Screenwriter Erik Tarloff, whom according to his bio at the Atlantic, “has contributed speeches to Bill Clinton, Al Gore and others on a pro bono basis,” and who is married to former Clinton economic advisor Laura D’Andrea Tyson, looks back on a critical question his late father, a Hollywood screenwriter himself, was once asked about his life choices. Would he feel equal outrage, if Hollywood’s blacklist at the height of the Cold War had targeted Nazis rather than Communists?
It has often been noted that both the Senate and House investigating committees during this period blackened reputations with a reckless disregard for the truth, besmirching many who had never been Communists. This is certainly true. But it strikes me as much too narrow a criticism, implicitly conceding the right of those committees to investigate the private beliefs of American citizens and to penalize them if those beliefs were deemed erroneous. It accepts the basic mission, in other words, but assails the sloppiness of the execution. Harry Truman was more on the mark when he described the Un-American Activities Committee as “the most un-American thing in America.” Nobody, after all, was being accused of treason, or of terrorism. People were being investigated and punished solely for what they thought.
Within a day of his testimony, my father was dropped by his agency, fired from his job (he was a staff writer on the then-popular situation comedy I Married Joan), and declared persona non grata in the only profession he had ever pursued. An account of what followed can wait for another time; for now, it’s enough to say that he managed to scrape by, the situation slowly improved, and the first script to bear his name after his blacklisting, produced some 11 years later, won him an Academy Award.
Now, let’s flash forward to some time in the mid-’90s. Frank was invited to appear on an LA radio show to talk about his experiences of the blacklist. By then, Joseph McCarthy, the movement he led, and the blacklist that resulted were all in total disrepute, and my father agreed to the interview with the reasonable expectation that he would be treated as a victim of a deplorable aberration in American history.
That isn’t quite what happened. The interviewer began the dialogue by asking if my father would feel equal outrage had the blacklist targeted Nazis rather than Communists. Wrong-footed, Frank fumfered some sort of response. After the interview, both my parents emerged from the studio in high dudgeon. “How dare he?” was the gravamen of their scandalized indignation. And when they told me about the interview later that day, I made matters worse by suggesting the interviewer had posed a legitimate question. There was a distinct chill in the parental household for some time thereafter.
But it is a legitimate question. Unless one is prepared to defend Communism on its merits, or, alternatively, is merely defending one’s comrades out of a kind of tribal loyalty, then one is, I think, obliged to consider whether punishing people for their political beliefs is always wrong, or wrong only when it’s one’s own side that is being persecuted.
Now, I concede there’s one important distinction to be made here. Americans of my parents’ generation joined the Communist Party out of genuine idealism, no matter how misplaced. With 25 percent unemployment, Jim Crow laws in operation in the South and de facto segregation common elsewhere, and fascism on the rise in Europe and effectively unopposed by the continent’s democracies, Communism might have looked like a reasonable political recourse. Whereas it’s hard to imagine anyone becoming a Nazi out of anything anyone would recognize as idealism.
Why? As Orrin Judd writes, “Pssssst…the Nazis were idealists, too.”
And as Jonah Goldberg noted in Liberal Fascism, Nazism was a populist movement — and one designed from its start to appeal to the communists of post-World War I Weimar-era Germany, by yoking socialism and nationalism together:
Hitler is just as straightforward in Mein Kampf. He dedicates an entire chapter to the Nazis’ deliberate exploitation of socialist and communist imagery, rhetoric, and ideas and how this marketing confused both liberals and communists. The most basic example is the Nazi use of the color red, which was firmly associated with Bolshevism and socialism. “We chose red for our posters after particular and careful deliberation…so as to arouse their attention and tempt them to come to our meetings…so that in this way we got a chance of talking to the people.” The Nazi flag—a black swastika inside a white disk in a sea of red—was explicitly aimed at attracting communists. “In red we see the social idea of the movement, in white the nationalistic idea, in the swastika the mission of the struggle for the victory of Aryan man.”
The Nazis borrowed whole sections from the communist playbook. Party members—male and female—were referred to as comrades. Hitler recalls how his appeals to “class-conscious proletarians” who wanted to strike out against the “monarchist, reactionary agitation with the fists of the proletariat” were successful in drawing countless communists to their meetings. Sometimes the communists came with orders to smash up the place. But the Reds often refused to riot on command because they had been won over to the National Socialist cause. In short, the battle between the Nazis and the communists was a case of two dogs fighting for the same bone.
Nazism’s one-nation politics by its very definition appealed to people from all walks of life. Professors, students, and civil servants were all disproportionately supportive of the Nazi cause. But it’s important to get a sense of the kind of person who served as the rank-and-file Nazi, the young, often thuggish true believers who fought in the streets and dedicated themselves to the revolution. Patrick Leigh Fermor, a young Briton traveling in Germany shortly after Hitler came to power, met some of these men in a Rhineland workers’ pub, still wearing their night-shift overalls. One of his new drinking buddies offered to let Fermor crash at his house for the night. When Fermor climbed the ladder to the attic to sleep in a guest bed, he found “a shrine to Hitleriana”:
The walls were covered with flags, photographs, posters, slogans and emblems. His SA uniforms hung neatly ironed on a hanger…When I said that it must be rather claustrophobic with all that stuff on the walls, he laughed and sat down on the bed, and said: “Mensch! You should have seen it last year! You would have laughed! Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers, sickles, pictures of Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World Unite!…Then, suddenly when Hitler came to power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies. I realized Adolf was the man for me. All of a sudden!” He snapped his fingers in the air. “And here I am!”…Had a lot of people done the same, then? “Millions! I tell you, I was astonished how easily they all changed sides!”
No one should be in retrospect, almost a century later.