Could fascists really have taken power in the US during the 1930s? It’s not just the stuff of fiction, as in “The Man in the High Castle” and The Plot Against America. In Steve Ross’ book Hitler in Los Angeles: How Jews Foiled Nazi Plots Against Hollywood and America, we learn about the thrilling (and terrifying) history of how Nazis and fascists tried to establish a foothold on the west coast and the efforts of a handful of spies to try to take them down. In this episode, Steve joins us to talk about his book and the history of fascist and pro-Nazi groups in LA, the real threat that fascism posed in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s, and what it teaches us, unfortunately, about our present moment.
Steven J. Ross is Professor of History at USC, where he serves as Director of the Casden Institute for the Study of Jewish Role in American Life. He has written widely on working-class history, social history, film history, and political history, and his book Hitler in Los Angeles was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History for 2018.
In this episode we also discussed a conference that took place at the USC Shoah Foundation in November 2018, “New Perspectives on Kristallnacht: After 80 Years, the Nazi Pogrom in Global Comparison.” You can view the presentations online, including Steve Ross’.
An edited transcript of our conversation follows:
Jason Lustig: This book excavates a really fascinating story, one that I think—as we’ll get into—has been gaining a lot of attention, in particular because of the world in which we are currently living. I think maybe one place for us to get started is to think a bit about the broader cultural moment in which this book finds itself, in terms of popular culture, which is to say that I think that if we look very broadly there’s often a kind of what-if counterfactual history that appears about Nazis in America, and Fascism in the U.S., whether we look at a book like The Plot Against Americaor more recently the TV show on Amazon, “The Man in the High Castle.” We actually had a whole episode about counterfactual history last year with Gavriel Rosenfeld. It’s really interesting the way in which people are often asking, what if things had gone differently, or could fascism have come to power in the U.S.? But this is all kind of fictional, in a way, if we look at Philip Roth or any other number of instances where people have posed this question. But what you’re presenting in the book is the actual history of fascism in America, as opposed to some kind of fictional storytelling. What do we learn by looking at the actual history of fascism in the U.S., and why do you think that the history and place of fascism has been of such interest in the past and especially now, both in terms of historical scholarship and popular culture?
Steve Ross: Well, I would take issue with one thing you said. I don’t think fascism, in fact, has been of great interest until now. I think it’s been of marginal interest. One of the things I keep getting asked, as I go around the country, is, why don’t we know this story? Part of it is because my generation of historians basically focused on communism and anti-communism in the 1930s and ’40s. And I thought about this, you know, why don’t we know this history of Nazism and fascism better than we do? I think part of the answer is because Germany lost, we kind of take this teleological fallacy. Knowing how things turned out, we think, oh, well, the Nazis were never really a threat in America. After all, they lost the war. Whereas the Soviet Union won the war and they emerged strong, and they were a threat. After all, in 1919 the third communist international declared worldwide revolution and overthrow of capitalism as their main goal. Given the death of Hitler and given the fall of the Third Reich, historians just tended to ignore things until more recently.
And then we realize—I mean, I know for me, when I started writing, it was just an interesting part of the past. And then once Trump began running for office and we begin seeing, not the emergence of hate, but simply hate and prejudice which had been in many ways underground and something that you didn’t really talk about because it wasn’t right to do that. Well, suddenly you have a presidential candidate, then a president, who is it, at my most generous, soft on fascists and hate groups. And in a more critical level, in fact, gives them permission to come out of the woodwork and to claim the mantle of true Americans. I think, suddenly, my book and anyone writing about Nazis or fascists in America, becomes relevant because Americans want to know: What can we do to stop this? What’s been done in the past? What can we do now, and what can we do in the future? And I’ll tell you, I wish my book wasn’t as relevant as it is.
JL: Yeah, I think a lot of us would agree with that. Right now, there are a lot of histories about antisemitism, about fascism, about a whole range of things that have returned in a way, that a lot of people wish was not relevant, but it really is. That’s a whole set of toipcs that I want us to delve into, maybe a bit later.
I think what I was saying, to go back to the question that I had initially posed, it’s not necessarily just about whether or not this set of topics has had the attention that it deserves, or whether it’s just come back as a result of or in relation to the current political and cultural context, but just that when we look at the actual history of fascism as opposed to the way that it’s portrayed in fictional works, movies, and films, what’s the tension between the way it’s popularly portrayed and the actual history, so to speak?
SR: Part of it is, you’re always looking for heroes and villains and simplistic statements in popular culture, because you’ve got to get it done in an hour or two hours, or in the course of one read. The history of fascism and Nazism is America is much more complicated, and in fact much more pervasive, than we would think. Fascism had a real stronghold in America in the 1930s and ’40s. For example, at one point in the late ’30s, early ’40s, Hitler sent over his main advisor, the man who would have been his commanding officer in World War I, (Fritz) Wiedemann, and sent him to California to scope out what kind of support was there for the Nazi regime circa 1940. And Wiedemann wrote him back saying, you have a lot of admirers here, particularly in the business community. A lot of people within the business community were strong Hitler supporters because they saw him as a bulwark against communism. And in America, fascism—particularly in the form of “America first”—became a very popular and respectable way to promote fascist, antisemitic, antiCcatholic, and anti-Black ideas, all under the guise of “America First,” American nationalism.
You don’t need the drama of make-believe. The real history of fascism and Nazism in America in the 1930s and early ’40s is far more frightening than Philip Roth or the Man in the High Castle. What we see in America is that Nazism and fascism attracted a whole range of people. And it is frightening. It is frightening to see, virtually from 1933 until Pearl Harbor, virtually every week in Los Angeles—and I would imagine in a number of other cities around the country—someone was openly calling for death to Jews. Death to Jews.
