Glenn Beck's TV Documentary on 20th Century Totalitarianism: Does He Get it Right?

Last Friday, along with millions of others, I watched Glenn Beck’s first TV documentary, “The Revolutionary Holocaust: Live Free or Die,”  his attempt, as he puts it on his website, “to examine the roots of socialism and communism and the evil that followed.”  As one of the most controversial and one might say hated contemporary media figures on the Right, it was to be expected that his entrée into the documentary field would meet instant harsh criticism.


The first round of attacks came from some academics interviewed by Michael Calderone for Politico. Calderone saw it not as an attempt to educate viewers about the totalitarian monsters of the previous century, but as a mechanism for using “imagery pulled from the 20th century’s totalitarian past to make a point about citizens needing to be wary of government overreach in the present.”   He quoted Beck as having previously promoted the program by saying that “‘progressives’ don’t want the public to know about this history and that it’s  ‘not being taught in classrooms in America.’”

Next Calderone queried academics, including Clemson University Professor Steven Marks and Boston College noted political scientist and author Alan Wolfe, both of whom found little of merit, if anything, in the documentary. Marks thought Beck was trying to hint at a resemblance of contemporary liberals to figures like Hitler and Stalin. Moreover, Marks argued that “no one in their right mind is going to defend Stalin or Mao or Che Guevara.” Evidently Prof. Marks has not seen or heard about Steven Soderbergh’s recent lengthy film on Che, or the scores of pro-Che and pro Castro documentaries broadcast over the years on PBS, or anyone wearing a T-shirt heralding Che as a great liberator.

I don’t know what planet Professor Marks is living on, but if he wants to get in touch with me, I’ll bore him to death with scores of examples from prominent figures in both the academy and the political Left who in fact regularly engage in precisely just such glorification. If they do not glorify them, they will come up with scores of reasons to explain why their mechanisms of political control were forced on them by the opposition of American imperialism to their valiant attempt to establish socialism. This used to be par for course to explain Stalinism; now it is more often used by many to account for and to excuse Castro’s transformation of Cuba into a totalitarian state.


So, I suspect that although I did not learn anything new from Beck’s program (I am hardly, however, the average viewer), his footage and interviews on Communism were excellent. On Cuba, the two talking heads were Cuban scholar Humberto Fontova, author of numerous books and two exposing Che Guevara in particular; and Reason magazine’s former editor in chief and now head of Reason TV, Nick Gillespie. Both did a yeoman job of putting Castroism in context, and in revealing the reality of Castro’s prison island.  Gillespie essentially said on camera much the same thing as appears now on his magazine’s website. Beck also included a tear-wrenching interview with a Cuban widow and her daughter who witnessed the execution of their husband and father by firing squad on Cuban TV after Castro took power.

On the Soviet Union, the documentary concentrated on the Ukraine, and included an interview with the outgoing current President as well as the comments of  Rutgers University Professor Taras Hunczak, who told the story of the state induced famine and the horrendous consequences for the people of the Soviet Union who lived under the regime of terror created by Lenin, Stalin and their successors. Also presenting material was a Latvian prize winning documentary filmmaker, Edvins Snore, whose own film, “The Soviet Story,” reveals  how the current generation of young Russians remain ignorant of their own past history and now, as a consequence, often mindlessly defend Stalin as a great leader of his people.

On Mao and China, Beck brought to his camera the noted Chinese exile author, Jung Chang, whose magisterial biography of Mao, co-authored with her husband Jon Halliday, has been justly praised as definitive. Her own family memoir, Wild Swans, is one of the most powerful and impressive works of literary biography, in which Chang weaves her family’s stories through three different eras of Chinese history. It is clear from the caliber of the people Beck used to tell the story of Communism that the documentary has to be taken as a serious effort, and not dismissed as easily as did the academics who spoke to Calderone.


I suspect what most irked the academics was Beck’s choice of the general commentator on the roots of fascism, National Review contributing editor Jonah Goldberg, author of the best-selling book Liberal Fascism, which received the disdain of not only most academics, but that of liberal journalists and writers, who trashed it in various venues. This is not the time or place to discuss his thesis, but those interested in seeing how professional historians loathe it can immediately go to the fierce round of attacks up this week on the website of the  History News Network.

Goldberg and the documentary made the familiar argument that others have challenged; namely, that fascism is not a doctrine of the Right, but one that emerged from the Left. The film showed in particular rarely seen footage of playwright and influential Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw, extolling for the camera the virtues of Benito Mussolini, Italy’s Fascist dictator. The film could have proceeded to make the point — one missed by those who put it together — that Shaw later became an equal fan and supporter of Joseph Stalin.  They could also have pointed to the story of  famed New York Times newsman Herbert Matthews, who made Fidel Castro into a worldwide hero. Matthews held exclusive interviews in the mountains with Castro during his guerrilla war against Fulgencio Batista, and was taken in by Castro’s staged actions to make it appear he had a strong guerrilla group, rather than a defeated ragtag army. Decades earlier Matthews gained fame  as a correspondent who supported the Loyalists during the Spanish Civil War, which made him a hero to the Left. Yet few know that Matthews too started his journalistic career as a supporter of Mussolini and as a journalist who backed the Italian dictator’s invasion of Ethiopia.

