What a long-lost magazine teaches us about demagoguery and our response to it.
In March 1934, a collection of North American thinkers from the religious (Rabbi Stephen Wise, Unitarian Rev. John Haynes Holmes) to the journalistic (Dorothy Thompson, later the first U.S. correspondent to be ousted from Nazi Germany) gathered to observe a yahrzeit, a memorial of loss, marking the first anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s ascension to power. They met in the pages of Opinion: A Journal of Jewish Life and Letters, a then-monthly magazine that, these days, is all but forgotten. Read today, 84 years after their publication, the essays still crackle with anger and eerie prescience. Terror had come to Europe, particularly for the continent’s increasingly disenfranchised Jews. With the resurgence of populism and xenophobia around the world today, reading how early 20th-century authors analyzed the dangers posed by that era’s demagogues — long before their terrible plans actually played out — offers some insight into the present moment.
“There tends to be a misperception in the general public today that Americans didn’t have any sense of the threat of Nazism as it was unfolding, and the opposite is true,” says Daniel Greene, a history professor at Northwestern University and guest curator of the new exhibit Americans and the Holocaust at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The monographs printed in Opinion eloquently reinforce that point.
“Law does not govern,” writes Thompson, then a correspondent for several major U.S. publications, about conditions in 1934 Germany. “Force and the arbitrary and unchallengeable decisions of a small oligarchy, made from day to day, govern. Their decrees are the law.” She and the other writers anticipate Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria, the coming war between fascism and democracy, and the degradation and excising of — as well as attempt to exterminate — an entire ethnic group, Jews, from German society. They worry, too, about the potential export of Germany’s racialized system of citizenship.
While Opinion can still be found in the Library of Congress, the extraordinary foresight of its writers is rarely, if ever, mentioned in the myriad histories of World War II. The anniversary edition reproduced here can’t be found online.
That is unfortunate. Though these pleadings for a prompt and rigorous response to demagoguery went unheeded, the essays contain lessons for addressing current crises. Hitler’s racialist totalitarianism was, in retrospect, an obvious abomination. But given today’s rising anti-immigrant sentiment, populism, and disenchantment with democracy, it is ever more important to remember just how far such dark impulses can lead.