And the other thing that’s remarkable is we have this myth—and that’s why I think people are so shaken today—we have this myth that when Pearl Harbor came, Americans put aside all their differences, united to fight Hitler and fascism and Nazism, to fight the good war, and that we defeated Nazism (and) fascism, and in the aftermath of war, the greatest generation ever created a new era of peace, mutual understanding, and at the very least mutual tolerance. I think a lot of that is greatly mythologized. In fact, one of the things I’ve discovered is throughout the United States, in the period after Pearl Harbor from December, 1941 until the end of World War II, every poll showed that antisemitism was consistently rising in this country. And many of these isolationists and hate groups, who before the war said that Jews were trying to get us into war, and if we did get into a war, we would get those Jews—well, once we entered the war, they kept their promise. And you had ministers in Los Angeles announcing, both in the newspaper, outside their church, preaching a sermon, “Shall we kill the Jew?” We see people talking about the “Jewish menace” in Los Angeles, in New York, in Chicago, in San Francisco. We have hate groups on the radio. We have hate groups in politics. We have hate groups in churches throughout the country, all preaching hate against Jews, and in many cases, hate against blacks, hate against Mexicans, hate against Catholics.
And so in fact, this period of intolerance was far more widespread than we think. And it wasn’t just, you know, German-based Nazis. It was their American brethren in hate, a group called the Silver Shirts, that were founded the day after Hitler became Reichschancellor of Germany. And William Dudley Pelley, the founder, former screenwriter and short story writer and a very successful one, but also a man obsessed by antisemitism, announced the day after Hitler became Reichschancellor that if a painter can become Reichschancellor of Germany, then we can set up the Silver Shirts in America. And he probably said, Germany has its Brown Shirts, Italy has its Black Shirts, and now America will have its Silver Shirts. And the Silver Shirts were very close allies of the German-American Bund and every other fascist group that emerged during this period. So fascism and Naziism in America was far more widespread than anyone would like to believe. We’ve been guilty of historical amnesia, forgetting all of that past and pretending everything was fine and that we were all accepting one another as brothers and sisters in the American dream.
JL: I think one of the things that is so interesting is that so much is papered over with the various myths that surround this period in American history. Essentially, people want to see everything in a positive light. And one of the challenges is that there was a real possibility that fascism could have taken hold in America at that time. I think that’s part of what you are trying to say. I mean, I think that one of the challenges is the way in which we kind of bump up against some of these myths, or that we run counter to some of the popular discourse about various historical figures, historical topics, entire ways of looking at things.
I think we can come back in a little bit to this question of to what extent fascism had a real possibility to come to power in the U.S. in the ’30s and ’40s.,but one of the ways I think that is really interesting about what you’re doing in this book in particular is that I think that a lot of popular discourse about fascism in the U.S., and pretty much I think about everything, is very New York-centric. One can debate whether that’s true or not, but it certainly seems that way to me. I think there are all sorts of reasons why New York is so very central in terms of how people think about things, especially within the context of American Jewish history. But what you’re doing in this book is looking at this history within the context of the west coast, in particular Los Angeles. Part of the question here is, what do we learn by looking at at the west coast context and LA in particular?
SR: Well, I think what we learned is one of the lessons that the hero of my book, the chief spy master, Leon Lewis, understood: It’s that democracy requires constant vigilance. One of the reasons that Nazis couldn’t quite gain a stronghold in New York, which they by the way referred to as “Jew York,” they couldn’t gain the stronghold they wanted because, in part, the mayor of the city, Fierello Laguardia, who was in fact half Jewish, he was a rabid anti-Nazi. He made sure that the ports of New York were closely-guarded, and when German vessels would come in, they were inspected very carefully. American Nazis could spread their hate within the city, but Germans found it very difficult, the German government, to bring in spies, money, propaganda, illegals, all illegal, into the port of New York.
Whereas what they discovered is Los Angeles, which had a long history, southern California, of hate groups, no one was monitoring the ports. And so for Hitler’s regime, Los Angeles was a much more important port than New York City, because they were able to bring in spies, secret orders, money, propaganda, that would then be sent throughout the United States. And I know this because Leon Lewis’ spies, would go down to the dock with Hermann Schwinn, who was the head of the Bund here and the number-two Nazi in America. And they would go on board and see him receiving packets of money, secret orders, they would be drinking on board ships and the captain would often get a little too drunk and talk about Gestapo agents who are on the boats. So we know in fact that LA was a major port for Nazis to disseminate whatever they needed throughout the United States.
JL: One of the things that comes across clearly is the way in which LA and the west coast, being far from centers of power in the U.S., geographically speaking anyway, especially at this point in time, this definitely plays a part in the story. Why is it LA in particular? Is there something about the setting and the city that that really informs the reason why, as you put it, LA became a hotbed of National Socialism and fascism in the U.S.?
SR: Well, I think there were two reasons. One is the first that I just mentioned is that LA was an open port, they could get anything through the port of LA they wanted. Part of that story is also that government authorities in Los Angeles, particularly the police and sheriff’s department, and many members within them who belonged to the Silver Shirts, or at the very least were pro-Nazi and turned a blind eye to all these activities. All they cared about was tracking down communists.
And the second reason LA plays such an important story for Nazis is that it’s the propaganda capital of the United States. And Hitler and Goebbels, who are both major movie fans and according to one writer Hitler watched a movie every night before he went to bed—they believe that one of the reasons Germany lost World War I was because of the effect of propaganda put out both by Hollywood and the British movie industry. And they were determined that Hollywood would not defame the German government or the Nazi cause by putting out anti-Nazi films.
