Mass shootings are sadly all too common in modern-day America, but they did not happen much at all a century ago. Here, Chuck Lyons recounts the sad story of the first indiscriminate mass shooting in US history. It took place in Winfield, Kansas in 1903 and the perpetrator was Gilbert Twigg.

A panorama of Winfield, Kansas from around 1910.

A panorama of Winfield, Kansas from around 1910.

Early in the evening of August 13, 1903, thirty-six-year-old Gilbert Twigg parked his wagon in an alley near the corner of Main Street and Ninth Avenue in Winfield, Kansas. A large crowd had gathered there for an outdoor music concert. Wearing a buckskin hunting jacket, he walked to Ninth and Main. The band was taking a break and the crowd milled around talking. About a block from the bandstand, Twinge dropped to one knee, shouted “I’m going to shoot you all,” and opened fire with a shotgun. 

When he was done, nine people including Twigg himself, were dead. 

Gilbert Twigg had become the first indiscriminate mass killer in US history. He had acted without apparent motive and had killed whomever was handy. It was something the country had never seen before and would not see again for almost fifty years. Like many of today’s serial shooters he had served in the Armed Forces and had bought his guns legally. He also left a manifesto of 650 words of rationalization that explained little. 

“You should let this be a lesson to you in the future,” he wrote near its end.


Army veteran

Twigg had been born in Flintstone, Maryland in 1867 or 1868 and around 1888 had followed his uncle Argel to Kansas. There Twigg got a job as a miller and was said by people who knew him to be ambitious, intelligent, agreeable, and passably handsome, with “searing ice-blue eyes.” In those early days in Winfield, he worked, ran with a crowd of other young people, and courted a local woman, Jessie Hamilton, eventually proposing marriage and being accepted. But a short while after she accepted his proposal, for reasons that have never been clear, Hamilton changed her mind and broke off the engagement.

Her decision twisted something inside Twigg. 

“Those were the happiest days in my life,” he would write to a friend, Chance Wells, in 1902, “and it would have been much better for me if I had gotten married and settled down as you have done. I have no doubt but that you are very happy, while I am not.”

In 1896, two years after the thwarted love affair, Twigg enlisted in the army. He served two hitches and at one point was promoted because of his marksmanship. He saw action fighting in the Philippines where he also became involved in some sort of dispute with an officer and a doctor, Lt. Myron C. Bowdish and Contract Surgeon O. W. Woods, the details of which were never made public. But whatever had happened continued to haunt Twigg. He was mustered out of the army in California as a sergeant with an “excellent” service record and lived briefly in Montana working as a miller before returning to Winfield in 1903.

But things had changed, and Twigg was winding tighter.

In Winfield, he was unable to get his old job back or find any other employment probably because of his deteriorating mental condition. He was also reported to have lost his job in Montana “under murky circumstances.” He spent his days lolling around Winfield parks or sequestered in his boardinghouse room muttering about the people in Montana and Kansas who he thought had mistreated him and were plotting against him. 


Crazy Twigg

Local boys began calling him “Crazy Twigg.” 

Finally, on August 1, 1903, the twisting spring broke, and Twigg walked into the Winfield & Miller hardware store and bought a shotgun, an inexpensive .32 pistol, and more than 100 rounds of ammunition. He spent the next several days brushing up on the marksmanship he had learned in the Army. By August 13, he was ready. He piled his guns and ammunition into a tin express wagon and pulled it into the alley behind Ninth Avenue. Taking his shotgun, he began to walk to the Ninth and Main.

Along the way, The Winfield Chroniclelater reported, he ran into a group of local boys and allegedly told them he had some “tall shooting to do” and told them to get out of the area.

“I have no desire to hurt you,” the paper quoted him as saying.

At Ninth Avenue, he stopped in front of the Milligan Shoe Store, in sight of the bandstand and about a block away from it, and began firing. The band, Canton’s Dozen, a military band, was resting on the stage looking over sheet music. Twigg’s first shot grazed a horse that bolted and his second passed through the shoulder of the band’s drummer, Re Oliver, and shattered Clyde Wagoner's horn. Havoc erupted as Twigg kept firing into the crowd. Three men were hit as they exited onto the street from the stairway leading to the Odd Fellows Hall next door to Milligan’s. A group of three women were hit, and a 15-year-old boy. Bodies littered the street in growing pools of blood as Twigg continued firing on the scattering crowd. Some were running holding wounded arms or limping on shattered legs. Others were down in the street and moaning alongside the buildings.

Twigg had chosen the one evening of the week when the most people congregated, and “he chose the spot from which to fire with the skill of a general,” The Chroniclewrote. “He dropped on one knee at each fire, then retreated backward, while reloading, then dropped on his knee again and fired. These are the skirmish line tactics of the army and give a level `body line' to the volley. The employment of the tactics is due the terrible execution of his volleys. He remembered his training and `shot low.'”

Twigg worked his way back to the alley and his wagon. His last two shots were fired as he leaned around the corner. He then grabbed his .32 pistol from the wagon and turned it on himself. The whole incident had lasted less than ten minutes. Eight people, plus Twigg, died either immediately or shortly after the attack. More than two-dozen others had been wounded.

A rumor has persisted in Winfield for decades that Twigg did not shoot himself but was in fact killed by Winfield policeman George Nicholas, Winfield’s first and at that time only black policeman. “That rumor cast Nichols as a ready-made hero who ended the town’s most incomprehensible nightmare,” one historian wrote, “but [the town] was forced to deny his role because it was considered too dangerous for a black man to kill a white man, even justifiably.” 

For the rest of his life, Nicholas continued to deny he had shot Twigg.


The manifesto

The morning after the shooting, local police searched Twigg’s room and found a letter blaming unspecified individuals and the world at large for his troubles. 

"I would like to say to those who have interested themselves so much in my welfare (that seems to be the public in general),” he had written, “that I do not and most likely never will know the real cause of being treated in the manner in which I have been treated…You know you have `doped' me until I was forced to give up about a $100 a month position. You know that youdrove me from place to place and forced me to give up a neat little sum of my hard earned money to railroad companies, money that I went through the danger of war and diseases… You also know that you watched my mail and after finding out my friends and correspondents, you told them some kind of a story about me that caused everyone of them to drop me and turn me down cold.”

Was the cause of this persecution, he wondered, “my girl affaire here some eight or nine years ago? “ 

He also wrote that he regretted that “I did not settle this thing with Lieutenant Myron C. Bowdish and Contract surgeon O. W. Woods while I was a patient…in The Philippines. Then I could have gotten what was due me, and this thing would have been over long ago.”

The Winfield Chroniclewas surprisingly sympathetic to the man who had shot up its town and killed eight of its residents.

“Poor Twigg was not responsible for his insane acts. His disordered mind led him to the conclusion that the whole world was against him and he came back to the home of his boyhood to wreak vengeance and end it all,” it wrote on August 14, 1903.

