Don’t Blame the Nazis: The Alt-Right Has an American Past

It has happened here before—and its most shameless voice was Charles Lindbergh.

If they raise their right arms and chant “Hail Trump” (carefully avoiding the Heil) are they really Nazis?

It’s springtime for people like Richard Spencer’s odious column of avowed alt-right racists, who felt that they could openly make the salute at a Washington, D.C., meeting. Although by any account they are at the outer limits of neo-fascist hate mongering they reflect a new energy as hate crimes flourish across America.

But we should exercise extreme care when invoking the Nazi connection. It’s just too simple to resort to German history when instead we should be looking at American history. This stuff has happened here before. Once put in the context of American rather than European history the comparisons are more instructive—and more alarming.

In 1936, as the Nazis consolidated their total grip on Germany, the Nazi philosophy and insignia, including the Hitler salute, were promoted and paraded here by the German American Bund. The Bund had training camps in several states and attempted to reconcile their anti-Semitism with patriotism by declaring that George Washington had been a fascist.

Some 20,000 supporters attended a rally at Madison Square Garden in 1939 where the leader, Fritz Julius Kuhn, called the New Deal the Jew Deal. There were clashes between anti-Bund protesters and Bund storm troopers.

However, the Bund’s following never grew beyond a hard core of fanatics and basically collapsed later that year when Kuhn was exposed as a swindler who had embezzled the organization’s funds.

The Bund could be passed off as an unpleasant aberration. America First was very different.

These days America First is often being recalled as a kind of ideological precursor of the Trump popular insurgency. That’s a misuse of history. America First may sound familiar as a contemporary idea, but in its 1930s form it was very different: a large coalition of causes, most of them respectable, although it was also proof that apparently respectable public movements can conceal ugly pockets of prejudice.

Its unifying factor was a belief that it would be a mistake for the United States to go where President Franklin Roosevelt evidently wanted to take it—into another European war. Memories of the mindless carnage of trench warfare in World War I were a strong deterrent. But the anti-war sentiment was not always pure and simple pacifism—an aversion to war on any grounds. It is better understood as non-interventionism, specific in its belief that America’s interests were best served by protecting itself, including re-arming, while not saving Europe from a disaster designed in Europe.

This element of America First had a uniquely charismatic spokesman, an American hero who had for a while been the most famous man in the world, Charles Lindbergh. And it is in Lindbergh and his record where the viruses of white supremacy and anti-Semitism lurk, as they frequently do, as cunning fugitives—mostly concealed but always ready to infect a receptive host.

Over the years Lindbergh apologists argued that whatever he said in his many speeches at America First rallies he was not pro-Nazi nor an anti-Semite. The most persistent of his defenders was his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

In 1980, when she published her diaries and letters for the period, Anne Lindbergh used the introduction of the book to sanitize the speeches: “He refused to stoop to demagoguery or rabble-rousing,” she wrote, “and was astonished when some of his factual statements were seen in that light.”

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She painted a man devoted to an innocent, Whitmanesque America.

“The speeches are full of the character, the stories and the cadence of the old West… the rhetorical tone of those hardy immigrants who had left Europe behind them for the ‘new world of the West’; the America with an ‘independent destiny’ which would not forever be entangled in these endless wars of Europe.’”

In fact, the evidence is that Lindbergh caught the Nazi bug very early.

In 1936 the Lindberghs spent time in England with Harold Nicholson, a British diplomat who kept a compellingly exact diary. The Lindberghs had just returned from Germany where they had been feted by the regime, part of a calculated plan to persuade the aviation legend that Nazi air power was invincible. Nicholson recorded: “He admires their energy, virility, spirit, organization, architecture, planning and physique… he believes that if Great Britain supports the decadent French and the red Russians against Germany there will be an end to European civilization.”

The most notorious of Lindbergh’s speeches on behalf of America First was his last, made in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941. He said that three groups had been pressing the country toward war—the Roosevelt administration, the British, and the Jews, and that behind them were “a number of capitalists, anglophiles, and intellectuals who believe their future, and the future of mankind, depend on the domination of the British empire.”

This was the only time that he actually named the Jews in public as an influence, rather than inferring their role. However, for years his words in private had been just as blunt. Shortly before the outbreak of the war in Europe, in August 1939, Lindbergh had dinner with two sympathisers in Washington, D.C., and said he was disturbed about the effect of Jewish influence in the press, radio, and motion pictures. Immediately after the outbreak of war he wrote in his journal: “We, the heirs of European culture, are on the verge of a disastrous war, a war within our own family of nations, a war which will reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race…”

Until Pearl Harbor the momentum of America First was sustained in large part by Lindbergh’s speeches. His belief in Hitler’s invincibility never faltered even when, in 1940, the Royal Air Force had a famous victory over the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and effectively ended the chances of a Nazi invasion of Great Britain.

At the same time, Anne Lindbergh had her own rationale for accepting Germany’s European conquests, which she set out in a book, The Wave of the Future: A Confession of Faith. The Nazis, she argued, were part of an irreversible historical tide in which a new breed of strong men would shape the future. Hitler, she wrote, was “a very great man, like an inspired religious leader.”

Initially the book became the number one non-fiction best-seller and was condensed by Reader’s Digest. But as the brutality of the Nazi occupation of western Europe became obvious public opinion turned and bookstores boycotted it. One book dealer wrote the publisher, Alfred Harcourt, that both Lindberghs “should be put behind barbed wires.”

