On Capitol Hill today, there are more fascist and far-right sympathizers than at any time since the interwar period. These include Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, who attended a conference held by a Holocaust denier and white nationalist, Louisiana Congressman Clay Higgins, who has ties to paramilitary Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who invited a Holocaust denier and Neo-Nazi to the State of the Union Address, and many, many more. While disturbing, this seeding of Congress with white nationalists, authoritarians, and fascist sympathizers is not without historical precedent. Indeed, events rarely occur without some sort of historical foreshadowing. During the interwar years characters of much the same caliber ascended to high office in the U.S.
Dan La Botz, in an article from New Politics, has made the comparison between the current Congress and the 1920s, when the KKK was a mass force and counted Senators and Congressman as members. While that is valid, the Klan of the 1920s was more of a reflection of the era’s reactionary attitudes than an instigator of them. The 1930s and early 1940s, on the other hand, saw a proliferation of extremist fascist groups, some with memberships in the tens of thousands like the German American Bund, the Black Legion, the Silver Shirts, and “Radio Priest” Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front. Not only did these groups have memberships in the thousands, these organizations and their views had support within the walls of Congress.
One of the first Congressman to voice support for fascism was Pennsylvania Republican Louis T. McFadden. The Congressman tied anti-Semitic conspiracy theories into his criticisms of the Federal Reserve and read the anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion into the Congressional Record. McFadden was lauded in the Nazi Party’s Der Sturmer as “one of the few Congressmen willing to talk openly against the Jews.” He was quoted in the Liberator, the newspaper of the domestic fascist organization the Silver Legion, in support of Adolf Hitler. McFadden’s speeches were frequently reprinted by the Silver Legion and other affiliated groups. McFadden lost his bid for reelection in 1934 and was dead of coronary thrombosis before he could mount a campaign for the Presidency as the candidate of the “Independent Republican National Christian-Gentile Committee” an organization designed, according to McFadden, to “keep the Jew out of the Republican Party.”
McFadden was not alone in his sentiments. Illinois Congressman Stephen A. Day sent Adolf Hitler a telegram on April 6, 1933 congratulating him on taking power.1For his part, Minnesota Representative Harold Knutson, who had quipped, “The only difference between a Nazi and a Communist is that a Nazi can’t get a job in the New Deal,”2said, “Hitler is displaying a forbearance that might well be emulated by statesmen of other nations.” Another admirer of Hitler was New York Republican Congressman Hamilton Fish, an anti-Semite that mailed out The Protocols of the Elders of Zion from his office to constituents. In 1933 Fish sponsored the publication of the book Communism in Germany that blamed the spread of Communism on the Jews and credited Adolf Hitler with stopping a Communist takeover of Germany.
Despite growing knowledge of the atrocities in Hitler’s Germany, U.S. politicians continued their praise of the regime. Indeed, pro-Nazi politicians only became more outspoken as the 1930s wore on. In 1938 Congressman Hamilton Fish gave a speech at a Germany Day rally at Madison Square Garden while surrounded by Nazi swastikas. In 1939, Fish flew on Nazi foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop’s private plane and declared that Nazi territorial claims were “just.” Upon his return from Germany in 1938, Senator Edward R. Burke reversed his previous stance of opposition to Nazism and said in awe, “In the things Hitler actually is doing to bring about the well-being of the entire German people, I think that he is greater than Bismarck.”
Democratic Senator Robert Rice Reynolds of North Carolina gave a 1938 speech where he stated “Hitler and Mussolini have a date with destiny. It’s foolish to oppose them, so why not play ball with them?” Burke, Fish, and Reynolds were joined by Montana Republican Jacob Thorkelson, a man described by Time magazine as “Jew-baiting” and “fascist minded.” During his single term in Congress, Thorkelson inserted quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and quotes from British fascist Oswald Moseley’s newspaper Action into the Congressional Record. The Congressman also mailed out to constituents 5,000 copies of a friendly interview with Adolf Hitler.
