Eight episodes on extremists ran during Oath Keepers' trial

‘Ultra’ podcast depicts little-known Nazi-funded plot to topple US government

Rachel Maddow’s eerily timed series depicts how ultra-right nationalists prepared to bomb Jewish sites while ‘bought’ members of Congress disseminated Nazi talking points

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Members of the Christian Front pose with rifles in the 1940s (public domain)
    Members of the Christian Front pose with rifles in the 1940s (public domain)
  • William Perry speaking to Silver Legion members, likely 1936 (public domain)
    William Perry speaking to Silver Legion members, likely 1936 (public domain)
  • German-American Bund camp in New Jersey, 1937 (public domain)
    German-American Bund camp in New Jersey, 1937 (public domain)
  • Fritz Kuhn, center facing forward, is congratulated by fellow officers of the German-American Bund in New York on September 4, 1938. (AP Photo)
    Fritz Kuhn, center facing forward, is congratulated by fellow officers of the German-American Bund in New York on September 4, 1938. (AP Photo)

By the time William Dudley Pelley called for the forced sterilization of all Jewish males in 1939, the American white supremacist’s “Brown Shirts”-inspired militia claimed more than 100,000 members.

Dubbed the United States’ first “native fascist,” Pelley led one of several loosely connected plots to overthrow US president Franklin Roosevelt and install a pro-Nazi government with emergency powers.

“A wave of race vengeance approximating the aspects of a coast-to-coast pogrom is inevitably ahead for the Jews of America as more millions of them crowd in with immigration barriers lifted,” predicted Pelley in his Liberation magazine.

Rachel Maddow’s latest eight-episode podcast “Ultra,” released in October, depicts the antisemitic through-line across several Nazi-inspired conspiracies. Centerstage is the largest sedition trial in US history, held in 1944, when two dozen US senators and representatives were investigated for partnering with Berlin to spread Nazi propaganda.

“We published the first episode of the podcast when opening statements started in the first Oath Keepers’ sedition trial,” Maddow told NPR in December.

And the final episode came out on the day before the verdicts. So I didn’t mean for it to be that tightly sort of correlated over time with the history, but the cases have a lot in common,” said Maddow.

William Dudley Pelley, seen here addressing his Silver Shirt troops, combined religious zealotry with his Nazi philosophy. (University Libraries, University of Washington, Special Collections)

As for Pelley’s elaborate vision of igniting racial warfare, the catalyst would be the planned kidnapping and execution of 20 prominent Hollywood figures, including several Jews. The hit list included Louis B. Mayer, Al Jolson, Charlie Chaplin and James Cagney.

Originally planned in 1936, the public spectacle would involve marching the victims to a park, hanging them, and “shooting them full with lead,” after which Jews throughout the country would begin to flee.

As outlandish as the plan appears, Nazi Germany invested heavily in southern California “assets” beginning in 1933. Alongside a network of pro-German spies who regularly used Los Angeles port facilities, thousands of Ku Klux Klan members expected some of the region’s 50 German-American organizations — with their 150,000 members — to unite around common goals.

Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest who preached antisemitism to a wide audience over the radio (Minnesota Historical Society/courtesy Michael Benson)

East of California, in the American heartland, right-wing militant infrastructure grew under the direction of Father Charles Coughlin’s Christian Front. In Coughlin’s heyday as radio’s leading anti-Jewish personality, one in every four Americans listened to his weekly sermons.

Off the air, thousands of Coughlin’s followers were dividing themselves into “cell” teams, each preparing to attack one or more of several hundred targets simultaneously.

“The group was planning on [murdering] a number of congressmen, blowing up both Jewish businesses and other notable targets in the New York area and in the northeast, and then hopefully causing such panic that it would create a state of emergency,” said Maddow.

Fritz Kuhn, center facing forward, is congratulated by fellow officers of the German-American Bund in New York on Sept. 4, 1938. Kuhn was unanimously re-elected September 3 as National leader of the Bund, a pro-Nazi organization now holding its sixth annual convention. (AP Photo)

‘Congressional franking privilege’

Few Americans recall the largest sedition trial in US history, in part because not one legislator was indicted for his role in the conspiracy. Afterward, president Harry Truman squashed the publication of the investigation’s findings, deeming them too damaging for public consumption.

