Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture: Envisioning the Totalitarian Enemy, 1920s-1950s

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview
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7

HERE IS GERMANY
UNDERSTANDING THE
NAZI ENEMY, 1941-1945

America entered World War II at a time when the precise nature of the enemy was more in question than it had been during the first two years of the conflict. With the invasion of Poland first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet Russia in September 1939, the war appeared, to many Americans, to pit the forces of democracy against those of modern dictatorship. In the winter of 1939-40, as Germany fought a "phony war" on its Western front, the chief villain in the American press was the Soviet Union, which had invaded "little Finland." With the assault on Holland, Belgium, and France in the spring of 1940, Germany again seized center stage. But until the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Pact with Germany's sudden push over the Soviet border in June 1941, World War II seemed to feature liberal democracy against an unusual alliance of far right and far left regimes, regimes that many Americans collectively labeled "totalitarian."

Although the demise of the Nazi-Soviet Pact came as no surprise to the oosevelt administration, it appeared to fundamentally alter the nature of the war and the drive for U. S. intervention. Russia was a formidable new military enemy for the Germans, stirring in FDR the hope that American troops might never have to be committed to ground war on the European continent. 1 But ideologically, Russia's involvement in the war against Germany created problems in the democracies. For two years, interventionists had urged Washington to enter a war pitting totalitarianism, in both its left and right manifestations, against democracy. Now, to the initial delight of many noninterventionists, the struggle had become less clear ideologically.

The new face of World War II did match an earlier vision of world conflict: a war pitting fascism against a Popular Front coalition of liberalism, socialism, and communism. Indeed, before the summer of 1939 this was the war that many interventionists had expected, a conflict prefigured tragically in Spain. But this metanarrative was severely damaged by the first

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