Wednesday, September 16, 2020
September 16, 2020: Nazis in America: The Plot Against America
[On September 20, 1945, the first group of Nazi scientists repatriated to the US under Operation Paperclip arrived at a landing point in Boston Harbor. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories of American Nazis, leading up to a special post on that fraught anniversary.]
[NB. As of my drafting of this post, I haven’t had a chance to watch David Simon’s HBO miniseries adaptation of Roth’s novel, so my thoughts here will focus on the book. I hope to get to that soon and will add an update here when I do!]
On three telling & compelling layers to Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate historical fiction.
One of the consistent pleasures of reading alternate histories (as with historical fiction in general, of course) is seeing how they incorporate actual historical figures into (and refigure them within) their imagined histories. Roth’s novel includes dozens of such figures in both important and minor roles, but three of the most central are ones I’ve featured or referenced in prior posts this week: in Roth’s central premise, Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940 and aligns the US with Nazi Germany; he appoints Henry Ford as his Secretary of the Interior; and one of Lindbergh’s most consistent adversaries in the novel is New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia (who in real life pushed back on the 1939 Madison Square Garden Nazi rally, among many other anti-Nazi and pro-Jewish efforts during his tenure as mayor). These historical figures make Roth’s novel a juicier read for any student of American history, but they also reflect a profound understanding of how the actual course of 1930s and 40s American history already intersected with Nazi Germany in many different ways. That is, this may be an alternate history, but it’s a potently realistic one.
Roth’s novel does also include Father Coughlin, but in a briefer and more minor role, perhaps because one of Roth’s central fictional characters is a religious leader in his own right: Newark’s Conservative Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who becomes a prominent Lindbergh supporter and who later marries the narrator Philip’s Aunt Evelyn. As far as I’ve been able to learn, no prominent Jewish American figures or leaders supported movements like the German American Bund or the America First Committee (which I wrote about in Monday and Tuesday’s posts, respectively), which makes sense given their overt and defining antisemitism. But it’s also the case that no one linked to those movements ran for president, nor gained the widespread popular support of a frontrunner for that highest office; both of which are true of Roth’s Lindbergh by the time that Bengelsdorf endorses him. So it certainly seems plausible that a conservative Jewish figure like Bengelsdorf would under those circumstances hitch his wagon to Lindbergh’s star—but it is even more plausible that doing so does not spare Bengelsdorf from the rising tide of Nazism and antisemitism, as he is later arrested when widespread white supremacist riots target Jewish Americans throughout the nation.
To my mind the novel’s most compelling characters are its younger generation Jewish Americans, however, a group that includes not only the narrator Philip, but also and most complicatedly his older brother Sandy (among others). Sandy is selected by the Office of American Absorption (OAA) for its “Just Folks” program, which places Jewish boys with Southern and Midwestern families in order to “Americanize” them; Sandy is sent to a farm in Kentucky and returns home highly critical of his family (calling them “ghetto Jews”). This complex and fraught plotline echoes the experiences of young Native Americans sent to the late 19th and early 20th century boarding schools, as well as the broader “Americanization” movement of that same period. But it also allows Roth to explore an uncomfortable truth likewise revealed by the Washington’s birthday 1939 New York rally—that American Nazis could, and did, make the case that their beliefs and movement aligned with foundational elements of American identity. One more historical echo of this profoundly, painfully historical (and, yes, frustratingly salient) alternate history novel.
Next NaziStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?