Fascism in America in Fact and Fiction
Since November's presidential election, many of my friends and colleagues have commented with dismay on the number of news photos and videos they've seen of Americans brandishing swastikas and raising their arms in the Nazi salute. After all, this is America, a country that spent substantial blood and treasure in defeating Adolf Hitler and his evil empire in WWII, right?
I tell them I'm not surprised. Fascism, in its various disguises, has been part of the American underbelly for the better part of a century. It's also been the source of inspiration for many fine works of literature.
The 1920s and 1930s saw the rise of fascism not only in Europe but in the United States as well. This inspired Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here, about a populist fringe candidate who becomes president and turns the country into an armed camp. The same period in history also inspired Phillip Roth's novel The Plot Against America, about anti-Semitism in the United States after a pro-fascist Charles Lindbergh defeats President Franklin Roosevelt.
Arthur Miller's 1945 novel, Focus, was also inspired by the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in the Thirties. In Focus, however, Miller predicts anti-Semitism in the U.S. wouldn't end with the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Without meaning to place myself on the same level as those literary stars, some of my own work was inspired by the events of the 1930s. In my alternative history short story, Hitler Is Coming—originally published by ALT HIST: The Journal of Historical Fiction and Alternative History and now available at Amazon.com—I visualize a defeated United States occupied by the German military and pro-fascist Americans.
In Hitler Is Coming, Paul Klee, former police officer and OSS spy, is forced to work for the Nazi SS on an assignment to protect a victorious Hitler as he visits the U.S. for the first time. A second Paul Klee story, The Thirty-Fourth Man, will be published by ALT HIST in early 2017.
Both stories explore what the United States might be like if defeated by the German Nazis and, in the process, explain a part of American history not taught in schools. Both feature many of the fascist groups that gained popularity in the 1930s.
Throughout that decade, for instance, brown-shirted and jackbooted thugs of the German American Bund—essentially the Nazi Party affiliate in the U.S.—marched proudly through American streets, spreading their religion of bigotry and hate. There were Nazi enclaves in the woods for training, and summer camps for the children of American Nazis. In 1939, 22,000 Bund members held a massive rally in New York's Madison Square Garden.
But they weren't alone.
Even before the Bund, there was the Fascist League of North America, an umbrella group composed primarily of Italian-American supporters of Italy's dictator Benito Mussolini, considered by many to be the father of modern fascism. Mussolini coined the word fascism, comparing the rule of government by corporations for corporations to a fascine, in which weak sticks bound together create a strong foundation.
The Silver Legion of America, also known as the Silver Shirts due to their uniforms' silver camp shirts, at one time boasted at least 15,000 members. They owned a militarized compound in the hills surrounding Los Angeles. In 1936, their leader, William Dudley Pelley, ran for president on a third-party ticket.
The German-American Businessmen's Association, commonly called the DAWA (the German acronym for the Deutsch Amerikanischer Wirtschaft Auscbuss), focused primarily on ruining Jewish-owned businesses. Instead using the physical brutality the Nazis in Germany did on Kristallnacht in 1938, the American DAWA used boycotts to destroy Jewish businesses.
Closely allied with these groups—particularly the Bund—was the Christian Front which, despite calling itself Christian nevertheless sowed violence throughout New York. The Front denounced Jews and other non-Christians, and praised Hitler and Spain's fascist dictator Francisco Franco.
It would be easy to dismiss these groups as simply a fanatical political fringe, but the bloody fingers of fascism reached deep into 1930s American politics. Many members of Congress—mostly Republican but also some conservative Democrats—openly supported in speeches these American fascist groups as well as the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe. In 1942, mystery novelist Rex Stout published The Illustrious Dunderheads, a collection of pro-fascist speeches given by conservative American politicians during the 1930s.
There were some American fascists who chose action over words. In 1933, retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, was approached by two men representing wealthy and conservative American bankers and industrialists. The men explained they had been sent to Europe to study fascism and how best to bring it to the United States. Their backers decided a coup was the best idea, and they wanted Butler to lead it.
Butler played along and gathered evidence for the FBI and a subsequent Congressional investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Known by many names—The Business Plot, the Wall Street Plot, and The American Putsch—the plot was largely swept under the Capitol's rug, since so many well-known millionaires (and political contributors) were apparently involved.
In 2007, the BBC reported Prescott Bush, father, and grandfather of two American presidents, was one of those wealthy financiers involved in the American Putsch. Bush was a well-known supporter of Hitler's rise to power and was prosecuted for continuing to do business with the Nazis even after Hitler declared war on the United States in 1941.
In the aftermath of WWII, many wanted to forget the exuberance with which they embraced fascism in the 1930s. The rise of the Soviet Union as the next great enemy gave many conservatives what they needed to distract Americans from the recent past. The McCarthy Era with its numerous and unsubstantiated claims of "commies everywhere" was simply a means of making voters forget the sins of the conservative right prior to the war.
Since WWII, American fascism had lain hidden in the political shadows. Certainly, over the decades, overt images of it—neo-Nazis, KKK, and so on—were occasionally seen in the media. But there also was a latent vestige of fascism that shunned the term "fascist" but cheered the concept of "nationalism"—one of the markers of fascist thought--and its memes like "American exceptionalism." Sinclair Lewis predicted this in his book, It Can't Happen Here, when he wrote: "[T]he worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’ and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty.”
This is the premise of my speculative short story, The Last President, about an United States in which the government has been taken over completely by corporate interests in what is described as The Long Coup.
Many decades ago, American writer George Santayana warned us, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Those are good words to live by.
References and further reading:
Fascist League of North: America: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.2050-411X.1977.tb00427.x/epdf
German-American Businessmen's Association (DAWA): http://archive.jta.org/1934/05/13/archive/jewish-merchants-in-yorkville-ruined-as-dawa-presses-war
Illustrious Dunderheads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6261112-the-illustrious-dunderheads
House Committee report on the American Putsch:http://www.claytoncramer.com/primary/other/HUAC1.pdf;
BBC report on Prescott Bush and the American Putsch: http://www.prisonplanet.com/audio/240707_bbc_prescott_coup.mp3