During the trial, several failed attempts were made by Justice Department prosecutors to lay charges on two dozen US senators and representatives who used “congressional franking privilege” to enable Nazi infiltration of American mailboxes. Through that privilege, members of Congress can mail out anything they want in unlimited quantities, at government expense based on their signatures alone.

US president Harry S. Truman holds a copy of the Torah, presented to him by Chaim Weizmann, right, in Washington, May 25, 1948. (AP Photo)

Berlin’s key agent liaising with the Nazi-sympathizing congressmen was George Sylvester Viereck, who partnered with the Christian Front and other fascist groups to stage massive “America First” rallies with antisemitic content.

Born in Munich, Viereck met with Hitler in 1933. The next year, he addressed 20,000 pro-Nazi supporters at New York City’s Madison Garden, making comparisons between Hitler and Roosevelt.

Operating throughout the US, Viereck masterminded the mass mailings of Nazi-sympathetic speeches delivered in Congress. Content included defenses of Germany’s hostility toward Czechoslovakia and its conquest of Poland in 1939.

A pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden, New York City, in 1939. (public domain)

All of these mass mailings were funded by US taxpayers, and some of the congressmen were on Berlin’s payroll.

Disturbingly, Viereck made American history even before his Nazi-era activities. After publishing defenses of Germany during World War I, Viereck received a letter from president Theodore Roosevelt advising him to renounce his American citizenship and join the German army.

Despite his seditious past, Viereck was allowed to remain in the US and become Hitler’s most powerful “undercover” PR agent.

George Sylvester Viereck, lifelong propagandist for Germany (public domain)

‘A ludicrously undignified trial’

As authorities worked to unravel several ultra-right-wing conspiracies, antisemitism remained in the foreground.

In Brooklyn, 17 Christian Front members were indicted for stockpiling bombs and guns for use on Jewish targets. The local jury, however, had deep affection for the borough’s so-called “Brooklyn Boys,” and no one was convicted in that 1940 trial.

Beginning in 1942, Jews in New York City and Boston “were attacked and beaten on the streets, in parks, with some victims stabbed or disfigured, and some girls having had their clothes ripped off,” said historian David Greenberg.

The Christian Front trial in New York on April 9, 1940. Seated left to right: LaRoy Keegan, John Viebrock, Leo Healy (the attorney defending 11 of the Christian Front members), and John Cassidy. Back row left to right: John F. Cook, Nick Ernecke, Macklin Boettiger, Francis Malone, Edward Walsh, Michael Vill, John Graf, William Bushnell. (AP Photo)

“Gangs robbed Jewish merchants, defiled synagogues and cemeteries, and committed other acts of vandalism. Jewish Girl Scout troops and other clubs had to stop meeting,” said Greenberg of the Christian Front’s campaign of assaults on Jews.

Back in Washington, antisemitism permeated the 1944 sedition trial even before proceedings began, when Judge Edward Eicher allowed potential jurors to be asked questions including their definition of “international bankers,” “Mongolian Jews,” and if they themselves were Jewish or had a Jewish relative.

“This is flummoxing in some ways,” said Maddow, who has said there are “strong similarities” between the seditious plots of “Ultra” and recent American history.

Judge Edward Eicher (public domain)

“For Judge Eicher to have allowed some of these questions specifically designed to keep Jews off the jury, and also to sort of push-pull the jury on being disinclined toward any Jewish perspective, is a remarkable thing. And indeed, there were no Jewish people on the jury,” said Maddow.

According to Time magazine, the proceedings were “the biggest and noisiest sedition trial in U.S. history.” The unexpected death of Judge Eicher in November 1944 forced a mistrial, and none of the co-conspirators faced justice.

“On the evening of the 102nd day, U.S. District Judge Edward Clayton Eicher, 65, went home, [and] died of a heart attack. No one in Washington doubted that a ludicrously undignified trial had hastened the death of a scrupulously dignified judge,” reported Time.

German-American Bund camp in New Jersey, 1937 (public domain)

Although none of the seditious officials faced punishment, the US media and pressure groups extensively investigated the interconnected plots, convincing voters to block nearly all of the co-conspirators from reelection. America First and the Christian Front dissolved after the Pearl Harbor attacks, hastened by the FBI’s belated action against pro-Nazi infrastructure throughout the country.

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