A Pen to Battle Fascism

Remembering George Seldes (1890-1995)

Those who cannot see the growth of Fascism or deny its existence are either the many who do not know what fascism really is or the few who prefer euphemism a patriotic American name for a distinctly European product.

These words, penned by journalist George Seldes decades ago, have seemingly been ignored by American readers.

During the course of his life, Seldes repeatedly accused the American Press of “covering itself in filth” when glorifying fascist regimes, no matter how brutal and undemocratic, as long as it was in the name of anti-Communism. Seldes went on to write other journalistic tracts on this subject, most notably The Fascist Road to Ruin (1935) and Facts and Fascism (1943).

As Seldes writes in the second chapter of Facts and Fascism:

To know what Fascism really is and why we must fight it and destroy it here in America, we must first of all know what it is we are fighting, what the Fascist regimes really are and do, who puts up the money and backs Fascism in every country (including the United States at this very moment), and who owns the nations under such regimes, and why the natives of all Fascist countries must be driven into harder work, less money, reduced standard of living, poverty and desperation so that the men and corporations who found, subsidize and own Fascism can grow unbelievably rich.

Seldes was born Henry George Seldes in Alliance (now Vineland), New Jersey on November 16, 1890. As a young man, Seldes was inspired by muckraking journalists of his era, particularly Lincoln Steffens who in 1905 published a series of scathing exposés unmasking municipality corruption titled The Shame of the Cities.

“Lincoln Steffens was the godfather of us all,” Seldes recalled. “He was an older man when I first met him. He was the first of the muckrakers.”

Inspired in large part by Steffens, Seldes landed a job as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Leader in 1909. Five years later he became the night editor at the Pittsburgh Post, earning roughly $3.50 a week, a sum he half-jokingly called “lunch money.”

In 1916, he went overseas to work for the United Press news agency (now United Press International) in London. One year later, the United States entered the First World War, the so-called “war to keep the world safe for democracy.” The conditions that brought about WWI also laid down the groundwork for Fascism, the rise of which Seldes saw with his own eyes.

Mussolini’s  Italy

In 1919, Italy was teetering on the brink of revolution. Europe and other areas of the world suffered widespread poverty as a result of the war, causing millions of downtrodden and disenfranchised workers to challenge the old order. In this vacuum, there emerged a clique of leaders who made flowery promises to the people in those times of uncertainty.

In March of that year, Benito Mussolini and other WWI veterans formed the National Fascist Party in Milan. They called for “law and order” and “restoring the nation to its triumphant past,” leading the crusade for nationalism and militarism. Their disdain for free expression and cultural diversity is still shared by individuals who are equally obsessed with protecting their interests to this day.

“My doctrine had been the doctrine of action,” Mussolini wrote in 1932. “Fascism was born of the need for action, and was action.”

This sentiment was shared by millions of Italians. The NFP, and its leader, would swell its ranks and its ideas amassed popular support across the country. By 1922, Mussolini and over 30 fascists were elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies. In 1925, the Fascists dissolved the Italian parliament and Mussolini was elevated to the position of supreme ruler, reigning in the former kingdom of Italy from 1922 until 1943.

Many Americans are unaware that, once upon a time, Mussolini was a darling of the American elite and their propaganda instruments. The plutocrats on Wall Street showered praise on Mussolini, the man who said, “Socialism is a fraud, a comedy, a phantom, a blackmail.” It would seem as if the comic frauds and blackmailing phantoms of industry had found a man after their own blackened hearts.

In the 1920s and early 1930s, major news publications like the Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and The Wall Street Journal printed glowing appraisals of Mussolini as the man who saved Italy from social chaos and economic ruin.

Seldes saw through the pretense and exposed the naked emperor for what he really was: a power-hungry dictator who waged war gladly even against his own people. He dubbed Mussolini as a “Sawdust Caesar,” which became the title of his 1935 book on the subject, subtitled The Untold History of Mussolini and Fascism.

In his earlier book Can These Things Be!, published in 1931, Seldes reflected on the warm reception Mussolini received in the US by the ruling class and the media:

One of the biggest pieces of bunkum shoved down the American throat was the story of the 1929 Italian election. For this I cannot blame my colleagues.

