Pro-Nazi propaganda, courtesy of the US post office? This unlikely scheme was hatched by George Sylvester Viereck, a German-born American who between 1937 and 1941 sought to marshal US sentiment against intervention in Europe. Those who heeded him included prominent members of Congress, such as Burton Wheeler of Montana and Rush Holt Sr of West Virginia, anti-interventionist Democratic senators known for speeches that prompted accusations of antisemitism. Viereck’s contacts on Capitol Hill allowed him to place anti-interventionist speeches in the appendix to the congressional record. Thanks to friends in high places, he could order inexpensive reprints and have German-American groups mail them out on government postage.
If this sounds out of place in the land of the free, it shouldn’t – according to an illuminating new anthology, Fascism in America: Past and Present, edited by Gavriel D Rosenfeld and Janet Ward. In 12 chapters plus an introduction and epilogue, the co-editors and their contributors make the case that fascism has existed on US soil for well past a century and remains disturbingly present today.
“We don’t sufficiently teach civics or democratic awareness [in high schools], how fascism and far-right extremist movements have a long history in the US,” Rosenfeld said. “We think we’re an exception, that America fought ‘the good war’ to defeat fascism and Nazism. We patted ourselves on the back for many decades as ‘the greatest generation’ – a useful myth for American public life that blinded us to darker undercurrents in our society.”
Ward mentions history from even further back, “eugenics-based scientific standards” that “informed opinions and policies on what it meant to be included not just as fully American, but as fully human” in the US in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, subsequently influencing Nazi laws regarding race.
Rosenfeld is president of the Center for Jewish History in New York and a professor of history at Fairfield University in Connecticut. From the UK, Ward is a history professor at the University of Oklahoma; she is a past president of the German Studies Association and was an American Council on Education fellow at Yale. Both are scholars of Germany, including the second world war and the Holocaust. (Rosenfeld authored a chapter in the anthology, on alternate histories of the war, from The Plot Against America to Watchmen.) Both editors became alarmed by developments during the Trump administration that suggested parallels with the rise of Nazism and hinted at a reawakening of homegrown fascist sentiments lying dormant for decades.
“We redirected attention on our own backyard and applied the same kind of lens to a place that had not been subject to the same kind of scrutiny, the vulnerabilities in our own kind of democratic institutions,” Rosenfeld said. “We reached out to scholars in related fields – American studies, Black studies – to see what we could learn from the American experience … We were equally concerned about the present-day democratic backsliding.”
Ward said: “More than one country has turned toward populism and the extreme right. It began to worry a lot of us, not just academics but cultural commentators.” The resulting volume is “very much part of a new awareness of the way in which traditional academics circulate to a broader public”.
Collaborators include the New York University history professor Linda Gordon, who incorporated findings from a forthcoming project and The Second Coming of the KKK, her 2017 book about the years after the first world war. Ousmane K Power-Greene, an African American scholar at Clark University in Massachusetts, examined Black antifascist activism from the 1960s to the 1980s, by activists such as Angela Davis and H Rap Brown.
Trump comes up repeatedly. Thomas Weber, of the University of Aberdeen, compares “Anarchy and the State of Nature in Donald Trump’s America and Adolf Hitler’s Germany”. Marla Stone of Occidental College researched Trump-era detention facilities for migrant children. Her chapter title: “Concentration Camps in Trump’s America?”
“It’s not just that we wanted to determine for ourselves, is Trump a fascist or not, is Trumpism fascist or not, is Maga-ism fascist or not,” Rosenfeld said, noting that such questions are frequently posed by scholars, journalists and readers. “We try to trace the evolving debate, the historical shift over time – of course, after the Charlottesville Unite the Right march in 2017 … [Trump’s] defending the Proud Boys at the 2020 debate, obviously after January 6 … it’s been a moving target.”
Yet, Rosenfeld said, “ever since January 6, more people are inclined to believe that even if Trump is not a dogmatic fascist, so many of his followers are willing to use violence to overturn the rule of law, the constitution, to make it very concerning for people. At a certain point, you want to be safe rather than sorry, err on the side of caution, to believe we’re in a potential fascist moment.”
The book suggests fascism in America might date back as far as the late 19th century, amid Jim Crow laws in the south and nativist fears over immigration from Europe. In the early 20th century, the US enacted infamously high immigration quotas, while domestic white supremacist groups thrived: the Ku Klux Klan during its 1920s resurgence, followed by Depression-era proto-fascist militant groups such as the Silver Legion, under William Dudley Pelley. While the interwar years witnessed clandestine German-backed attempts to mobilize Americans against intervention, the book makes it clear fascism needed no foreign encouragement.
“Ultimately, this is an American story,” Ward said. “You can’t – you shouldn’t – look at fascism solely as an outside influence into the US … it needs to be looked at from within, as well as something coming in from without.”
She noted that she received her doctorate from the University of Virginia, the campus on which the Charlottesville riots occurred six years ago.
“The August 2017 events of Charlottesville pinpointed it for a lot of people,” Ward said. “The open demonstration of violence, the coming together of racism, antisemitism and white supremacy all at once through that ugly moment.”
As to whether America is on the precipice of another such ugly moment, the co-editors are hoping democracy holds firm, just as it did in the second world war.
“I’m going to be an optimist,” Ward said, “with education, with informed voices like the contributors to our book, with discourse and engagement [to prevent] a doomsday scenario with the new presidential election coming up.”
Rosenfeld agreed, but could not help recalling a sobering lesson.
“We know now that Franklin Roosevelt was still dealing with a nearly 20% unemployment rate on the eve of world war two,” he said. “Only billions and billions of dollars in military spending got us out of debt. All the isolationists got on board against the Nazis and Japan. Rightwingers were forced into silence.
“It’s clear in retrospect,” he added, “that world war two did make the US a great power on the world stage. It also spared us the kind of fascism that Vichy France and Germany experienced, that many other countries experienced. We were spared the same thing – but it was a close call. We shouldn’t be complacent.”
Fascism in America is published in the US by Cambridge University Press