And so they sent over a consul, George Gyssling, in May, 1933, with one order, and that was to stop Hollywood from making any kind of anti-Nazi film. And the weapon he had was to German import law of 1931 that said, any studio that makes a movie that defames the German people, German leaders, or the German nation shall have all its films banned in Germany. And if any country has too many studios producing these kinds of films, that entire country’s product will be banned from Germany. And so, for a year American studios basically kowtowed to the German government and showed Gyssling films they were making. Gyssling then made comments. When Warner Brothers tried to basically tell him to go screw himself, they stopped all Warner Brothers films from being shown in Germany. The Warners eventually did cut some of the “offensive” material and they were back in the German market for a short period of time. But the other studios understood that Hollywood is not primarily in the consciousness-raising business. It is in the money-making business. And the German government’s ability to stop Los Angeles and Hollywood from making these films was made a lot easier the next year when the production code was formed, and they had a provision, article 10, that said, studios if they wanted to get a production code seal, could not make a movie that in any way denigrated, defamed, or mocked, again, a foreign government or its leaders.
JL: I think that it’s clear that LA had a very particular attraction for Nazi leaders in Germany, but what about the people who were here in LA, itself? Was there something about a population of people living in Los Angeles that made it particularly ripe for the growth of groups like Friends of New Germany and others?
SR: Yes. Well, you’ve had a long history of prejudice in southern California. You had, for example, in 1922, when the local district attorney here tried to shut down the Klan, he discovered literally hundreds of members who belonged to the police force (and) sheriff’s department here. So you had a strong history of hate. Long Beach, which is right next to LA, was a major center of Klan activity. The Klan was very strong throughout the thirties and forties.
Also starting in the 1920s, the Protestant elite systematically started excluding Jews and, to a lesser extent, Catholics from major organizations, particularly social organizations within the city. Many of the clubs that had been formed, like the Jonathan Club, the California Club, the golf courses, the tennis courses, all began excluding Jews. And this, again, was in the 1920s, well before Hitler became Reichschancellor. You also had a strong anti-Catholic climate in the city, and you had as I say a strong anti-Black climate.
So you have a center where, unlike New York, where I think you had much more not necessarily love, but Irish, Italians, Jews understood one another, got along with one another, and of course there was hate, but nowhere to the extent you saw in Los Angeles. And in New York, again, you had actual government officials, whether it was Jews in high office in government or people like Fiorello LaGuardia or a police force that had a lot of Jews on it as well. You had a structure in place that basically said, fascism, Nazism—not okay within our city. That doesn’t mean it stopped it. But in LA, you had no countervailing forces, basically, against Nazis and fascists openly speaking out against them.
Instead, you had this secret operation, the secret spy ring run by one man, and after ’38 by two men, that were planting secret agents inside Nazi and fascist organizations, trying to undermine their work. J. Edgar Hoover did not order his local bureau in LA to put Hermann Schwinn, the number two Nazi in America, under surveillance, despite the fact that they had been begging him to do this since 1940. The head of the FBI won’t do this until three weeks before Pearl Harbor. You know, too little, too late. So Los Angeles basically was a free area for hate, for prejudice, for antisemitism, with very few people speaking out, saying this is wrong.
JL: You started to mention some of the people and the groups who are part of the story, figures like Leon Lewis and also some of the people who were parts of the various pro-German and pro-fascist groups. I’m curious if you might say very briefly, who is it who’s part of the story? In particular, one of the things that really struck me was the way in which veterans, American veterans, were really central to the spy ring that Leon Lewis put together. I’m curious why you think there were so many veterans that were part of this.
It seems to me that when we think about the development of American fascism and Nazism in the ’30s, one way to think about it is that it’s part of a struggle over the definition of Americanism and patriotism. Part of the story here, also, and we’ll get to this in a little bit, is the role of the House Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC), which sort of gets involved in this whole story. And so, then when we think about this history within the wider struggle over defining what is truly “American,” the veterans have a unique position within that particular story.
SR: Well, there’s a clear reason for that. So, let’s go back in time for a minute. Nazis hold their first open meeting in Los Angeles, July 26, 1933, under the guise of the Friends of New Germany. And at that open meeting, they announced that they’re going to save America from its two greatest threats, communism and Jews, who they see are one in the same. A newspaper article comes out the next morning covering the meeting. And Leon Lewis, an attorney born in Wisconsin in the late 1880s, went to law school at University of Chicago. And right after graduating in 1913, instead of taking a job with a law firm, he took a job with a brand new organization called the Anti-Defamation League. And he was its founding executive secretary. Two years later, he had a second job added onto that, which is he became the ADL’s representative to the motion picture industry, working with the studio heads to eliminate any kind of antisemitic images from their films.
He leaves the job temporarily to go off into World War I. He goes in as a private and comes out as a major. And the war really affected him deeply, because he was in Europe, he saw combat, and what he realized is human beings would kill other human beings just because a commanding officer told them to do so. And one of the things I think Lewis worried about is if a German would kill an American, and an American would kill a German, just because a commanding officer said that’s your enemy, what if somebody were to say to an American, “you know, the Jew is your enemy,” “the Black man is your enemy,” “the Catholic is your enemy, kill them because they’re destroying America”? Lewis realized that was a, possibility and when he came back, he convinced the ADL to organize a second unit, which would be their international division monitoring antisemitism abroad.
So, during the 1920s there was nobody following Hitler’s rise to power more carefully in America than Leon Lewis. He eventually moves to LA around 1931, but he remains the ADL’s representative to southern California, and he remains the organization’s representative to the motion picture industry.
And so when that article comes out, that’s a long winded way of saying Leon Lewis had a background, and when that article came out he didn’t care about the speeches because he knew their rhetoric, but what frightened him was the final paragraph in this article said, the Friends of New Germany have established headquarters in the Alt Heidelberg Inn, and they’ve turned the basement into a housing area for any veteran, German or American, any World War I veteran, who’s homeless, needs a bed to stay, food to eat, clothing, place to shower, and that everything will be free, and the only thing that any of those people have to do in return is to listen to the minister of propaganda, Hans Winterhalder, lecture them on the principles of National Socialism.
