▶ Watch Video: Rachel Maddow on “Prequel” and fascism in America

It may be hard to fathom that some 20,000 Americans would gather under an image of George Washington for a pro-Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939. But Rachel Maddow has spent the last few years sifting through similarly sobering stories for her new book, “Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism” (Crown). It’s a cautionary tale about threats to democracy set in the era of World War II.

Americans snap into Nazi salutes in New York’s Madison Square Garden during opening ceremonies of the German American Bund’s “Pro-American Celebration of George Washington’s Birthday,” February 20, 1939 – three months after Kristallnacht.

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“Not only were there lots of Americans who didn’t want us to fight [in the war],” Maddow said, “but there was a lot of them who wanted us to fight on the other side, with the Nazis.”

Bettmann via Getty ImagesMaddow, who hosts a show on MSNBC, first explored the story in a series of podcasts, “Ultra,” focusing on surprising connections between Americans and Nazi interests: “The organizational diversity of people who were on that side of the calculous ahead of World War II is shocking to me,” she said.

A rally promoting the Nazi Party held by the German American Bund (or Amerikadeutscher Volksbund), near Yaphank, New York, in 1937. Formed in 1936, the German American Bund held rallies and operated youth and training camps. 

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Some of the most unsettling stories Maddow tells are of a nationwide network of underground pro-Nazi, antisemitic groups, like one exposed by Arnold Eric Sevareid, a young reporter who would become a renowned CBS News commentator. It was he who uncovered the Silver Shirts. 

“There was a group of very far right extremists that were meeting secretly all over Minneapolis,” said Maddow. “They were forming themselves into armed cells all across the country to mount a war against the Jews, and to set up a Hitler-style dictatorship here. And Sevareid infiltrated this group and basically decided, yes, they’re crazy, but they’re also serious.” 

In Los Angeles, the Aryan Book Store (part of a nationwide network of bodies sympathetic to the Nazi cause) distributed propaganda and antisemitic literature. 

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And the 165th Regiment Armory, on Lexington Avenue in New York City, became a supply depot for another antisemitic militia, the Christian Front. Maddow said, “They had a captain on the inside, in the 165th Infantry unit, that was willing to give them all this ammunition and cordite and hand grenade explosives. And they used it to stockpile bombs.”

In mid-January 1940 they were arrested by the FBI. “The FBI thought they were only about seven days ahead of the Christian Front’s plan to murder a bunch of Congressmen, to firebomb and bomb a bunch of sites in New York City that they thought would be sensitive enough that they would set off essentially a race war.”

Eighteen people were charged with seditious conspiracy and theft of government property. 

CBS News

And they got off. 

“Either a hung jury or an acquittal for all of them,” said Maddow. “The way it was received was, ‘Oh, that was a Brooklyn verdict for some Brooklyn boys,’ that they were seen as being sort of hometown heroes. And being rabidly antisemitic, even violently so, was seen as a form of patriotic anti-communism.”

And long before the internet became a conduit for disinformation, the Harmonie Club – the second-oldest private club in New York City, specifically for Jews who were restricted from entering other private clubs – figured into a sinister attempt to demonize Jews. In 1939 some unsavory characters, including a former Army general, claimed to a Congressional committee that they had learned of a plot being hatched at the Harmonie Club that might involve prominent Jews affiliated with the Roosevelt administration, including Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter and Treasury Secretary Henry Morganthau.


Maddow said, “The House Un-American Activities Committee, which had just gotten started, heard from a pair of witnesses who brought them a story about [the Harmonie Club]. These guys came to Congress and said, ‘Those Jews are plotting a takeover of the United States to destroy the United States and put the Jews in charge, and we’re here to blow the whistle on it.'”

It was completely fabricated. That conspiracy theory, said Maddow, “was part and parcel of trying to run Americans into feeling about the Jews the way Hitler was making Germans feel about the Jews.”

And Hitler had plenty of tentacles in the U.S., including right on Riverside Drive in New York City, where George Sylvester Vierek lived in a beautiful ten-room apartment. “He was very well-off, and the reason he was so well-off is because he was the highest-paid and most senior Nazi propaganda agent in the United States,” Maddow said.

Known for being a spy during World War I, Vierek was actually convicted of spying, but got off on legal technicalities, and went on to run an operation directly linked to Capitol Hill.

Maddow said, “They’d get Nazi propaganda into the United States, they’d persuade a member of Congress or a senator to put his or her name on it, insert it into the Congressional Record. Once it’s in the Congressional Record, they can send it out in bulk all over the United States” – franked mail, paid for by U.S. taxpayers.

Rachel Maddow, author of “Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism.”

CBS News

Maddow calls out World War II Senators like Ernest Lundeen of Minnesota and Burton Wheeler of Montana, as well as House Member Hamilton Fish III of New York, as being in cahoots with Vierek. But when the federal government finally indicted some two dozen people (including Vierek and several congressional staffers) in a seditious conspiracy, none of the members of Congress was indicted. “A lot of pressure was put on the Justice Department by members of Congress who are implicated in this scheme,” Maddow said.

And even that case sputtered: “The trial is chaos, bedlam, a circus,” Maddow said. “The prosecution is actually presenting a pretty compelling case. And seven months into it, the judge dies.”  

That’s right: Sixty-five-year-old U.S. District Judge Edward Clayton Eicher died from a heart attack. And after hemming and hawing for a few years, the Justice Department decided not to spend time retrying the case. And the American people started to turn their attention to the war, rather than the fight at home, as the attack on Pearl Harbor pulled the U.S. into the conflict overseas.

Though Maddow’s book takes place three-quarters of a century ago, there’s a reason it’s called “Prequel.” After all, it was written in the wake of the attack on the United States Capitol.

Braver asked, “Do you think we are now seeing a resurgence of fascism in our country?”

“I think we are seeing another iteration of the ultra-right,” Maddow said. “And it has a lot of the elements that are the most worrying things that you look for when you’re looking at a democracy that’s in trouble of yielding to authoritarianism. We see violence intruding into the political process. We see the scapegoating of minorities and dangerous conspiracy theories. Rising antisemitism is an absolute red flag. Antisemitism almost always goes with the rise in fascist ideation. And it’s just something that we can’t ignore.

“There’s a history here that we ought to learn from,” she said. “Americans before us – just as smart, just as resourceful, just as funny, just as clear-minded as any of us could ever hope to be – fought those fights before us. We can learn from what they did.”

READ AN EXCERPT: “Prequel” by Rachel Maddow

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Ed Givnish.

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Cable news headliner Rachel Maddow