Forbidden to write anything critical of the Fascist regime, they could only report what the hierarchy wanted them to report. The clever and honest American and British journalists, however, did insinuate startling facts in their stories; these insinuations, unfortunately, were between the lines and not for those who read as they run, and the American public is mostly a running reading public.

Seldes was the only known American journalist known to investigate the death of socialist politician Giacomo Matteotti (1885-1924), who was kidnapped and killed by the Fascisti. He disappeared from Rome on June 10, 1924, and his body was found three days later in a shallow grave. This symbolized the new regime about to take over the Mediterranean nation.

“Everyone had copies of the confessions of the men who killed Giacomo Matteotti (the head of the Italian Socialist Party and Mussolini’s chief political rival),” Seldes recalled.

“The documents clearly implicated Mussolini in the killing, but not one person wanted to write about it. They thought Rome was too nice a posting to give up to risk publishing them. They didn’t want to, but I did. The major American newspapers at the time supported fascism as a legitimate political movement. They loved Mussolini because they thought he restored order to Italy and businesses there were doing well. It got more and more difficult to report on what was really happening there.”

After implicating Il Duce in Matteotti’s murder, Seldes was expelled from the country and barely escaped the clutches of the Fascisti. Even after this attempt on his life and the backlash he received from editors at the major dailies, Seldes continued to use his pen as a weapon against fascism.

Hitler’s Third Reich

Adolf Hitler was a young corporal in the Bavarian regiment during World War One. Outraged by the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler said Germany had been betrayed by “defeatist politicians, Communists and Jews.”

This belief, along with other dangerous ideas he had been harboring for some time, led Hitler down the path that would result in millions dead and a legacy of evil that has yet to be paralleled.

Hitler joined the Munich-based German Workers Party (DAP) founded in 1919 by anti-Semitic locksmith Anton Drexler. Hitler rose within the ranks of the party, which was later renamed the National Socialist German Workers Party, and became the party’s figurehead because of his oratory and organizing abilities.

Historian Stephen J. Lee notes that the appeal of the Nazi was due to “a number of positive factors” including the role of propaganda and organization:

The success of the Nazi movement is inevitably associated with the highly skilled use of propaganda and the development of an efficient organization. In these respects it was far ahead of all the other German parties, including the KPD.

By November 1922, major sections of the German ruling class provided political backing and donations to Hitler’s group, seeing him as a defender of the Status Quo against the rising red tide of socialists and communists. As Hitler slowly rose from obscurity, the more support he was given.

Inspired years later by Mussolini’s successful march on Rome, Hitler and 600 members of his paramilitary group the Sturmabteilung (SA)—organized to “develop in the hands of our young supporters a tremendous desire for action”—to storm the German capitol in what became known as the failed “Beerhall Putsch” of 1923.

This deadly stunt backfired and landed Hitler and other members of his party in jail after being found guilty of treason. Hitler spent a little over a year in prison, serving hard time in reasonably comfortable conditions in Landsberg Castle, which allowed him time to “compose” his two-volume autobiographical polemic Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”), which was the result of Hitler dictating his words to his cellmate and future Nuremburg war criminal Rudolf Hess.

In Mein Kampf, Hitler said his message had to be kept simple because the “receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous.”

Donny Gluckstein, author of The Nazis, Capitalism and the Working Class, recognized that Hitler’s rise to power was not an unforeseen mistake or merely due to the gullibility of a brainwashed population.

By appointing Hitler, Gluckstein argues, the conservative elite around the aristocrat Franz Von Papen and German President Paul von Hindenburg “had planned to co-opt his supporters through controlled counter-revolutionary action, to tilt the social balance still further against the working class.”

This point was already documented in Facts and Fascism, where Seldes demonstrates how the true story of Hitler’s Germany “is the real clue to the situation” of what was happening in the world:

In 1923, after his monkeyshines in the Munich Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler received his first big money from Fritz Thyssen. January 30, 1933, Hitler came to power after a deal with Hindenburg and the big Prussian landlords (Junkers). Since then, and in all vast occupied Europe, Hitler has been paying off the men who invested in Fascism as a purely money-making enterprise. A personal dispute put Thyssen out, but his brother and the thousand biggest industrialists and bankers of Germany have as a result of financing Hitler become millionaires; the I.G. Farbenindustrie and other cartel organizations have become billionaires.