World War II
After the beginning of World War II, the pro-fascist contingent in Congress dedicated themselves to preventing the United States from entering the war against Germany. Some of their arguments included apologetics for the Nazi government. North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye was quoted in the Steuben News as saying “Why should we be surprised over what the German leadership and the German people are doing today, when we know that Germany is only striving to win her way out of the injustices heaped upon her by a mad world at the end of the war.”3The Senator arranged for German American Bund member Andrae Nordskog to speak before a Senate Subcommittee and then mailed thousands of copies of that speech to constituents.4Nye was among those U.S. politicians cheered by the German American Bund during their 1939 rally at Madison Square Garden and he had received the support of the avowedly pro-German Steuben Society during his 1938 campaign.5
During debates over military aid to the Allies, further pro-Nazi sentiments were expressed. Oregon Senator Rufus C. Holman, who had been an officer in the KKK in the 1920s, praised Hitler on the Senate floor because “he broke the control of these internationalists over the common people of Germany.” As Oregon’s Secretary of State, Holman had offered support for the Nazi sterilization program. Michigan Republican Clare E. Hoffman expressed sympathies for Nazi territorial ambitions, saying, “Many of us doubt that Germany wants more than has been asked through the ages by every people, by every nation, which has found itself with territory too small…” As France was falling to the Nazis, Hoffman claimed that “We might now profit from what Hitler has done by adopting at least some of his decent methods of production.”6
Some of these politicians became involved with a Nazi operation to help spread pro-fascist propaganda led by an agent of the German government named George Sylvester Viereck. Vierick had been a German-American poet and writer of some renown, but after the Nazi seizure of power he quickly became enamored of the new regime. From 1940-1941 Vierick would provide Nazi propaganda to sympathetic U.S. politicians for them to include in speeches that would then be printed in the Congressional Record. Vierick would then use the franking privilege accorded to members of Congress to mail out millions of copies of this propaganda to unsuspecting citizens around the United States at taxpayer expense.
Ernest Lundeen, originally elected as part of the left wing Minnesota Farmer-Labor party, was the most notorious part of this scheme as his politics swung far to the right. Lundeen would deliver speeches that had been dictated by Viereck and when the Senator died in a mysterious 1940 plane crash he was carrying a copy of a Vierick speech entitled “the German Element in America” on his person. After Lundeen died, his widow attempted to cover up his Nazi involvement by stealing incriminating evidence from the Senator’s office.
While Senator Lundeen was the most notable part of this scheme, it also involved politicians like Fish, Thorkelson, Nye, and others. Fish’s own secretary, George Hill, would go to prison for his part in the scheme. In addition to his propaganda mailing, Vierick also operated Flanders Hall Publishing, which put out books attacking the Allies. One of the titles published was We Must Save the Republic, an isolationist tract by Illinois Congressman Stephen A. Day, he of the 1933 congratulatory telegram to Hitler.
Even after the U.S. entry into the war, some of the pro-fascist politicians continued their speeches and agitation. Clare E. Hoffman was a speaker at wartime rallies for fascist sympathizer Gerald L.K. Smith’s America First Party, which called for the deportation and sterilization of Jewish Americans in 1944. Missouri Congressman William P. Elmer claimed, “If all the European countries drove out the Jews … there must have been a good reason.” Elmer also warned there was “a determined and well-financed movement to admit all the oppressed Hitler-persecuted people of Germany and other European countries into our country.”
In a wartime interview with journalist John Roy Carson, ex-Congresman and Steuben Society member John C. Schafer prophesied the future of the U.S.: “There will be purges and Roosevelt will be cleaned right off the earth along with the Jews. We’ll have a military dictatorship to save the country.”7 Congressman John E. Rankin, a Democrat from Mississippi, gave a speech on the House floor in which he blamed “our international Jewish brethren” for instigating World War II. Rankin’s railing against “Communistic Jews” was reprinted in a wartime issue of the fascist publication the Defender.
Many of the politicians discussed above paid a political price for their previous activities during the war. Nye, Holman, Day, Elmer, and Fish lost their seats in 1944 and Reynolds declined to seek reelection that year given that his loss was a near certainty. However, others continued to hold office for years to come. Clare E. Hoffman remained in Congress until 1963, all the while fulminating against the polio vaccine and water fluoridation. Harold Knutson lost in 1948, more due to his domestic conservatism than his previous affinity for Hitler. Rankin helped establish the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1945 but claimed they would not investigate the Ku Klux Klan because “After all, the KKK is an old American institution.” He also denigrated the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi War criminals stating the prosecutors had “perpetuated more outrages than any other organization of its kind.”
