Then And Now

A week or so ago, my husband and I watched an American Experience episode titled  “Nazi Town”–a PBS documentary about the extent of pro-fascist opinion in the United States in the run-up to World War II.

The documentary left me both saddened and (unexpectedly) hopeful.

I  was saddened–to put it mildly– to learn of the enormous numbers of Americans who had embraced Nazi ideology. Until recently, I had assumed that the great majority of Americans actually believed in democratic government and the protection of civil liberties. I knew, of course, that a minority of my fellow-citizens harbored less comforting views, but I had no idea of the extent to which the American people endorsed truly horrific hatreds and were ready–indeed, eager–to hand the country over to a strongman who would relieve them of any responsibility for political decision-making.

In the 1930s, the nation had dozens and dozens of “Nazi camps,” where children were indoctrinated with White Nationalism. The German-American Bund enrolled hundreds of thousands of Americans who affirmed the notion that the country was created only for White Protestant Christians, and endorsed a “science” of eugenics confirming the superiority of the Aryan “race.” Racism and anti-Semitism were rampant; LGBTQ folks were so deep in the closet their existence was rarely recognized.

All in all, “Nazi Town” displayed–with scholarly documentation and lots of footage of huge crowds saluting both the American flag and the swastika –a very depressing reality.

But the context of all that ugliness also gave me hope–even in the face of the MAGA Trumpers who look so much like the Americans shown giving the “heil Hitler” salute.

I’m hopeful because we live in a society that is immensely different from that of the 20s and 30s.

During those years, the country experienced a Depression in which millions of Americans were jobless and desperate.  America was also in the throes of Jim Crow, and most White and Black Americans effectively occupied separate worlds. Thousands of people–including public officials– wore white robes and marched with the KKK. Europe’s age-old, virulent anti-Semitism had not yet “matured” into the Holocaust, and Hitler’s invasion of Poland–and knowledge of what came after–were still in the future. Few Americans were educated beyond high school.

World War II and discovery of the Holocaust ultimately ended the flirtation with fascism for most Americans, and in the years following that war, the U.S., like the rest of the world, has experienced considerable and continuing technical, social and cultural change. As a result, the world we all inhabit is dramatically different from the world that facilitated the embrace of both fascism and communism. (In fact, it is the extent of those differences that so enrages the MAGA culture warriors.)

Today, despite the contemporary gulf between the rich and the rest, America overall is prosperous. Unemployment has hit an unprecedented  low. Many more Americans are college educated. Despite the barriers that continue to face members of previously marginalized populations, people from different races and religions not only live and work together, they increasingly intermarry. Many, if not most, Americans have gay friends, and some seventy percent approve of same-sex marriage. Television, the Internet and international travel have introduced inhabitants of isolated and/or homogeneous communities to people unlike themselves.

Although there is a robust industry in Holocaust denial and other forms of racial and religious disinformation (I do not have a space laser), Americans have seen the end results of state-sponsored hatreds, and even most of those who harbor old stereotypes are reluctant to do actual harm to those they consider “other.”

The sad truth is that many more of my fellow Americans than I would have guessed are throwbacks to the millions who joined the KKK and the German-American Bund. The hopeful truth is that–even though there is a depressingly large number of them–they are in the minority, and their numbers are dwindling. ( It’s recognition of that fact, and America’s changing demography, that has made them so frantic and threatening.)

I firmly believe that real Americans reject the prejudices that led so many to embrace Nazi ideology in the 20s and 30s.

Today, most of us understand that real Americans aren’t those who share a preferred skin color or ethnicity or religion. Real Americans are those who share an allegiance to the American Idea–to the principles enumerated in the Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights.

In order to send that message to today’s fascists and neo-Nazis, we need to get real Americans to the polls in November.


  1. I am reading Racheal Maddows “Prequel” after having listed to her pod cast Ultra several times. Sounds like I need to watch that PBS special. And maybe up my anti-depression meds….

  2. Allow me to underscore Mr. Swett’s reference to Rachel Maddow’s podcast, “Ultra”. I thought I knew all about this country’s flirtation with Nazism until listening to this series.

