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

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

2

THE TOTALITARIAN STATE
MODERN DICTATORSHIP AS
A NEW FORM OF GOVERNMENT,
1920s-1935

Despite the attractions of the dictator, most Americans were hostile to fascism and communism throughout the 1920s and 1930s. In the 1920s fascism and communism were usually seen as polar opposites, a perception that reflected the way most supporters of these two systems understood their relationship. The fiercest anticommunists were often among the strongest admirers of Italian Fascism. And the staunchest antifascists were the Communists who, during their "Third Period" in the late twenties and early thirties, used "fascism" as a term of abuse for every political view to their right, including democratic socialism. In the 1920s even those who shared an antipathy to both systems tended to see them as quite separate threats. "Democracy is challenged today on two sides," wrote Felix Adler, leader of the Ethical Culture movement, in 1926, "by the Soviet minority which rules ussia, and by the Italian dictator." 1

Shortly after the Nazis came to power, however, American magazines and newspapers began periodically to suggest that Hitler's and Stalin's governments were similar. Hitler's Röhm Purge (often called the "Blood Purge" or the "Night of the Long Knives") and Stalin's Kirov Purge, both of which occurred in 1934, provided early occasions for such comparisons, even by liberal organs like the New Republic, the Nation, and Common Sense. But these comparisons were either personal—Hitler and Stalin were said to be alike—or were critiques of dictatorship per se. 2

The nature of these comparisons reflect the absence of a conceptual vocabulary that could encompass dictatorships of both left and right. In the early 1930s some liberals such as Horace Kallen and conservatives like Herbert Hoover linked Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism through these regimes' fundamental opposition to a number of political values that Americans held dear. 3 But what term could describe what these regimes stood

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