This defense of accused Nazi war criminals was not unique. Senator William Langer of North Dakota, who described domestic fascist activists Lawrence Dennis and Joe McWilliams as “good American patriots.”8advocated for the commutation of SS officer Martin Sandberger’s death sentence. Sandberger had participated in the killings of hundreds of Jews in the Baltics and helped round up Jews in Italy to be deported to Auschwitz. Despite leaving office, both Reynolds and Holman continued to be involved in far right activism. Reynolds was still involved in attempts to form a new far-right Nationalist Party in 1945, although no lasting organization came from the effort. Holman, who married Norma Lundeen (widow of Senator Ernest), established the American Foundation Inc. in 1947, an organization he stated was dedicated to exposing the “Roosevelt conspiracy” of “war profiteers, the strike masters and labor racketeers, and those international people who have insinuated themselves into strategic places of authority in government.”9
Possibly the most disturbing aspect of the case of pro-fascism in Congress is the presence of many ostensible progressives in their ranks. While Reynolds, Fish, Thorkelson, and others are obvious candidates for Nazi sympathizers given their records, Wheeler, Lundeen, Langer, and Nye had made names for themselves as critics of corporate power and defenders of democracy against plutocracy. It seems that as the 30s wore on they increasingly equated plutocrats with “Jews” and acted accordingly.
First time as fascism, second time as…fascism?
There are many parallels between these interwar fascists and modern far right politicians. One example is xenophobia and hostility toward immigrants. While today it is often Muslims and Latin American migrants who are considered part of a conspiracy to replace U.S. whites, in the 1930s and 1940s it was Jews who were scapegoated. Aside from preventing an U.S. declaration of war on Germany, many of the pro-fascist Congressman and Senators wanted to stop an increase in immigration quotas to allow entry to European Jewish refugees. Senator Reynolds went as far as to propose a ten year ban on all immigration. Senator Holman, a comparative moderate, wanted only a five year ban. When the Wagner-Rogers bill, which would have allowed for the entry of 20,000 Jewish child refugees, was introduced in 1939, Reynolds threatened to filibuster the measure.10For his efforts, he was praised by Fritz Kuhn of the German American Bund.
Ernest Lundeen was also opposed, despite his (at this point) nominal progressivism.11Congressman Rankin explained, “We cannot afford to throw down the bars of immigration or open wide our gates to every disgruntled element throughout the world.”12 Congressmen Fish, Thorkelson, and Hoffman were likewise opposed. The Wagner-Rogers bill, inadequate as it was, failed to pass and 20,000 children who might have been saved, were not.
The far-right movements in both periods spread their messages through “alternative media” networks. In the 1930s it was publications like Father Coughlin’s Social Justice, “Jayhawk Nazi” Gerald Winrod’s The Defender, Gerald L.K. Smith’s The Cross and the Flag, and others. In return, these politicians recommended these publications to their constituents. Senators Reynolds and Nye both gave praise to Smith’s The Cross and the Flag13with Reynolds saying, “It speaks the truth.” Modern parallels can be drawn to news programs like Newsmax or One America News Network, which have promoted conspiracy theories and Holocaust deniers.
Even the language of the modern right owes something to these predecessors. Donald Trump memorably used “America First” as a campaign slogan and statement of his foreign policy beliefs. The Trumpite far-right now boasts of the America First Policy Institute. With a similar appeal, white nationalist Nicholas Fuentes’ far right political conference is called the America First Political Action Conference. Not coincidentally, in the run up to World War II, a center of activity amongst those members of Congress who were pro-Nazi was the America First Committee. While the Committee was not officially pro-Hitler, it did include at one point or another anti-Semites like Henry Ford, Avery Brundage, and Charles Linbergh as well as Nazi agent and aviator Laura Ingalls. Politicians who spoke on behalf of America First also voiced pro-German opinions.
