Destiny v. Democracy

David Runciman

  • BuyFear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time by Ira Katznelson
    Norton, 706 pp, £22.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 87140 450 3

Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates. The figures compare very favourably with the 98.8 per cent the Nazis secured in their own national elections the same year. The difference was that Hitler used the coercive power of the state to secure an artificially high turnout (99 per cent of the German electorate was reported as having voted) whereas the Democrats used coercion to keep the turnout low. The population of Mississippi in the late 1930s was more than two million. Yet the number of people whose votes were counted in the 1938 congressional midterms was barely 35,000. This remarkably limited franchise was achieved by means of elaborate rules – including a poll tax – designed to make voting both difficult and expensive; it was backed up by threats of violence to anyone who challenged the status quo. The aim, of course, was to make sure the electorate remained exclusively white. Of the residents of Mississippi nearly half – roughly a million people – were black.

This was the other thing the Nazis admired about the South: it was a political order organised around an unambiguous idea of racial superiority, and geared towards keeping the races separate. Miscegenation was to be feared above all else. Anything was permitted to prevent it. In a debate on anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938, the senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo echoed Mein Kampf in asserting that merely ‘one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculties.’ The elected representatives of the South successfully blocked any legislative attempt to clamp down on lynching, holding it to be a matter for individual states to regulate, and something that Northerners couldn’t understand. Only Southerners knew what was at stake. Bilbo suspected a Jewish conspiracy behind what he saw as Northern interference: ‘The niggers and Jews of New York are working hand in hand.’ During Roosevelt’s first two terms, lynching continued unabated. There were 28 recorded instances in 1933 alone, the first year of the New Deal. This tacit acceptance of extra-legal killing was something else that struck a chord with the Nazis. In fact, what happened in the South was in the early 1930s more overt and more bestial than anything taking place in Germany, where state-sanctioned murder was treated as an unpleasant necessity rather than a public festival. As Ira Katznelson records, in November 1933, more than a year after FDR’s election, Lloyd Warner was burned alive before a cheering crowd of ten thousand in Princess Anne, Maryland, after an attempt to hang him had failed. Nothing so ghastly was permitted on the streets of Hitler’s new Reich. Still, this didn’t stop the Nazis romanticising the South and indulging in soft-soap fantasies about its martial culture. The German edition of Gone with the WindVom Winde verweht – fascinated Hitler when it appeared in 1937. The film too was a big hit with the Nazi elite. On 22 June 1941, while he was waiting for the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Goebbels spent the hours after midnight watching a pre-release of the German version. It was comfort viewing.

About this, as about everything else, the Nazis couldn’t have been more wrong. Their love affair with the South was emphatically not reciprocated. Despite the lurid rhetoric of Southern senators like Bilbo, nowhere in the United States was more militantly anti-Nazi. It was from the South that the greatest political pressure came to break with the policy of neutrality after 1939, to arm on the side of the democracies and to take the fight to Hitler. Some of the reasons evolved from accidents of history and geography. German-Americans were concentrated in the Northern states. The South had always been pro-British, dating back to the Civil War, when it was to Britain that the Confederacy had looked for international support. After the Union’s victory, the South no longer had an army of its own. Its martial culture, therefore, could only find expression through the American army, which made the Southern states cheerleaders in any overseas military adventures. The South was strongly in favour of the Spanish-American War, the annexation of the Philippines, America’s entry into the First World War in 1917 and its entry into the Second a generation later.

Despite their endless misgivings about federal government and Northern aggrandisement, Southerners also saw themselves as patriots. They were sensitive to any slights to national honour. Many Southern newspapers were outraged by Hitler’s disrespectful treatment of black American athletes, including Jesse Owens, at the Berlin Olympics of 1936; the Atlanta Constitution even advocated a boycott of the games. The Montgomery Advertiser, taking note in 1933 of the regime’s attacks on Jews, apparently perceived no irony in declaring that ‘Hitler will only gain respect in the US if he stops persecuting the minority.’ The same newspapers flatly rejected any attempt to compare lynching to the systematic persecutions carried out by the Nazis. The point about lynching was that it remained ostensibly illegal, whereas Hitler was using the instruments of the law to pursue his campaigns of violence. Far from empathising with Nazis, Southerners seemed to find them a useful moral benchmark: say what you like about us, at least we’re nothing like them. People who outwardly resemble each other are often the ones most at pains to flag up their differences.

Some of the motivation for Southern anti-Nazism was more pragmatic. The South depended on free trade, especially agricultural and mineral exports, whereas the Nazi regime was promoting closed trading areas and protectionism. When Hitler annexed the Sudetenland, he also seized control of two-thirds of all Czech cotton mills. Once this happened, cotton exports from the South to Germany effectively ceased. Were Hitler to remain in control of continental Europe, parts of the Southern economy faced ruin. Southerners also knew that war was good for local business. The expansion of the federal military budget brought widespread benefits to Southern states, in the form of new army camps, investment in transport and other infrastructure and a sudden rush of commercial opportunities. There was always a balance to be struck in these calculations: government spending brought with it the danger of government oversight, which might lead to new questions being asked about the racial order of the South. If you took Northern money, you risked giving Northern politicians leverage over the way it was doled out. But Southern politicians rightly calculated that at a time of war, the federal government couldn’t afford to be too squeamish. In an emergency, getting the job done took priority over how it was managed. The money would get spent, and so long as the South remained enthusiastic about the cause, not too many awkward questions would get asked.

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