Far-right groups stockpiling guns and explosives, preparing for a violent overthrow of a government they deem illegitimate. Open antisemitism on the airwaves, expressed by mainstream media figures. Leading politicians openly embracing bigoted, authoritarian leaders abroad who disdain democracy and the rule of law.
This might sound like a recap of the past few years in America, but it is actually the forgotten story told in a remarkable new podcast, “Ultra,” that recounts the shocking tale of how during World War II, Nazi propagandists infiltrated far-right American groups and the America First movement, wormed into the offices of senators and representatives and fomented a plot to overthrow the U.S. government.
“This is a story about politics at the edge,” the show’s creator and host, Rachel Maddow, said in the opening episode. “And a criminal justice system trying, trying, but ill-suited to thwart this kind of danger.”
Maddow is, of course, a master storyteller, and she never lets the comparisons to today’s troubles get too on the nose. But as I hung on each episode, I couldn’t help thinking about Jan. 6 and wondering: Will that day and its aftermath be a hinge point in our country’s history? Or a forgotten episode to be plumbed by some podcaster decades from now?
When asked about the meaning of contemporary events, historians like to jokingly reply, “Ask me in 100 years.” This week, the committee in the House of Representatives investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot will drop its doorstop-size report, a critical early installment in the historical record. Journalists, historians and activists have already generated much, much more material, and more is still to come.
In January, a Republican majority will take over the House and many of its members have pledged to begin their own battery of investigations, including an investigation into the Jan. 6 investigation. What will come from this ouroboros of an inquiry one cannot say, but it can only detract from the quest for accountability for the events of that day.
Beyond that, polling ahead of this year’s midterm elections indicated that Americans have other things on their minds, perhaps even more so now that the threat of election deniers winning control over voting in key swing states has receded. But what it means for the story that America tells itself about itself is an open question. And in the long run, that might mean more accountability than our current political moment permits.
Why do we remember the things we remember, and why do we forget the things we forget? This is not a small question in a time divided by fights over history. We all know the old saying: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. But there is another truism that to my mind often countervails: We are always fighting the last war.
The story that Maddow’s podcast tells is a doozy. It centers on a German American named George Sylvester Viereck, who was an agent for the Nazi government. Viereck was the focus of a Justice Department investigation into Nazi influence in America in the 1930s. For good reason: Lawmakers helped him in a variety of ways. One senator ran pro-German propaganda articles in magazines under his name that had actually been written by Viereck and delivered pro-German speeches on the floor of Congress written by officials of the Nazi government. Others reproduced these speeches and mailed them to millions of Americans at taxpayer expense.
Viereck also provided moral and financial support to a range of virulently antisemitic and racist organizations across the United States, along with paramilitary groups called the Silver Shirts and the Christian Front. Members of these groups sought to violently overthrow the government of the United States and replace it with a Nazi-style dictatorship.
This was front-page news at the time. Investigative reporters dug up scoop after scoop about the politicians involved. Prosecutors brought criminal charges. Big trials were held. But today they are all but forgotten. One leading historian of Congress who was interviewed in the podcast, Nancy Beck Young, said she doubts that more than one or two people in her history department at the University of Houston knew about this scandal.
Why was this episode consigned to oblivion? Selective amnesia has always been a critical component of the American experience. Americans are reared on myths that elide the genocide of Indigenous Americans, the central role of slavery in our history, America’s imperial adventures and more. As Susan Sontag put it, “What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened.”
Our favorite stories are sealed narrative boxes with a clear arc — a heroic journey in which America is the hero. And it’s hard to imagine a narrative more cherished than the one wrought by the countless books, movies and prestige television that remember World War II as a story of American righteousness in the face of a death cult. There was some truth to that story. But that death cult also had adherents here at home who had the ear and the mouthpiece of some of the most powerful senators and representatives.
It also had significant support from a broad swath of the American people, most of whom were at best indifferent to the fate of European Jewry, as “The U.S. and the Holocaust,” a documentary series by filmmakers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein that came out in September, does the painful work of showing. A virulent antisemite, Rev. Charles E. Coughlin, hosted by far the biggest radio show in the country. At his peak in the 1930s, about 90 million people a week tuned in to hear his diatribes against Jews and communism.