At an August 20, 1941 America First Committee Rally, Congressman Hamilton Fish exclaimed “Germany has a right to play with South America. If Germany wins, her wage scale and buying powers will go up and she will buy more of our products.”14Senator Burton Wheeler of Montana told an America First Rally “I firmly believe the German people want peace just as any people prefer peace to war and the offer of a just, reasonable and generous peace will more quickly and effectively crumble Hitlerism and break the morale of the German people than all the bombers that could be dispatched over Berlin.”15Wheeler was criticized for his attacks on Jewish “international bankers” that he claimed were pushing the U.S. entry into the war. The Senator expressed even more anti-Semitic opinions in private, writing in a letter “Every day that goes by proves to me more conclusively than ever that Communists are using a lot of these Jewish people as pawns to stir up racial intolerance in this country.”16
Another shared element between the interwar far right and modern pro-fascists is their obsession with alleged media propaganda. The congressional right believed that Hollywood studios were brainwashing U.S. citizens through anti-Nazi and “warmongering” propaganda, citing films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy and the Great Dictator. This led to the September 1941 Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda. The investigation included aspects of overt anti-Semitism as Senator Nye claimed those most responsible for film propaganda were “four names, each that of one of the Jewish faith, each one foreign born.”
The Senate investigation was focused on either the foreign birth of filmmakers or their Jewish ancestry. Nye accused studios like Warner Brothers of making films that “entertain hatreds” and exhibiting a “prejudicial influence.” Charlie Chaplin was scorned by Nye due to his role in the Great Dictator both because he was anti-Hitler but also because he was “not a citizen of our country, though he has resided here a long, long while.” We can see a modern iteration of this movement against the culture industry in the recent right-wing crusade against Disney for coming out against anti-gay laws led by Ron DeSantis and Josh Hawley. That Disney was founded by an anti-union, anti-Semite, who supported Barry Goldwater for President is an amusing piece of irony.
The interwar right and the present-day version also share an affinity for foreign autocrats. Far right politicians of the 1930s and 1940s expressed admiration for Hitler and Mussolini. Outside of Capitol Hill, Georgia governor Eugene Talmadge stated Adolf Hitler was his favorite author and claimed to have read Mein Kampf seven times.“17A modern example of this phenomena is the fawning over Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary, by the American Conservative and CPAC, even as Orban has piece by piece dismantled representative democracy in the country. Florida’s recent “Don’t Say Gay” law was even based, according to Ron DeSantis’ press secretary, on legislation originally passed in Hungary. Vladimir Putin has been subject to similar support from the far-right and fascist forces in the U.S. In addition, this modern right has defended openly anti-democratic activists who took part in the January 6th riot, much like how their predecessors Nye, Fish, Wheeler, et al. spoke up in defense of Gerald L.K. Smith, Winrod, Joe McWilliams, and other fascist zealots when they were on trial for sedition.
At the time, the issue of Nazi sympathizers in Congress was not adequately addressed by the Left. Neither the Socialist Workers Party nor the Workers Party gave the issue much attention in their publications or activities, aside from a few mentions in Labor Action. While the Communist Party did address the issue in publications like New Masses or Public Affairs, as well as sponsor numerous exposes by John Spivak, by this point they had given up on independent political action as a result of Popular Front policies and instead operated as a pressure group on the Democratic Party, which would do little to counter influence of such Democratic fascist sympathizers as Reynolds and Rankin. As such the CPUSA was telling workers and oppressed people to join a party that tolerated pro-fascists, Klansmen, and anti-Semites.
We should learn from their mistakes. While today’s Democratic Party is different in important respects, it continues to cede ground on numerous key issues–like immigration, the national security state, imperialism, the role of the police, and basic democratic rights, etc.—-so as to give political oxygen to the far right and to allow these forces to pose as the only anti-establishment alternative. Until we build a socialist movement, committed in principle to class independence, fully cognizant of this history of the far right, and wholly committed to contesting its current incarnations, these comparisons will continue to feel more relevant and more of a threat.
Featured Image Credit: Artwork by Nevena Pilipović-Wengler
We want to hear what you think. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:Donate
Hank Kennedy is a Detroit area socialist, educator, and longtime comic book fan.