The Plot Against America
“…is it, ah, twoo what they say about the way you people are gifted? Oh, it’s twoo, it’s twoo!”
– Lili von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles
It’s been 75 years since the end of WWII and interest in all things Nazi has seen no end; indeed, you could argue cogently that the monster Herr Docktor Deutschenstein brought to life from the parts of dead people and old ideologies has never had more global interest. Innumerable auctions of paraphernalia, books, films, TV series, podcasts, and radio shows have been devoted to the historical phenomena that led to the rise of the Third Reich. You’d like to think it was all in the spirit of Lest We Forget, but you’ll never again be that criminal naive. Evil may be banal, but, mein gott, it’s as popular as ever.
Likewise, 75 years after liberation of Auschwitz, through equally countless media productions and public remembrances, Jews around the globe have spared no effort to remind us of what the rise of such monsterhood has cost civilization. The Holocaust, as represented by the tumbling action of naked human bodies pushed by bulldozers into mass pits, is imagery of such evil and depravity that there remains no adequate way to deal with it emotionally. The Holocaust is, for Jews, what Slavery is for African Americans. — the elephants in the room of western civilization. Sadly, those of us in the room, who are neither Black nor Jewish, no matter how freed from ignorance we believe we are, can’t even promise ourselves that such horror will never happen again. We look around; we know better.
There have been movies made that wonder aloud what would have happened had Hitler escaped the bunker in 1945 with his mentality intact and emerged in some land of magical realism, south of the border, ready to fuck with us again — The Boys from Brazil and Marathon Man are like that. But more recently, populist politics and fascism are on the rise and showing their fangs, and mixed with new technologies (from social media to eugenics), the LestWeForgetism required to keep them at heel is more vital than ever. Democracy is down but not out, the eight-count has begun. Two new streaming series — Hunters (Amazon) and The Plot Against America (HBO) — are What If movies that are based on real events that saw America come terrifyingly close to embracing Nazi thinking before, during and after WWII. They’re timely series worth watching.
Hunters is about a CIA (OSS) program called Operation Paperclip that saw the American government secretly ‘import’ thousands of Nazis at the end of WWII, ostensibly to keep them out of the clutches of the Soviets, with whom America was in a Cold War. The series stars Al Pacino, Logan Lerman (Shirley), Lena Olin (The Artist’s Wife), Saul Rubinek (Billions), and Carol Kane (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). Imagine you’re a survivor of Auschwitz, brought to America to recoup with democracy’s chicken soup, and you’re in a supermarket in Manhattan, say, and look up to see the Nazi who tattooed you and led your family into the gas showers standing right there with an eggplant in his hand, apparently rescued by Americans, too. Jaw-dropping? You bet.
Operation Paperclip was the means by which totally unpalatable Nazi scientists — such as Wernher von Braun and Kurt Blome — were allowed to escape post-war justice at Nuremberg, in order to help the growing Cold War effort against the Soviets. Of Blome, who had been director of the Nazi biological warfare program. Historian Stephen Kinzer writes,
They had learned how long it takes for human beings to die after exposure to various germs and chemicals,and which toxins kill most efficiently. Just as intriguing, they had fed mescaline and other psychoactive drugs to concentration camp [especially Dachau] in experiments aimed at finding ways to control minds or shatter the human psyche.
As for von Braun, he’d led the V2 rocket program that terrorized Britons, and went on to lead NASA’s quest (along with the Black computers) to get to the moon.
In the series, events kick off when a young man, Jonah (Lerman), watches as his grandmother (a death camp survivor) is confronted by a mysterious figure and murdered, while he does nothing to stop it. Anguished and self-questioning, he meets up with and joins Meyer (Pacino), who heads a motley group of Nazi hunters — including a severe British “nun” and a Black woman who gives off Angela Davis vibes — who set out to right the wrong, as vigilantes, of Nazis residing in America. Along the way, they try to understand how the US government could have invited such evil into the country; America risked allowing demon seeds to grow in the homeland. As if to underscore the moral rectitude of their mission, the group uncovers a Nazi plot to set in motion the rise of the Fourth Reich in America. Kick-ass scenes ensue, with lots of ‘entertaining’ twists, especially for Rocket Man von Braun. Industrialists, like Henry Ford, are also given comeuppance as nasty works of Nazi assemblage.
