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Normalizing fascists

How to cover the rise of a political leader who’s left a paper trail of anti-constitutionalism, racism and the encouragement of violence? Does the press take the position that its subject acts outside the norms of society? Or does it take the position that someone who wins a fair election is by definition “normal,” because his leadership reflects the will of the people?

These are the questions that confronted the U.S. press after the ascendance of fascist leaders in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.The Conversation

A leader for life

Benito Mussolini secured Italy’s premiership by marching on Rome with 30,000 blackshirts in 1922. By 1925 he had declared himself leader for life. While this hardly reflected American values, Mussolini was a darling of the American press, appearing in at least 150 articles from 1925-1932, most neutral, bemused or positive in tone.

The Saturday Evening Post even serialized Il Duce’s autobiography in 1928. Acknowledging that the new “Fascisti movement” was a bit “rough in its methods,” papers ranging from the New York Tribune to the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the Chicago Tribune credited it with saving Italy from the far left and revitalizing its economy. From their perspective, the post-WWI surge of anti-capitalism in Europe was a vastly worse threat than Fascism.

Ironically, while the media acknowledged that Fascism was a new “experiment,” papers like The New York Times commonly credited it with returning turbulent Italy to what it called “normalcy.”

Yet some journalists like Hemingway and journals like the New Yorker rejected the normalization of anti-democratic Mussolini. John Gunther of Harper’s, meanwhile, wrote a razor-sharp account of Mussolini’s masterful manipulation of a U.S. press that couldn’t resist him.

The ‘German Mussolini’

Mussolini’s success in Italy normalized Hitler’s success in the eyes of the American press who, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, routinely called him “the German Mussolini.” Given Mussolini’s positive press reception in that period, it was a good place from which to start. Hitler also had the advantage that his Nazi party enjoyed stunning leaps at the polls from the mid ‘20’s to early ‘30’s, going from a fringe party to winning a dominant share of parliamentary seats in free elections in 1932.

But the main way that the press defanged Hitler was by portraying him as something of a joke. He was a “nonsensical” screecher of “wild words” whose appearance, according to Newsweek, “suggests Charlie Chaplin.” His “countenance is a caricature.” He was as “voluble” as he was “insecure,” stated Cosmopolitan.

Photo by Keli Schimelpfenig
John Broich

When Hitler’s party won influence in Parliament, and even after he was made chancellor of Germany in 1933 – about a year and a half before seizing dictatorial power – many American press outlets judged that he would either be outplayed by more traditional politicians or that he would have to become more moderate. Sure, he had a following, but his followers were “impressionable voters” duped by “radical doctrines and quack remedies,” claimed the Washington Post. Now that Hitler actually had to operate within a government the “sober” politicians would “submerge” this movement, according to The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. A “keen sense of dramatic instinct” was not enough. When it came to time to govern, his lack of “gravity” and “profundity of thought” would be exposed.

In fact, The New York Times wrote after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship that success would only “let him expose to the German public his own futility.” Journalists wondered whether Hitler now regretted leaving the rally for the cabinet meeting, where he would have to assume some responsibility.

Yes, the American press tended to condemn Hitler’s well-documented anti-Semitism in the early 1930s. But there were plenty of exceptions. Some papers downplayed reports of violence against Germany’s Jewish citizens as propaganda like that which proliferated during the foregoing World War. Many, even those who categorically condemned the violence, repeatedly declared it to be at an end, showing a tendency to look for a return to normalcy.

Journalists were aware that they could only criticize the German regime so much and maintain their access. When a CBS broadcaster’s son was beaten up by brownshirts for not saluting the Führer, he didn’t report it. When the Chicago Daily News’ Edgar Mowrer wrote that Germany was becoming “an insane asylum” in 1933, the Germans pressured the State Department to rein in American reporters. Allen Dulles, who eventually became director of the CIA, told Mowrer he was “taking the German situation too seriously.” Mowrer’s publisher then transferred him out of Germany in fear of his life.

By the later 1930s, most U.S. journalists realized their mistake in underestimating Hitler or failing to imagine just how bad things could get. (Though there remained infamous exceptions, like Douglas Chandler, who wrote a loving paean to “Changing Berlin” for National Geographic in 1937.) Dorothy Thompson, who judged Hitler a man of “startling insignificance” in 1928, realized her mistake by mid-decade when she, like Mowrer, began raising the alarm.

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance,” she reflected in 1935. “He never stands for election on the platform of dictatorship. He always represents himself as the instrument [of] the Incorporated National Will.” Applying the lesson to the U.S., she wrote, “When our dictator turns up you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys, and he will stand for everything traditionally American.”

John Broich, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University. He divvies his time between Cleveland and his native Minnesota. This article was originally published on The Conversation; republished with permission.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/13/2016 - 11:30 am.

    The recurring theme seems to be how badly the American Press got it wrong; they first did it with Mussolini, and then they did the same with Hitler.

