Rise of Fascism

To put it simply, fascism is the belief that a dictatorial leader is preferable to an elected one because many voters are enemies of the people and need to be oppressed. As a philosophy, it requires a strong leader and a weaker scapegoat. In Germany, Hitler became the dictator and Jews the scapegoat.

Hitler preached of “Aryan supremacy,” the notion that healthy White Germans were the only ones who mattered, and certainly the only ones who should be allowed to make decisions.

Fascism always gains popularity during times of economic crisis, so it was no coincidence that its rise in Europe, and in the United States, coincided with the Great Depression, which caused global hardship.

In Germany, there was mass discrimination and violence based on racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious identities. Hatred of Jews, commonly known as anti-Semitism, was a lynchpin of Hitler’s version of fascism, which he called Nazism, a contraction of National Socialism.

Hitler’s plans didn’t stop at stifling and eventually eliminating Jewish people. He wanted to rule the world, and during the 1930s, he stomped over smaller and weaker European nations until only England stood between him and the United States.

The last thing Hitler wanted was to fight the US, whose entry into the First World War had halted German aggression. His plan was to convince Americans that Germany was their friend and Jews were the enemy.

In America, German immigrants were second only to the Irish in number, and they were recruited to organize and form paramilitary groups that would echo the Third Reich’s noxious philosophies, first and foremost that Jewish people were behind the world’s problems.

And so organizations sprung up. The first was the Friends of the New Germany, created through the auspices of the German consul in New York City, but it suffered from bad press, which proclaimed it un-American.

As if by magic, the Friends transformed into the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund, the German American Bund, under new leadership. Try and call that unpatriotic. Now it said American right in its name.

But it was, of course, just a game of semantics. The new Bund had one goal: promote Hitler’s agenda. That included spreading hate toward Jews and non-White Christians and keeping American soldiers the hell out of Europe. (Unless they wanted to fight on Hitler’s side; that would’ve been all right.)

The Bund would convince its followers that America’s urge to defend Great Britain was the product of a communist/Jewish conspiracy. When the Bund members assembled peacefully, they defended their hateful message by holding up the US Constitution. They had freedom of speech on their side. They had the right to assemble.

True, opponents noted, but in this case there was a sharp distinction between legal and just.

From the start, the Bund expertly manipulated the minds of its followers. It advertised itself as an “organization of Americans of German stock.” The stages at rallies were always neat and precise, with American flags and swastikas side by side.

The initial Bundists looked back as much as forward, regretting the loss of the Great War and calling for Germany’s return to greatness. They acted like little soldiers, with uniforms. They recruited children to their German American camps, where pro-Hitler brainwashing accompanied the swimming and playing.

Some German Americans ate it up—but not all. As you read these stories, remember that the great majority of Americans, including those of German heritage, saw through the Bund’s message. They recognized hate when they saw it. There were upward of twelve million Germans in the United States during the Depression, and Bund membership represented only 0.2 percent of that number, one in five hundred.

But the believers, that 0.2 percent, were zealous and dangerous. By 1933, there were more than one hundred anti-Semitic groups in the US, functioning openly and in evangelical mode. American Nazis preached that Germany and the US could get along if it weren’t for the Jews, who were unthinkably powerful, had all of the money, and were pushing the two countries in the direction of war. They would hoist the swastika flag and Sieg heil to their hearts’ delight. They had parades, practiced their goose-stepping, and published magazines filled to the margins with disinformation—Jews had horns and belonged in hell—fake news before the term existed. The Bund communicated with its fifty thousand members via a weekly newspaper known as the Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter (The German wake-up call and observer).

The message appealed to some non–German Americans as well. Among these were isolationists who felt the US should never fight someone else’s battle, largely the same group that kept the US out of the First World War until the very end. The message also resonated with the Christian Right groups like Defenders of the Christian Faith, which was already suspicious of anyone belonging to a non-Jesus religion, and to capitalists who liked the idea that no one hated communism more than a fascist.

Americans Jews suffered in the Depression, too, of course. That “unthinkably powerful” stuff must have seemed like a cruel joke to the Jewish ragman in Brooklyn whose sick horse didn’t want to pull the cart that morning. Reality had nothing to do with it. The stereotype that Jews were money-grubbers fueled the hatred.