There would not be another such attack in the United States until 1949, forty-six years later, when Howard Unruh wandered through his Camden, N.J., neighborhood killing twelve people. But by 2017, attacks such as Twigg’s were occurring with frightening regularly—and killing far more than the eight people Twigg had killed. 

“You should let this be a lesson to you in the future,” Twigg wrote in his manifesto, and he had indeed left a lesson for future generations.

But it was one we would be better off without.

Please share any comments or thoughts below.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a non-aggression pact signed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on August 23, 1939, a week before the start of World War II that would allow these two powers to invade Poland. Here is an introduction to the Pact and an overview of its consequences for World War Two.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop shake hands after agreement on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Source: Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available  here .

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop shake hands after agreement on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Source: Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H27337 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

The Pact

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed between Nazi Germany’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and the Soviet Union’s foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov in Moscow on August 23, 1939.

With the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union committed themselves to not attack each other, and to not support or assist states that were an enemy of the other. The Pact was supposed to last for ten years. The treaty also led to economic and commercial benefits, most notably in a separate 1940 agreement.

The exact details of the treaty were known only by the leadership of both governments - and they were not revealed to the public; however, much later it was found out that the treaty had some secret clauses. Eastern Europe was to be divided into zones of German and Soviet influence, leaving Poland divided between the two powers, and with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania recognized by Germany as areas of Soviet interest.

Under the terms of the Pact, if Germany attacked Poland, the Soviet Union would not provide support to the government in Warsaw. Furthermore, if the consequence of Germany invading Poland was a war with the Western Powers (in particular France and Great Britain), the Soviet Union would not enter the conflict, thus preventing the opening of a second front for Germany. 


The consequences of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 

The conclusion of the pact meant that Germany would be able to pursue its expansionist objectives in Poland. Adolf Hitler wanted the German state to grow and he wanted “living space” (or lebensraumin German) for the German people in Eastern Europe. In order to obtain this, Hitler had been busy creating a dispute with Poland, just as he had done with Czechoslovakia previously. With Poland, the dispute was regarding Danzig, a largely German-speaking city that was a free state and that became independent of Germany as a consequence of the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, along with parts of Poland where people spoke primarily German. Hitler wanted these territories to become part of Germany. Indeed, Adolf Hitler used these disputes as a pretext to invade Poland. 

This meant that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact enabled Hitler to invade Poland without Stalin’s interference and allowed for the start of World War II. On September 1, 1939, the Germany army invaded Poland, and on September, 17 1939, with the Polish Army greatly weakened, the Soviet Union attacked the eastern part of Poland. Even before the Soviet invasion, the Western Powers of Great Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

A further consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was that the Soviets did not join the fight against Germany from 1939, which may have prolonged the Second World War until 1945. Without the Pact, the war could have ended sooner – although that is far from certain as the Soviet Army may not have been able to defend the Soviet Union effectively against the Germans in 1939 as it was able to in 1941.


German advantages

The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact gave Germany some tremendous strategic advantages, as it allowed the country to focus its attack on Britain and France. Hitler did not need to split his forces between the eastern and western fronts; where as during World War One, Germany had to split its forces on two fronts, which may have cost them victory. In 1939, this was not the case, as the German army could fully focus on the west. Thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact the German army launched a large-scale attack solely on Western Europe. Within in less than a year of the outbreak of the war, countries including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France were invaded by the Germans. 

By mid-1940, Stalin may have started to question his decision to cooperate with Hitler, since Hitler had become the master of Europe. Nonetheless, Stalin kept observing the Pact’s terms due to the seeming strength of the German war machine and the need to further strengthen the Soviet Army.

On June 22, 1941, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact came to an end when Germany launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, known as Operation Barbarossa. While this was not totally unexpected by Stalin and the Soviet leadership, they were still not fully prepared for a large-scale German assault at that time. So, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact enabled Adolf Hitler to invade France, leave Britain largely isolated in Europe, and allow him to concentrate his efforts on defeating the Soviet Union. 

Even though at first Stalin thought that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was beneficial, as he was able to secure his western borders against attack and gain territory in Eastern Europe, Stalin empowered Germany to dominate Western Europe and later invade the territories of the Soviet Union. In the end, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact made the USSR vulnerable, which resulted in great human and industrial loss to the Soviet Union over the period 1941-45.


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As Japan conquered more territory from the 1930s, and as World War Two grew in scale following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, propaganda efforts across Japanese-controlled East Asian territories became more important. Here, Maddison Nichol follows up on his article on Nazi World War Two propaganda (here), and explains the importance of race and anti-Western ideology in the promotion of Japan’s East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

A Japanese 1930s propaganda poster promoting co-operatuion between Japan and - Japanese-controlled - Manchuria and China.

A Japanese 1930s propaganda poster promoting co-operatuion between Japan and - Japanese-controlled - Manchuria and China.

In 1941, the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbor in a surprise air raid. The intention was to sink much of the American Pacific Fleet which was a threat to growing Japanese imperial ambitions in East Asia. Many people forget that Japan had been at war with China since 1937, and by 1941 Japanese society was used to military propaganda blasts about the lofty East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and other grandiose ideas intended to mask the ugly nature of imperialism. But how did the Japanese Empire justify their aggression and conquests to their own people and those living in the conquered regions? By utilizing racially charged propaganda, picked up from the Germans under Hitler, and vilifying the Western imperial powers through past acts of aggression and gunboat diplomacy, the Japanese intended to create a semblance of authority and affection among their own people and the conquered inhabitants of Asia.



WW2 was a war that revolved around the idea of race. At the apex of the Nazi racial hierarchy were the Aryans, those with blonde hair and blue eyes and the purest of all races. Aryans were the ‘super race’ in this ideology, and the presence of a ‘super race’ means there must be a ‘sub race’. Essentially, the idea goes that everyone who wasn’t Aryan, or in our case here, Japanese, was a ‘sub race’ and inferior to the ‘super race’. The Japanese were even referred to as ‘yellow Aryans’ by their Axis allies.[1]

How did the Japanese utilize their idea of racial superiority? Domestically, like in Nazi Germany, the Japanese proclaimed that they were racially superior to Koreans, Chinese, and other Asian peoples. The Japanese watched Hitler disrupt the status quo of Europe through racially charged propaganda in just shy of a decade, so the Japanese figured they could do the same thing in Asia under their own banner.[2] There was one issue with this new racial model developed by the Japanese. The Nazis had a scapegoat, such as those of Jewish and Slavic descent. The Japanese didn’t. Luckily, like any imagined order, they could just make one up like the Nazis did. Instead of Jews and Slavs, the Japanese chose Britons and Americans, the premier imperial powers in Asia.[3]

There was a long, and confusing, rationale about racial superiority in the Second World War, but the simple version is that the Germans thought they were the superior race destined to rule the world, and so did the Japanese. All this background aside, let’s get into the propaganda itself.