Well, Leon Lewis immediately understood that was not simply an offer of generosity, that Hitler was in fact trying to build an army in America in the same way he had built his brown shirt army in Munich in Germany in the 1920s by recruiting disgruntled World War I veterans who were angry at their government—a government that had sent them off to war with great patriotic applause, but when they came back from war, threw them on the ash heap of history. And in this country, we had a situation where first of all, there were more World War I veterans living in southern California than anywhere in the United States. LA and Orange County had over 150,000 World War I veterans.
One of the reasons Nazis thought they could actually build a fascist Nazi army in the United States was the very first thing that a Roosevelt did when he came into power in March, 1933—at a time when the country was bankrupt, basically—he and Congress passed the Economy Act of 1933. Up until that moment, veterans could expect to get anywhere from $80 to $100 a month as a pension. That was cut to $20, or nothing at all. And so you had furious veterans. And again, LA had the largest collection of veterans in the United States.
Leon Lewis thought, okay, if they’re going to try to bring in veterans, particularly those who are out on hard times, who are really angry, then I’m going to give them veterans. And he understood that he needed both German veterans, or German Americans who had fought for America but still were proud of their German heritage. And so he immediately with a went out and he recruited four officers, all who had fought in World War I, three Americans and one German, recruited them and their wives and asked them to go undercover, join every Nazi and fascist group and try to rise to positions of power.
When those men first attended meetings, they were greeted with great warmth, because they were seen to be the kind of officers who could recruit other Americans, other Americans would follow them into an army which they said, we are preparing for “der tag.” Their argument was that one day, communists would rise up to try to overthrow the government, and on that day well-drilled American and Nazi veterans would rise up to defeat the communists and to take over the government for the good of the nation. So that was their plan. They were going to raise an army of silver shirts and Nazis in America, in Los Angeles, in the same way that Hitler had done in Germany.
And some of the people they talked to wanted to do more than raise an army. In one case, they met a man, Dietrich Gefken, who had fled Germany in the ’20s after murdering two communist Jews, wound up in San Francisco, joined the national guard, drew up a blueprint of the armory, then went down to San Diego, worked with Silver Shirts and Nazis there, and when he came back to LA he worked with three of Leon Lewis’ spies. And he asked them to get him a machine gun and to get him the blueprint for the LA armory. And when they said, “well, why?” he told them that on an appointed day, they would have a group of both Nazis, American Nazis, Silver Sshirts, and storm troopers who were on every German vessel, and on an appointed day at the same moment, they would descend on the armories in San Francisco, LA, and San Diego, fully armed. They would seize all the members of the national guard and they would offer them the choice: Do you want to join us and saving America from communism? And everyone who said yes would be welcomed into their army, and everyone who said no would be murdered on the spot. And they believed that this would lead to a revolution in America, that Americans would rise up and essentially overthrow the government and put in a pro-Nazi government that would fight communists and Jews.
These were actually happening. And, in fact, one of the reasons it didn’t happen is because Leon Lewis alerted naval intelligence who investigated what was going on in San Diego and discovered everything he had told them was true. And they arrested the leaders and shut down the plot. And from 1933 until 1945, because Leon Lewis didn’t trust authorities even after Pearl Harbor, his spies foiled a series of plots, of which some of them were to drive through Boyle heights, which was the Jewish neighborhood (of LA), with machine guns killing as many Jews as possible, to create phony fumigation companies that would, when they went to Jewish homes, they would put cyanide in the homes rather than bug repellent. They also foiled plots to blow up military installations all along the west coast and to sabotage aircraft factories, of which LA was the largest manufacturer of aircraft. So this isn’t simply TV and popular culture saying, what if Nazis had done this or that? Nazis were actively trying to do this, to subvert the American government, to murder Jews. And the reason they didn’t get away with it was because of the actions of the small group of heroic men and women.
JL: I think what really comes across very strongly reading through the book and also as you talk about it, is the central role of the figure of Leon Lewis. But in a certain way by focusing on Lewis and his collection of spies, who gets left out of this story? You know, they were not the only people who were fighting fascism in LA. In a way, are you making it kind of a top down story, rather than highlighting the kind of coalition-building which was also taking place at the same time? For instance, you talk about the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League very briefly, there were also of course people who protested in more direct and visible ways. So when you are telling it as a kind of a story of a cloak-and-dagger spy thriller, what gets left out?
SR: What gets left out is the less important stuff. Everything you talked about, I touch on that, I talked about much more of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. I’ve written some articles on that and in my book, Hollywood Left and Right. I talk about Edward G. Robinson and his involvement in the whole anti-Nazi movement in LA amongst movie stars who really helped publicizing the cause. But the difference is, Leon Lewis is a bottom-up, not at top-down. The Hollywood Anti-Nazi League is top-down. You have movie stars marching in parades, gaining a great field of national attention. They have radio shows every week. They have two newspapers.
So what the Anti-Nazi League and others are doing—and there are also all these antifascist groups in terms of supporting Republican Spain, sending over ambulances to fight against the fascists in Spain—all these things are raising publicity and raising public consciousness. But none of them are actively trying to stop Nazis from realizing their dream of killing Jews or taking over the government. It’s Leon Lewis. It’s these quiet actions behind the scene, infiltrating these organizations, that has a far greater effect, I would argue, than any of these public organizations because none of them go inside.
