Category Archives: History

Premature Anti-Fascism

I mentioned “premature anti-fascism” when I was speaking with someone at work about the current state of affairs in which the president is equating anti-fascist counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia with the armed neo-Nazis who came to their town last weekend. I was surprised she hadn’t heard the term before. In Fire Answers Fire, I referred to the term once as if it were a cliché, noting that one character’s turn of phrase was “not as tired as talking about the ‘premature anti-fascism’ of those who opposed Franco in the Spanish Civil War.”

I wish I were better at getting people’s names and remembering them after the fact, but when I was working at the Strand Bookstore in the late 1970s, I had a regular customer who came to the history section at least once a week looking for any used books that might have arrived about the Spanish Civil War. I was thrilled whenever I was able to put away anything that might be up his alley, although the titles I found never failed to be books he already owned. He was an Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran who described himself as “Old Left,” which I took to mean that he had been a member of the Communist Party in the 1930s, and as a “Premature Anti-Fascist.” Speaking with him may have been the first time that I heard that term. In the 1950s, he told me, those who had gone to fight fascism in Spain in 1937 were labeled with that term by the FBI and the House Un-American Activities Committee and all the other government entities hunting Reds at the time. It now seems that there are no official records of any governmental groups ever having used the term (it’s important to do at least cursory fact checking when the tools are so readily available and there are so many people circulating fictional history to bolster their political views). Despite the lack of official records, the stories are widespread, not only of Lincoln Brigade members being labeled with the term in the 1950s, but of Charlie Chaplin being labeled that way by the FBI in 1941, or a Yale Classics professor from England hearing it applied to him in 1946 because of his service in Spain.

Whether coined by the government or the leftists themselves, it just seems like a phrase that all literate Americans should know right now with a new generation of neo-Nazis and anti-fascists on our streets. (Personal Disclaimer: I don’t think that anti-fascism can ever be premature.)

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Happy Birthday Ernst Toller

Self publishing is probably not the correct route for me, simply because I am so lazy about the self promotion side of the equation. I haven’t written anything on this WordPress blog in over a year, but today’s the birth date of one of the major characters in Fire Answers Fire, Ernst Toller, born on December 1, 1893, one of only a couple people in my novel about the Nazi airship Hindenburg who enjoyed a real life as well as a fictional one. Toller’s story deserves to be known so much better and I’m sorry that my book didn’t sell well enough help to raise his profile except among a small handful of readers.

The story was different on May 22, 1939, when his suicide in New York as an exile from Hitler’s Germany was news around the world, as was his funeral where he was eulogized by Sinclair Lewis and others.

In its June 17, 1939 issue, The New Yorker published the following poem from W.H. Auden about Toller.

 

IN MEMORY OF ERNST TOLLER (d. May 1939)

The shining neutral summer has no voice
To judge America, or ask how a man dies;
And the friends who are sad and the enemies who rejoice

Are chased by their shadows lightly away from the grave
Of one who was egotistical and brave,
Lest they should learn without suffering how to forgive.

What was it, Ernst, that your shadow unwittingly said?
O did the child see something horrid in the woodshed
Long ago? Or had the Europe which took refuge in your head

Already been too injured to get well?
O for how long,like the swallows in that other cell,
Had the bright little longings been flying in to tell

About the big friendly death outside,
Where people do not occupy or hide;
No towns like Munich; no need to write?

Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.

We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.

It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.

—W. H. Auden

The Bund back on page 1 of the Times this morning (and may have never left Suffolk County)

When I was researching Fritz Kuhn and the German-American Bund for Fire Answers Fire, I spent a lot of time getting lost in back issues of The New York Times from the 1930s, where the Bund and its camps and marchs and meetings would often be mentioned on the front page, but I  did not expect to see them making a reappearance on page A1 in late 2015.

The article this morning entitled “In Long Island Hamlet, Home Buyers’ Rule Is a Relic of Its Nazi Past” is about a community in Yaphank on eastern Long Island — on the grounds of the old Camp Siegfried — where owners of homes do not own their lots and “The original owners of this tract of land kept a clause in its bylaws requiring the homeowners to be primarily ‘of German extraction.’ That has kept this community of 45 families almost entirely white.” In October of 2015.

While it does not appear that there are parades with brownshirts and swastikas or street signs with “Adolf Hitler Straße” in the current Yaphank settlement, it’s amazing that the Times piece does include a photo of a large current sign at the entrance to the neighborhood that reads “German American Settlement League – Private Community – Members & Guests Only.” That is the exact same organization name that was being used in 1938 when the following film about Camp Siegfried was made by British Pathé:

Here’s an article from Untapped Cities published earlier this year, “This Former Nazi Neighborhood on Long Island with Adolf Hitler Street Still Exists,” with even more information and photos illustrating this strange neighborhood’s past and present states.

