by Fred Turner
On December 3, 1933, a reporter for the named Shepard Stone tried to answer a question that had begun to puzzle many of his readers: How was it that in a single year, the nation that had brought the world Goethe and Bach, Hegel and Beethoven, had fallen so completely under the sway of a short, mustachioed dictator named Adolf Hitler? To some analysts, the answer was fundamentally social, as Stone acknowledged. Starvation, political chaos, violence in the streets—all had plagued the Weimar Republic that Hitler’s fascist state replaced. But neither Stone nor his editors thought such privations were enough to explain Hitler’s rise. Rather, wrote Stone, “something intangible was necessary to coordinate the resentments and hatreds which these forces engendered.”
That something was propaganda. Above an enormous photograph of a Nazi rally, with floodlit swastika banners towering two stories high and row upon row of helmeted soldiers leaning toward the lights, the article’s headline told its story: “Hitler’s Showmen Weave a Magic Spell: By a Vast Propaganda Aimed at Emotions, Germany’s Trance is Maintained.” For Stone and his editors, fascism was a fundamentally psychological condition. Its victims swayed in time, linked by fellow feeling, unable to reason. In part, they responded to Hitler’s charisma. But they also responded to the power of mass media. Hitler famously “hypnotized” the crowds at mass rallies until they roared with applause. His voice then traveled out from those arenas in radio waves, reaching Germans across the nation and inspiring in them the same hypnotic allegiance. As Stone suggested, Hitler’s personal appeal alone could not have transformed the mindset of the entire populace. Only mass media could have turned a nation famous for its philosophers into a land of unthinking automata: “With coordinated newspaper headlines overpowering him, with radio voices beseeching him, with news reels and feature pictures arousing him, and with politicians and professors philosophizing for him, the individual German has been unable to salvage his identity and has been engulfed in a brown wave. Today few Germans can separate the chaff from the wheat. They are living in a Nazi dream and not in the reality of the world.”
During and after World War II, this belief would drive many intellectuals and artists to imagine pro-democratic alternatives to authoritarian psyches and societies, and to the mass-mediated propaganda that seemed to produce them. But before we can explore those alternatives, we need to revisit the anxieties that made them so important to their makers. In the years leading up to the war, the fear of mass media and mass psychology that animated Stone’s account became ubiquitous among American intellectuals, politicians, and artists. When they gazed across the Atlantic to Hitler’s Germany and, to a lesser extent, Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mussolini’s Italy, American journalists and social scientists saw their longstanding anxieties about the power of mass media harden into a specific fear that newspapers, radio, and film were engines of fascist socialization.
Since the late nineteenth century, writers in Europe and the United States had dreaded the rise of mass industrial society. Such a society fractured the psyches of its members and rendered them vulnerable to collective fits of irrational violence, many feared. Now analysts worried that mass media drew individual citizens into protofascistic relationships with the centers of political and commercial power and with one another. In the one-to-many communication pattern of mass media they saw a model of political dictatorship. In mass media audiences, they saw the shadows of the German masses turning their collective eyes toward a single podium and a single leader. To enter into such a relationship with media, many worried, was to rehearse the psychology of fascism. The rise of National Socialism in Germany demonstrated that such rehearsals could transform one of the most cultured of nations—and perhaps even America itself—into a bastion of authoritarianism.
Could It Happen Here?
In the early 1930s, popular writers tended to see Hitler as an ordinary man who had somehow risen to extraordinary heights. Journalist Dorothy Thompson, who interviewed Hitler in 1931, characteristically described him as “formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.” How was it that such a man should have acquired such power? she wondered.
As Shepard Stone had pointed out, part of the answer was surely political. In the chaos of the Weimar years, Hitler and his National Socialists promised national rejuvenation. They also threatened violent ends for any who opposed them. Yet these explanations found a comparatively small place in the American popular press and scholarship of the time, where more cultural and characterological explanations often held sway. In 1941, for instance, William McGovern, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, published a representative if long-winded analysis of the origins of National Socialism entitled Somehow Hitler had managed to harvest those ideals and so transform a German cultural trait into a principle of national unity. For McGovern and others, it was not only German politics that had produced National Socialism, but something in the German mindset.
This conclusion presented a problem: If German totalitarianism was rooted in German culture, how could Americans explain the apparent rise of fascism in the United States? Though few remember the fact today, in the late 1930s, uniformed fascists marched down American streets and their voices echoed over the radio airwaves. The Catholic demagogue Father Coughlin, for example—founder of the “Radio League of the Little Flower”—was a ubiquitous presence on American radio for much of the decade. He formed a political party to oppose Roosevelt in 1936, endorsed and helped publish the anti-Semitic tract known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and by 1938 could be heard spewing anti-Semitic and pro-fascist propaganda on the radio to a regular audience of some 3,500,000 listeners. A Gallup poll taken in January 1939 reported that some 67 percent of these listeners agreed with his views.