And one of the things, Jason, you and I were at a conference together, you know, assessing Kristallnacht eighty years later. And one of the things I tried to write about was, in our current historiography, what we have is this idea that after Kristallnacht and the murdering and brutalizing Jews in Germany and Austria, American public opinion turned against the Hitler regime. And it made a huge difference. Well, that’s half true and half not. American public opinion did turn against the Hitler regime, but at the same time, polls showed that antisemitism was also rising up. And a number of people, large percentages of people, were saying when interviewed that Jews were at least partially responsible for what was happening then in Germany. And so, what I found is even though public opinion at the most abstract sense went against Hitler, what no one ever talks about was the failure of Western leaders to stop the Anschluss in Austria, to do anything in Munich after the Munich accord, and then to do anything after Kristallnacht, (it) embolded Nazis throughout the United States. And it was in fact at that moment—and we know this because of the spy reports—that the German-American Bund stepped up their effort and began organizing secret army units as well as secret cells throughout Los Angeles and Southern California, actively preparing for a military takeover of the American government.
JL: I mean, I think that this book has probably gotten a lot of attention over the past year or two because, as you have kind of hinted at, it is quite unfortunately very relevant in light of recent political and social developments in the U.S. and around the world. ,So I was wondering if you can maybe say a bit about the audience for this book. You know, who did you write it for? Who is actually reading it? And how (are) people responding to it, given where we are now in 2019?
SR: Well, this is my fifth book. And each book, I’ve tried to expand who my audience was. So, you know, the first book which was my revised doctoral dissertation, was very much an academic book. This book is a trade book, and it was meant for a general readership. One of the things I love to read for pleasure, I read detective stories. To the extent I read nonfiction, I read stuff like Ben Mcintyre, who’s the kind of John Le Carré’s nonfiction counterpart in England. And suddenly I realized that I had a story as compelling as any of the things I’ve ever read. What I wanted to do was to take a very serious history and to try to make it an exciting read, but a frightening read as well.
It isn’t ultimately a story of good and evil. I wanted to counter also the belief that I had grown up with as a child of two Holocaust survivors. My father had survived the Warsaw ghetto and then wound up in Dachau, where he survived the war. My mother had been taken from the Lodz ghetto, sent to Auschwitz, from Auschwitz to Bergen Belsen, and Bergen Belsen to a munitions camp in Germany. Growing up, I grew up with their friends—almost all of them were survivors—and I wondered how, why didn’t the Jews do more? Why were Jews so passive? And in writing this book I realized, no, Jews did more. In fact, the real question is not why Jews didn’t do more, Jews were doing a lot. Why didn’t government authorities do more? Government authorities had the power to change things. And Jews were trying to get those government authorities to do stuff, but they couldn’t.
The first time Leon Lewis went into the police chief, captain James Davis’s office, to tell him about Dietrich Gefken’s plot, two minutes into his talk, the police chief stopped Lewis and said: “You don’t get it, Hitler’s only doing what he needs to do to save Germany from the Jews, and that the real danger to Los Angeles aren’t the Nazis and fascists, it’s all those Jews and communists walking around in Boyle heights.” And he threw him out of his office. And the same thing happened, then, with the sheriff. He went to talk to the sheriff and the sheriff threw amount of his office. What were Jews to do? What were they to do? What I found is, this one man said, I’m going to stand up and do something and get others to do things, and Louis waited. He didn’t want to be a spy master. He was a lawyer, and he was following very carefully the debate between two largest Jewish groups, the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee, but he got frustrated seeing while Nazis were growing and strong, these two groups were debating what to do and so he actually tried to do something.
I wanted to take that story and tell that story to a large public, as larger a public as I could. And what I have to say is, again, when I started, I didn’t know how relevant it would would be. As a historian, we know a great deal about the history of communism and anti-communism in America in the ’30s, but we know almost nothing about Nazism and fascism at the local level. And so at the very least, I want it to expose readers to a story of what actually went on in LA.
What I didn’t realize is that that story would become incredibly relevant, particularly after Charlottesville. And when you have a president of the United States saying that there were “good people on both sides,” I would say that was a turning point in American history. Never before have we had a president openly endorsing hate groups like this. Never have we had a political leadership within the Republican Party that I would accuse of cowardness, of not stepping up. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, but they made it into one. This is an issue that every American politicians should say, no, there are no good people on the side of white supremacy. If you are a white supremacist, if you hate blacks and you hate Catholics and you hate Jews, well it’s one thing, if you want to hate them privately, go ahead. But if you are part of a massive movement that actually wants to do harm, you are a bad person. And I don’t care if you go to church every week, if you’re good to your husband or wife, if you are good to your kids and you pat your dog on the head, if this is who you are, you are a bad person. And the fact that we have not had more public officials coming out and decrying this to me, as they say, is a shanda.
What I found is, much to my surprise, my fantasy had been one day to just make it onto the short list of the Pulitzer national book award, and to make it just one week onto the LA Times or New York Times bestseller list… Well it turned out, the book is still on the LA Times bestseller list for 15 weeks and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. You know, these were things that I fantasized about but never thought would happen, but it’s an indication of how much people want to know: How do we resist, how do we stop hate, how do we stop the growth of fascism? And my book is the story of, you know, least one incident where Jews were successful in twarting fascists and Nazis in one city at one moment in time. And I think that has brought a great deal of attention. The two questions I get asked all the time or why don’t we know this story, and what can we do today? How can we stop Nazism and fascism today?
JL: Like you said, you could not have foretold how relevant this would be in terms of the cultural and political moment, right? The rise of political violence, like talking about the events in Pittsburgh or Charlottesville or whatever. You mentioned before how we both participated in this conference on Kristallnacht, which was at the Shoah Foundation. And I think one of the questions that really came through there, at that conference, was a lot of how do we understand the everyday life of living in a totalitarian fascist regime. That was a conference that was trying to give a global perspective to the events of Kristallnacht. But what’s interesting about the way you were just talking about your book and this question of, what do we do to fight back, to resist against people who want to do harm, who are racists—they’re essentially, like you said, the ultimate evil in a certain way. I think that one of the things that your book highlights, that’s very interesting—I’m not sure if it’s a blueprint necessarily, because the world is just so different, but it highlights, like you said, one of the instances in which people were able to fight back and not be passive about what was happening around them.