The term “New World Order” is not unfamiliar among savants and scholars of the Second World War. The Nazis used it constantly, and yet not many know that the Japanese intended to create their own New Order in Asia. This was called the East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The central tenant for the Co-Prosperity Sphere was that Asia should belong to Asians and not be subject to the British and American imperial ambitions.[4] Naturally, the Japanese Empire should control all of Asia instead of the Europeans. Throw off the yoke of Western imperialism for… well, another version of Western imperialism.

The real reason for the war in Asia was imperial ambitions. Japan needed coal, iron, and other resources that they just didn’t have in the Home Islands that other nearby areas had, such as Korea and Indonesia. However, masking these goals through race allowed the Japanese to persuade their own people that they intended to liberate Asia from the West. They tried to inform the conquered people that they meant no harm, but were there to free them from the Western powers.[5] A Japanese propaganda corps sent to the Philippines was told to deliver messages about why the Japanese were compelled to go to war. Leaflets describing why the Japanese had gone to war against the USA were given out to Filipinos during the invasion of the Philippines by special propaganda corps.[6] The goal was to try and convince the Filipinos that Japan was an ally, not an enemy. Asia must be liberated from the Europeans and Americans so that peace can reign in Asia. Japanese propagandists cited race issues in the United States as justification for a war of Asian liberation and handed it out to both Japanese people domestically and those of conquered areas to justify their imperial ambitions through the lens of racial struggle.[7] This idea of race goes well with the next big aspect of Japanese wartime propaganda, past deeds of atrocity committed by the Western powers.


Reminders of Western Atrocities

In 1839, Great Britain attacked Qing China for restricting the trade of Opium into China. Opium was a major export for the British and the Chinese market for the drug was lucrative and funded many well off British merchants back in Britain. The Opium Wars went from 1839-1842, and 1856-1860 and brought down the long-established era of Chinese dominance in East Asia. It also worried other parts of Asia, such as Japan, by showing the other Asian countries that Europe would always get what it wanted and was willing to fight against anyone who opposed them.

This war, while over a century old by the time Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, was made into a wartime film by the Japanese to enable everyone to recall the atrocities of the British in the name of wealth. The film was “intended to demonstrate the evils of the British Empire and by extension, the need for someone to step in to halt European aggression, The Opium War also implicitly states the case for Japan as China’s saviour.”[8] By making the Japanese and the Chinese remember the British atrocities against the Chinese, it would hopefully rally the Japanese to support the war while also promoting Japan as the savior of China. By portraying the British in such a negative light, Japanese propagandists hoped the Chinese would support the Japanese effort in creating the Co-Prosperity Sphere and finally bring peace to a racially pure Asia free from Western imperialism.

We don’t know how well the film was received in China and other occupied territories, but on the home front it was a big hit.[9] Much like the Germans, film was intended to reach a broader audience and get people to grasp the key points of the ideological propaganda. But film was not the only way to get people to recall atrocities. In The Philippines, Japanese propaganda corps tried to get Filipinos to remember American atrocities against them, such as how the Filipino soldiers of the USAFFE were being used as shields for the Americans, or how the soldiers were discriminated against by the Americans.[10] They also reminded the Filipinos of how 297 of 300 Filipino laborers were murdered by American soldiers after the completion of the Fort.[11] By trying to appeal to the Filipinos through invoking recollections of American atrocities, the Japanese intended to create a truce between the two Asian peoples by declaring how Japan was their savior from Western atrocities.

We know in hindsight that the Japanese committed atrocities of their own in China, The Philippines, and other areas of occupied Asia. But this was their propaganda strategy to garner support domestically and in the occupied territories for the Japanese war effort. By utilizing the all-too-common race idea into propaganda and causing Asians to remember Western imperial violence, the Japanese tried to create their New World Order in Asia with their superior race leading the rest. Europe and America would be removed, and peace would return to Asia at last. There are many other facets to Japanese wartime propaganda, such as bushido and kokutai, but in broad strokes race and past atrocities were the central ideas to the creation of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. Japan’s “super race” would lead the rest of Asia into an era of peace and harmony free from the corruption of the West. Anyone who actually believed them would soon be taught that liberation was just another name for imperialism.


What do you think of Japanese World War Two propaganda? Let us know below.


[1] Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 192.

[2] Ibid, 193.

[3] Ibid, 194.

[4] Ibid, 196.

[5] A. J. Grajdanzev, “Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere”, Pacific Affairs 16, No. 3 (September 1943), 311.

[6] Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 285.

[7] “Japanese Race Propaganda”, 197-198.

[8] David Desser, “From the Opium War to the Pacific War: Japanese Propaganda Films of World War II”, in Film History 7, No. 1, Asian Cinema (Spring, 1995), 44.

[9] Ibid, 44.

[10] “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, 292.

[11] Ibid, 294.


1: Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 192.

2: Ibid, 193.

3: Ibid, 194.

4: Ibid, 196.

5: A. J. Grajdanzev, “Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere”, Pacific Affairs 16, No. 3 (September 1943), 311.

6: Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 285.

7: Saul K. Padover, “Japanese Race Propaganda”, in The Public Opinion Quarterly 7, No. 2 (Summer, 1943), 197-198.

8: David Desser, “From the Opium War to the Pacific War: Japanese Propaganda Films of World War II”, in Film History 7, No. 1, Asian Cinema (Spring, 1995), 44.

9: Ibid, 44.

10: Motoe Terami-Wada, “The Japanese Propaganda Corps in the Philippines”, in Philippine Studies 38, No. 3 (Third Quarter 1990), 292.

11: Ibid, 294.

The policies of Nazi Germany and Showa Japan towards Muslim-majority warzones differed greatly. This became increasingly evident throughout the period 1931-45, and notably as World War Two became tougher for the Axis Powers from 1942-45. Here, Guan Kiong Teh considers how Nazi Germany used a ‘confidence-and-supply’ approach in Palestine, and Iraq and Japan a ‘coalition’ approach in Malaya and Singapore.

Adolf Hitler meeting with influential war-time Palestinian Amin al-Husseini. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available  here

Adolf Hitler meeting with influential war-time Palestinian Amin al-Husseini. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A / Heinrich Hoffmann / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Available here

This article defines policy as ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual’[1], and ‘warzone’ as ‘a region where occurred physical conflict’. Whereas the Japanese were interested in a ‘coalition’ with Muslims, trying to incorporate Malay, Indian, Muslim identities as subjugate to a Japanese seishin (‘national spirit’), the Germans preferred a ‘confidence-and-supply’ arrangement, working to lobby and influence Muslims to solicit cooperation in specific aspects, but almost entirely disinterested in other aspects of Islamic life. This policy comparison could take one of several focuses: Islamic importance to each regime’s military strategy or the role of Japanese and German policy in postwar Muslim conflict, to give examples. However, both regimes had, by the eve of campaigns in Muslim-majority regions during the Second World War (1939-45), come to recognise Islam’s capital as a global religion. Both identified that Muslim-majority regions were rich in physical resources. As the dominant religion and identity in many Allied colonies, Protectorates and Mandates, Islamic political interests could be shaped to solicit cooperation to hasten the decline in Allied international influence. Both regimes shared interest in expansionist policy, even if the role of Muslims within these interests differed.

