What if America became communist during World War II?

United States

Bernd Greiner

To person

Dr. phil., born 1952; Historian and political scientist, head of the work area "Theory and History of Violence" at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, Mittelweg 36, 20148 Hamburg. [email protected]

McCarthyism ushered in the longest phase of political repression in the United States. At the same time, an emotional state of emergency was staged, the traces of which are still clearly visible today.


Because anti-communism is as old as communism, its appearance in the Cold War looks at first glance like a déjà-vu. Basically, the relevant slogans are even older. Whether Germany at the time of the Socialist Laws or the USA during the anarchist movement of the 1880s, the stereotypes are interchangeable, apart from a few typical fragments. This observation applies even more to the time after the First World War, when the so-called red scare - the fear of the "red tide" - flooded public space on both sides of the Atlantic. Creating fear and being afraid, self-hystericalization and self-mobilization appear in different places and at different times as the signature of disturbed soul landscapes.

It should always be observed how public communication can change the subjective or collective perception of fear and ultimately generate fears of a completely new type or scope. Apparently trivial occasions such as rumors are sometimes enough to turn unspecific fears into fearful hysteria and anger against clearly identifiable scapegoats. Social psychologists speak of "social cascades" and "group polarization", an infectious dynamic that is promoted by social interaction. In the words of the legal philosopher Cass Sunstein: "It is well established that members of groups in which an exchange on a problem takes place often ends up in a more extreme position compared to their previous inclinations. As a result, groups may be far more anxious than theirs Members were there before the deliberation. " We are talking about "moral panic" and its widely used synonyms: denunciation, neighborhood control, spying or witch hunts. Whether enemies are actually present or are ultimately only imagined is basically of secondary importance. The defensive state of emergency can be justified in various and, if in doubt, contradicting ways, as can easily be seen in the example of anti-Semitism, lynching or anti-communism. Its real punch, however, lies in the power of the ritual: To participate as an individual in self-purification means to demonstrate responsibility for the common good. In this sense, the Irish philosopher of the state Edmund Burke drew attention to fear as an emotional resource of politics as early as the end of the 18th century: "It is not so much the actual existence of a threat as the idea of ​​this threat that serves the purpose of renewal or restoration. " Which means in passing what fears are ultimately also about - awakening experiences and redemption fantasies.

But when, with good reason, were there ever fear-free epochs in human history, times without fear of pain, dying and death, of God, hell and the devil, of natural or man-made catastrophes, without fear of illness, crime, impoverishment, of an uncertain future, of the new and the unknown? It is well known that fear is the most primordial feeling, named in the Bible before all other emotions. And fear, as historian Joanna Bourke notes, is an emotion that wanders in time and space, more expansive and more intense than other emotions. "Fear throws individuals together in very different ways. It is the most democratic of all emotions and affects anyone who ponders the risk of their own death." Seen in this light, what would be astonishing, exciting and worth considering about the history of anti-communism? Don't the emotions activated during this time fit seamlessly into a universal story of fear? Or, to sharpen the question: Against this background, does it even make sense to deal with anti-communism? Can one hope for insights beyond the expected? As is well known, it is methodologically not only permissible, but sometimes even compelling, to ask about normality in the extreme. In other words: To gain indications of the functioning of everyday life from the analysis of the extra-everyday. It is obvious that American anti-communism fell out of line during the Cold War as a particularly extreme variant of an international phenomenon. McCarthyism not only ushered in the longest phase of political repression in the USA, but also staged an emotional state of emergency, the traces of which are still clearly visible even after decades. We are talking about an ideological total mobilization, the absurd excessiveness of which speaks for itself. For example, hobby anglers who applied for a license to fish in regional waters in New York State in the mid-1950s had to sign a declaration of loyalty to the constitution - allegedly documenting that they did not intend to poison the wells for the purpose of social upheaval. Such examples are legion. They add to the sign of a nervous age in which fear was far more than a stone guest. Fear and the search for means to contain it occupied the political imagination. In short: "There was more of it during the Cold War." But how do you as a historian decipher an emotion, how do you track down the fears of individuals, groups or even collectives? How do we explain the particular link between fear and anti-communism in the Cold War? And what does the American extreme tell us about the comparatively normal manifestations of anti-communism elsewhere?