American Isolationism: The Mock Trial of Hitler

In our last post on American isolationism before WWII we ended with the promise of an extraordinary demonstration against German fascism that took place in the U.S. in March 1934. That event was a mock trial of Adolf Hitler.

This article depends for its quotations on two good sources: “Publicly Deliberative Drama: The 1934 Mock Trial of Adolf Hitler for ‘Crimes against Civilization'”, Louis Anthes, The American Journal of Legal History , Vol. 42, No. 4 (Oct., 1998), pp. 391-410; and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson, Crown, NY, 2011.

The trial, which was attended by 20,000 people, was sponsored by many groups; it originated with the American Jewish Congress and included many labor unions–in fact, two months earlier New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and AFL Vice-President Matthew Woll had led what they termed a working-class anti-fascist rally at the same location, Madison Square Garden. Now they joined two dozen other leaders in American society, religion, and politics, including former New York Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Seabury; John Haynes Holmes, Minister of the Community Church of New York City; Raymond Moley, former Under-Secretaryof State under Roosevelt; and Mayor LaGuardia.

The Case of Civilization v. Hitler begain with an indictment against Hitler and his government which, amongst other crimes, “has not only destroyed the foundations of the German Republic, but, under penalty of death, torture, and economic extermination, and by process of progressive strangulation, has reduced and subjugated to abject slavery all sections of its population.” Hours of speeches from the famous men assembled concluded with a decision against the Nazis. [Anthes 392]

The Nazi government was furious. It had protested to the U.S. State Department before the trial, news of which had reached Germany in February, and Hans Luther, the German Ambassador to the U.S. met repeatedly with State Deparment personnel, including Secretary Cordell Hull; each complaint and meeting ended with the Americans repeating that “our constitutional guaranties of freedom of expression” prohibited the federal government from stopping the trial, or any other peaceful public demonstration. The Germans persisted in complaining, and six days after the trial Luther raged to Hull that “such offensive and insulting acts by the people of one country against the Government and its officials of another country” should not be tolerated. Four days later, he appeared in Hull’s office with a list of what Luther described as “abusive and insulting expressions of American citizens toward the Hitler Government.” [Larson 239]

Hull’s reponse was firm: “…America’s relationship with the previous German government had been ‘uniformly agreeable’ and [it] was only during the control of the present government that the troubles complained of had arisen… The whole problem would go away, Hull intimated, if Germany ‘could only bring about a cessation of these reports of personal injuries which had been coming steadily to the Unitd Stats from Germany and arousing bitter resentment among many people here.” [Ibid, 240]

The mock trial of Hitler on March 7, 1934 was followed by a few other trials and many rallies against fascism, culminating in another Madison Square Garden rally in July 1942, led by Rabbi Wise, against Nazi atrocities. By that time, of course, the U.S. was at war with Nazi Germany. There are echoes of the 1934 trial in the Nuremburg Trials after the war, which the U.S. insisted upon over British and Soviet objections (Britain wanted show trials without a defense, if any, and the Soviets wanted to go straight to executions).

This trial and the anti-Nazi demonstrations that preceded and followed it do not, of course, mean that there was no pro-Nazi sentiment in the U.S; there was, and American fascists held their own rallies and marches. The largest was the German American Bund, which also drew 20,000 people to a rally in New York on President’s Day 1939. One feels more certain that many people attending this rally were truly isolationist; by February 1939 war was just months away, Germany had annexed the Sudetenland and Austria, and there was more concrete concern about America entering another war.

But the majority of Americans in the 1930s were not knee-jerk isolationists; they despised Nazism and were willing to oppose it in many ways, from boycotts to signing petitions to working with relief groups to try to help Jewish Germans. They did not want to fight another war, but they did not refuse to acknowledge that a) the Nazis had to be stopped, and b) that war might be the only way to do this. There is always a vocal minority that grabs the national spotlight; here we have two: the 20,000 who rallied against Hitler and the 20,000 who rallied for him. Given the commitment of Americans to the principles of our Constitution, and their willingness to fight once war did come, it is hard to believe that the latter group had more unspoken support amongst Americans than the former.