  3. I also saw that documentary and found it chilling.
    In December my wife and I were in Washington, DC, and spent an afternoon at the Holocaust Museum. The parallels between the rise of the Nazi Party and the MAGA party are striking in the circumstances as well as the mistakes that led up to the moment when Hitler became chancellor and did away with the previous system of government.
    When I hear people like Mike Johnson or Jim Jordan say that once T*ump regains the White House he will behave like a traditional president, or hear that voters in Iowa voted for him because he “shares their values”, I can only shake my head in disbelief.
    These are very dangerous times.

  4. The media landscape was also much different in the 20’s and 30’s. There were no Rupert Murdochs back then stirring up trouble for dollars.

    What would our country be like without Fox News?

    I believe Fox News feeds more of these fringe Nazi groups who can’t get enough hate on Fox. There are also plenty of podcasts for them to follow. The reactionaries keep waiting for the Communist uprisings that never happen. How disappointing that must be!

    They are so angry just looking for a target that never really materializes. Unlike in the 20s and 30s when they were proactive under the leadership of Hitler and his propaganda machine.

    As for Trump, shrinking the defense budget is a desirable policy choice. We spend way too much spreading hate beyond our borders for industrial profits. Too bad Biden is a MIC stooge because the left should be the promoters of peace.

  5. Sheila – can you briefly explain why so many Germans chose to join Hitler’s hatred of Jews? Was it because financial hardship from the Depression created a need or desire to blame someone else or some group for their troubles?

    In the US it seems pretty obvious that uneducated white men (mostly men) are angry about losing the preferential status and power they’ve enjoyed due to the color of their skin and the thought of now having to compete with non-whites for jobs and society status is beneath them.

  6. Sorry Todd, but Mr. Hearst was very similar to Mr. Murdoch.

    Nancy, anti-semitism is mainly based on the long-standing need of the Catholic drive for a totalitarian religion, which was itself developed out of the repression practiced by the Romans. Anti-semitism also has a cultural value as a means of explaining bad things on an “external” “foreign” agent. That’s very close to how I explain many of the difficulties in our society on Purdue. (:=(

  7. Biologists know that our “flight or flight” reflex is chemically caused. Fear or anger. That chemical motivation is triggered by neurons in our cranium that remember experiences that came down to survival instinct. Most are immature, out-of-date memories of when we were more or less helpless.

    All that aside, what causes it chronically?

    What if your entertainment media was on and tuned to stations designed to trigger a low level of survival fear or anger most of the time through fictional notions of “others” who were surrounding you, threatening to take away your freedom and way of life? That is, instead of accurately informing you of the actual goings-on worldwide and their causes and degrees of risk.

    There’s no question that is both possible and prevalent here and now. But, which channel is on is a free choice. Why do people who choose that lifestyle choose it?

    The answer, not surprisingly, is that it redistributes wealth to the Murdoch family and a few already wealthy others. It is predatory capitalism. It self-advertises to attract and hold the attention of those addicted to danger.

    It also binds neighborhoods into like-minded tribes held together by a common belief.

  8. Anti-Semitism took hold throughout the Christian world, not just the Catholic world because the “Jews killed Jesus.” It didn’t matter that Jesus was a Jew, nor that all of the apostles were Jews. It also apparently didn’t matter that, according to those same Christians, it didn’t take. He was killed, but not dead.

  9. North Dakota town rejects neo-nazi take over..BBC news,1/15/2014 ,Leith N.D. Craig Cobb.
    he wanted to build a community pool with a nazi flag on the bottom. he didnt last long,the locals, for the most part,are of WW2 veteran/depression age etc. The locals didnt want their sleepy town become a burnt hole in the ground,,,

  10. Fear may be the driver…social media gone wild, Covid, AI, loss of border control, sudden inflation, rampant inequality…not “The Depression”, just constant depressing……

  11. Last week I saw The Zone of Interest, which depicts life outside Auschwitz in 1943. The commandant and his family living an idyllic life next door. German families have been encouraged to move east. The horrors are kept from view. The Germans take Jews’ clothing and personal items for themselves. Who knew? More importantly, who cared? I’m not a Jew and better off under Nazi rule seemed to be the way of thinking.