From these commonalities in outlook, four warzones stand out as clear candidates to assess Muslim policy: Malaya & Singapore during the 1941-5 Pacific War for the Japanese, and Palestine & Iraq for the Germans. All four had common experiences as British colonies or mandates. All four were plural societies, accommodating at least one significant minority: the Jews in the Middle East; the Chinese in Southeast Asia. This essay shall first compare the reasons for different interpretations of this resource, assessing how and why German and Japanese regimes altered their approaches to Muslims in these regions during the Second World War. The Japanese and Germans produced two very different strains of philosophies, plans and policies, often only united by Muslim response and interpretation of these policies. Nonetheless, the identification of Muslims as a resource was a common theme, and shall be this essay’s focus.


Japan and Germany: Different Approaches

Differences in contributions to Japanese and German ‘racial’ and ‘ethnic’ intellectual theory throughout the 1930s produced two vastly different approaches towards defining relationships with Islam. The scholarly contribution to Japanese Muslim policy during the 1930s was more complex than that in Germany. This, along with far greater resource scarcity than experienced by the Germans, later translated into a set of policies that demonstrated interest in the indoctrination and long-term domination of society so that Malays and Indian Muslims would view their Muslim identity as subordinate, to their identity as part of the Japanese Minzoku (ethnic nation). By the 1930s, the biological concept of ‘race’ and its mathematical formulae as a means of justifying Japanese superiority and expansionism was outdated amongst Japanese scholars. Takata Yasuma, in particular, rejected ‘the Germanic emphasis on "blood and soil’ as it was insufficiently sensitive to the importance of culture and too dependent on nature for its definitions of the nation’[2]. Most contemporary scholars agreed that the Yamato people were composed of waves of migrants from Southeast Asia, China and Siberia. The study of ethnology was dominated by two competing strains: the theories of Takata Yasuma, and the Society of Ethnology, established in 1934. Doak’s analysis of the Minzoku (ethnic nation) concept claims that the competition in the field of ethnology ‘fanning the flames of wartime aggression’ more so than would a doctrine that believed in racial purity[3]. Takata envisioned a Minzoku that permitted other religions and ethnicities, but ultimately loyal to Japan in language, and, more importantly, political allegiance.


Resource Scarcity in Japan

Contemporary sources demonstrate many practical, pressing concerns in ensuring that the conversion of Muslim opinion occurred rapidly. Writing in 1938, the sociologist Jesse Steiner notes currents of panic amongst the Japanese at the scarcity of resources; horror at the effects of the 1929 Great Depression in destabilising the nation after the Meiji economic boom proved unsustainable[4]. These fears were further compounded by long-standing concerns of overpopulation, which was in turn compounded by widespread opposition to the government’s offer of emigration to Manchuria. By 1938, Japan was unable to feed herself. There was, between 1930-38, a 12-fold increase in whale consumption and reliance on international waters around Japan’s physical boundaries[5]. In Southeast Asia, this was the story. The 1000-strong Japanese fishermen community in Singapore enjoyed plentiful supply of tropical fish. Malaya had plentiful seafood and arable land. Given the lack of evidence of prewar Japanese community ‘befriending’ ordinary Malays, we can assume that resource scarcity took precedence over theory for most Japanese. The mining community in Kuantan and Terengganu (with disproportionately small Chinese communities) showed little evidence of Muslim employment. The most prolific Japanese, ironically, were those who operated businesses in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor - areas with high Chinese concentrations[6]. While the greater academic input contributed towards greater interest in befriending Muslim communities and co-opting their political agendas than amongst the Nazis, there is neither much evidence of transparency nor trust, or even of en-masse interest in socialising with the Muslims in Southeast Asia.


Nazi Germany: Geopolitical Priorities

There were far less spontaneous calls amongst the Germans to work with the Muslims during the 1930s[7]. To some extent, this was simply down to a different approach: while the Institut fur Geopolitik (Geopolitics Institute) fulfilled a similar role to the Society of Ethnology in international research, its research interests were naturally more concerned with geopolitical strategy. Motadel’s quotations suggests that - far more than any academic discussed by Doak or Esenbel - some German academics understood that the stakes of trying to dominate Islam were very high. In 1936, Heinrich Eck discussed Moscow’s abject failure to ‘control’ Muslims. Two years later, Schmitz’s All Islam! Weltmacht von Morgen, asserted that Islam, despite Stalin’s best efforts, remained the ‘life fundament’ of opposition in Russia[8]. Amidst the propagandistic overtones (particularly that of Islamic ‘strong opposition’), the implications of these texts collectively are clear: Islam and Nazism were ideologies that wanted to see similar types of change, and thus, could collaborate over certain matters. Yet its domination was a risky and unnecessary experiment. The contributions of figures such as Oppenheim and Rosenberg during the 1930s were more clearly related to government policy in the 1940s than were those of Takata, Okawa, and others. Yet, as portrayed by Nicosia in Nazi Germany and the Arab World, they were rarely theoretical; more ‘troubleshooting’. Within this ‘troubleshooting’, there was slightly more evidence of planning the ‘confidence-and-supply’ relationship. Rosenberg’s brand of ‘troubleshooting’ is a good example. As director of the Ausschenpolitisches Amt der NSDAP, Rosenberg demonstrated ingenuity in balancing engagement with the Middle East with the more prominent aim of an Aryan sanctuary in Europe. He agreed with Hitler that any claims staked upon former colonies had to be made on grounds of materials. Indeed, the dramatic increase in military spending in the late 1930s strained Germany’s budget and highlighted its shortage of raw materials. Yet the extent of shortages that Germany faced was a far cry from the desperation described in Japan. In addition to an aggressive autarky programme that was demonstrating competency in feeding the nation by 1939, Germany also had the option of annexation for resources, which Japan naturally did not.

The most prominent resource in Palestine to catch Nazi attention was opposition to the Jewish National Home. Having identified this, Rosenberg set out to manipulate it. A June 1936 article in the Volkischer Beobachter details Rosenberg’s caution that the British supported Jewish emigration to Palestine. For at least two years after the publication of this article, however, Rosenberg continued to promote directing Jewish immigration ‘first and foremost to Palestine’[9]. Nicosia’s point that the annexation of Austria and its 200,000 Jews simply meant 200,000 more potential migrants to Palestine is further proof of Rosenberg’s brilliance of ‘troubleshooting’. These actions were characteristic of Germany’s ‘confidence-and-supply’ view of Muslims. Rosenberg understood that there were factions of Arabic society prone to anti-Jewish sentiment, and understood the importance of maintaining a courteous relationship with leaders, as evidenced in German Foreign Office records of arms sales to Palestine in 1936-37. This was to be expected considering general Nazi trade interests in the region in the mid-1930s, and should not be interpreted as interest in political cooperation[10].


