12. Charlie Chaplin may have lampooned Hitler, but his attitude to Mussolini and Italian fascism wasn’t quite so straightforward.
The king of silent movies famously made a whole film mocking Adolf Hitler. In The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin ridiculed the German dictator’s stature and pomposity, winning him fans around the world. However, according to some scholars, Chaplin’s views on fascism weren’t so clear-cut. Before laughing at Hitler on the big screen, the clown had gone through a phase of admiring the Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. What’s more, there’s evidence to suggest that his views remained unchanged right up until the eve of the Second World War.
Chaplin visited Italy in 1931. He wrote to friends back in the United States, stating that he was “impressed with its atmosphere. Discipline and order were omnipresent. Hope and desire seemed in the air”. Even in 1938, the Hollywood superstar was effusive in his praise for Mussolini, telling friends and acquaintances that he was a great man who had brought order to his country. At the same time, however, Chaplin was always opposed to Nazism, not least due to its antisemitic underpinnings. Indeed, it was he who pushed hard to get The Great Dictator released, even when diplomats were stressing it could be too offensive to Hitler and the German people.
11. Lord Londonderry came to be regarded by the Nazi High Command as a key ally in Britain, though he claimed he only ever wanted peace.
Charles Vane-Tempest-Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry served with distinction during the First World War. In the post-war years, he was then put in charge of overseeing the development of the nascent Royal Air Force, a task he approached with relish. However, while he has been credited with building up Britain’s air defenses during the inter-war years, he was pushed aside when war broke out a second time. His evident Nazi sympathies made him a liability and he was forced into early retirement when Winston Churchill took charge of the war effort.
That Churchill views Lord Londonderry with suspicion was hardly surprising. After all, he visited Nazi Germany six times between 1936 and 1938. Moreover, the Nazis saw in him a key ally, believing he could use his social status and political influence to prevent Britain from declaring war on Germany. The Nazis even informed Londonderry of their plans to invade both Poland and Czechoslovakia two years in advance. Though he passed this information on to the government right away, and while he insisted he was no great fan of Hitler or Nazism but only interested in preserving peace, he was never trusted again.
10. Henry Williamson penned one of the world’s most-loved children’s books, but the man behind the words was an unrepentant Nazi supporter.
His book Tarka the Otter has been read – and loved – by millions of children the world over ever since it was published in 1928. However, there was a darker side to author and naturalist Henry William Williamson. Throughout the 1930s, he was an enthusiastic admirer of Nazism. This grew out of a 1935 trip to Germany. There, Williamson attended the infamous Nuremberg Rally and was dazzled by the Hitler Youth movement in particular. He returned to his native London convinced that Nazism was the future, and he promptly joined the British Union of Fascists and threw his weight behind the movement’s leader Oswald Mosely.
When war broke out in 1939, Williamson was convinced he would be able to talk Hitler round, if only he could get to Berlin. However, even Mosely, by then his good friend, believed this was futile. Williamson was arrested for suspected treason. However, he was released after just a week in protective custody, with the authorities feeling that, regardless of his pro-fascist leanings, the writer posed no threat to national security. Even after the war, Williamson continued to express his admiration for the orderliness of Nazi Germany while at the same time continuing to write best-selling children’s books.
9. Father Charles Coughlin went from supporting the New Deal to raging against Jews and being locked up for sedition for his hate-filled broadcasts.
When Father Charles Coughlin started his radio show in 1926, his goal was simple: the Catholic priest wanted to speak out against a spate of Ku Klux Klan marches and cross burnings in his Detroit parish. Within a few years, he was also using his platform to support President Roosevelt and his New Deal. But by the mid-1930s, Father Coughlin’s politics had lurched to the right. His opposition to Communism – which he felt was a threat to the Church – soon morphed into severe anti-Semitism, and his pro-fascist messages were reaching an audience of millions.
Despite his support for FDR, Father Coughlin became increasingly anti-democratic. He believed authoritarianism was the key to stability and economic prosperity. Unsurprisingly, he came to the attention of the Nazi regime and many in Germany saw him as a potential ally. Moreover, the priest also copied a number of Nazi tactics, not least in urging people to boycott Jewish-owned businesses. However, on the eve of the Second World War, Coughlin publicly distanced himself from the Nazi German American Bund. But still, the Church authorities had his show cancelled. He was allowed to keep his parish so long as he refrain from broadcasting.
