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Who goes Nazi?

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Commenter Bloix flagged this amusing and now once again all-too-relevant 1941 essay by the once-famous journalist Dorothy Thompson, regarding the sort of Americans who would go Nazi if it came to that. Note how “Mr. C” is a dead ringer for Richard Nixon, who at the time was an obscure young lawyer in Whittier, California:

The saturnine man over there talking with a lovely French emigree is already a Nazi. Mr. C is a brilliant and embittered intellectual. He was a poor white-trash Southern boy, a scholarship student at two universities where he took all the scholastic honors but was never invited to join a fraternity. His brilliant gifts won for him successively government positions, partnership in a prominent law firm, and eventually a highly paid job as a Wall Street adviser. He has always moved among important people and always been socially on the periphery. His colleagues have admired his brains and exploited them, but they have seldom invited him—or his wife—to dinner.

He is a snob, loathing his own snobbery. He despises the men about him—he despises, for instance, Mr. B—because he knows that what he has had to achieve by relentless work men like B have won by knowing the right people. But his contempt is inextricably mingled with envy. Even more than he hates the class into which he has insecurely risen, does he hate the people from whom he came. He hates his mother and his father for being his parents. He loathes everything that reminds him of his origins and his humiliations. He is bitterly anti-Semitic because the social insecurity of the Jews reminds him of his own psychological insecurity.

Pity he has utterly erased from his nature, and joy he has never known. He has an ambition, bitter and burning. It is to rise to such an eminence that no one can ever again humiliate him. Not to rule but to be the secret ruler, pulling the strings of puppets created by his brains. Already some of them are talking his language—though they have never met him.

There he sits: he talks awkwardly rather than glibly; he is courteous. He commands a distant and cold respect. But he is a very dangerous man. Were he primitive and brutal he would be a criminal—a murderer. But he is subtle and cruel. He would rise high in a Nazi regime. It would need men just like him—intellectual and ruthless. But Mr. C is not a born Nazi. He is the product of a democracy hypocritically preaching social equality and practicing a carelessly brutal snobbery. He is a sensitive, gifted man who has been humiliated into nihilism. He would laugh to see heads roll.

Reading this piece was a melancholy reminder of the eternal principle of sic transit gloria mundi: In 1941 Thompson was quite possibly the most famous journalist in America, and she had recently been selected as the second-most influential woman in the country, trailing only Eleanor Roosevelt.

Today she is barely even a name, even though for many years she was a fascinating and prominent public figure, and indeed was for a time a highly influential person in various ways (Among many other things, her pathbreaking work in Germany on the threat presented by Adolph Hitler was key influence on her then-husband Sinclair Lewis’s once-again relevant 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. She was also the first well-known American to try to publicize the Holocaust even as it was happening).

Here is part of a letter Thompson wrote to Lewis, when their marriage was breaking up:

I cannot recall that you ever asked me what I would like, even in the years that we lived together. But what I do not like is a divorce, and I am not going to get one. I know the divorce laws of Vermont, for at one time, I confess, I thought of getting a divorce. It was because of the brutally inconsiderate manner of your treatment of our relationship in your affair with Marcella, even going so far as to introduce him to Wells as his future ‘stepmother.’ That filled me with blind rage, and I thought I should spare myself any future insults of this kind. But the very basis of my relationship to you is that I cannot cherish any grudge or feel even normal resentment against you that endures, or that changes my feelings. ‘This is the way he is,’ is the only answer I can find . . .

Hundreds of times, Hal, you made me promise that I would never leave you, and never divorce you. I made the promise, because I meant it, and felt so, also. Why should I believe you that you meant that, and mean this, or that you did not know your own mind then, and know it now? I have never been able to repudiate our marriage, even to myself. Now you ask me to do it publicly. Such a step would be an unbearable self-violation . . . In a curious way you are asking me to make something between us mutual again — to make common an aversion as you once sought to make common a love. But I cannot. It is not common. The whole case would be an unmitigated fraud. It would not make me free. I shall live with you, in one sense, to the end of my life . . .

Quoted in Antonia Fraser, Love Letters (1977).

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