SR: Yes. I can’t tell people to organize a spy ring and to go undercover and join these groups. And you know, while Spike Lee can do it in “BlacKkKlansman” and I can write about it in Hitler in Los Angeles, that’s I think way too dangerous for most people, because I can tell you three of Leon Lewis’ spies died under highly suspicious circumstances. And I believe at least two of the three, if not all three, were murdered by Nazis, and in one case allowed to die in jail after they were injured by police officers who were sympathetic to the Nazis and Silver Shirts. So that’s a very dangerous thing. But one of the things that also happened is Leon Lewis had a series of informants who, if they heard hate, they wrote his office, they called him. People would write him and let him know. And to the extent he could, he would either notify authorities or we would put his spies to see how much of this was true.
And today, you know, it’s hard to know what to do. But to me there are two things one can do. One is, go and vote. If you are a person in a position of leadership in this country holding any kind of elective office and you don’t speak out, you should be removed from office. So vote out anyone who doesn’t stand up against hate. And the second thing is, if you hear hate speech, say something. Don’t keep quiet, but say in America we don’t speak that way about other Americans.
And believe me, it would be very awkward for someone to do this on their own. But if you have the courage to stand up and do it, there’s going to be somebody who hears you, who’s going to back you up. And if everyone were to simply speak out against hate when they hear it, you would stop these beliefs and you would push them back into, you know, what I would say is underneath the rocks that they have lived on for many years. Because we have had hate from the moment we settle this country and basically started pushing out Native Americans and killing them, to today. There’s always been hayed against the “other.” But the thing is, most of the time that hate was not allowed to surface in a way that seemed acceptable. And right now, many groups think it’s acceptable to publicly hate other people. And for some people to go to the extreme of killing the other, whether that other is a Jew, a Muslim, LGBTQ, as we saw in Orlando. It doesn’t matter. Because once you start preaching hate publicly and believe you can get away with it, it just leads to that kind of expansion of hahte. And it isn’t that we need more Leon Lewises, we need more informants.
JL: I think that if we compare the environment of the ’30s to the present moment, we don’t need spies to tell us what is happening in the circles of hatred today. In many ways, people are acting out in the open. How many times have we seen a shooting, a mass shooting or a school shooting or something, where after the fact somebody says, oh look, he posted something on Facebook. People are broadcasting their hatred in a way that was perhaps more marginal or secretive 80, 90 years ago. And so what’s interesting, in a way, and also very scary, is the way in which some of these things which were in certain ways on the margins, let’s say, in the thirties or in the forties—and Lewis and his people and all sorts of folks who were fighting fascism were really trying to stop the transition of fascist or antisemitic, ideas from the margins to the mainstream. But this has happened. We don’t actually need a spy ring, so to speak, or something to figure out what’s going on among those who are preaching and promulgating hatred because it’s so much more open and outspoken.
SR: Yes. But I think the question is still the same. What do we do? How do we respond to these kinds of things? And I’m still not sure. I’m still trying to work that through for myself.
JL: On this podcast, I talked to a lot of folks about monographs and books that are not written for a popular audience. And I try to push people to make the case for why their work matters. They’re focusing on a particular topic, a particular figure or point in time, and not always looking at it from the broad historical perspective. So I often push people to make the case for why their work is relevant in a very broad sense, in terms of social, political, cultural context. And in a certain way, you don’t have to make that case because the story of what you’re engaging with, unfortunately, is so relevant. Aat the same time, when we talk about writing for a popular audience, there’s always this question of what gets lost in translation. Do we risk kind of flattening the story or the historical developments in order to tell the story that will grab the public’s attention or that will present something in a way that will really highlight that relevance? Because I think that when we look at this particular story, as you say, it does have a great deal of potential for challenging popular memory or perceptions about the past, whether that has to do with the question of the nature of fascism and hatred in the U.S. in the ’30s and also just in general throughout American history, but in terms of our understanding of antisemitism in America, of Jewish identity in the ’30s, of American Jewish history or the history of LA, or just America at large. So I’m kind of curious what you see are kind of the challenges and the opportunities of writing a popular history, as opposed to something which is more of a standard book, like you said, like your first book, based on your dissertation. What are the challenges and the opportunities, and in what ways do you think that we have kind of a risk that we take when trying to reach a popular audience? Whether in terms of writing the book itself, or in terms of making the case for why what we do matters?
SR: Well, what I would say is, I think historians can operate at two very different levels. One, which is the sort of more academic book, which is what I’ve written earlier on, which is trying to take important arguments within history and offer a very detailed explanation of whatever the phenomenon should be. So my first book was a study of working-class life in Cincinnati during the first hundred years of the city. The story of how a working class literally built a city and then lost control of it by the end of the nineteenth century. And it’s not a book that I would say a general audience is going to read. But it was a very important contribution to understanding the evolution of industrial capitalism and working-class life in Cincinnati. And I think that historians can do that.
I remember when I was a graduate student, I started Princeton in 1973 and Lawrence Stone was the man who ruled over the department, a British historian, and Lawrence Stone then was arguing that historians need to not simply do this new social science analytic work, but that we had to also go back to telling stories. And at the time I pooh-pahed it thinking, oh, when you tell stories you leave out too much. Well, you know, forty-someodd years later, I think Stone was right. But not that all historians have to tell stories. What I realized in this book is, if you want to reach a mass audience that is beyond the academy, what people want is a story.