    It can’t happen here? Of course, it can. Native Americans, Blacks, Japanese-Americans imprisoned during WWII would say otherwise.

  12. Nancy:
    I am working at 69Yo, as a auto mech in a small town between my seasonal work in const. the locals,100% white blame china for everything along with whats left on the immigrants. seems the reason why jobs left America was the corp and investor class that sought cheap labor,and high profits. it wasnt moving jobs to china etc,its a white investor class whos greed kicked our own economy of the middle class to the curb. wall streets gains have fueled the millionair/billionaire class. the blame game isnt even honest,or has a splinter of truth. as these locals talk, the fox news syndrome is all too present. social media doesnt help here either when your pigeon holed into one silo of sides. the all too present of what is real isnt even on radar. our own American greed has left the working class in a near poverty mode for 40+ years. if i stumble,all i have is Soc,Sec. I may have been a rich one too, but I stayed in the working class to be one. its been nothing but a horror pic watching us die with little to nothing,and whatever is there,goes to some finacial inst to be auctioned off.. its how its been designed since powell and reagan.. i call it economic slavery..
    best wishes..

  13. The PBS documentary was okay, but one can learn a lot more from Maddow’s book “Prequel, An American Fight Against Fascism,” Crown, 2023.
    Examples: How “Glass House” architect Philip Johnson was such a great fan of Hitler and fascism; the dictatorship of Huey Long; fascist General George Van Horn Moseley; Nazi sympathizer Ernest Lundeen, Senator from Minnesota; pro-Nazi literature distributed by Congressional franking privilege (i.e., by U.S. taxpayers); John R. Cassidy, who armed an insurrectionist group by stealing Browning Automatic Rifles and ammo from a U.S. military armory; how Justice Department prosecutors were stymied by Congressmen with friends in very high places; American hero Leon Lewis, anti-fascist spymaster of Southern California; and much else. Plus, it’s a terrific read.

  14. All good points, I think if you look back over the past several years on this blog, the German American Bund And it’s connection to Nazi Germany and white nationalism was brought up quite a bit.

    That’s why the Nazis thought America would enter the World war II conflict on their side.

    Despite the initial gracious letter by George Washington concerning the burgeoning Judaism influx and congregation/synagogue in the east, Jews were looked at with suspicion.

    Because of the European roots of America’s top echelon, the Jews were always considered the money changers and those connected with wealth, or, money lenders disrupting and siphoning off wealth from The hypocritical white Protestant power brokers, those who are involved in slavery and had the full weight of government behind them.

    So, this subterranean hatred of the Jews was not really clandestine. The KKK was another enemy of Judaism. The naziism or naziest movement, didn’t didn’t just appear out of the blue, but it did know how to package the hatred in a way to infuriate those who were easily manipulated and basically stupid. Historically, humanity doesn’t like to investigate their own beliefs, they prefer to be told what to believe, it’s much easier, and of course, lazy.

    So what was true then, is true now! Ignorance and delusional beliefs whether willful or as the result of stupidity, is cyclical and a symptom of flawed human thinking or flawed human faith in that flawed human thinking!

    And actually, the flawed human faith in flawed human thinking goes beyond Nazism, or bigotry, it infests the entire body of religion and the body politic! There has to be a sea change to clean house, but it will never happen! Because, that would put a crimp in the style of all of the self-a-grandized leaders and power brokers. The Golden goose is ignorance, willful or otherwise, and why kill that Golden goose!

  15. Two very different points. But relevant to comments. An incident from the 1930 told to me. A phone call because of flat tire SR3 south of Ft. Wayne. Portrait of Hitler over the fireplace in the home with the phone. Second and only of deep rooted issues. An ancestor of mine was, manager of finance for Charles III while in exile. He was Jewish. Given a grant of land and right to trade with native people in America. He went to Philadelphia and became a Presbyterian. Roots of behavior them and now? Adjusting to survive. Fear of social pressures. And seeking easy answers abdicating citizen responsibility in free society

  16. I agree with Nancy ( posted at 8:11 am) the problem lies with mostly white men, who are terrified of becoming the minority that they are now. Their “supremacy” has been usurped by women, native americans,, asians,Latinos, and they can’t handle it.