Hunters is a well-acted series, with Pacino especially effective as a slow-moving reflective ‘Jew’ with a penchant for bloody revenge. Jerrika Hinton as Millie Morris, a Black FBI agent caught between the vigilantes and the Nazis being hunted, and, Kate Mulvaney as Sister Harriet, follower of the Olden Rule (an eye-for-an-eye) with mysterious ties to MI6, are also outstanding. The actors playing the evil Nazi villains (Lena Olin, as The Colonel, and Dylan Baker as Biff Simpson) are great, too. And, Jerrika Hinton’s Black FBI agent adds consciousness of the scope of racism, two ex-slave cultures coming together like buff vampire slayers to kill off the egos that explode in history like IEDs, as Erich Fromm accounts for in The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
The series is, at times, comic bookish, but has outstanding a-lineal insertions, like the game show, Why Does Everyone Hate Jews?, where seemingly ordinary contestants are asked leading questions about the ‘evil Jews’; the insertion serves as a useful plot device to expose America’s underlying bigotry. It helps us see how ordinary Americans, in their desire to make America great again (or worse), could be hoodwinked by fascist bullshitters. Also, the insertions are surreal. The game show reminded me of a segment in Natural Born Killers when a psychopathic Rodney Dangerfield explodes on a TV screen in an episode of “I Love Mallory” and takes over the film for a minute. It’s a very powerful storytelling device for flashing Marilyn Knox’s dysfunctional childhood that is seen as the implicit motivation for her later evil. And the surrealism speaks to the incapacity of human language, at some point of outrage, to adequately express existential horror. The title of Harlan Ellison’s short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” kind of sums up the situational tension.
Moving along a different line of alternate history, equally plausible, given the status of the hero involved, The Plot Against America, based upon the novel by Philip Roth, involves Charles Lindbergh and the imagined cooptation of the American government by the Nazis as a result of Lindbergh’s public avowal of neutrality, but private admiration for Hitler, during WWII. In short, what if he’d run for president in 1940 and won, and then broke bad? The short series stars Winona Ryder (Evelyn Finkel), Ben Cole (Charles Lindbergh), Zoe Kazan (Bess Levin) and John Turturro as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf. It has a far slower pace than Hunters, in keeping with Roth’s intended gradualist rhythm, but delivers the Big Chill at the end. Like Hunters, it has high quality ensemble acting, and is both informative and entertaining.
In 1940, Charles Lindbergh was the spokesperson of the America First movement (think: Trump), which was non-interventionist and strongly critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire to provide military aid to European nations facing Germany’s expansionist aggression. Lindbergh became a national hero in 1927 when he completed the first solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in the monoplane dubbed The Spirit of St.Louis. He won a medal of honor and revolutionized commercial flights; he received a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan upon his return from Paris. Many Jews regarded him as a Nazi sympathizer (in 1938 Hermann Goering awarded him a medal, Order of the German Eagle, just a couple of weeks before Kristallnacht). But was he evil?
Engaging the masses directly, in a Reader’s Digest article in 1939, just as WWII was getting going, Lindbergh wrote:
We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood, only so long as we guard ourselves against attack by foreign armies and dilution by foreign races.
So we put up a wabbit-pwoof fence awound owwa democwacy, as Lili would say. She had to; Lady Liberty was getting exhausted servicing all the money-on-the-barrel requests from foreign riff-raff trying to get in, said Lindbergh, from a spirited honky-tonk in St. Louis.
The Plot Against America is a work of what we call today “creative nonfiction.” The novel tells the story from the Roth family view as Lindbergh rises to fame. Philip himself is the book’s narrator, but in the tv series young Philip is relegated to mere mortal narratee status. It’s as if Roth, in his waning years of creative productivity, worried about the future for his children and the country and penned this allegorical dystopia. The specific inspiration for the story came from Roth’s parsing of an as yet unpublished memoir by Arthur Schlesinger in which he cited Republicans pushing for Lindbergh to run against FDR. This must have chilled Roth, given what he knew about the history of bigotry in America.
