Book review: Prequel by Rachel Maddow

pro-Nazi, isolationist literature

You will probably remember reading about the fear of Communism in the 1950s United States, with Senator Joe McCarthy leading the way. But there was also a Red Scare in the 1930s.

This led some folks, including within the US government, to lean into the leadership of that dynamic leader in Germany, Adolf Hitler. The Germans were happy to provide Americans with the needed propaganda.

This is the takeaway after reading Rachel Maddow’s new book, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, inspired by her work for the Ultra podcast.  While there were many villains in the narrative, there were also several heroes. She talked with MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell about how she discovered the largely forgotten threat to American democracy revealed in the podcast.

The book has so many characters that she spends three pages briefly describing 30 people who will appear. The book is not in strict chronological order, though the info after the US entered WWII in 1941 is mostly so.

Loyalty to his homeland

The first is George Viereck, a Munich-born who immigrated to the US with his parents to America when he was eleven. The writer distinguished himself as “an advocate to the American public for his beloved fatherland,” starting with World War I.

After the War, he cultivated relationships with more celebrated men”: Kaiser Wilhelm II, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, Benito Mussolini, Albert Einstein, and others. Dr. Sigmund Freud suggested that he sought a father figure, and Vierick found him in a man five years his junior, Adolf Hitler.

Another character was Philip Johnson, who had lots of family money and would become a significant architect.  He helped form the Gray Shirts in the US, inspired by the Brownshirts.

Meanwhile, in 1933, the German Foreign Office “dispatched a young man named Heinrich Krieger to the University of Arkansas School of Law.” [He learned all about “race law” in the United States, how Jim Crow laws “were… just one of many bulwarks in American law constructed for the protection of white people from the “lower races” Germany used it as a blueprint for an ethnic hierarchy.

Yellow journalism

Some of these names are unfamiliar. Here’s one you’ll know: Henry Ford, whose antisemitism was “rank, and it was unchecked.” One of the staffers of the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper owned by Ford, recommended a sensationalist approach. The paper came across the “newly translated edition” of “Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion.” It was “the work of rabidly antisemitic Russian fabulists furious at the Bolsheviks’ toppling of the old tsarist aristocracy.’ In Mein Kampf, published Hitler lifted ideas from Ford’s writings and namechecked him.

By the 1930s, Nazism had become normalized in large swaths of the United States. The situation is described in the book, but you should note The Nazis of New York from Now I Know.

There were several plots to sabotage the US in several ways. Leon Lewis, an “antifascist spymaster of Southern California, and his agents provided evidence of sedition, but the FBI was not initially interested.

There were Congressional hearings. Witnesses such as General George Van Horn, who wanted to be the American fuhrer “but was unwilling to risk his U.S. Army pension to do so,” were allowed to drop astonishingly antisemitic diatribes into his prepared testimony.


Among the films released in 1939, such as Stagecoach, Gone With The Wind, and The Wizard Of Oz, here’s the most unlikely. Warner Brothers put out a film in 1939 called Confessions Of A Nazi Spy, a ripped-from-the-headlines thriller about four German-Americans were charged with spying on U.S. military installations… The espionage plot went all the way to the Nazi-led government in Germany, implicating Göring (president of the Reichstag), Goebbels (minister of propaganda), and even Adolf Hitler himself.”

The movie was very controversial because cinema was supposed to be entertainment. Louis B. Meyer held a party for Lionel Barrymore “on the eve of his 61st birthday” to keep his MGM actors and staff far from the Nazi Spy opening.

“During filming, a sixty-pound piece of equipment fell… and barely missed the film’s biggest name, Edward G. Robinson.” It was a clear case of sabotage.

The Production Code Administration, the industry censor that looked for “swearing, drugs, nudity, sex, gore, religion, and racial controversy,” also enforced a “subjective, amorphous sort of ban on political proselytizing. So the PCA, which had been lobbied by the German consulate in Los Angeles, to be “on the lookout for anti-Nazi sentiment in American movies.” The movie was made, miraculously, but mentions of antisemitism, and even the words Jew or Jewish, were scrubbed.


Still, Goebbels is quoted in the film. “From now on, National Socialism in the United States must wrap itself in the American flag. It must appear to be a defense of Americanism. But at the same time, our aim must always be to discredit conditions there in the United States. And in this way, make life in Germany admired and wished for. Racial and religious hatred must be fostered on the basis of American-Aryanism. Classism must be encouraged in a way that the labor and the middle classes will become confused and antagonistic. In the ensuing chaos, we will be able to take control.”


Father Charles Coughlin was the “antisemitic ‘Radio Priest’ with an audience in the tens of millions. His sermon after Kristallnacht in November 1938 “conveyed that Jews of Germany had brought this violence upon themselves by their ‘aggressiveness and initiative’…There was a lot more to worry about in the commies killing Christians than there was in Germans (or anyone else)killing Jews.”

The paramilitary Christian Front, under the leadership of John F. Cassidy, Coughlin’s handpicked appointee, trained to shoot at targets of FDR. They were armed with weapons of war, such as automatic rifles.

Historian Charles Gallagher began obtaining the FBI files about the Christian Front in 2010. “Not only were these religious crusaders determined to carry out their mission, but they also had real support inside the National Guard and the New York City Police Department.” Yet the group, even after the FBI arrested several members, was widely perceived  as “more frightened than revolutionary.”

“Promiscuous Use of His Frank”

Henry Hoke, “direct market guru,” had uncovered a Nazi plot inside Congress. He collected a vast amount of sophisticated “pro-Nazi, isolationist literature that was being mailed to citizens across the country for free.

He eventually ascertained that 20 members of Congress were “inserting propaganda into the Congressional Record and letting pro-Nazi groups use their franking privileges.

Nazi propagandist George Viereck was writing articles for Senator Lundeen (R-MN) in several magazines, which was lucrative for both. Viereck set up a Make Europe Pay War Debts Committee with Lundeen as chair so the mailings could be sent nationwide.

Eventually, 30 defendants, none of them members of Congress, were indicted on sedition charges, but the trial was repeatedly undermined and ended up being suspended.

The question I wonder about is whether we have learned anything from the past. Or are we doomed to echo it?

Author: Roger

I'm a librarian. I hear music, even when it's not being played. I used to work at a comic book store, and it still informs my life. I won once on JEOPARDY! - ditto.

One thought on “Book review: Prequel by Rachel Maddow”

  1. Since the Left has abandoned progressive nationalism, apparently embarrassed by America’s (authentic) failings, and our premature dreams of internationalism, it leaves a sociopolitical niche for the fascist Right to occupy.

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