Had Beck or his researchers known about it, it might have been more effective for American audiences to hear the words of the founder of the American labor movement, Samuel Gompers, who in the journal of the American Federation of Labor praised Mussolini and the doctrine of Fascism as a model for American workers to emulate and to build upon in the United States. The example of Gompers would, I think, have been far more effective in revealing how Mussolini’s economic and political doctrines received wide support in the United States from those like Gompers who normally would be considered on the Left of the political spectrum.


Alan Wolfe singled out for criticism the section of the film that mentioned  Hitler had instituted a program of health care, as well as a nation-wide public works programs which quickly helped Germany out of the depression and that was widely popular among the populace. Wolfe commented that “Nazi Germany was not evil because of their economic program,” but was “evil because it aimed at the extermination of European Jewry.”

Of course, the film made rather clear that the enormity of the Holocaust was the single most evil thing about Nazi Germany. The script did not say that its domestic programs were evil. For example, most people do not know that Hitler’s regime was the first to start a massive public campaign against smoking, which it correctly argued caused cancer. In fact, historian Robert Proctor wrote an entire book about it. Proctor reveals that the program was in fact quite laudable, and was the most aggressive state run effort to curb people from smoking. The review makes the following points about it:

The Nazi doctors fought their war against cancer on many fronts, battling environmental and workplace hazards (restrictions on the use of asbestos) and recommending food standards (bans on carcinogenic pesticides and food dyes) and early detection (“men were advised to get their colons checked as often as they would check the engines of their cars…”). Armed with the world’s most sophisticated tobacco-disease epidemiology–they were the first to link smoking to lung cancer definitively–Nazi doctors were especially passionate about the hazards of tobacco. Hitler himself was a devout nonsmoker, and credited his political success to kicking the habit. Proctor does an excellent job of charting these anticancer efforts–part of what he terms “the ‘flip side’ of fascism”–and, along the way, touches on some unsettling issues. Can an immoral regime promote and produce morally responsible science? Or, in Proctor’s words, “Do we look at history differently when we learn that … Nazi health officials worried about asbestos-induced lung cancer? I think we do. We learn that Nazism was a more subtle phenomenon than we commonly imagine, more seductive, more plausible.”


The point is relevant to Beck’s documentary: The Nazi war on cancer did not make the regime any less evil. The same leaders who tried to save the lives of its so-called Aryan population did everything it could to kill Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, Communists, trade unionists and socialists. Above all, Hitler devoted the regime to first and foremost cleansing Europe entirely of all living Jews, and his death squads exterminated them even before the gas ovens were built in the various concentration camps.

Nor do I think the film suggested that because the Nazis had such programs, similar ones in America means that the United States is moving towards a form of Nazism. Yet, I do think the point made as criticism by Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin has great validity. Kazin is quoted as saying that he saw the documentary as “a classic piece of anti-Communist propaganda,” which from my point of view, does not make it inaccurate and is not necessarily a bad thing. Kazin then points to a major element of the story that Glenn Beck’s film leaves out. He writes, accurately, that “‘the first anti-Communists were democratic socialists and anarchists like Emma Goldman” or that “socialists in Europe after 1945 were allies of the U.S. against the USSR.”

Kazin is correct. His point is further illustrated by the following. A major anti-Communist operative during the years of the Cold War was Jay Lovestone, head of the AFL-CIO’s international apparatus, which he singlehandedly transformed into an active organization fighting the Communists in Italy, Germany, Japan and elsewhere. When some supporters of Senator Joe McCarthy attacked his outfit as working with leftists, Lovestone responded that “they don’t understand that the Social-Democrats are our best allies in the fight against the Communists.” Beck does not seem to comprehend that the socialists were in fact our most dependable friends in the worldwide fight against the Soviet Union and Europe’s Communists. He may disagree with those who want America to move towards a European style social-democratic welfare state. But his viewers would not comprehend how these same socialists were our allies, if they ever came across this fact elsewhere.


It would have helped give more perspective and understanding to the story if Beck had in fact showed just that point, and perhaps obtained interviews with surviving participants of the old anti-Communist wars from people active in the labor and social-democratic movements. As for Kazin’s claim that Beck only wants to expose “inhumanity on the left,” why then did the film deal with Hitler and Nazism, which certainly Kazin does not see as a force on the Left?

Finally, on this point, I agree with the argument offered by Lee Edwards, the conservative activist now at the Heritage Foundation, and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. Edwards says that Beck “is thoughtful and interested in history. How many journalists in cable, print or whatever have this kind of interest in giving you a historical context. I think he should be commended for that.” And Nick Gillespie adds: “Beck may be a strange mix of comedy and pathos, but he’s also bringing substantive discussion to cable news and creating arguments that can be engaged, refuted or amended.”

I would only add one caveat, and that is, on certain issues, Beck speaks up before he thoroughly understands an issue. I will deal in particular with his treatment and discussion of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the next installment of my blog.


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