The Japanese in Malaysia

Early Japanese attempts to establish ‘coalition-style’ policies often did not demonstrate much evidence in planning, other than a desire to dominate. This is evidenced in their relationship with Ibrahim Yacob: a series of rewards as a direct consequence of damages to his objectives. The Japanese quickly demonstrated interest in working closely with Ibrahim Yacob, going to great lengths to ensure that they presented an illusion of supporting his interests when they detected suspicion and disillusionment. In April 1941, Ibrahim purchased (with Japanese funding) the Warta Malaya newspaper, using it to promulgate anti-British propaganda[11]. The newspaper was distinguished: by the end of the 1930s, it had the highest circulation amongst all Malay-language periodicals. The Japanese were also indulgent. Sensing Ibrahim’s disillusionment at the disbandment of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (Young Malays Union), Ogawa and Watanabe hosted Ibrahim, appointing him as an advisor by the first week of August 1942. That this appointment occurred just two months after the Japanese outlawed the KMM suggests indulgence. The following October, Japan transferred Perlis, Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan to Thai administration. Again, sensing Ibrahim’s disillusionment, Ibrahim was tasked with establishing the Giyu-gun and Giyu-tai. It is likely that the decision to instruct Ibrahim to disband the KMM was reached very quickly: Cheah notes that it occurred shortly after the KMM rapidly gained popularity, growing their membership to approx. 10,000 urban and rural Malays[12]. The Japanese could not risk Malay nationalism dominate their young efforts to enforce Japanese seishin. To be sure, the net effects of Ibrahim’s efforts are debatable: Warta Malaya was a well-read paper, but merely an urban, well-read paper[13]. Nonetheless, these efforts were symbolic of Japanese efforts to reach out to influential Muslims in Malaya.


Nazi Confidence-and-Supply

Few events discussed in this essay were more humiliating than al-Gaylani’s requests for assistance to resist the British, following his coup. Hitler responded by providing two Luftwaffe squadrons. Kehoe and Greenhalgh are right to note that Hellmuth’s appointment, and the two Luftwaffe squadrons undermine arguments of German enthusiasm or naivety about strengths needed to resist the British[14]. In addition to his incompetence, Hellmuth’s highest attainment was merely a three-star badge as Lieutenant-General. In addition to incompetence, Hellmuth was also distracted to seek out figures like al-Gaylani in Syria and Lebanon - not indicative of a dedicated, focused deployment[15]. This essay, however, questions the judgement that insufficient resources ‘doomed the German mission to inevitable failure’. Shortages were a vital factor. The urgency of preparations for Operation Barbarossa can be felt through these figures: between late February and late May 1941, over 2.3 million German troops were amassed. However, there is scant evidence of genuine concern for Gaylani’s demands. Scholarship that attribute Gaylani’s defeat to the ruthless efficiency of the British campaign only reinforces this essay’s argument: Gaylani had mooted specific requests since December 1940, asking for captured British weapons for ease of use against the British[16]. If the Nazi administration had truly been enthusiastic about weakening British influence in the region, if, more damningly, the administration could accommodate al-Husseini and al-Gaylani in luxury[17], their failure to make any progress on Gaylani’s coup strongly suggests a lack of interest in achieving aims that did not conform to Nazi interests.

Hitler’s lacklustre response to Gaylani’s coup forms one part of the litmus test that validates the nature of the confidence-and-supply relationship. The other is in Axis involvement in the Baghdadi Farhud of June 1-2, 1941. This time, the Nazis wanted Iraqis to supply violence against Baghdad’s Jewish community. The increasing focus of recent scholarship upon lesser Iraqi and Palestinian nationalist figures and ordinary Iraqis reveals a rapid evolution of discourse in the two months between Gaylani’s coup and the Farhud. While the Nazis were unwilling to make a meaningful contribution to Gaylani’s coup, they injected his short-lived regime with a cocktail of concentrated doses of nationalistic and anti-Semitic propaganda. This, with the rapidity of the British invasion and Grobba, Husseini and Gaylani’s desertion caused doubts over German credibility. There was some evidence of anti-Semitic sentiment before the war: Iraqi volunteers participated in the 1936-39 Arab Revolts. What was new was the inclination towards spontaneous violence in Baghdad. As the British arrived in Iraq in early May, the Nazis began broadcasting propaganda programmes stressing the strengths of the ‘Arab race’ throughout history, and the merits of contemporary Arab nationalism. The motive in doing so - to ‘strengthen their self-assurance’ - is somewhat extraneous given concurrent propaganda efforts on the same subject matter by Arabs.

Restlessness and paranoia grew as the British approached: in the week before the attack, Ida Staudt’s memoirs describes a break-in performed by a mob hunting for British materials over claims that a Union Jack had been spotted, only satisfied when they found a book with a depiction of Churchill[18]. Reeva Simon further notes the paranoia on the streets regarding British spies: a woman was treated as suspect by merit of her reflective gold button, allegedly used to signal the British. Indeed, the emotionally-charged nature of Staudt’s memoirs subject her record of fact to questions over objectivity[19]. However, her portrayal of increasing paranoia agrees with Simon’s characterisation[20]. Moderation is important: Grobba did not convert the average Baghdadi into a Nazi. However, extant evidence suggests that the rapid turn of events in the two months left an indelible imprint in the minds of many. Many reacted in what they perceived as the only way possible: to take it out on foreigners they saw. Ironically, the Nazis’ haphazard accumulation of propaganda succeeded in achieving Jewish persecution at the cost of severe damage of Muslim perceptions.