In those days, anti-Semitic propaganda was shockingly mainstream. (For that matter, all types of racism were mainstream.) Today, we forget that a leading American industrialist, auto manufacturer Henry Ford, was also a virulent Jew hater who published and sold a book of anti-Semitic claptrap titled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a Russian book that pretended to be the minutes of a meeting of Jews plotting to control the world. Ford offered free copies of the book in dealerships with the purchase of every Model T. He also bought a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, which became Ford’s outlet for anti-Semitic filth. For generations, Jews refused to buy Ford cars, long after Henry Ford was dead and World War II was over, much in the way Jews refused to buy German cars.

National hero and aviator Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, was a Nazi sympathizer. History hates nuance and thus keeps many dirty secrets.

In addition to the Bund, other similar groups, each with their own take on anti-Semitism, were active during the 1930s from New York to California. Not all of them were German, but all of them were hateful.

There were the Silver Shirts, a glittering fraternal lodge of fascist thought; the Christian Front, with their goody two-shoes noses in everybody’s business; and the Knights of the White Camellia, oldest of the bunch, around in Louisiana since 1867, just two years after the emancipation of the slaves, founded on the premise of White supremacy and the ruination of mixing blood.

The White Camellias were a lot like the Ku Klux Klan, but their members were exclusively landowners. The KKK riders were the guys in the saloon on a Tuesday morning. The White Camellias were doctors and lawyers, newspaper publishers, community leaders, all dedicated to keeping the White race pure.

During the Depression, the national commander of the White Camellias was George Edward Deatherage of Charleston, West Virginia, an architectural engineer. He was a man who often wore sunglasses in public to hide the fact that he had sneaky little eyes set too close together. At other times, he hid his entire head with a white hood.

Deatherage first made a name for himself by writing books about construction, but it was his politics that he would be best known for. He became a popular and well-spoken purveyor of anti-Semitism. When he testified before a congressional committee investigating un-American activities in the late 1930s, he switched up his mustache from a Hitler-esque toothbrush to something so thin it looked penciled on.

He once claimed that he was investigating the wives of some of the members of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet to determine if they had “Jewish blood in their veins.” He’d been taught that nothing splits a country in two like the creation of an “enemy within,” hence anti-Semitism in America was vital to White Camellia plans. Deatherage’s political being was dedicated to convincing farmers and the lower middle class that America was run by evil Jewish bankers and that they alone were responsible for the Great Depression.

The fascist organization that we’ll be focusing on most in this book is the German American Bund. They were by far the largest, with branches from coast to coast. They recruited young people aggressively, for a variety of reasons. And the foundation of their message was that Jews were evil and had to go. The Bund took over an entire town on Long Island.

As might be expected, the growing anti-Semitic movement in Depression-era America scared the already nervous American Jews, who now felt like their people had targets on their backs on both sides of the Atlantic.

In this book, we will tend to generalize, but the Jews’ fight here in America was far more complicated than just punching Nazis. During the 1930s, Fortune magazine—a magazine basically about money—revealed that about one in ten Americans wanted all Jews to be deported.

For years, the American Nazis did their thing unopposed. Despite efforts by journalists such as John C. Metcalfe, who wrote a series of exposés about the Bund menace (see chapter 3), White Anglo-Saxon Protestant America still urged neutrality in the European fight. Outside the major cities, most folks knew no Jewish people, and it was too early for Americans to care one way or the other about Hitler.

The leaders in American Jewish communities largely kept their mouths shut, afraid that anything that remotely resembled retaliation would result in escalation. But eventually, one group did step up. The goose-steppers of the German-American Bund and the Silver Legion finally met their match from an unexpected source: Jewish gangsters.

In New York City, Newark, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, Nazi rallies terrified Jews, but what could they do? The rallies, where Hitler wannabes worked the troops into a Jew-hating frenzy, were not illegal. That was what made the Jewish gangsters the perfect warriors for the cause. They hurt and killed people for a living and didn’t particularly care about the law.

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