Pacifists Are Vulnerable to Fascism’s Whispers

Principled anti-war movements are in danger of being co-opted by opportunistic authoritarians.

Charles Lindbergh (left), with R. Douglas Stuart Jr., the founder of the America First Committee, when the flyer enrolled as a member in Chicago in 1940.
Charles Lindbergh (left), with R. Douglas Stuart Jr., the founder of the America First Committee, when the flyer enrolled as a member in Chicago in 1940. Getty Images

“Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist,” George Orwell famously wrote in his 1942 essay “Pacifism and the War.” Orwell’s argument was straightforward; anyone not helping the war effort against fascism was hindering it and therefore helping the Nazis. His with-me-or-against-me formulation has been wheeled out to argue for intervention ever since. Meanwhile, anti-war partisans have pointed out that Orwell recanted his use of the phrase and admitted that it was wrong to lump principled pacifists and fascists together.

Orwell was right to reconsider: Principled pacifists aren’t fascists. But his original article, and the debate about it, has served to obscure the fact that unprincipled people, and leaders, sometimes do use pacifist and anti-war rhetoric as a shield. Anti-war activists and thinkers need to be consciously anti-fascist if they want to avoid being co-opted to the cause of violence, hatred, and war by both bad actors close to hand and authoritarian regimes abroad.

Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime famously glorified militarism and hated pacifists—at home. The Nazis burned copies of Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front and made owning it a crime. Pacifist religious denominations like Jehovah’s Witnesses were often sent to concentration camps.

But while they attacked domestic pacifism, Nazi propagandists encouraged it abroad, especially in the United States. The German agent George Sylvester Viereck actually wrote speeches for anti-war Minnesota Sen. Ernest Lundeen to insert into the Congressional Record in 1937-1939. Homegrown fascists also used the language of pacifism. The anti-Semitic demagogue Gerald Winrod broadcast fiery speeches denouncing communists and warning, “War never pays.”

Most infamously, the hero aviator Charles Lindbergh, the de facto leader of the anti-war movement in the United States during World War II, gave a virulently anti-Semitic speech in 1941. Lindbergh claimed that Jewish people were pushing the United States into war, arguing: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” The stereotype of Jewish people as conspiratorial warmongering profiteers still has currency today; in 2006, the actor Mel Gibson infamously claimed that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.”

Lindbergh was not exactly a committed Nazi; following Pearl Harbor, he tried to enlist in the U.S. Air Force to fight Germany. But that’s partly the point. The anti-war movement in the United States before World War II was thoroughly infiltrated with fascist sympathizers and fascist anti-Semitic propaganda. People who opposed the war ended up soaked in Nazi ideology and Nazi talking points, even if they didn’t start there.

After World War I, pacifism gained many adherents. Hitler hated Remarque in part because his book was a massive worldwide hit on its release in 1929. The 1930s were a time when “antiwar sentiment attained unprecedented popular scope,” according to the historian Hans Schmidt. But by failing to distance themselves from fascism, anti-war movements during World War II badly hurt their own cause. Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic speech sank his reputation at the time and has associated him forever with Nazism. It would be decades before a credible anti-war movement was able to gain traction again in the United States, thanks in large part to the insanities of the war it opposed. And, as the continued fame of Orwell’s quote shows, the confluence of fascism and pacifism in World War II is still used to undercut anti-war efforts today.

Yet, despite this catastrophic failure for pacifism, some contemporary anti-war voices are arguing that the left should once again reach out to anti-war cryptofascist right-wing populists as allies for peace. Most notably, the anti-imperialist writer Glenn Greenwald wrote an article in the Intercept last month in which he suggested that the left could find common ground with the right. He pointed especially to the Fox News personality Tucker Carlson as an opponent of establishment militarism.

It’s true that Carlson opposed airstrikes against Iran and has spoken against intervention in Syria. But it’s important to remember that the far-right is virtually never opposed to war or violence as such. Winrod and other far-right figures like Charles Coughlin spoke against war with Germany not because they disliked war but because they believed that the United States was fighting the wrong enemy. Coughlin was a rabid anti-communist who believed that fascism had “evolved to act as a defense mechanism against communism.” He wanted the United States out of the war because he wanted Hitler to violently crush those he saw as the real enemies: Jewish people and the Soviets.

Similarly, those on the populist right today who advocate against particular wars are not actually devoted to word peace or to decreasing violence. Carlson is eager to militarize the United States’ own borders. He has also specifically said that he wants to de-escalate war abroad in order to focus on “the invasion of America now in progress from the south”—which is to say, he wants U.S. violence directed at foreign nationals closer to home. Carlson has called for rapprochement with Russia by “joking” about how he hopes that Russia’s military defeats Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s wars are celebrated and defended by far-right movements across the globe because his authoritarian homophobic nationalism seems like a plausible model for others to follow. In the same way, Hitler and Benito Mussolini were embraced by right-wing movements of their time, even in countries they threatened. And as in World War II, current right-wing movements do not want to end war. They want their opponents, internal and external, to disarm. Anti-war advocates need to push all nations toward less violence. They shouldn’t allow fascists to enlist them in picking the worst possible winners.

It’s also important to think about who is excluded from anti-war movements when fascists are invited in. In 2008, Carlson said: “Iraq is a crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys—that’s why it wasn’t worth invading.” Carlson has also called the Black Lives Matter movement “poison.” Josh Hawley, another right-wing populist who has spoken against war with Iran, has made vitriolic attacks on LGBT rights.

A movement that embraces Carlson and Hawley is a movement that is going to seem extremely unwelcoming to many Black people, transgender people, and Muslim people. Is it safe for marginalized people to have their names on right-wing anti-war mailing lists? Is it safe to join in anti-war rallies with violent bigots who hate you and may be jotting down your name and taking pictures of your face for later?

In order to make Carlson and the populist right seem like reasonable allies, Greenwald is forced to downplay the dangers. On Twitter, he said it was “gross and offensive” to compare Hawley and others to Hitler. To advance pacifism, the anti-war left is supposed to handwave the genocidal logic of far-right ideology and normalize leading apologists for bigotry and state violence. Just so did Lindbergh end up opposing war with the Nazis by justifying war against Jewish people.

A rigorously anti-fascist anti-war movement has to reject allies like Carlson, Hawley, and Putin. It needs to be as concerned about the victims of Russian troops in Ukraine as with U.S. drone strikes; it has to care as much about the violence of authoritarianism as it does about the violence of war. An anti-fascist anti-war movement should hold Bashar al-Assad accountable for waging war on his own people; it should work to remove Carlson and other rabid, hateful bigots from public life. It should recognize that fascism is not compatible with peace.

Fascists have historically used the rhetoric of pacifism to advance their own violent goals. That means that pacifists need to be very wary when the far-right offers them aid or claims to be on their side. A world in which fascists seize control of anti-war movements is not a less violent one. Pacifists have a choice: They can be anti-fascist, or they can be tools of genocide and war.

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer in Chicago.

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