  17. I have never believed that the local populations surrounding the death camps didn’t know what was going on. The guards and the commanders had to get food from somewhere. Leisure time was likely spent in local establishments. The smell of the burning bodies alone would have been significant. Of course, they knew. Some few tried to push back but most did not as anti-antisemitism has deep routes as is evident even today.

    The white populations in our own country have had regular contact with those who ran those schools and orphanages for indigenous kids, had customers who worked in the Japanese internment camps, who had neighbors and family who owned slaves even if they did not.

    There are plenty of people who where around in Indiana when Jews and Blacks were not allowed in social clubs or golf courses, let alone in certain housing areas. They were complicit in their silence if not actively so by profiting from that exclusion one way or another.

    Our neighborhood association recently took a look at the original covenant for the area. It had very specific language barring POC. We are in the process of re-writing it specifically to remove that language.

    A family member had an original deed from a property built on in the early 1900s. It contained very specific language barring any POC or Jews from buying it in the future. Indiana was the first state to enact forced sterilization and the last to ban it. (1973)

    Those kinds of social, cultural, religious, economic and legal restrictions were actively enforced by laws enacted in our General Assembly, elected by a system of suppressed minority voting, passively supported by those with white, mostly Protestant, male privilege. Elected law enforcement actively applied those laws. For the doubters, I actually witnessed that kind of activity.

    It has not really changed much since then, just done until recently with subtly. With the arrival of the Chief Victim constantly whining about the harm caused to him by the “others”, the continued election of officials in TX and FL, for example, we see the same phenomenon here as occurred in Germany. As long as it does not affect me personally, in fact may profit me, I am turning a blind eye. It is complicity and betrayal on a grand scale.
    We live in perilous times. Vote Blue as if your life depends on it. It really does.

  18. Melinda, you took the words right out of my mouth.
    I’m on the wait list for Maddows book.
    Morton, not only was Hearst much like Murdoch, but it is Hearst who saw a very young Billy Graham, and had his papers boost that precursor of what became American Evangelism into prominence.
    Not only were Jesus and his followers Jewish, but, Judas essentially did God’s will by pointing Jesus out to the Romans, who then had him killed, but not, for god’s sake, literally. Judas should have been sanctified, and the jews praised! But, there was no power to accrue for the church in doing that.
    So, anti-semitism was been rife for the following 2 centuries, and it did not end with Nixon.

  19. I’m hearing on the internet that some are in favor of a “strongman” to be elected and rule, thus ending the present chaos. Of course they do not mention (if they know) that the present chaos was stirred up by the proposed “strongman” so that he would have grounds to intervene, all of which is strongly reminiscent of the early 30s in Nazifying Germany.

    If we are going to be “Good Germans” and do nothing because we think, like the “Good Germans,” that Trump, like Hitler, is just a loudmouth who will go away we will deserve a visiting gestapo thug at our morning door, and by the way, never in history has a prospective dictator ruled only for one day, as Herr Trump has suggested.

    To do: Challenge anyone who says we need a “strongman” to rule to prove where such rule has ended chaos rather than institutionalized it, and VOTE!

  20. P.S.:
    Last Saturday, on “Holocaust Remembrance e Day,” my wife and I attended a talk by the author Ruth Finkel Wade, who is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Ms. Wade tells the story of her father, who missed his camp’s liberation by the allies by one day, but surviving nonetheless.
    Both she, and her father have authored books, hers is “The Ones Who Remember,” and her father’s is “Sevek and the Holocaust: The Boy Who Refused to Die,” Sevek having been his original Polish name.

  21. Decades ago I was quite shocked by a display in the Harvard Divinity School Library that showcased Unitarian books that were approving of Eugenics….. It was a passing phase…but it was disturbing to me to see concrete evidence of misguided “faith” in science….

  22. My concern is that many who are supporting Trump do not consider themselves racist, or anti-Semitic, or homo/transphobic. They consider themselves patriots, and therefore likely to show up on election day. I’m not sure enough of those who aren’t necessarily Trump supporters, but not strongly in the Biden camp, will show up to vote,

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