Alongside Father Coughlin, Americans could track the activities of William Dudley Pelley’s Silver Legion of America—an anti-Semitic paramilitary group formed in 1933 and modeled after Hitler’s brownshirts and Mussolini’s blackshirts. Though Pelley claimed to hear the voices of distant spirits, his group still attracted fifteen thousand members at its peak. Americans could also follow the Crusader White Shirts in Chattanooga, Tennessee; the American National-Socialist Party; and, of course, the Ku Klux Klan. For more than a few Americans in the 1930s, fascists were not merely threats from overseas. They lived next door.
The group that attracted the greatest notice of the American press in this period was the Amerikadeutscher Volksbund. The Bund had been created in 1936, when self-styled “American Führer” Fritz Kuhn, a German-born American citizen, was elected head of a German-American organization known as the Friends of New Germany. At its largest, the Bund probably had no more than twenty-five thousand members, most of them Americans of German extraction. Even so, on the night of February 20, 1939, they managed to bring twenty thousand people to Madison Square Garden for a pro-fascist rally. Though the event ostensibly celebrated George Washington’s birthday, the Garden was hung with antiSemitic and pro-Nazi banners. Speakers wore uniforms clearly modeled on the military regalia of Nazi Germany. Three thousand uniformed men from the Bund’s pseudo–police force, the Ordnungsdienst, moved among the crowd, spotting and removing hecklers and soliciting donations. Throughout the rally, speakers and audience carefully proclaimed their pro-Americanism. They sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” and pledged “undivided” allegiance to the American flag. But speakers also launched a steady attack on Jews and the Roosevelt administration. One drew out the word “Roosevelt” in such a way that it sounded like “Rosenfeld.” Another tried to convince the audience that Judaism and communism were essentially the same social movement.
Outside the Garden, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia stationed 1,700 policemen to keep order. City leaders feared large and violent counterdemonstrations, but the mayor had refused to prevent the rally, arguing that permitting free speech was precisely what distinguished democratic America from fascist Germany. In the end, police counted approximately ten thousand mostly peaceful demonstrators and observers, some holding signs reading “Smash Anti-Semitism” and “Drive the Nazis Out of New York.” Journalists on the scene believed police estimates to be heavily exaggerated. Even if they were correct, pro-fascist rally-goers outnumbered protesters two to one. To reporters at the time, it seemed entirely plausible that the Bund enjoyed substantial support, at the ver y least among Americans of German origin, and perhaps among other communities as well.
Even before this rally, the Bund loomed large as an emblem of the threat fascism posed to the United States. On March 27, 1937, for instance, Life published a seven-page spread under the headline, “Like Communism It Masquerades as Americanism.” There on the first page of the piece, Americans could see a Bundist color guard at the Garden wearing imitations of Nazi brownshirt uniforms and standing in front of a massive portrait of George Washington. Another headline in the same feature underlined the visual point: “It Can Happen Here.”
The actual number of fascists in the United States never came anywhere near to becoming a sufficiently critical mass to challenge, let alone over-throw, the state. Yet in the late 1930s analysts across much of the political spectrum feared that it soon might. If it did, they reasoned, it would be because of one or both of two social forces. The first was a fascist fifth column inside the United States. In the 1930s, American journalists and politicians believed that Hitler’s Germany was engaging in a massive propaganda campaign inside the United States. Reporters noted that Germany had established active propaganda networks in European nations such as France, Norway, and the Netherlands, and suggested that they were exporting those tactics to American shores. In June of 1940, magazine announced, “These Are Signs of Fifth Columns Everywhere,” and published pictures of fascists congregating in South America, Asia, and Long Island. And despite the fact that Hitler’s regime had tried to distance itself from Fritz Kuhn, many Americans assumed that the Bund was as much as anything a front for Nazi interests in the United States.
The presence of Nazi agitators was only one part of the problem, though. The other was the power of language and of mass communication. Consider the national popularity of two groups that sought to challenge that power: the Institute for Propaganda Analysis and the General Semantics movement. Each presented a view of the individual psyche as vulnerable to irrational impulses and false beliefs. Each also suggested not only that communication could be manipulated by unscrupulous leaders, but that the media of communication—pictures, verbal language, symbols—were themselves naturally deceptive. Both agreed that the technologies of one-to-many communication amplified this power enormously. The individual American mind had become a battleground, and it was their mission to defend individual reason from the predations of fascism, of communication, and, potentially, of the individual’s own unconscious desires.
