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After Charlottesville violence, World War II anti-fascist propaganda video finds a new audience

A World War II anti-fascism propaganda film found a new audience after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. on Aug. 12. (Video: The Washington Post)

In the aftermath of the weekend’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, scores of Americans wondered how they should respond to the hate-fueled violence that left three people dead and dozens of others injured.

Some found an answer in a nearly 75-year-old anti-fascist propaganda film.

“Don’t Be A Sucker” is a 17-minute cautionary tale about complacency in the face of hatred and xenophobia. Produced by the U.S. War Department in 1943 and rereleased in an updated form in 1947, it found new relevance with a 21st century audience horrified by the neo-Nazis and white nationalists gathering in central Virginia.

Among those to share the film was Michael Oman-Reagan, a Canadian researcher and anthropologist, who tweeted a clip of “Don’t Be A Sucker” that has since been shared nearly 120,000 times.

Another clip of the film reached the top of Reddit’s home page Sunday night. Celebrities tweeted it out, as did Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), who told his followers “PLEASE WATCH THIS!”

The film opens with a soapbox demagogue delivering a fiery speech in a public square, warning a crowd gathered around him that the country is being hijacked.

“I see Negros holding jobs that belong to me and you,” he bellows. “Now I ask you, if we allow this thing to go on, what’s going to happen to us real Americans?”

“I tell you, friends, we”ll never be able to call this country our own until it’s a country without,” he says. “Without what? Without Negros, without alien foreigners, without Catholics, without Freemasons.”

The video cuts to an older man with a European accent. “I’ve heard this kind of talk before, but I never expected to hear it in America,” he tells a younger man next to him. He reveals himself to be a Hungarian-born professor who immigrated to the United States and became a naturalized citizen.

“I have seen what this kind of talk can do. I saw it in Berlin,” he says. “I heard the same words we have heard today.”

“But I was a fool then,” he says. “I thought Nazis were crazy people, stupid fanatics. Unfortunately it was not so. They knew they were not strong enough to conquer a unified country, so they split Germany into small groups. They used prejudice as a practical weapon to cripple the nation.”

The film then flashes back to Germany in the 1930s, where a group of young men are listening to a Nazi speaker who, like the demagogue at the beginning of the film, blames Jews, Catholics and other minority groups for the country’s problems. The divide-and-conquer strategy of the Nazis succeeded in turning people against each other, the professor says. Over the film’s following 10 minutes, a montage shows the country’s descent into totalitarianism, Nazi war crimes, the onset of the Second World War, and the eventual allied victory.

The professor closes with a monologue.

“We must never let that happen to us or to our country,” he tells his companion. “We must never let ourselves be divided by race or color or religion.”

“You have a right to be what you are and say what you think because here we have personal freedom. We have liberty,” he says. “And these are not just fancy words. This is a practical and priceless way of living.”

The film was successful during and after World War II, in part, because it portrayed Nazi leaders as the only true beneficiaries of hatred and xenophobia, author and historian Benjamin L. Alpers wrote in his 2003 book “Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture.” By leaving key questions about the root causes of Nazism unaddressed, films like “Don’t Be A Sucker” avoided controversy and courted broad audiences.

“The themes of Nazi hatred of difference, the need for democratic unity against the divide-and-conquer strategy, and the more specific notion that Nazism attacked society at the level of the family, appealed across the political spectrum,” Alpers wrote.

The anti-racist message in “Don’t Be A Sucker” was not without irony. At the time of its release, schools and public facilities were segregated by race, as were the very military units that helped defeat the Nazis. And, as the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer notes, the U.S. government was then in the process of forcing more than 100,000 innocent Japanese Americans into internment camps.

The professor in “Don’t Be A Sucker” warned against such actions: “If we allow any minority to lose its freedom by persecution or by prejudice, we are threatening our own freedom. And this is not simply an idea. This is good hard common sense.”

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