Were Americans really isolationist before WWII?

There are a few things you will read almost without fail in any history of the U.S., from textbook to blog: the Puritans had a strong work ethic; Americans were the underdogs in the Revolutionary War, Andrew Jackson was a champion of the common man; Mary Todd Lincoln was insane; and Americans were isolationists before each of the World Wars. Generally, the more you read about any “given” subject, the less certain you become of the common knowledge dispensed about it, and sometimes you do a complete 180, realizing that the traditional take on a historical moment is just not true. That’s where Truth v. Myth comes from, and that’s what we’re looking at here.

American isolationism is a tricky topic. Generally, the cult of American isolationism has been built on these cornerstones: the lack of political action taken against Germany by the U.S. government until war was declared; Americans’ over-arching concern with the domestic economy during the Depression, which precluded any real or sustained interest in foreign affairs; and Roosevelt’s struggles to get Congress to authorize material support for Britain from 1940-1941.

The first and last of these concerns official government action; the second addresses the man in the street. They are often connected by saying, The man in the street did not want war with Germany and so the government tried to stay out of it. Only when Pearl Harbor was attacked did Americans rise up and demand war, and so Congress declared it.

But it’s clear when you study the U.S. in the interwar period that there was no single, national opinion on Europe and whether to intervene in German policy. The majority of Americans were concerned about what was happening in Germany; the increasingly oppressive and criminal policies the Nazi government introduced from the start of its rule in March 1933 were fully covered in the U.S. press, and that coverage alarmed and angered many Americans. More Americans had ancestors from Germany than from any other European nation, so millions of German-Americans were outraged at what they considered to be the Nazi destruction of German culture and civilization. Other Americans worried that Germany would provoke another war in Europe—not simply because they didn’t want the U.S. to fight another war, but because the  struggling U.S. economy needed a strong European export market. Communist and Socialist Americans were united with Democrats and Republicans in decrying the rise of fascist dictatorship. And Jewish Americans spread the word of the growing persecution of Jewish Germans through every available outlet.

So we see that there was a great deal of concern and anger about the Reich and its policies, and there was also real activism against Nazi Germany. Jewish Americans led the way, in particular Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the American Jewish Congress, who organized an anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in 1933 that drew 25,000 attendees. In the depths of the Depression, Wise called for an economic boycott against Nazi Germany that was supported by the American Federation of Labor and the International Trade Union Congress as well as the Jewish Labor Committee. The determination to isolate and attack Nazi Germany thus cut across religious lines.

Why didn’t the U.S. government act against the Nazis if so many Americans were against Germany? That is a very complex topic for another post (and has been addressed in many books), but suffice it to say, for here, that there were several factors at play: the government did not want to provoke another war if there was a diplomatic solution; the government did not receive any real support from any European nation for ostracizing Nazi Germany; and, significantly, the government, like most governments in Europe, simply did not believe that a government so oppressive, so cartoonish, so ridiculous and unstable, could possible last very long. Just as the Founders wrote slavery protections into our Constitution because they felt certain that slavery could not possible endure for very long in our democracy, so the U.S. (and Europe) continued to maintain as normal a relationship as possible with Nazi Germany, certain that it would quickly fall apart or be destroyed by an uprising of the German people.

In the meanwhile, Americans who also could not believe the Nazi regime would last did not ignore the growing threat. Local newspapers in big cities and small towns published the criminal actions of the German government. Many people with relatives in Germany worked to get them out of that country. Jewish Americans continually broadcast details of the emerging Holocaust. And, as we’ll see in the next post, there was an extraordinary demonstration against Hitler on March 7, 1934, that infuriated Germany and impacted relations with the U.S.

Next time: Hitler on trial in Manhattan