Japan from 1942-45

The aforementioned differences between German and Japanese policies to Muslims only became more prominent in the 1942-45 period. The ‘coalition’ versus ‘confidence-and-supply’ approaches towards Muslims grew increasingly disparate as pressures from global strategy mounted. The ‘coalition’ assessment of Japanese policy is reinforced in its deteriorating treatment of ‘ordinary’ Muslims and lesser aristocrats in Malaya and Singapore. Japanese administrative and religious interferences sought to solicit an increasing willingness to adopt the Japanese seishin. Overall, policies were designed to enforce, even more stringently than before, loyalty to Japan. Kratoska illustrates that the Malays demonstrated a consensus of dissatisfaction with the ‘benign neglect’ of British rule on the eve of the invasion. The civil service, in particular, was infamous for excessive bureaucracy. Strangely, despite Kratowska’s assessment that ‘many elements of the pre-war administration survived the occupation nearly unchanged’, he cites much evidence that suggests otherwise. The Japanese appointed lesser aristocratic Malays to replace the British as District Officers (D.O) in 1942[21]. This policy initially seemed to support improving Muslim political agency. Yet other policies from 1943-45 demonstrate the DO’s vulnerability. The Southern Army’s headquarters were relocated to Singapore in April 1943, improving the efficiency of the Military Administration. Between 1943 and 45, D.O’s noted increasing Japanese involvement in daily tasks, including de facto surveillance through accompanying field visits. This allowed more efficient administration of the D.O’s. The position of the Gun Shidokanho, created near the end of the Occupation is symbolic of this ‘coalition’ arrangement: the formalisation of a Japanese ‘super District Officer’ above the Muslim District Officer; Japanese identity over Muslim identity. That the official policy declaration for the Gun Shidokanho position defined its purpose as ‘guiding the District Officer in order to adjust and (make) adequate the executions of the latter’s duties’ suggests Japanese expectation that these minor aristocrats would cooperate with the ‘need’ for surveillance[22]. Village chiefs were forced to recruit forced labour. Indeed, the ordinary Muslim had reason to fear, and be suspicious of the Japanese. In general, the Japanese saw no need to indulge ordinary Muslims, whose influence in disseminating anti-British thought was far less.


Nazi Germany and the Middle East from 1942-45

The Japanese and Germans entered and engaged with Islamic consciousness with such different aims and planning styles. It is relatively easy to assess the effectiveness of either according to their own aims, but comparing the effectiveness of both can be problematic, without diverging into speculation (what if al-Gaylani defeated the British on his own merit?). The most telling indicator is in an evaluation of Japanese and German policy towards Muslim interaction with non-Muslims. The intensification of anti-Semitic rhetoric throughout the Second World War, but particularly following the May 1943 defeat in North Africa experienced mere pockets of effectiveness, despite its exception as an exemplar of the ‘confidence-and-supply’ relationship; as one of the few aspects of life in the Middle East which the Nazis hoped to significantly influence through the use of such figures as al-Husseini and Yunus Bahri. Motadel traces the growing virulence of this rhetoric. Propaganda directed towards the Middle East in the summer of 1942 attempted to justify anti-Semitism, prescribing annihilation because ‘The Jews are planning to violate your women, to kill your children and to destroy you.’[23]. By 1944, the need for such justification had dissipated: on March 1, al-Husseini broadcast the far more emotive and direct: ‘Kill the Jews wherever you find them; this pleases Allah, history, and religion. This saves your honour. Allah is with you.’[24]. Despite extensive Nazi efforts in this respect for nearly five years, there was scant evidence of spontaneous uprising against Jewish populations in the Middle East and North Africa, bar the aforementioned Farhud. This is a particularly damning verdict, considering the concurrent anti-Semitic policies of the Vichy government. Motadel, to his credit, recognises that his research illustrates but ‘snapshots’[25]. Nonetheless, his argument is made even more convincing, given the fallacies of the opposition: Herf asserts that propaganda could reasonably be judged to have encountered ‘positive reception’ based on a Voice of America’s report on discussing Judaism with the Palestinian population (it is unclear what these observations are based on)[26]. Herf strongly implies that the messages were quite popular in Palestine and Iraq by his need to make frequent, obvious assertions (such as ‘The purpose of (propaganda) was to inflame and incite, not inform’ and ‘Not only did these assertions… wildly exaggerate the powers of the Jews’)[27].


Japanese ‘Indirect’ Discrimination

Almost the exact opposite is true for the Japanese. Cheah is right to insist that there is little evidence ‘to show that the Japanese deliberately promoted racial animosity’ in Japanese policy, at least until the very final two months of Occupation. However, the motivations and objectives of many Japanese economic and social policies facilitated justification of anti-Chinese sentiment, even violence. The sheer violence of Sook Ching in February 1942 created a great impression among many ordinary Malays. Although Chinese schools, for instance, were allowed to re-open in October 1942, the Japanese forbid the use of Mandarin as the language of instruction[28].

To meet the war’s increasing demand upon resources, the Japanese rescinded Malay Land Reservation Enactments, transferring hitherto protected land in rural Johor and Negri Sembilan to Chinese farmers. Whereas land was also allocated to Malay farmers, suggesting that the need to maintain Malayan food supplies did take precedence over racial policy, only land in the smaller more urban state of Syonan-To (Singapore) was granted[29]. The resultant ethnic conflict that lasted from May 10th to September 1st, 1945 in Batu Pahat and surrounding regions in the Northwest of Johor, had a far wider-ranging and deeper impact than did the Baghdadi Farhud of 1941, and comparisons are inappropriate. Much as some Baghdadis justified their persecution of the Jews by claiming that the latter committed espionage for the British, some Malays justified their massacres by claiming that their Chinese victims were communists[30]. The only main difference: the Japanese role, unlike that of Grobba and Gaylani, was implicit.

A small criticism of Cheah: he cites an anecdote from Chin Peng of a July incident wherein the Japanese ‘went to a mosque… and slaughtered a pig’[31], thereby inciting more conflict. There are issues with Chin’s objectivity as a liaison officer between the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army and the British military. Cheah, to his credit, also notes that the logistical considerations of the war - preparations for significant, widely-reported concurrent battles with the British in the North of Malaya that would absorb much Japanese attention[32] - would overwhelmingly suggest that this anecdote is likely untrue, and, if true, was unlikely to have significant impact. Certainly, the region of Batu Pahat, Endau and Muar constitutes but a small region in Malaya, and was also the only notable spontaneous act of anti-Chinese resistance. However, its severe destabilisation upon the Chinese community - 14,000 displaced refugees who had to flee town centres by early September - leads to the unfortunate suggestion that Japanese ‘indirect’ discrimination was more impactful than was the German bombardment of propaganda[33]. This is not a conclusion of greater efficiency from the Japanese. Nonetheless, the suggestive evidence is notable.



The policies of Showa Japan and Nazi Germany towards Muslims differed significantly throughout the global wars of 1931-45, particularly if one specifically considers their treatment of Muslims in the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore, and British mandates of Palestine and Iraq. Indeed, although the development of currents of ethnic and racial theories differed greatly, practical and strategic considerations during both campaigns could have engineered more congruence between the two. Instead, the pressures of failures in strategy during the 1942-45 years made these differences even more pronounced. Overall, neither Japan nor Germany truly convinced Muslims that their values were compatible with Islamic religious and political identities. A final consideration: the detail in policies discussed in this essay do not facilitate awareness that Japan and Germany’s approaches towards Muslim engagement were, from an Islamic perspective, different parts of the narrative of their engagement with the non-Islamic world during the first half of the twentieth century. It would, as such, be useful to conduct a further study into the differences of the roles of Japan and Germany into postwar Islamic revolutionaries and nationalism, in Malaya and Singapore and Palestine and Iraq, but also in the total extent of Nazi Germany and Showa Japan’s spheres of influence.