Although Hitler and his Nazis have left deep impressions on America’s psyche, the true nature of their power and ambitions have been lost in the fog of time. Despite the lies, distortions and linguistic deceptions of Hitler, it is up to those living in the present to prove his claims about “receptivity,” the “small” intelligence of the masses and their “power of forgetfulness” wrong.

Franco’s Spain

In 1937, Seldes went to Spain to cover the civil war between the defenders of the Spanish Republic and the fascist forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco for the New York Post.

The regimes of Hitler and Mussolini supported Franco’s blood-drenched crusade against his fellow Spaniards financially and militarily. One of the most notorious examples of this occurred on April 26, 1937 with the bombing of the Basque city of Guernica in Spain.

Under the code name “Operation Rugen,” Germany’s Condor Legion and Italy’s Aviazone Legionaria conducted an air raid against the residents of Guernica. Bombers and fighter planes dropped over 31 tons of munitions on defenseless civilians, machine-gunning women and children who attempted to escape the flying death machines. The raid lasted three hours, terrorizing the town’s 7,000 inhabitants and destroying most of the buildings.

The number of casualties is difficult to determine. The Basque government said that 1,654 residents were killed and 889 had been injured. Author George Hills reports a similar figure in his book Franco with 1,650 people were “dead or dying” and 850 people were wounded. Some reports, however, claim the number of victims was closer to 200-300. This effort was primarily a German experiment in “saturation bombing.”

In 1936, the US Congress passed the “Neutrality Act” which prohibited US supplies from reaching the soldiers of the legitimate Spanish government. Despite the courageous efforts of international volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including over 2,800 American members, the republicans were defeated and Franco’s dictatorship prevailed.

Seldes lamented on the odds against those fighting to save the Spanish Republic:

They had no guns, food or medicines and the world press published falsehoods about them, called them ‘Reds’ and let them die.

Even as late as 1957, writers like William F. Buckley, founding editor of the National Review, defended Franco in his now infamous “Letter From Spain.” In this editorial, he champions the brutal dictatorship of a man who was responsible for “mass killings, torture and the systematic, general and illegal detentions of political opponents,” as described by The Guardian in 2008.

“General Franco is an authentic national hero,” Buckley writes. His cringe-worthy endorsement of the dictator demonstrates how the media can turn a respected leader into a villain and vice versa. This widely accepted editorial position helped spin the leaders of Neo-Nazi gangs in Ukraine as modern-day heroes in the American press.

President Ronald Reagan at one point claimed he played a role in liberating prisoners from Nazi death camps in WWII, which he didn’t. As a matter of fact, in 1985 Reagan honored members of the Waffen-SS at a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.

Two Spanish Civil War veterans, Charles Nasser and Sam Gonshak, were in Guernica on June 1, 1985 “not long after President Reagan’s infamous visit to the Bitburg cemetery,” as recounted by Nasser.

We were there to lay a wreath at the historic Tree of Guernica. I spoke briefly, saying there are those who lay their wreath on the graves of the Nazi criminals, but that we veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade pay our homage to the Tree of Freedom in loving memory of the victims of the fascist murderers.

The Fascist Threat Today

Seldes met his final deadline at the age of 104 in his Vermont home on July 2, 1995. Twenty years after his death, his influence still resonates with real journalists everywhere, especially when sounding the alarm on the abuse of a state under the domination of capitalist greed.

To close with the words of a muckraking crusader who fulfilled his duties as a journalist and citizen despite the barbed-wire obstacles put in place by the “Lords of the Press” as he called them, excerpted from the conclusion of Facts and Fascism:

All the enemies of the people of the world are united behind the Fascist International. When that is broken we will have come the main part of the way to a practical reality which previously had been regarded as a dream of idealists. Of course this will be possible only if Fascism (reaction) does not exist in disguise and wrapped in new flags and sheltered by wealth and power and accepted by peoples accustomed to being betrayed by rulers and the propaganda organs of these rulers, the world’s corrupted press.

Fascism is Reaction. When we destroy international Fascism we must at the same time destroy national Fascism, we must replace the reactionary forces at home with truly democratic forces which will represent all of us.

Mike Kuhlenbeck is a Special Roving Correspondent for The Greanville Post, a Freelance Journalist and National Writers Union member from Des Moines, Iowa. Read other articles by Mike.