatory officials, such as the Postmaster General, were generally indifferent to their warnings and requests for action. One activist who presented information on fascist activities in Los Angeles was told by the local sheriff that ‘Jewish communists, not the German fascists, were Public Enemy No. 1’. The FBI, especially under its anti-Semitic director J. Edgar Hoover, was more concerned with communists – a 2,000-page file was compiled on Charlie Chaplin, who he incorrectly believed to be a communist.

Maddow takes a chronological approach to these machinations. She begins with an account of Americans who were sympathetic to Germany during and post World War I, then moves on to Henry Ford, who, beginning in the early 1920s, spent a small fortune distributing anti-Semitic material. (Hitler had a photo of Ford in his office and referred to him in Mein Kampf.) Ford was not alone. Father Charles Coughlin’s anti-Semitic weekly radio broadcasts reached 30 million Americans during the 1930s and early 1940s.

The famous aviator and isolationist Charles Lindbergh wrote that America had nothing to fear from the rise of Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe. Maddow describes this article (which was probably ghostwritten for him) as ‘a paean to the white man and his genius in perfecting the science of flight’. Lindbergh wrote:

Aviation seems almost a gift from heaven to those Western nations who were already the leaders of their era, strengthening their leadership, their confidence, their dominance over other peoples. It is a tool specially shaped for Western hands, a scientific art which others only copy in mediocre fashion, another barrier between the teeming millions of Asia and the Grecian inheritance of Europe – one of the priceless possessions which permit the White race to live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black, and Brown.

Maddow relates how undercover agents blew the whistle on the activities of American Nazi shock troops and their accumulation of often stolen weapons. They came across a briefcase that provided a comprehensive picture of Nazi activities. An advertising executive worked out how the franking postage scam was organised. Investigative journalists who seemed to be in the right place at the right time and obtained tranches of documents that fell off the backs of trucks wrote about Nazi schemes and operations. Maddow also takes us through investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee (the Dies Committee) and two sedition trials of Nazi activists.

In the first trial the forewoman of the jury was related by marriage to the lead defence attorney (how can such a thing happen?). The defendants were found not guilty. In the second, the trial was little more than a circus. One radio reporter said that the proceedings were so chaotic that the trial should have been held ‘in Madison Square Garden or in Bedlam’. More than 500 motions for mistrial were entered and over 72,000 objections were made by defence lawyers. Seven months into the case the judge died of a heart attack, and the Department of Justice decided not to rerun the case.

The Nazi-sympathising politicians claimed the attacks on them were un-American and sought to initiate investigations into those investigating them. More significantly, they were able to use their influence to have two troublesome Department of Justice attorneys sidelined; one was promoted to higher duties against his will and the second, following intervention by President Harry Truman, was sacked as he embarked on a lecture tour to provide the American people with information on Nazi activities in the United States, aided and abetted by two dozen members of Congress and the Senate.

Maddow has provided a fascinating account of this period of American history as fascists and anti-fascists struggled over the country’s future. It can usefully be viewed as a study of the way in which democracy, or what political scientists call pluralism, ‘works’ in America. She provides a boots-and-all examination of a nasty and vicious contest between different individuals and groups for power and control. We have politicians who are little more than gangsters demanding pay-offs or kickbacks from their staff and only too happy to do the bidding of a foreign government and be well paid for it. We have regulatory agencies either captured by ‘outside’ forces or staffed by personnel indifferent to their responsibilities. Anti-fascists struggled to get state agencies to take the threat to American democracy seriously. Police and defence force personnel provided weapons and turned a blind eye to fascist activities.

Fascist groups used violence to attack opponents. In 1940, four industrial plants were blown up by Nazi sympathisers; at one plant 48 workers were killed. And all of these American fascists escaped prosecution. No one was able to bell the cat.

Prequel: An American fight against fascism examines a dramatic period in American history when its democratic system of government was fundamentally challenged. Rachel Maddow says:

It is our long and continuing American tradition to carefully avoid reckoning with the grandest of American sins, especially when they involve alleged (or actual) illegal activity by government officials … American politics …  [was on] the edge … It was a fast ride through churning and dangerous political rapids, and it wasn’t clear at the time exactly who and what were going to survive the journey.

America survived due to the activities of unsung and largely forgotten heroes ‘who stood up and challenged the fascists and the political figures who were running a protection racket for them’. Maddow is concerned that another serious challenge to American democracy is beckoning. This book is a guide to how to resist it.

Rachel Maddow Prequel: An American fight against fascism Crown 2023 HB 416pp $69.95

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy Prequel from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW or you can buy it from Booktopia.

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