It has now been almost 75 years ago since the Second World War ended. Those of us born in the second half of the last century grew up in a world that was freed, at enormous human cost, from the genocidal exertions of the Nazis and their confederates.
Some 50 million civilians and military personnel were directly killed by the murderous mania of the war. Another 20 million died indirectly from war-related causes, such as disease and famine. In the golden days of our youth, most of us baby boomers had no idea how horrific it was. And we would not know until many years later, as our parents gradually found the ability to speak about the way it was for them and those they loved in the old country, before and during the war.
Even so, we still knew very little about the events that took place during the years preceding the war here in North America.
Once Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, Canada quickly joined the battle. But the defeat of the Nazis was hardly assured. Indeed, in May 1940, when the British expeditionary force was rescued from the shores of Dunkirk, Western civilization itself stood before a dark precipice. It was the United States’ entry into the war more than a year and a half later that ultimately led to the defeat of the Nazis and their Axis allies in 1945.
But what if the United States had not gone to war? What if it had chosen instead to remain neutral and to shore up its own defences at home, just in case?
The question is moot today, but in 1939, it was very much alive and rending domestic politics in America.
In his outstanding work, Hitler’s American Friends, Bradley W. Hart writes: “Intervention versus isolationism was the most potent political issue from late 1939 until Pearl Harbor, dividing friends and families against one another in a way that would not again be seen until the Vietnam War era. The isolationists, led by Charles Lindbergh and some of the country’s leading congressmen, argued that America had no business getting involved in the war. Any form of intervention, they argued, would inevitably result in young men dying on faraway battlefields and financial ruin at home.”
The German government exploited this rift in American society. It served Germany’s larger war plans and hegemonic aims to keep the United States out of the war. So Germany capitalized on the existence of various isolationist factions with the U.S. and cultivated others to turn American public opinion against the clear inclinations of the Roosevelt administration to aid the U.K. and join in the fight. “The entire goal of Nazi propaganda,” Hart states, “was to encourage apathy and confusion by sowing discord, discrediting the British and turning Americans against one another.”
There were a great many Americans and some visitors in the country who wittingly took up the Nazi cause. Using sources that have been largely unexplored, Hart tells the stories of the many individuals, foreign intruders and organizations that plotted to influence American public opinion and to unseat U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hart is systematic in his approach and provides rich detail in the eye-opening material he brings to light. There are also more than 40 pages of footnotes, in which he corroborates the myriad of facts that weigh so heavily against the anti-war conspirators.
Hart also tells the stories of the men and women who stood against Hitler’s supporters and ensured the ultimate failure of the fascist encroachment into American politics during that critical period of time.
Hart divides Hitter’s friends into distinct groups. We read of the cumulative efforts of the German American Bund, the Silver Legion of America, the religious right, the senators, the businessmen, the students, the America First Committee and the spies, all of whom endeavoured to keep America out of the war.
The men and women who joined in the isolationist cause comprised a widely diverse group. Not surprisingly, however, even in their diversity, they often shared one key ideological commitment:
“Ultimately, the glue that held Hitler’s American friends together as a broad group was anti-Semitism. Nearly everyone considered in these pages harboured a deep-seated hatred toward their own country’s Jewish community and had little or no sympathy for the plight of Jews in Europe. Anti-Semitic views, especially conspiracy theories about supposed Jewish control of the government and the financial sector, often served as a precursor to deeper involvement in extremist groups,” writes Hart.
Hart records page after page of harrowing schemes attempted by men and women from all walks of American life – including from the high sanctums of government and business – that effectively served Nazi purposes.
But it is clear that in addition to bringing forward so many little-known facts about political and social life in pre-Second World War America, Hart had a higher civic purpose in mind when he wrote this impressive work: by deploying facts from history, he wishes the reader to better understand the times in which we currently live and the dangers we face. The rise of “illiberal democracy” in the West makes Hart’s book timely and important.
He warns: “In an era in which Americans have once again seen swastikas carried alongside American flags in Charlottesville, Va., and other communities, the lessons learned from the first defeat of Hitler’s American friends should once again be remembered.”
Of course, the very term “illiberal democracy” is an oxymoron. Democracy is not synonymous with merely holding elections. Illiberal democracy enables autocrats and budding despots to erase the very rules that define democracy and distinguish it from other forms of government. Democratic life derives its essence from the institutions and rules by which we live and work together.
“It is worth remembering,” Hart tells us, “how easy it can be for an ideology based in hatred to spread widely. Appeals to fear and prejudice are powerful things.… If nothing else, the example posed by Hitler’s friends should remind us that the maintenance of a free, liberal and democratic society requires diligence and active confrontation with anti-democratic ideas that threaten the very system that allows them to be discussed in the first place.”
Hart is to be commended for this powerful reminder and his historical tour de force.