Prequel: Weaponizing Fascism for Democracy

I’d like to start by going back to the end of World War II — to the days when the weaponization of nationalism was just beginning to crystalize as an American foreign policy strategy.

This is an installment of an investigative series about the history and origins of America’s propaganda machine — and the central role that weaponized immigrants play in it. Read about the project and subscribe.

A sign outside a Jewish displaced persons camp in Munich, 1946

When I launched Immigrants as a Weapon back in September, I argued that America had done more to promote the far-right around the world than any other country on earth. I wasn’t exaggerating. America really is the biggest and most active player in the field — the biggest by far.

Even a cursory look at modern American history shows that promoting nationalism and backing far-right emigre groups has been a major plank of American foreign policy going back to the very end of World War II. This mixture of covert and overt programs and initiatives was first deployed to fight the Soviet Union and left-wing political movements but has over the years touched down all over the globe — wherever America has some sort of geopolitical interest, including modern capitalist states like Russia and China. One of these nationalism weaponization initiatives — which targeted the USSR for destabilization in the 70s and 80s — was how a Soviet kid like me ended up in San Francisco as a political refugee.

This history is important. Without it, it’s impossible to understand the mechanics of our reactionary foreign policy today — whether in China or with our “strategic partner” Ukraine, a country that’s at the center of today’s impeachment show.

There are all sorts of possible entry points into this story. I guess I could go all the way back to America’s support for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. But for now I’d like to start at the very end of World War II — when this approach was just beginning to crystalize as a distinct strategy inside America’s foreign policy apparatus.

To do that I want to focus on the experiences of an American businessman named Ira Hirschmann.

Ira was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Baltimore. He started out his career in the advertising industry, moved up to running things as a department store executive in places like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, and then turned to liberal philanthropy, diplomacy, and Democratic Party political activism.

In 1946, he was appointed as a representative of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitations Agency — known as UNRRA — and was sent on several trips to Europe to report on how the agency was handling the hundreds of thousands of “displaced persons” who were still living in camps in Italy, Germany, and Austria.

Ira was a New Deal Man. He believed that a liberal, humanitarian world was possible. To him, the Allied victory over fascism was the starting point for this new world. America, Europe, and the Soviet Union could finally reconcile their political differences and work as partners to create a peaceful, better world for all.

But on his trips out to Europe for the UNRRA, disillusionment crept in almost immediately. He realized that the political establishment in America and Britain did not want peace but was preparing for a new war — and displaced persons camps were where this new war was bubbling up to the surface.

After coming back to the States he published a short, angry book about his experiences: The Embers Still Burn.

At the end of World War II, there was something like 7 or 8 million homeless people wandering around Europe. Most were quickly repatriated or made their own way back to their home countries. By 1946, when Ira came to Europe, there were still about a million people scattered through several hundred camps overseen by the UN and Allied military command.

It was a diverse crowd: Ukrainians, Latvians, Estonians, Lithuanians, Poles, Croats, Russians, Cossacks, Serbs. Poles and Ukrainians made up the biggest chunk of the “DP” population. There were Jewish survivors from all over Europe — 141,000 by UNRRA’s count in 1946.

The Jews were, of course, in a category of their own. Most of them had barely survived the war. They had been through slave death camps, spent time in hiding, or fought as partisans. Just about all of them were in a bad and feral state — psychologically and physically traumatized and depleted. And they were also totally alone. Their families and friends and communities were slaughtered during the war. They wanted to leave Europe but no one wanted to take them. America was too antisemitic to open its doors and instead was trying to force the British to send them to Palestine. In the meantime, they were stuck in limbo and needed all the extra help and care they could get.

But they weren’t getting it.

Touring the camps, Ira was horrified to learn that more than a year after the war had ended, tens of thousands of Jews who had survived genocide were still living in filth — conditions that were scarcely better than those of Nazi concentration camps.

He described a facility in Munich, an abandoned Luftwaffe garage known as Funk Caserne.

Wherever he went in Germany, Ira saw similar problems. Jewish camps were filthy and cramped. They lacked food and medicine. The movement of Jewish survivors was restricted with armed guards. At one camp, German security guards even shot an unarmed Jewish inmate. The conditions were unbearable and riots broke out. Whenever Jews needed space or new facilities, American military command denied the requests. There was always some reason why buildings could not be obtained or requisitioned.

At multiple camps, Ira discovered that new Jewish refugees coming from Poland were actually being turned away and left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment. Outside the camps Jews were treated as second-class citizens by the German population. In one town, Ira found that the locals enforced total segregation: Jews weren’t allowed to shop or even visit the town’s movie theater. As a rep of the UN, he accused the US Army of willful discrimination and abuse against Jewish survivors that “was nothing short of criminal.” 