Anne was chastened, but Lindbergh himself was undeterred. Some months later he told a crowd of 10,000 in Chicago: “I believe this war was lost by England and France even before it was declared, and that it is not within our power in America today to win the war for England.” In other words, the British and the rest of Europe were to be left to their fate under Hitler’s promised thousand-year Reich.

Before he made the Des Moines speech, Anne Lindbergh had tried to get her husband to remove the specific reference to Jews, and when he didn’t, she realized how damaging it would be.

Responding to the resulting public outcry she wrote: “If my husband were the man the majority of the reading public of America today (as far as one can tell from the papers) thinks he is, I could not live with him. If he were what his words seem to many people to imply, I could not. For to most men who use them, words like that are only a façade for something evil and terrible underneath—which they hide but intend to bring up later. My husband’s words are not a façade. There is nothing hidden behind them. He says in private what he says in public. There is no hate in him, no desire to arouse hate.”

Either this was blatantly disingenuous, or she was in denial. Lindbergh knew about the Nazi concentration camps (although like many others at this time he could not have believed that their ultimate purpose would be industrialized genocide). He never condoned them but he never spoke up about them. His anti-Semitism was of the instinctively casual kind. After a turbulent crossing of the Atlantic by ocean liner in 1939 he noted in his diary: “The steward tells me that most of the Jewish passengers are sick. Imagine the United States taking these Jews in addition to those we already have. There are too many in places like New York already. A few Jews add strength of character to a country, but too many create chaos. And we are getting too many. This present immigration will have its reaction.”

If you substitute Muslims for Jews the parallels with some of today’s vile rhetoric is plain. Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to see that America First was being used as a cover for rabid white supremacism of the Richard Spencer kind.

For one thing, in a large part of the country white supremacy was institutionalized.

In 1940 in the South only 3 percent of voting-age African Americans were registered to vote (in Mississippi it was less than 1 percent). African Americans did not hold elected offices and they had no say in what laws would be passed. Southern Democrats were the enforcers of Jim Crow tyranny.

Many of the most influential members of America First were liberal Republicans with patrician backgrounds and habits—what today would be called the East Coast intelligentsia. They included the future inspiration of the Peace Corps, Sargent Shriver, and a figure that those of us who covered the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in 1970-71 remember well as a galvanic anti-Nixon provocateur, Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale.

Nixon said that Brewster was “the one man whose assassination would benefit the U.S.” Brewster terminated academic credits awarded for joining the ROTC and said that it was impossible for the Black Panthers to get a fair trial in any state. He made it much easier for African Americans, Jews, and public high school graduates to get into Yale.

Other America First luminaries were a future president, Gerald Ford, and a future Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart.

These were not comfortable bedfellows with Lindbergh. Most of the other non-interventionists did not share his acceptance of a new Nazi imperium in Europe. And their future careers are proof that they did not harbor any simplistic longings for a noble pioneering Aryan settlement of the American West. And it is surely fair to say that they would be appalled by the kind of atavistic racism unleashed in the last year—as, indeed, they would be observant of the distinction between it and the non-ideological disgust expressed toward a self-enriching political class.

America First was outward-looking. Its focus was geopolitical. It promoted an alternate view of America’s world role. In no way was it, at the same time, promoting the kind of racially based nativism now unleashed in the land, largely through the megaphone of the alt-right.

The problem is that unlike an openly funded and organized movement like America First, there is no way of knowing where the boundaries of the alt-right are—it’s not so much a coalition of sympathetic factions as a loose bundle of depraved nativists, broadly dispersed and much of it still covert.

What does carry over from the America First example and Lindbergh is the importance of identifying the borderline between supposedly open and reasonable political argument and furtive, poisonous prejudice. As we get deeper into an ever-shifting definition of what constitutes normal political discourse in America the thing that becomes essential to expose is not simply vileness itself but silent complicity in that vileness.

All this leads us to the role played by President-elect Trump’s strategic counselor, Stephen Bannon, because he is single-handedly responsible for lifting the alt-right from the fringe into the media mainstream. More than that, when Bannon took control of the Breitbart website in 2012 he essentially monetized the alt-right, using its extremist rants as clickbait and turning Breitbart into a phenomenon.

Profiles of Bannon so far have failed to prove that that kind of hate incitement reflects his own convictions, merely that he was cynical enough to see how he could profit from it. For sure, Bannon is a skilled chameleon, able to change coloring according to the foliage. But sometimes there is one detail in a biography that breaks through a well-honed mask. In his case it involves Leni Riefenstahl.

Asked about his career as a maker of documentary films, Bannon cited Riefenstahl as an influence. That’s a more telling connection than perhaps he realized when he confessed to it—certainly relevant when assessing the issue of complicity.

And this is one case where German history is the instructor rather than our own: Riefenstahl’s place in the pantheon of great film directors is forever contaminated by the film that put her there, Triumph of the Will. It presented the 1934 Nuremberg rally where the Nazi faithful greeted Hitler in a trance-like state of adulation. Technically it was a masterpiece. It was commissioned by Hitler’s propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, and far exceeded his expectations as a celebration of Hitler’s mesmerizing powers.

Right up to the time she died, at the age of 101 in 2003, Riefenstahl claimed that she never grasped the value of the service she had performed for Hitler. Four post-war trials charging her with Nazi affiliation failed to get convictions. But on moral rather than legal grounds that seems a technicality. Her complicity with evil was manifest.

This is how it begins.