According to a public opinion poll taken after the November 1938 anti-Jewish pogrom known as Kristallnacht, 94 percent of Americans disapproved of the Nazi regime’s treatment of Jews. While an overwhelming majority of US citizens viewed the Third Reich unfavorably, some Americans strongly identified with aspects of the Nazi political program; among them were even well-known public figures. Drawing on existing currents of racism, antisemitism, and isolationism in American society and finding inspiration from Nazi Germany’s anti-Jewish policies, this minority of Americans sometimes played a role in shaping Americans' response to the Nazi threat, the World War II, and the Holocaust.
Like interwar Germany, the United States in the 1930s faced social unrest, as well as political and economic insecurity.1 Following the widespread destruction during World War I, many Americans came to strongly oppose entry into another armed conflict. An era of increased immigration, meanwhile, inspired a backlash during the 1920s and further fueled isolationism and xenophobia."2 With the country experiencing the worst financial crisis in its history during the Great Depression, many Americans hoped for a rapid solution to their desperate economic circumstances. Although much of the American public opposed fascism, many considered communism a more immediate threat to the American way of life.3 Amid these tensions, the Nazi Party's emphasis on extreme nationalism, economic revitalization, and the perceived necessity of eradicating communism resonated among some Americans.
Racism and antisemitism—core features of the Nazi agenda—had long been familiar to Americans. At the turn of the twentieth century, new understandings of genetics combined with overt racism fueled the development of race "science," also known as eugenics, in the United States.4 Race scientists argued that the selective reproduction of genetically "fit" individuals would improve the "quality" of the overall population. Asserting the genetic superiority of Anglo-Americans, many supported restricting immigration from "less desirable" communities. Numerous prominent US eugenicists also corresponded with and influenced Nazi scientists, as illustrated in this letter from a leading American eugenicist to a German university.5 Eugenics provided a venue for intellectual exchange of scientific racism between Germany and the US, while also promoting American racism through proposed policy, "scientific" studies, and public events that promoted racism. A pair of posters displayed at an American state fair, featured here, point to a popular engagement with eugenic thought.
Although antisemitism was prevalent in American society throughout its early history, it never reached the extremes of the Nazi regime. Both German and American eugenicists advanced a concept of race that was biologically transmitted. The Nazi regime invoked this theory in branding their citizens as "Jews" or "Aryans."6 In the United States, Jews were excluded from certain neighborhoods and professions on an informal basis, and many universities had quotas on Jewish enrollment.7 Such measures were not enforced by law in the US, but powerful public personalities spread antisemitic ideas. Automotive tycoon Henry Ford, for example, used his platform to encourage conspiracy theories about the "secret global power of Jews," as evidenced by this article, The International Jew. Father Charles E. Coughlin, a popular social reformer and Catholic priest, blamed Jews for many of America's problems in his regular radio broadcasts to thousands of supporters.
As the Nazis consolidated their power in the 1930s, thousands of Americans joined organizations such as the Friends of New Germany and later, the German American Bund to promote and spread Nazi ideology. Members of these groups openly swore allegiance to Hitler's Germany and worked to counter any negative messages Americans received about the Nazi regime. The Bund's membership—largely drawn from German-Americans and more recent German immigrants—prohibited Jews from joining and recruited American youths through a network of summer camps modeled on those of the Hitler Youth in Germany. Included in this collection is a short film depicting one such camp.
By attempting to keep the US out of European conflict, American isolationists also bolstered the German war effort.8 One prominent isolationist group, the America First Committee, not only opposed entering the war in Europe but also raised stirred up suspicion of supposedly threatening "foreigners" and "foreign interests." "America First" became a popular slogan for isolationism, popularized in everyday objects such as the license plate attachment included in this collection.
This collection also explores opposition toward US support of Nazism through responses from Jewish communities in the United States. They formed organizations, wrote and distributed publications, or demonstrated publicly to win over Americans to their cause. The American Jewish Congress, led by Dr. Joseph Tenenbaum, launched a multiyear boycott of businesses selling German-made goods, captured in this photograph. The campaign pressured Jewish-owned businesses to break ties with Germany, an emphasis that raised questions about who counted as a "supporter" of Nazism in the economic sphere.
Once the United States entered World War II in December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, open support for Nazism became politically unacceptable. Loyalty toward Germany was not just controversial—it was regarded as treason. There is little evidence, therefore, of direct American support for the German Nazi Party in the US after 1941. Many Americans, however, understood the Second World War as a fight to protect their country against German aggression rather than a campaign to defeat Nazi ideals. African American9 and Jewish soldiers, meanwhile, saw irony in confronting the Nazi regime in Europe while their own government turned a blind eye to racially motivated violence and hatred at home. Antisemitism and racism remained significant issues in American life, even among US soldiers fighting in Europe and liberating concentration camps.
Although the majority of Americans never voiced approval of the Nazi Party and came to back US participation in World War II, Nazism did not face universal opposition from the American public. The items in this collection illustrate the means by which sympathy, or even outright support, for core tenets of Nazi ideology emerged in US society during the 1930s and 1940s.