How a Canadian priest became the most effective disseminator of Nazi propaganda in America
Coughlin expressed sympathy for the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini as an antidote to Communism
By Robert Fulford
As the riot in Charlottesville exploded onto the headlines, the world learned that there are Americans who not only hold Nazi views but are glad to be thought of as Nazis and even deploy Nazis slogans like “blood and soil.” This was startling but not unprecedented. In the 1930s, the pro-Nazi movement had crossed the Atlantic to infect North America.
In February 1939, about 20,000 Nazis assembled at Madison Square Garden in New York. They were there, they said, to celebrate George Washington’s birthday but the meeting’s main purpose was to assert the growing power and influence of the German-American Bund.
As in Charlottesville recently, anti-Nazi protesters also showed up. It was said there were 100,0o0 people around the building, anxious to prevent the rally from happening. There were also 10,000 police officers to keep the peace, which they managed to do. There wouldn’t be a larger police presence in New York till 9/11.
Organizing the Bund was largely the work of Fritz Kuhn, a German immigrant who called himself “the Bundesführer.” He admired Hitler, intensely disliked Jews and did everything he could to promote his role as a fascist leader. In 1936, he escorted a group of German-Americans to Berlin for the Olympics. When they returned, Kuhn told his followers that Hitler had acknowledged him as “the American Führer.”
At Madison Square Garden, Kuhn ranted against President Franklin Roosevelt, calling him “Frank D. Rosenfeld.” He denounced Roosevelt’s New Deal as “the Jew Deal.” The New York mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who found the Bund troublesome, assigned city accountants to examine its taxes. They discovered that Kuhn had stolen $14,000 to maintain his mistress. Kuhn’s sentence was two and a half to five years in prison for tax evasion and embezzlement. After spending 46 months in Sing Sing, he was re-arrested as an enemy agent and interned by the federal government. In 1945, he was deported and in West Germany was imprisoned, then released shortly before his death in 1951.
If Kuhn was the organizer of Nazi events, the most effective disseminator of Nazi propaganda in America was Father Charles Coughlin, a Roman Catholic priest at the Shrine of the Little Flower Church, near Detroit.
He was among the most admired and most hated celebrities of the era. His weekly radio broadcasts, full of angry libels against Jews and praise for Hitler, reached about 30 million Americans.
Coughlin was a Canadian, born in Hamilton in 1891 and educated at St. Michael’s College in Toronto. After graduation, he decided to become a priest and entered the Basilian Fathers. After ordination in Toronto in 1916, he taught at Assumption College in Windsor. He grew famous after he crossed the border, when his powerful preaching made the Shrine of the Little Flower flourish.
In his earliest days as a public speaker, he supported Roosevelt — he used the slogan “The New Deal is Christ’s Deal.” But he changed his mind because, he said, Roosevelt was too friendly to bankers. He became a kind of leftist fascist, creating his own political organization, the National Union for Social Justice and a newspaper, Social Justice. He argued for the rights of labour and the nationalization of railroads and other major industries.
Coughlin began his radio talks in 1926 on a local station, but after four years, they were picked up by CBS for national broadcast. His topics were mainly religious until the Depression turned him to politics. He set an angry tone when dealing with Soviet Communism and criticized capitalists in America whose greed had made Communist ideology attractive. His reputation made him appear independent. When CBS cancelled his broadcast, he put together his own network of 36 stations.
After the 1936 election (Roosevelt’s second victory), Coughlin increasingly expressed sympathy for the fascist governments of Hitler and Mussolini as an antidote to Communism. He claimed Jewish bankers were behind the Russian Revolution and that Russian Bolshevism was a disproportionately Jewish phenomenon. Social Justice ran, in weekly instalments, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent, anti-Semitic text that claimed Jews were plotting to seize control of the world. Among Jews, Coughlin was by that point considered the most venomous and dangerous anti-Semite on the continent.
He faded from the scene as the Second World War took over the public imagination, but he continued to serve as a parish priest until the 1960s. He was mostly forgotten when he died, at 88, in 1979. Today, echoes of his ugly career can be found here and there in American culture. Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a fascist coup in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here, contains a pro-fascist radio talker said to be “to the pioneer Father Coughlin … as the Ford V-8 to the Model A.” Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) satirized him in a series of political cartoons.
In Philip Roth’s 2004 book, The Plot Against America, Coughlin backs Charles Lindbergh’s pro-Nazi US government and helps get him elected. Woody Guthrie jeered at Coughlin in a song, “Yonder comes Father Coughlin, wearin’ the silver chain, Cash on the stomach and Hitler on the brain.”