And here’s a collection of NYPD Alien Squad photographs of Camp Siegfried in its heyday.

The ‘Potshots by Pineys’ Theory

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon has been one of those books deep in my to-read list since I first read reviews of it in 1982, but I’m just getting around to reading it now. Imagine my surprise this morning when I ran across the following passage in that book (on page 370/location 6798 of the Kindle version) as the author enters New Jersey’s Pine Barrens.

It isn’t widely known in America that the descendants of Jolly Roger pirates put an end to dirigible flight. So I heard at breakfast in a diner.

As someone who did a little bit of research about the event that ended airship travel for my own 2014 novel Fire Answers Fire, the story about offspring of pirates bringing down the Hindenburg was new to me, but here are the details, as related to William Least Heat-Moon by a diner compaBlue Highwaysnion in a loud shirt.

     “Let me tell you about the Pines,” he said. “Maybe you heard of the Hindenburg — the zeppelin — but I’ll let you in on the true story of what really happened. I’ve lived here all my life, and I know what happened even if the government said they didn’t know.”

The gist was this: a storm forced the Hindenburg into a holding pattern (that was a fact I could check out). The airship, only a few hundred feet off the ground, circled central New Jersey for two hours. Lakehurst, where it was trying to land, is on the edge of the Pines, and everyone knows Pineys don’t tolerate anyone poking into their woods. They figured the zeppelin was a government ship looking for their stills where they turn blueberries into whiskey, so they shot at the thing and opened leaks in the fabric. By the time the Hindenburg started to tie up, there was enough free hydrogen to blow the ship to kingdom come, which it did.

“The official explanation was St. Elmo’s fire,” he said. “Static electricity. St. Elmo never in his life set fire to any aircraft. People can believe it was anti-Nazi sabotage if they want, but I’m telling the truth. It was potshots by the Pineys, and it was nothing new. They’re descendants of pirates and smugglers who ran into the woods to hide. Mixed in with a few Tories and Hessians.”

Toller / Klinghoffer

Here are a couple of truisms (for me anyway):

  • Politicians should never comment on art that’s anything but decorative, old, and uncontroversial.
  • When politicians of both parties agree about anything (but especially about art), they’re wrong.

Both of these prejudices of mine jumped out strongly when I read some of the comments by politicians of both parties protesting the Met’s current staging of John Adams’ 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer.

In a perfectly bipartisan stand against the opera, Rudy Giuliani (Republican ex-Mayor) and U.S. Representatives Peter King (R-NY), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), and Eliot Engel (D-NY), all spoke at a rally outside Lincoln Center protesting the opening performance on October 20.

I have a knee-jerk reaction when I hear tabloid newspapers or religious organizations or pandering politicians calling for the suppression of any artist whether it’s Andres Serrano or 2 Live Crew or Entartete Kunst, but this latest particular example of that all-too-common phenomenon had a special resonance for me because my novel Fire Answers Fire has in its later chapters the story of an unproduced (and totally fictional) Ernst Toller play (or opera) also entitled Fire Answers Fire shot down in 1939 by would-be musical collaborators and producers because of its sympathetic portrayal of terrorists (in this case the attackers of the Nazi Hindenburg).

… So Toller had gone ahead without a collaborator and shown the play without music to a producer and old friend, Jude Lear. Despite the English name borrowed from Hardy and Shakespeare, Lear was a recent exile like himself with an even thicker German accent than Toller’s. Lear didn’t even skim halfway through the script before rendering his judgment. “Why don’t you just write a sympathetic play about the kidnapper and killer of the Lindbergh baby? After all, Lindbergh’s a Nazi sympathizer too.”
“That’s different. That’s an attack on a child. On an individual. This is a symbolic striking at power. At a machine. At giant swastikas flying as provocations over American cities.”
“That’s not the way the audience will see it. Lindbergh and the Hindenburg are both innocent victims. Lucky Fucking Lindy could wipe his ass with an American flag and fly a plane around the world bedecked with swastikas and christened the ‘Spirit of Berchtesgarten’ and he’d still get sympathy about the kidnapping of his son. The swastikas on the tail of a Zeppelin don’t mean shit either. The audience members won’t care about the politics. It’s the fiery scene they all remember from the newsreels that’s important. And it’s not the announcer saying ‘Oh, the poor dead Nazis’ they remember. It’s ‘Oh, the humanity!’ they remember. It’s the same on these boards,” he said, sweeping his hand across the floor on which they stood in front of rows of empty red velveteen seats. “People react to people on this stage. Not ideas. Not rallying cries. Not politics. Especially not European politics. Your politics. They want to see themselves reflected in the actors up here, not terrorists fighting foreign wars.” He might as well have said this isn’t 1918 and this isn’t revolutionary Munich. No one will care what you have to write or think anymore. …     (from chapter 12, “And Happy Endings With Dead Villains”)