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

By Benjamin L. Alpers | Go to book overview

5

DICTATOR ISMS AND OUR
DEMOCRACY THE RISE OF
TOTALITARIANISM, 1936-1941

"The most important single fact with regard to any government under [a dictator's] control is the character of the dictator himself," wrote political scientist Robert C. Brooks back in 1935. 1 But by the mid-1930s the "dictator himself" began to seem less important than did the structure of dictatorial regimes. As the last chapter explored, in the half decade before Pearl Harbor some American cultural producers understood dictatorship in terms of the emergence of a new, regimented crowd, produced by certain new conditions. Which new conditions were significant, however, was widely debated. Yet it was generally agreed that the regimented crowd was created by a failure of people to maintain their own individuality. Whether destroyed by economic conditions, the mass media, the social psychology of capitalism, or even a lack of education, individuation gave way to a mass mind. The uropean dictatorships thus presented a warning to the United States by analogy: We, too, suffer from the economic and social strains of modernity that struck Weimar Germany; it could happen here.

The European dictatorships presented a more direct danger as well. In Spain, Austria, and Ethiopia, they seemed bent on spreading their rule by force of arms. Through magazines, newspapers, and short-wave radio broadcasts, their doctrines reached all the way to the United States. These doctrines could be seen as essential to the construction of the regimented crowd and dictatorship. It is hard to imagine a view of dictatorship more diametrically opposed to Brooks's view than that appearing in the 1940 pamphlet Dictator Isms and Our Democracy by Gertrude Quitman and William H. Allen of the Institute for Public Service, an old New York-based Progressive organization dedicated to reforming education and fighting urban corruption:

[German soldiers] have not just been fighting for Hitler. They make wars, as their home folks make sacrifices, for isms. . . . We can reduce the dan

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