I’ve been going out on the road, I’ve been traveling around the country, and this is the first time in my career that I’ve gone on stage (and) lectured for fifty minutes with no notes. And the reason why is, I realized that most academics are wed to their words, wed to their arguments. But if you’re talking to a larger public, they want to know what’s the story you want to tell. And so I would recommend to fellow historians, if you want to write for a large audience, then what’s lost is some of the detail.
But what needs to be highlighted is, what’s the essence of the story? What’s the take home? Why should trees die for anything we have to say? So what? Why does this matter? And you have to put it in a story that is engaging to a larger public. And it isn’t an either/or. Because what I see is, and what my hope is, that my book will inspire a generation of younger historians to do grassroots research into what was happening in American cities throughout the country in the ’30s and the ’40s. Some of it may be told in a trade book, but my guess is a lot of it’s going to be academic studies that really enhance our knowledge of the period. My own sense is that it took me five books until I felt comfortable enough. I mean, each one of us thinks we could to write for a general audience, but some of it is chance, too. So, I wrote a book in a more accessible way than I ever had before. But part of the reason it’s taken off is because it happened to come out at exactly the right moment in time, when people were starved for this kind of a story.
So, again, what I would say is, for those historians who want to go to a large audience, think about what’s the story you want to tell. For others who are looking more academically, what are the arguments you want to make and how does your work expand our historical knowledge in important ways, not simply filling in holes? You can be a tailor filling in holes. You’re trying to open up new ways of looking at the world. And sometimes, we need a very intense academic base that allow other people to expand. Even though I uncovered this LA story, I was reading all these secondary books about Nazism and fascism in LA and in America that helped me understand the larger context that was happening in LA. So to me, academics are always working in cooperation with one another, trying to uncover new knowledge, discover why it matters, and then communicate it, probably first to an academic world and then second to a larger world. And we’re all doing important things. One isn’t more important than the other.
JL: You know, when you are talking about this particular history to an academic audience versus the public audience, do you find that people respond to it differently?
SR: I have to tell you, the response wherever I’ve been, as the Brits would say, people are gobsmacked by the story. They just can’t believe it. Whether it’s been giving it to history departments and scholars or the 92nd Street Y in New York, or going out to Tennessee or Jerusalem. People are just blown away by the story. Because it’s an unbelievable story.
JL: I think there are clear reasons, you know, why that’s the case. But it’s also kind of surprising. It’s surprising that it’s so surprising, I guess, is one way to put it, in as much as there have been other books that have been written about the rise of these various groups like the Silver Shirts, Friends of New Germany, various attempts to fight fascism in LA and other places around the country.
SR: Well, the other thing, I think, that made my book different is I made a decision to also write in a way I’ve never written before, which is to write with a sense of historical contingency. And what I mean by that is, a lot of the books that I’ve read that have been written about the Silver Shirts, about the German-American Bund, they’re kind of dispassionate, kind of knowing how things are going to turn out. I tried to write a book from the point of view of the spies and the spymaster and the Nazis and the fascists as they saw things unraveling in real-time. At any moment, they didn’t know what was going to happen next.
I researched this in a way I’ve never researched a book before. The first thing I do is try to get the skeleton of the story. That is, what is your entire story? What’s the beginning, the middle, and the end, so that you know where you’re going. But, then what you want to do is flesh it out, make it real, put on clothing, and to me what that meant is, once I knew the basic thrust of the story, I wrote each chapter as I was reading the spy reports. In other words, I had read enough of the spy reports to get a general sense, but then as I was writing each chapter, I read those reports in depth to see what were they scared about, what were they worried about, and trying to convey that they didn’t know.
For example, they didn’t know World War II was going to happen. Many people were saying, well, you know, maybe Hitler will change. Once he’s in power, either he will moderate his policies or other politicians will throw him out of the government because he’s just too radical. Well, we know neither of those things happened. But they didn’t know. They didn’t know World War II was going to happen. They didn’t know there was going to be a Holocaust. I was trying to write with a sense of drama and the kind of drama that they felt.
Because too often as historians, we want to eliminate the drama and make it more dispassionate and make it more, well, here’s the history of the period. We’re not going to get involved. Well, that’s good, but it’s a different kind of a read. And I wanted to produce a story of courage under fire, so to say, of people risking their lives to do what they believed in.
And what’s really important to know is, every one of the spies except for one, were Christians. Only one of Leon Lewis’ spies was a Jew. None of them felt they were spying for the Jews. They knew the spymaster was a Jew, but they felt they were spying for America. That whatever you might feel personally in your heart, when one group, particularly a foreign group, comes into our country and preaches hate and murder and death against another American group, that’s not okay. And that when somebody attacks another American group to that extent, it’s the obligation of every American citizen to protect every other citizen regardless of their race, their religion or their ethnicity. And to me that’s the great story here. That’s the great story is that the spies aren’t Jews, they’re fighting for America against a fascism and Nazism they see as unamerican.
And going back to something you mentioned earlier, Jason, the first House Unamerican Activities Committee was started by Samuel Dickstein, a Jewish congressman in the lower east side, a Jew who wanted it basically to uncover anti-American Nazi and fascist activity. And he only through in anti-communism at the end to uncover communist activity to placate some of his more conservative colleagues. And when the House finally agreed in 1934 that they would fund an investigation of unamerican activities, he went to the Speaker of the House and said, even though this is my committee that I’ve proposed, I can’t be the head. And so they chose a Catholic, McCormick, from Boston to be the head and he ultimately double crossed Dickstein, and that is in the middle of the summer, in the middle of their investigations, when they were supposed to equally investigate Nazis, fascists, and communists. He wrote to all the operatives that had been hired, all the undercover agents hired by HUAC and said, no, I want you to stop all investigation of Nazis and fascists and focus only on communist groups. And so when the first HUAC report was issued, 75% of it dealt with communism. Only 25% dealt with fascism and Nazism. And that would grow even less in the second set of hearings in ’38 and beyond.
