Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow

"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
OCTOBER 31, 2010 4:09PM

Iott’s Nazi Dress-up: Recreating WWII or the GOP’s Past?

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Tea Party candidate Rick Iott’s dress-up play as a Nazi  SS officer rightly stirred uncomfortable feelings in many Americans. Not that the WWII re-enactment group he belongs to is pro-Nazi; they’re not. But 80 years ago, in the years leading up to WWII, many members of the Republican Party to which Iott belongs were pro-Nazi, and the GOP doesn’t want anyone to remember that.


In the 1930s, the black wave of fascism that swept through much of Europe was very attractive to the GOP. Fascism, after all, promoted plutocracy – a government ruled by the wealthy elite. Many in the pro-corporation, anti-labor Republican Party saw fascism as the only means of saving America from what they saw as the yawning threat of communism.


How serious was this support for fascism? Serious enough to consider a coup to overthrow the U.S. government. In 1932, shortly after the election of President Franklin Roosevelt, several wealthy American special interests (i.e., Republican supporters) approached retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler with a plan to raise an army of WWI veterans to march on the White House and establish a dictatorship. Butler, a recipient of two Medals of Honor, turned the conspirators over to the government.


According to testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the conspirators had sent an agent to Europe to study fascist governments in Italy, Germany and Spain, and develop a plan for bringing such authoritarianism to the United States. The HUAC redacted the names of most of the conspirators in its published investigation findings, but among those rumored to be involved were George Herbert Walker and his son-in-law, Prescott Bush, great-grandfather and grandfather of President George W. Bush. Both Walker and Prescott Bush were well-known financiers of the Nazi Party in Germany. Years later, Prescott Bush would be convicted of continuing his financial support of the Nazis even after Hitler declared war on America.


Several Republican Party members were also enthusiastic supporters of the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization made up primarily of ethnic German-Americans. Though never a major national movement, the Bund had a strong enough following that it was not unusual to see Americans in Nazi uniforms openly goose-stepping through American cities giving the straight-arm salute. Conservative politicians were frequent speakers at such rallies.


Republican support wasn’t relegated to support of minor political movements, though. Members often brought their support straight into the halls of Congress. During the early days of the war, Senator Rusfus Holman, a Republican from Oregon, gave a speech in the Senate blaming “international bankers” for the world crisis.


"I doubt if the right is all on one side among the present belligerents. At least Hitler has broken the control of the international bankers and traders over the rewards for the labor of the common people of Germany,” Holman said. “In my opinion it would be advantageous if the control of the international bankers and traders over the wages and savings and the manner of living of the people of England could be broken by the English people, and if the control of the international bankers and traders over the wages and savings and the manner of living of the people of the United States could be broken by the people of the United States."


“International bankers,” of course, was then well-known as a Nazi code word for Jews.


As in Germany, pro-fascist Americans considered themselves patriots. They were willing to destroy American democracy in order to save America.


An article at the time quoted Republican House Member John Schafer using words eerily prescient of the kind of rhetoric used today by Tea Party activists. A revolution was coming to America, Schafer predicted. "The bloody kind,” he said. “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."


There were, of course, conservative Democrats in the 1930s who were ardent supporters of fascism. Unlike the GOP, though, the Democratic Party worked at purging  their ranks of pro-Nazis. A series of grand jury and congressional investigations during the 1940s identified 24 U.S. senators and House members who were either bribed by or collaborated with the Nazi government. Five were Democrats, one was from the Farmer-Labor Party, and the rest were Republicans.


In the post-war years, the GOP’s pre-war support for fascism was buried by the anti-communism hysteria of McCarthyism. Prescott Bush’s support of Hitler was brushed aside and he was elected to the Senate in 1952. Today, much of the conservative rhetoric espoused by the Republican Party and its Tea Party creation echoes the GOP’s pre-WWII fascist oratory. Replace “international bankers” with “Muslims.” Replace threats of a “bloody” revolution with calls for secession from gun-toting Teabaggers.


In today’s volatile political scene, with conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck hurling accusations of fascism and Nazism at President Obama, it is worth remembering that when the world was rushing headlong toward the nightmare of world authoritarianism, far too many Republicans chose the wrong side to support.

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