8. Unity Mitford ditched life as a pampered English aristocrat to travel to Germany to become Adolf Hitler’s young muse.
The English aristocrat Unity Mitford didn’t just flirt with the concept of fascism, she quite literally flirted with the Fuhrer himself. Born into high society in 1914, she made her social debut at the age of 18 – just like any other aristocratic young lady. But unlike her peers, by this point, her older sister, Diana, had started an affair with the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Moseley. And it was with her sister that Unity first visited Nazi Germany. She fell in love not just with the regime, but with its leader, Adolf Hitler.
The younger Mitford sister hung out in Hitler’s favorite Munich cafes. Before long, she had his attention. What’s more, Hitler became so fond of his pretty English aristocrat that his own girlfriend, Eva Braun, became insanely jealous. Indeed, it was only when Braun attempted suicide – an act some believe was a cry for attention – that Hitler was forced to take sides. Nevertheless, Mitford remained a fervent supporter of Nazism. So, when it became clear that England and Germany were to go to war, she shot herself. While she survived the initial bullet to the head, she died a few years later, having lived through the war in disgrace in her native land.
7. Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920, but a decade later, his reputation was in tatters due to his passionate support of the Nazis.
It wasn’t just American and British intellectuals and writers who publicly flirted with fascism during the 1920s and 1930s. In Norway, the country’s undoubted literary star Knut Hamsun also spoke out in support of Nazi Germany. What’s more, the winner of the 1920 Nobel Prize for Literature even sided with the fascists during the Second World War, even after the Nazis had invaded and occupied his native country. In 1940, for example, Hamsun told his fellow countrymen that “the Germans are fighting for us”. More remarkably, he even penned a short obituary for Hitler, calling the dictator “a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations”.
In the summer of 1945, the Norwegian police arrested Hamsun and the literary legend was put on trial for treason. In court, he pleaded ignorance, claiming he wasn’t aware of the true nature of the Nazi regime. Since he was in his 80s by then, Hamsun was released, though he had to pay a fine. Ever since then, his support of Nazism has tainted his legacy, while several of Hamsun’s biographers have attempted to pinpoint the reasons behind the writer’s treachery and love of fascism. Could it have been an inferiority complex, or even an intense hatred of all things English, that led the Nobel Laureate to embrace Nazism?
6. Mackenzie King believed that, in his role as Canadian Prime Minister, he was destined to work with Hitler to preserve peace in Europe.
In 1937, the Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King paid an official visit to Nazi Germany. Like many world leaders before him, he was determined to suss Adolf Hitler out. What’s more, King was convinced that he could work with the dictator to ensure Europe would not be plunged into another war. By all accounts, King was impressed by what he saw in Berlin. Even though the racism and ant-Semitism of the Nazi regime was pretty much common knowledge by 1937, the Canadian premiere left with a favorable impression of the Fuhrer – and of himself.
According to one account, King felt that it was his destiny to play a role in bringing a lasting peace to a fractured continent. Indeed, he noted in his diaries that he felt his meeting with Hitler was “the day for which I was born”. The issues of racism or violence or looming war never came up in the brief meeting. Rather, King tried to stress the links between Canada and Germany. He even praised Hitler’s “knowing smile”, his good health and his love of nature. Despite his optimism, however, King could not deter the Nazis from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy and within a few years, the PM was resigned to the fact that, not only was a war inevitable, but that Canada would be forced to fight in it.
5. William Dudley Pelley went from being a famed Hollywood scriptwriter to an infamous supporter of an American strand of Nazism.
In 1920s Hollywood, William Dudley Pelley was a renowned, and award-winning writer. In the 1930s, however, he was better known as a wannabe dictator. According to the man himself, a near-death experience in 1929 led him to conclude that he was destined for bigger things than writing movie scripts. So, when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Pelley assumed that he was to follow his lead. Not only did he admire Hitler from afar, he attempted to establish a homegrown Nazi movement in America, with himself as its leader.
The Silver Legion, which Pelley established, in the early-1930s, was modeled on the Nazi Party. The uniforms looked like SS uniforms, while the ant-Semitic rhetoric and the focus on militarism was unquestionably Nazi in nature. For all Pelley’s bombast, however, the Silver Legion only ever numbered 35,000 members at its peak. Moreover, Pelley’s attempts to assume political office never amounted to much. Then, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, Pelley was jailed for 15 years for sedition. He served 8 years of a 15-year sentence. Upon his release, he ditched his fervent Nazism for a passionate interest in UFOs and extra-terrestrials.
4. Ezra Pound was so enamored by Mussolini’s Fascist movement that he moved to Italy and even became a spokesman for the authoritarian regime.