    More recently, the American Press was an unwitting ally to the Donald Trump candidacy. Putting a hard spin on each over-the-top statement he made, they sought to expose and discredit him. Not until it was too late did they understand that they were carrying his water, communicating his message. It was a symbiotic relationship; the press could not get enough of Trump nor could he get enough press. When Trump made a call to improve security along the Mexican border, the press it spun as racist. It was actually a popular law and order message that resonated with many voters.

    The press is still lodged in a throw-the-teddy-from-the-pram post-election phase; you need look no further than the photo at the top of this column to see it.

  2. Submitted by chuck holtman on 12/13/2016 - 12:59 pm.

    For several simple reasons, human society trends authoritarian.

    For several other simple reasons, the establishment media diligently normalize authoritarianism as it marches toward things even worse. It was true in the time of Mussolini and Hitler and, left to its devices, will be true now.

    The capacity to arrest Trumpism, before it deeply and perhaps irreparably damages our society and causes great harm to many, lies with the Republican establishment. As a practical matter, Trump can make his appointments, advance his desired actions, and avoid any measure of accountability for his corruption, only arm-in-arm with the Republican establishment. As a matter of preserving any democratic bearing to our society, or even moral bearing, the Republican establishment, practically speaking, defines the acceptable range of discourse for the establishment media. If the Republican establishment were to draw a line, the establishment media would take the cue to do likewise.

    The Weimar landowners and industrialists, and their representatives, found Hitler a bit coarse but made peace with his rise to power soon enough. After all, the alternative was to cede some measure of political and economic power to the working classes. All indications are that history is repeating itself, and for the same reasons. When it comes to good of country and good of humanity on the one hand, and one’s own sinecure, prestige and carefully constructed edifice of rationalization on the other, regrettably it is too easy to predict what our principled and courageous politicians will choose.

  3. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 12/13/2016 - 01:03 pm.

    I’m glad to see that I am not the only academic who has studied the European 1930s to point out an important element of fascism in Donald Trump’s successful run for the presidency of the United States. In this case, the eerily similar press treatment of a ludicrously funny showman who couldn’t possibly win–until he won.

    Other similarities to Mussolini and Hitler (and General Francisco Franco of Spain–check Trump’s militarized list of Cabinet nominees who will be holding positions that are supposed to be held by civilians) are in Trump’s repetitious manner of spreading lies, his bullying public attacks on anyone–person or corporation–who contradicts his views, his one-man-rule insistence that “I’m, like, really smart” and can run this show all alone and without national security briefings, his preference to communicate with the public through planted interviews and huge rallies where he spouts a simplistic, slogan-filled rhetoric of hate.

    So many people in recent years have overused the “Hitler analogy” that we have all become reluctant to see the parallels between Trump’s fascism and Hitler’s fascism, and afraid to say that we see them. But we must say it when we see it! Our only hope is in the brave people (like Sen. Reid from Rhode Island on PBS NewsHour last night) who call Trump lies, lies, and his denial of facts precisely that!

  4. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 12/13/2016 - 01:11 pm.


    The press gave Trump coverage because of the outlandish things he was saying. Like building a wall along the border with Mexico. If the millions of us who heard that assumed that anyone who made sch an absurd campaign promise could never get elected, well, I guess you all showed us. Now about that wall. Apparently, it was a coded phrase for law and order which has become code in this country for racism and xenophobia. I didn’t hear the media spin this as racism. Voices in the public were decrying it as so and as xenophobia. Which it is.

    Trump was and is a demagogue. Responsible media, like MinnPost, the NYT, the Star Tribune, are examining themselves on their role in enabling his rise, which does bear frighteningly close similarities to the rise of fascists in Europe pre-WWII.

    I have no idea what “throwing teddy from the pram” is supposed to mean. What I see among responsible media is their own reset with a realization that the person they thought they were dealing with may be a clown but a dangerous and devious clown with his own secret agenda.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/14/2016 - 06:38 am.

      The Wall

      The photo of the wall at the top of National Geographic article is on the California border and it was built during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Excerpt from the National Geographic link:

      “Donald Trump has famously and repeatedly promised to seal the border with a wall if he’s elected. He and others have promised to send people who illegally crossed the border—a number that appears to have leveled off—back to Mexico. For these people, the border wall isn’t an abstraction. Many parts of the border are already covered in fences. In other spots, the wall is not made of bricks, but out of scanners, drones, and guards.”

      The wall is very real, and, work continues even today to improve security along the border with Mexico. The idea of controlling the border, of being a sovereign nation, resonates positively with many.

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/13/2016 - 01:16 pm.

    More than a few boxes checked…

    The 14 Characteristics of Fascism

    *Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
    *Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
    *Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
    *Supremacy of the Military
    *Rampant Sexism
    *Controlled Mass Media
    *Obsession with National Security
    *Religion and Government are Intertwined
    *Corporate Power is Protected
    *Labor Power is Suppressed
    *Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
    *Obsession with Crime and Punishment
    *Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
    *Fraudulent Elections

  6. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/15/2016 - 06:39 am.

    Godwin’s Law

    Godwin’s Law once required time and interchange among commenters; now we have devolved to leading with Hitler from the top. The press just cannot help themselves.

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