In some ways, it is understandable that this moment was treated as an aberration. The America First movement, which provided mainstream cover for extremist groups, evaporated almost instantly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Maybe it was even necessary to forget. When the war was over there was so much to do: rebuild Europe, integrate American servicemen back into society, confront the existential threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Who had the time to litigate who had been wrong about Germany in the 1930s?
Even professional historians shied away from this period. Bradley Hart, a historian whose 2018 book “Hitler’s American Friends” unearthed a great deal of this saga, said that despite the wealth of documentary material there was little written about the subject.
“This is a really uncomfortable chapter in American history because we want to believe the Second World War was this great moment when America was on the side of democracy and human rights,” Hart told me. “There is this sense that you have to forget certain parts of history in order to move on.”
As anyone who has been married for a long time knows, sometimes forgetting is essential to peace. Even countries that have engaged in extensive post-conflict reconciliation processes, like South Africa and Argentina, were inevitably limited by the need to move on. After all, you make peace with your enemies, not your friends.
The aftermath of Jan. 6 is unfolding almost like a photo negative of the scandal Maddow’s podcast unfurls. With very few exceptions those involved in the pro-Nazi movement escaped prosecution. A sedition trial devolved into a total debacle that ended with a mistrial. President Harry Truman, a former senator, ultimately helped out his old friend Sen. Burton K. Wheeler, a figure in the plot to disseminate Nazi propaganda, by telling the Justice Department to fire the prosecutor who was investigating it.
But the major political figures involved paid the ultimate political price: They were turfed out of office by voters.
Many of the perpetrators of the Jan. 6 riot, on the other hand, have been brought to justice successfully: Roughly 900 people have been arrested; approximately 470 have pleaded guilty to a variety of federal charges; around 335 of those charged federally have been convicted and sentenced; more than 250 have been sentenced to prison or home confinement. Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers, was convicted of seditious conspiracy, the most serious charge brought in any of these cases.
In their report to be released this week, the Jan. 6 committee is expected to recommend further criminal indictments. One big question looming over it all is whether former President Donald Trump will be criminally charged for his role in whipping up the frenzy that led to the assault on the Capitol.
A broader political reckoning seems much more distant. Election deniers and defenders of the Jan. 6 mob lost just about every major race in swing states in the 2022 midterms. But roughly 200 Republicans who supported the lie about the 2020 election being stolen won office across the country, The New York Times reported.
What larger narrative about America might require us to remember Jan. 6? And what might require us to file it away as an aberration? The historian’s dodge — “ask me in 100 years” — is the only truly safe answer. But if the past is any guide, short-term political expediency may require it to be the latter. After all, it is only now that decades of work by scholars, activists and journalists has placed chattel slavery at the center of the American story rather than its periphery. What are the current battles about critical race theory but an attempt to repackage the sprawling, unfinished fight for civil rights into a tidy story about how Black people got their rights by appealing to the fundamental decency of white people and by simply asking nicely? In this telling, systematic racism ended when Rosa Parks could sit in the front of the bus. Anything that even lightly challenges the finality of racial progress is, at best, an unwelcome rupture in the narrative matrix; at worst it is seen as a treasonous hatred of America.
History, after all, is not just what happened. It is the meaning we make out of what happened and the story we tell with that meaning. If we included everything there would be no story. We cannot and will not remember things that have not been fashioned into a story we tell about ourselves, and because we are human, and because change is life, that story will evolve and change as we do.
There is no better sign that our interpretation of history is in for revision than the Hollywood treatment. Last week it was reported that Steven Spielberg, our foremost chronicler of heroic World War II tales, plans to collaborate with Maddow to make “Ultra” into a movie. Perhaps this marks the beginning of a pop culture reconsideration of America’s role in the war, adding nuance that perturbs the accepted heroic narrative.
And so I am not so worried about Jan. 6 fading from our consciousness for now. One day — maybe in decades, maybe in a century — some future Rachel Maddow will pick up the story and weave it more fully into the American fabric, not as an aberration but as a continuous thread that runs through our imperfect tapestry. Maybe some future Steven Spielberg will even make it into a movie. I bet it’ll be a blockbuster.