What do you think about the author’s arguments? Let us know below.




Barber, Andrew, Kuala Lumpur at War, 1939-45, Kuala Lumpur, Karamoja Press, 2012

Cheah, Boon Kheng, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-46, 2nd ed., Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1983

Cheah, Boon Kheng, ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-45: Ibrahim Yacob and the Struggle for Indonesian Raya’, Indonesia, No. 28 (Oct., 1979), pp. 84-120

Doak, Kevin M., ’Building National Identity through Ethnicity: Ethnology in Wartime Japan and After’ in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 1-39

Esenbel, Selcuk, ‘Japan's Global Claim to Asia and the World of Islam: Transnational Nationalism and World Power, 1900-1945’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 109, No. 4 (October 2004), pp. 1140-1170

Goda, Norman J. W., Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006

Herf, Jeffrey, ‘Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Aimed at Arabs and Muslims During World War II and the Holocaust: Old Themes, New Archival Findings’, in Central European History, Vol. 42, No. 4, (December 2009), pp. 709-736

Kehoe, Thomas J., and Greenhalgh, Elizabeth M., ‘Living Propaganda and Self-Serving Recruitment: The Nazi Rationale for the German-Arab Training Unit, May 1941 to May 1943’ in War in History (2017), Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 520-543

Kratoska, Paul H., The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, London, Hurst & Co., 1998

Mallmann, Klaus-Michael, and Cuppers, Martin, Nazi Palestine, The Plans for the Extermination of the Jews in Palestine, trans. Krista Smith, New York, Enigma Books, 2010

Morse, Chuck, The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Lincoln, iUniverse, Inc., 2003

Motadel, David, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014

Nicosia, Francis, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015

‘Policy - Definition’, Oxford Living Dictionaries,, (accessed 24 Dec 2017)

Spector-Simon, Reeva, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, Updated ed., New York, 2004

Staudt, Ida, ‘A Nazi-Inspired Revolt, 1941’ in Living in Romantic Baghdad: An American Memoir of Teaching and Travel in Iraq, 1924-1947, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2012

Steiner, Jesse, ‘Japanese Population Policies’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 43, No. 5 (Mar., 1938), pp. 717-733

Tajuddin, Azlan, Malaysia in the World Economy (1824-2011): Capitalism , Ethnic Divisions and ‘managed Democracy’, London, Lexington Books, 2012

Tsutsui, William M., ‘Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan’, Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), pp. 294-311



[1] ‘Policy - Definition’, Oxford Living Dictionaries,, (accessed 24 Dec 2017)

[2] Kevin M. Doak, ’Building National Identity through Ethnicity: Ethnology in Wartime Japan and After’ in The Journal of Japanese Studies, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Winter, 2001), pp. 14-15

[3] Ibid, p. 2

[4] Jesse Steiner, ‘Japanese Population Policies’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 43, No. 5 (Mar., 1938), pp. 718-720

[5] William M. Tsutsui, ‘Landscapes in the Dark Valley: Toward an Environmental History of Wartime Japan’, Environmental History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Apr., 2003), p. 298

[6] Ayabe Kuichiro ran a ‘(dentistry)... that doubled as a barber’s shop’. The multiplicity of services probably made Kuichiro a well-known figure in the local area. See Andrew Barber, Kuala Lumpur at War, 1939-45, Kuala Lumpur, Karamoja Press, 2012, pp. 22-24 for similar anecdotes.

[7] David Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014, pp. 27-31

[8] Ibid, p. 30

[9] Francis Nicosia, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 99

[10] Ibid, pp. 87-88

[11] Cheah Boon Kheng, ‘The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, 1941-45: Ibrahim Yacob and the Struggle for Indonesian Raya’, Indonesia, No. 28 (Oct., 1979), p. 94

[12] Ibid, p. 103

[13] Azlan Tajuddin, Malaysia in the World Economy (1824-2011): Capitalism , Ethnic Divisions and ‘managed Democracy’, London, Lexington Books, 2012, p. 94

[14] Thomas J. Kehoe, and Elizabeth M. Greenhalgh, ‘Living Propaganda and Self-Serving Recruitment: The Nazi Rationale for the German-Arab Training Unit, May 1941 to May 1943’ in War in History (2017), Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 526

[15] Ibid, p. 526

[16] Nicosia, Nazi Germany and the Arab World, p. 163

[17] Chuck Morse, The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism: Adolf Hitler and Haj Amin al-Husseini, Lincoln, iUniverse, Inc., 2003, pp. 53-56

[18] Ida Staudt, ‘A Nazi-Inspired Revolt, 1941’ in Living in Romantic Baghdad: An American Memoir of Teaching and Travel in Iraq, 1924-1947, Syracuse, Syracuse University Press, 2012, p. 223

[19] Ibid, pp. 218-221

[20] Reeva Spector-Simon, Iraq between the Two World Wars: The Militarist Origins of Tyranny, Updated ed., New York, 2004, p. 131

[21] Kratoska, The Japanese Occupation of Malaya, p. 64

[22] Ibid, p. 65

[23] Motadel, Islam and Nazi Germany’s War, p. 96

[24] Ibid, p. 97

[25] Ibid, p. 114

[26] Jeffrey Herf, ‘Nazi Germany’s Propaganda Aimed at Arabs and Muslims During World War II and the Holocaust: Old Themes, New Archival Findings’, in Central European History, Vol. 42, No. 4, (December 2009), p. 728

[27] Ibid, p. 731

[28] Cheah, Red Star over Malaya: Resistance and Social Conflict During and After the Japanese Occupation, 1941-46, 2nd ed., Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1983, p. 38

[29] Ibid, p. 39

[30] Ibid, p. 219

[31] Ibid, p. 217

[32] Ibid, p. 235

[33] Ibid, p. 230

Woodrow Wilson was US President from 1913-1921, during World War I and its aftermath. Here, Kate Murphy Schaefer follows her articles on Abigail Adams (here) and Eleanor Roosevelt (here), by looking at both of the first ladies to Woodrow Wilson: Ellen Wilson and Edith Wilson, who have contrasting legacies.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson in 1920.

Woodrow and Edith Wilson in 1920.

Conventional wisdom tells us “the past doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”[1] It makes sense there would be some overlap in the experiences of American first ladies: only 46 women have known how it feels to be thrust into that kind of spotlight. Some embraced their new role; others simply tried to make the best of it. Many took on the weight of shaping and maintaining their husband’s legacy: Abigail Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jackie Kennedy come to mind. Two very different first ladies took on responsibility for the legacy of President Woodrow Wilson, however: Ellen and Edith Wilson.