In the HBO series, John Turturro’s role as Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf is central to understanding the dynamics at work in the story. American Jews, in the lead up to the 1940 presidential election, have yet to hear much more than rumors about the Nazis sending people to death camps, but the incendiary rhetoric is there, and Kristallnacht on November 10, 1938 had alerted the world of the Rough Blonde Beast slouching toward civilization. The good rabbi is a pacifist who initially celebrates Lindbergh’s call of non-intervention in Europe. Pacifism has deep roots in America, going back even to the Civil War, and more often than not, citizens have had to be conned, duped or drafted into going to war.
In some ways, the series lays out the heartbreak of the well-meaning rabbi and “the broken mirror of innocence,” as Bobby Dylan sings, that reveals the blind spots in his self-reflection that lead him to being an inadvertent and leading moral spokesperson for the Nazi regime. (Lindbergh had been highly criticized by American Jewry for not returning Goering’s medal following Kristallnacht, as it sent a message of appeasement.) Invited to President Lindbergh’s White House dinner in honor of the Nazi ambassador, Lionel ignores the swastika flag draped next to the American flag, the talk of close cooperation (even as Europe is being terrorized), and tolerates Henry Ford’s nasty anti-semitic insults at the shindig. It’s a classical tragedy, in that it leads to the fall of the Bengelsdorf family from power and grace. My hamartia hankies were sopping wet; catharsis was achieved.
When Lindbergh referenced, in his Readers Digest piece, the preservation of our inherited “European blood: and how Americans must guard against its “dilution by foreign races,” it resonated with the tropes and themes expressed in such social darwinistic tomes as The Passing of the Great Race (1916) by Madison Grant, which asserted that superior Nordic races had been enervated by overexposure to democracy. Early in his tenure at Columbia University cultural anthropologist Franz Boas was called on by the federal government to gather data among residents of Kleindeutschland (known today as the Lower East Side), which was “brimming with Jews, Poles, Italians, and Slovaks,” to gather statistics on assimilation by these ‘inferior’ lower cranials to back Grant’s thesis. But, instead, Boas rejected such notions, and cultural relativism was born.
In his rise to power, Hitler expressed admiration for America’s vision of racial segregation and Jim Crow policies, and Nazis were said to have been influenced in their concentration camp designs by the American Indian reservation system. With slavery as a legacy and disenfranchisement as a rule, white Americans were already living high off the Jim Crow hog. It was a feedback loopy thing between American elites and the Nazis.
According to Ira Katznelson in his review of James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model, It’s a “stubborn fact that during the 1933–45 period of the Third Reich, roughly half of the Democratic Party’s members in Congress represented Jim Crow states, and neither major party sought to curtail the race laws so admired by German lawyers and judges.” Even if Boas, a German immigrant, disappointed Congressmen in failing to find a scientific basis for racism, politics picked up the slack, and Americans, by and large, are Good Germans in a pinch.
It’s difficult to choose which of the two series is the more effective in getting its message across. Operation Paperclip never should have been allowed to happen; Nazis (war criminals) were invited into America and provided gift-wrapped middle class lifestyles (i.e., the American Dream) without the knowledge or consent of the public. There’s no way an elderly survivor of the Holocaust should experience the trauma of standing in a grocery line one day in Manhattan, only to look up and see the Commandant who tattooed her fondling an eggplant in front of her. We blamed the Russkies; they woulda got ‘em, if we didn’t. But you could argue, instead, for a Tarrantino ending, such as that depicted in Inglorious Basterds, another alternate history. Indeed, the Hunters are just that — inglorious basterds forced by their government’s evil to become vigilantes to right the wrong. Luckily, we have the likes of Simon Wiesenthal to rescue us from our deeper throes of vengeance, and this Good Cop Bad Cop question is handled deftly in the series.
Both series are powerfully presented and timely — especially in a land prone to populist hucksterism and filled with conspiracy theorists (how could it be otherwise in a democracy, amplified by so-called Deep State shenanigans, like unreported Operation Paperclip and almost unreported STELLARWIND?). While both series are entertaining, as a result of fielding top-flight acting ensembles, their real value is placing before the viewer an undeniable plausibility that Hannah Arendt wasn’t just talking shit: Evil really is so banal as to require constant vigilance against the vigilantes that lay in wait deep in the dixie hearts of Democrats and Republicans alike. We don’t call our electoral choices the Lesser of Two Evils for nothing.
As Nietzsche might have said, when we are fighting Golems, we need to be careful that we don’t become Golems ourselves.