JL: I think one of the things that is so interesting about this book, the response to it, is that you could not have known, again, at the beginning, kind of like your historical actors, we ourselves are also living in a contingent world, right? You could not have known what the world was that you would be bringing this book out into. And so, there are obvious ways in which, you know, as we’ve talked about that this book is particularly relevant after Charlottesville, etc. But I think that, as you mentioned HUAC, some of the other things that we’ve touched upon, that the story itself, not the book, but the history that you’re engaging with, that it matters in a whole bunch of ways. So to me, like one thing as you just mentioned is, you know, how we understand this tension in America between fighting communism and fighting fascism. For instance, the LA police chief we read about in the book, he sees the communists as threat and not the fascists. And we can see this in a whole bunch of different contexts. And I think that this story highlights this, among many other things, that can help us to really understand American history and also Jewish history in a more nuanced and complex way.
SR: And also hate. Because, take a look around the country. There are a number of cities that have red squads within the police department. I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a city in this country that during the ’30s and early ’40s and an anti-Nazi, antifascist squad within the police or sheriff’s department. Our law enforcement has been obsessed with communism, but not with fascism and Nazism. And I believe part of that is two things. One, most people still believe communists are Jews and Jews are communists. And the second is people believe that Hitler was a god-fearing man, whereas all communists wanted to abolish religion. Well, Hitler was happy to abolish religion. He wasn’t a god-fearing man at all.
When you talk about all these red squads, this is also an act of antisemitism going on, from the ’30s on, under the guise of, you know, we’re just looking for communists. But why is it that so many of the people they put under surveillance are Jews? Why is it that the FBI, when the LA branch of the FBI first asked J. Edgar Hoover to put Hermann Schwinn under surveillance in 1940, Hoover writes back saying Schwinn has broken no laws, therefore you can’t put them under surveillance. But it is okay to put suspected communists under surveillance, even though they’ve broken no laws. So you have a double standard even within our own government. Jews are suspect. And that’s why, what this story is also telling us is that hate always been here. There’s always been this active hate. It’s just at different periods, it’s not visible, it’s remained, as I say, in the shadows, not In the light. And that what we have is certain periods in the ’30s, ’40s, and today, it’s come back into the light again in a major way.
JL: There’s so much that we could delve into here. I think that we’re mostly out of time. There was one other thing that I’ve kind of wanted to talk about, which is that as I mentioned earlier, we were both in this conference about Kristallnacht in its global context, and you talked about this research as part of that conference. Maybe you want to say something briefly about that conference and about the way in which the history that you’re engaging with, about the question of fascism and Nazism in LA in the ’30s and ’40s, how that contributes to how we understand the global context, not just of Kristallnacht, but broadly speaking, the political battles that were taking place during the years of the rise of fascism around the world.
SR: Well, I think if I were to boil it down to a nutshell, the government leaders often hoped that when dictators, oligarchs, bullies seize power, that somehow they can be placated, somehow maybe they’ll disappear. We saw in ’38, again, a series of events starting with the Anschluss, taking over Czechoslovakia, from April ’38 until November ’38, taking over of Czechoslovakia, the Munich accord, and then Kristallnacht, that western leaders simply closed their eyes hoping that this stuff would disappear. People today often close their eyes thinking, well, maybe Trump will be gone. Maybe this will all disappear. But when you let dictators, when you let bully boys dictate that hate is okay, that all I just need is this and this and this, and then I’ll stop. Well, they never will stop. I think the lesson is you have to confront hate, you have to confront fascism, and Nazism and bullyism in our own country.
When you have a president who’s willing to shut down the government for all these weeks and say “years” if he has to—for what? And what he doesn’t think about is what is the damage that’s being done. What about all the government employees who were living month to month, week to week on paychecks who aren’t going to get it? Or we can simply sit by and say, well, they’re just collateral damage. In other words, I’m sorry, whether it’s in Germany with the rise of fascism again and Nazism, whether it’s in Belgium, whether it’s in France, or whether it’s in our own country, the lesson of the 1930s—these people don’t back down unless they are confronted. Unless citizens rise up and say, enough, this is enough. Too much. It doesn’t work in our country. They don’t go away. And that’s what we saw after Kristallnacht, world leaders simply setback, hoping it would, you know, that Hitler would disappear somehow and he didn’t. He didn’t.
JL: I mean, I think one of the things that came across in that conference, among all the papers, and I believe that the videos of the papers are all available online through the Shoah Foundation site, but one of the big questions that really came through, was this question of how do you get from, say, 1933 to 1938. I mean, this is the same period that you are engaging with, and beyond, in your book. So the question is, what happens to a population over the course of time that is living with fascism. It’s living with antisemitism. And you can talk about this within the German context. And also, you know, the global context. What wee people around the world seeing and understanding and thinking about as they looked at what was happening in the Nazi regime. How we get from, say, the April 1933 boycott where, you know, people were not actively fighting it, but were resisting it in various ways within Germany, to the passivity of 1938. And so one of the things that I think comes across from this story o Louis and his work, among many others who were actively fighting, actively doing things in the U.S. and that particular context is this question of (how) passivity is not the only option.
SR: I think what we’ve seen, right now, too, is an unprecedented group of younger people running for office and winning in the midterm elections. As you know, the newspapers had been saying, we have the most diverse congress we’ve ever had, that we now have younger people. We have women, we have people of color, who are saying, no, we’re not going to let this happen. We’re going to not let it go from ’33 to ’38. We’re going to try to do something right now. We’re not going to sit back and just hope things get better. We’re going to go into the government and fight for change. I think that’s certainly one of the ways in which you fight. Look, hate succeeds when good people remain quiet. That’s the bottom line. When good people raise their voices, it is much more difficult for hate groups to succeed.