In the 1920s and 30s, a number of writers and academics flirted with authoritarianism. Most, however, were quick to renounce their views once the true nature of Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia were revealed. Not so Ezra Pound. The American fully embraced far-right politics. Indeed, he aligned himself with vile regimes for 20 years and even became a spokesman for fascism. According to his supporters, Pound was mentally unstable, and was even exploited by Nazi and Fascist propagandists. To his critics, however, the author was fully responsible for his actions, and his was more than just a relatively harmless flirtation with the politics of repression and hate.
Pound didn’t start out a fascist. He moved to the right steadily from 1915 onward. In 1924, he moved to Italy, largely as he believed the new Fascist society was sympathetic to his economic views. By the 1930s, however, he had embraced the anti-Semitic ideology of Nazism. As such, the radio broadcasts he made from Italy between 1941 and 1943 blamed America’s descent into war on ‘the Jews’. In 1945, Pound handed himself in to be tried for treason. While in prison, he welcomed numerous literary guests and was finally deemed mentally unfit to stand trial. After 12 years in an asylum, Pound was released – he immediately returned to Italy.
3. W.B. Yeats may be regarded as one of Ireland’s literary greats, but the way he used his talents to pen marching songs for fascists will forever taint his legacy.
William Butler Yeats, often known as W.B. Yeats, was one of the giants of 20th century literature. The Irishman was one of his country’s greatest poets, with a keen interest in his country’s rich past as well as in the occult. Yeats was also a deeply political figure. He was a lifelong Irish Nationalist, writing prose supporting independence during the 1920s. During the 1930s, however, Yeats became increasingly authoritarian in his politics. For him, the ‘people’ could not be trusted. Democracy was for the weak, and a strong arm was needed. Unsurprisingly, then, Yeats was attracted by far-right movements springing up across Europe, including in his native Ireland.
Yeats was a vocal supporter of the far-right Blueshirts movement that emerged in the Irish Free State at the start of the decade. The poet saw in the movement’s leader Eoin O’Duffy the strongman the newly-independent Ireland needed, a homegrown Mussolini capable of keeping Ireland Catholic, well-ordered and free from Communism. Though no street fighter himself, Yeats helped the only way he could, by writing marching songs for the Blueshirts. Within a few years, however, he had become disillusioned, and publicly denounced the group as amateurish. Even then, however, Yeats maintained his distrust of democracy right up until his death in 1939.
2. The 5th Duke of Wellington was just one of many English aristocrats who felt the Nazis could save Europe – and their family fortunes – from the Communist threat.
The 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, was a true British hero, defeating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo and then serving as Prime Minister. His descendant, the 5th Duke of Wellington, was less distinguished. Born into immense wealth and privilege in 1876, he served in the military and then fought in the First World War. By the time he inherited the Dukedom in 1934, however, he was proudly pro-German and had aligned himself to a number of far-right causes. Above all, the 5th Duke of Wellington was one of Britain’s most-outspoken anti-Semites. Unsurprisingly, he did more than merely flirt with Nazism.
Wellington took over as Chair of the elitist Right Club in 1939. He stated openly that the aim of the association was “to oppose and expose the activities of organized Jewry”. He believed Britain should align itself with Germany and against the Soviet Union and was aghast when the two countries went to war in 1939 – a war he would blame on “anti-appeasers and the f***ing Jews”. The disgraced 5th Duke of Wellington died in 1941. Notably, his son and successor was to die just two years later, killed in action while taking part in a daring commando raid during the Allied invasion of Italy.
1. Martin Heidegger might have stopped going to Nazi Party meetings in 1934, but was the philosopher’s flirtation with Nazism really so fleeting?
German thinker is widely-regarded as one of the most important Western philosophers of the 20th century. Above all, his debut book, 1927’s Being and Time continues to influence scholars to this day. Notably, several Jewish thinkers and academics have spoken out in favor of Heidegger, including Hannah Arendt. However, for some critics, Heidegger’s reputation will always be tainted due to his association with the Nazis. Moreover, the discovery of his private notebooks – ‘the Black Notebooks’ – in 2014 have called some scholars to question just how antisemitic Heidegger was – and the extent to which his thinking was shaped by his personal bigotry.
Heidegger joined the Nazi Party in 1933 and stayed a member right through the worst of its excesses. On the one hand, he resigned from his post as Rector of the University of Freiburg in 1934. Furthermore, he stopped attending Party meetings soon that. Such a lack of overt support for the regime have led some supporters to argue that his flirtation with Nazism was merely an “error” he regretted. On the other hand, even after the war, Heidegger never condemned the Nazis. He never even mentioned the Holocaust, lending weight to the argument that he was profoundly antisemitic and merely concerned with his own career and reputation.
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