It wasn’t just the bad conditions in the camps that bothered Ira, it was the inequality of the bad conditions. It would’ve been one thing if mistreatment of the displaced was uniformly distributed. But as he toured the camps, he saw that that wasn’t the case. Non-Jewish displaced groups — whether Latvians or Poles or Ukrainians — seemed to be getting preferential treatment. They weren’t living it up at the Hilton. These were refugee camps, after all. But compared with Jewish survivors, they were living the high life.

Here’s how he described it in The Embers Still Burn:

Ira didn’t fully grasp the convoluted politics and history of the various Eastern European nationalist groups living in the camps, but UNRRA staff informed him that many of them were most likely Nazi collaborators and fascists.

They came from all over — from Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, Yugoslavia. It was hard to figure out who was who in the confusion, and no one in power made any real effort to sort them out. But it was clear many had worked with and for the Nazis — either participating in genocide, administering the occupied territories, running death camps, or serving in the SS and various ethnic auxiliary battalions.

Now they refused to be repatriated. They knew it would be a death sentence. So they were just hanging around, hiding their Nazi past, and mooching off the UN, all while thugging it up all around town. They were biding their time. The smart ones were actively trying to sell their services to any intelligence agency willing to buy.

If so many of them were suspected of being Nazi collaborators, why were they getting the VIP treatment? And why were Jews living in squalor?

The answer gradually emerged as Ira met with military and UN officials.

Wherever he went, he was told the same thing: We’re gearing up for a fight against communism and the Soviet Union. This is the next big war — the “real” war for democracy against a barbaric communist menace.

He described a conversation he had with Sir Frederick Morgan, a British general who ran UNRRA operations in Germany from an opulent country mansion filled with butlers and Latvian servant girls.

As Ira was made to understand, to fight the commies the Allies needed a strong, economically stable Germany. That’s why denazification efforts had been scrapped and Allied military command was busy putting former Nazis back in charge of industry to “reconstitute the German economy as quickly as possible.” This new war footing against the Soviet Union was also why military officials didn’t want to seize German property for Jewish survivors. They thought giving Jews anything at the expense of German citizens strained relations and caused bad blood between them and a vital new ally.

And anyway, it wasn’t like military command had much sympathy for the Jews.

General George Patton, who for a short time ran occupied Bavaria after the war, was infamous for his contempt for Jewish survivors. In his diary, he described Jews as “lower than animals” who would multiply like “locusts” if not kept under strict armed guard in their camps. “I have never looked at a group of people who seem to be more lacking in intelligence and spirit,” he wrote. Patton refused to authorize the confiscation of German property to house Jewish survivors because, he explained, it was “against my Anglo-Saxon conscience to remove a person from a house.” And when an underling had no choice but to move a few wealthy German families to make room for Jewish survivors, Patton confessed to his diary that he felt guilty — like he was committing a crime.

He had been fired shortly before Ira came to Europe, but many in the US Army agreed with his views about the Jews and continued to follow his lead. The debased and broken conditions of Jewish survivors only confirmed people’s worst antisemitic stereotypes. The Jews were a filthy and disgusting race unfit for cohabitation with the civilized. Why give them anything? Maybe the Germans were right in trying to wipe them out. And the Brits? Well, if anything, even more antisemitic.

It didn’t take long for Ira, an American Jew, to realize that most of the top Allied military command was set against Jewish survivors. To them, these Jews were a liability and a nuisance.

And the non-Jewish displaced groups? Well, they were a different story.

Among them were thousands of hardcore anticommunists. They were hardened fighters with plenty of killing experience. They had lost their fascist wars. Their dream of building ethnically pure utopias on their home turf had collapsed. The communists had won. Now they had nothing left to lose and had an endless appetite for revenge. And, as it turned out, they also had the same goal as the Allies: to destroy the Soviet Union.

No one told Ira that this was happening, but they didn’t have to.

As he toured the camps it became obvious to him that the Allies were maneuvering to, as he called it, “consolidate the forces of reaction.” On the sly, they were whipping these fascists and Nazi collaborators into the nucleus of what they hoped would to be a new fighting force against the Soviet Union.

He saw this as the ultimate betrayal.

Ira was a bit naive about the nature of American liberalism. But on the question of weaponized fascism, he turned out to be right.

Even as he toured the camps in 1946, Britain and America had already started working with Eastern European fascist groups for intelligence gathering and covert commando raids on Soviet territory — including in Latvia and Ukraine. And by the time his book appeared in stores three years later, the weaponization of European fascist movements had become official American policy, secretly crafted by the most celebrated foreign policy brain of that generation: George Kennan.

—Yasha Levine

Listen to Ira Hirschmann talk about his book in this 1949 radio program. And tune in to next week for the next installment. Sign up to get subscriber-only updates.

Immigrants as a Weapon is a new investigative newsletter that looks at the weaponization of nationalism and immigrant communities. Check out this introductory post.