Rome wasn’t built in a day. And the Nazis didn’t exterminate 10 million people overnight. When we look for historical parallels to the current rise of fascism around the world, it’s important to remember how things became normalized in the past. And an old book about propaganda is a helpful tool in understanding how the evils of the past came to be.
The 1934 book Mobilizing for Chaos by O.W. Riegel is a fascinating artifact of the Nazi era. There are so many anecdotes and observations that resonate today, but one section of the book is particularly scary. Mobilizing for Chaos names a handful of people and PR companies that were intimately involved in pushing Nazi propaganda in the United States. And it’s strange to imagine yourself in that period of history, when Americans were open to the idea of Nazi Germany being just another perfectly acceptable government.
The important thing to remember, (and what makes it so terrifying), is that the U.S. was still seven years from getting involved in World War II at this point. The Nazis opened the first concentration camp in 1933, but in 1934 there wasn’t anything close to widespread knowledge of just how evil the Nazis were outside of Germany. Even as late as 1939, too many Americans didn’t see the threat that Nazism posed, as tens of thousands gathered at Madison Square Garden to celebrate the Nazi regime.
A short passage from the 1934 book Mobilizing for Chaos by O.W. Riegel:
The field of national propaganda has attracted professional American publicity men. Edward L. Bernays looked after the public relations of Latvia, and Herbert St. Houston has recently announced himself as a Counsel on International Relations, with a Fifth Avenue address. A Congressional committee investigating Nazi propaganda in the United States in July, 1934, revealed that Ivy Lee, public relations counsel for the Rockefellers and the Pennsylvania Railroad, is being paid $25,000 a year by German interests to “advise” on German-American relations, which his son, James Wideman Lee II, is being paid $33,000 a year to handle the Berlin end of the business.
Adjusted for inflation, that $25,000 salary was roughly $469,300 in 2018 money. And $33,000 in 1934 was about $619,500. They were being well paid, to say the least.
When this passage in Mobilizing for Chaos was published in 1934, it was when many Americans were still amenable to the idea that fascist Nazis may not be a problem for the rest of the world. But some Americans looked at the media landscape and were starting to take notes on who was helping the Nazis spread their message in the U.S.
It’s a chilling reminder that the media plays an important role in normalizing objectively evil actions through respectable offices on Fifth Avenue.
The book continued:
Carl Byoir, New York publicity man who handled Cuban publicity for Machado and more recently was paid a large sum of money for handling Nazi propaganda in the United States, is also a reserve officer in the army intelligence corps and will, in the event of war, handle with equal facility propaganda for the United States.
When we look back at history, it can be difficult to appreciate just how slow momentous change occurs, for better and for worse. Citizens become acclimated to the evil of any given society as norms are reshaped piece by piece.
In the 1930s, Americans had to fight the tide of fascism that was aided and abetted by their own citizens in public relations and media. Here in 2018, things aren’t so different when it comes to the way that well-paid people insist that the white Christian majority are the real victims.
We only have a limited amount of time to act. Eventually it will be too late.