The Institute for Propaganda Analysis emerged in 1937 out of a class in “Education and Public Opinion” taught by Dr. Clyde Miller at Columbia’s Teacher’s College.Thanks to a $50,000 grant from Boston businessman Edward A. Filene, Miller, a number of New York-area colleagues, and aboard of advisors that included leading sociologists Hadley Cantril, Leonard Doob, and Robert Lynd began creating study materials for a group of high schools in Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts. They also began publishing a monthly newsletter aimed primarily at teachers; it soon had almost six thousand subscribers.
The newsletter offered its readers a detailed training regime designed to help Americans achieve a heightened state of rational alertness. In the Institute’s materials the words and pictures of the mass media were scrims that obscured the motives and actions of distant powers. The source of their power to persuade lay primarily in their ability to stir up the emotions. The Institute implied that Americans could build up a psychological barrier to such manipulation by wrestling with newspaper stories and radio news accounts. An Institute-sponsored guide for discussion group leaders published in 1938 noted that propaganda analysis should proceed in four stages: “1) survey the contents 2) search for evidence of the statements or claims 3) study the propagandist’s motive [and] 4) estimate the content’s persuasive force.” This work could be done alone or in groups, and it was a species of intellectual calisthenics. Much as members might exercise their bodies to ward off disease, so might they also exercise their reason so as to ward off the inflammation of their unconscious desires and its potentially authoritarian consequences.
For the members of the General Semantics movement, the fight against propaganda depended on decoupling symbols and words from their objects of reference. If “semantics” referred to the study of meaning, “general semantics” referred to the more specific and, in the minds of its practitioners, scientific study of language and reference. The term “general semantics” was coined by Polish philosopher and mathematician Alfred Korzybski in the early 1920s. Korzybski had published a series of articles and books in which he argued that human beings’ ability to pass knowledge down through time via language was what made them unique as a species. In 1933 he published an exceptionally influential extension of his early theories, entitled. At its core, the book argued that much human unhappiness in both the psychological and social realms could be traced to our inability to separate the pictures in our heads and the communicative processes that put them there from material reality itself. To solve this problem, Korzybski offered a course in close scientific reasoning and linguistic analysis. To alleviate the power that symbols and their makers have over us, he argued, human beings needed to parse the terms in which language presented the world to them. Having done so, they could begin to recognize the world as it was and thus to experience some degree of mental health.
General Semantics enjoyed a three-decade vogue among American intellectuals and the general public. In the years immediately before World War II, it seemed to offer new tools with which to confront not only the psychological threats posed by propaganda but a whole panoply of social and psychological ills. In his popular 1938 volume. Finally, when a little headway has been made against economic disaster, the peoples of Europe, more civilized than any other living group, prepare solemnly and deliberately to blow one another to molecules. . . . Confusions persist because we have no true picture of the world outside, and so cannot talk to one another about how to stop them.”
To be able to understand the world and change it, Chase argued, Americans needed to break down language itself, to dissolve its terms from their material-world referents, and so distinguish the pictures in their heads from reality. And nothing made the importance of that work clearer than the omnipresence of mass communication, propaganda, and the threat of a second world war. In 1941, linguist and future Senator S. I. Hayakawa’s volume brought Chase’s argument and Korzybski’s theories into the public eye. Like Chase, Hayakawa argued that “we live in an environment shaped and partially created by hitherto unparalleled semantic influences: commercialized newspapers, commercialized radio programs, ‘public relations counsels,’ and the propaganda technique of nationalistic madmen.” To survive this onslaught, citizens needed scientific techniques for interpreting and resisting semantic assaults.
They especially needed techniques for disabling their immediate emotional responses to individual symbols. Hayakawa argued that human nervous systems tended to translate flows of experience into static pictures. Without training in General Semantics, it did so automatically. This in turn led quite literally to individual and collective madness. That is, words like “Nazi” and “Jew” conjured instant emotional responses; individuals lost track of the fact that the terms lacked immediate referents and were in fact so general as to be practically meaningless. Moreover, in their rush to emotional judgment, Hayakawa feared that citizens would rush to war as well. The only solution was a deep study of language and, with it, of our own roles in the communication process. As Hayakawa put it, “Men react to meaningless noises, maps of non-existent territories, as if they stood for actualities, and never suspect that there is anything wrong with the process. . . . To cure these evils, we must first go to work on ourselves. . . . [We must] understand how language works, what we are doing when we open these irresponsible mouths of ours, and what it is that happens, or should happen, when we listen or read.”
Read more from this excerpt here.
Read the book’s Introduction, via Fred Turner’s website, here.
For more about The Democratic Surround, click here.