The First Mrs. Wilson

Ellen Louise Axson was dedicated to her art, even winning a medal at the Paris International Exposition in 1878. This focus did not go unnoticed by the eligible bachelors in Rome, Georgia, earning her the nickname “Ellie the Man Hater.”[2] This changed when she met Woodrow Wilson. She set aside studio art in favor of the art of compromise, supporting her husband and his dream of entering national politics. Ellen was much more adept than her husband at making the connections and cultivating the relationships that would make presidential candidacy a reality. For example, she knew Woodrow would not win the Democratic nomination without the support of Congressional giant William Jennings Bryan, so she invited Bryan to dinner. She seemed to instinctively know how to make people feel at ease and how to portray her bookish college professor husband in the best light. Though she saw herself as the “most unambitious of women,” Ellen Wilson made President Wilson possible.[3]

She admitted “life in the White House has no attractions for me,” but vowed to make the best of her stay. She supported women’s suffrage, increased rights for African-Americans, and championed restrictions on child labor. She also worked for housing reform in Washington, D.C. A woman of her time and product of her Southern upbringing, she was not as progressive as some, but she was considerably more progressive than her husband. Evidence of her work lived on in the Alley bill passed by the House of Representatives after her death.[4] Ultimately chronic kidney disease, not lack of drive or dedication, kept Ellen from achieving all she wanted to achieve. She died on August 6, 1914. Devoted to Woodrow to the last, her final words were “take good care of my husband.”[5]


A New Mrs. Wilson

Woodrow Wilson grieved bitterly for his wife, but a new Mrs. Wilson was on his horizon. Hoping to break the president out of his depression, Ellen’s former secretary, Helen Bones, invited him to tea with her friend Edith Bolling Galt. Edith had lost her first husband six years before and was not inclined towards another romantic relationship. Wilson, on the other hand, was completely besotted. He proposed within three months, pursuing her even after she declined the first proposal. Initial reluctance aside, Edith seemed to know from the beginning that her future led to the White House, describing meeting Wilson as “an accidental meeting which carried out the adage of ‘turn a corner and meet your fate.’”[6] The couple married in December 1915. Edith was not Ellen: she was not as educated or as knowledgeable about social issues and politics. Where Ellen worked for several causes, Edith had only one: Woodrow Wilson. Fate, whether stumbled upon at tea or grasped head on, is a fickle mistress. On September 25, 1919, Wilson suffered a massive stroke in the residence of the White House. The Mrs. Wilson least prepared to take on politics became the woman in charge of the President and the presidency itself.

Following the stroke, Woodrow Wilson was “paralyzed, unconscious, (and) almost vegetative,” leading Edith to hide the severity of her husband’s condition.[7] Only the most senior White House officials knew the truth, and they were sworn to silence in the name of preserving Wilson’s legacy. Medical records and notes taken by the presidential physicians at the time were buried until 1991. They told a story much different than the one Edith insisted on. The stroke trauma was “so extensive…it would be impossible for him ever to achieve more than a minimal state of recovery.”[8] But the President was not dead, and the Constitution was vague about how to replace a living president that could not serve. (It would take nearly fifty years for the 25th amendment to be ratified.) Edith insisted her husband could still perform his duties as president, albeit with a few changes. She did not allow any visitors and was present in all meetings in his stead. She became the conduit to the President, and “access became tantamount to power.”[9]


The Price of Devotion


“I studied every paper, sent from different Secretaries or Senators, and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I myself never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”[10]


What Edith called her “stewardship,” others called her regency. Some referred to her as “Mrs. President.” Title aside, there was little doubt the first lady was making decisions of her own accord. Politicians who spoke ill of her or her husband were soon cut off. She even fired the Secretary of State because he dared to call a Cabinet meeting without her.[11] Congressional and White House officials alike learned not to question Edith even as they quietly doubted the words she scrawled on their correspondence were from the President’s lips. Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall was aware of his precarious position as the lame duck vice president in Edith Wilson’s White House. Explaining his predicament to New York Times reporter Arthur Krock, he said “no politician ever exposes himself to the hatred of a woman, particularly if she’s married to the President of the United States.”[12]

Edith Wilson was more devoted to the President than to the ideals and nation he swore to protect. In hiding the president’s condition, she lied to Congress. In acting in a role for which she was not elected and far from equipped, she showed blatant disregard for the Constitution. Shaping the present to one exclusive purpose, she also shaped the future. The fallout from her prioritization of Wilson’s legacy would impact American and world history for years to come. As she shuffled papers from one side of the White House to another, the fate of the League of Nations, and the fragile peace of the 1918 Armistice, hung in the balance. Prior to his stroke, Wilson struggled with certain articles of the League, but Vice President Marshall was a staunch supporter. Many historians argue a Marshall presidency would have resulted in the United States joining the League of Nations, ensuring its success. With Edith’s decision to take over her husband’s presidency, the world lost an opportunity to head off the conflicts that would spark into another world war. “What was lost was a generation of experience in leadership,” explained John Milton Cooper.[13]

Historians also wonder whether Ellen Wilson would have made the same decision in Edith’s place. Her persistence in winning support for Wilson in Washington demonstrated her dedication, but would the woman for whom the White House held no attraction have been as eager to take control of the West Wing? It is impossible to know for sure, but remains a tantalizing debate. Devotion, like love, is a tricky thing. Both Mrs. Wilsons loved Woodrow Wilson, and both felt some responsibility for guiding and preserving his political career. Still we remember Ellen Wilson as everything a first lady should be, and Edith as everything she should not.


Do you agree with the author? Let us know below.


[1] Though not verified, this quote is often attributed to Mark Twain.

[2] John Milton Cooper, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 241.

[3] “Ellen Axson Wilson,” The White, accessed June 15, 2018,

[4] The bill did not become a law until 1933 when it was championed by another progressive first lady: Eleanor Roosevelt.

[5] “Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918,

[6] Edith Wilson quoted in Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2015), 38.

[7] William Hazelgrove, Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson, (Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016), e-book.

[8] Medical records quoted in Phyllis Lee Levin, Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001), 344.

[9] Levin, 11.

[10] Edith Wilson quoted in Hazelgrove.

[11] Katie Serena, “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018,

[12] Thomas Riley Marshall quoted in Levin, 342.

[13] John Milton Cooper, “Edith Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women (New York: Public Affairs, 2015), 248.

Sources Cited

Cooper, John Milton and Kristie Miller, “Ellen Axson Wilson/Edith Bolling Wilson,” in Susan Swain and C-SPAN, First Ladies: Presidential Historians on the Lives of 45 Iconic American Women. New York: Public Affairs, 2015.

“Ellen Wilson,” White House Historical Association, accessed June 5, 2918,

Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York: Crown Publishers, 2015.

Levin, Phyllis Lee. Edith and Woodrow: The Wilson White House. New York: Scribner, 2001.

Hazelgrove, William. Madam President: The Secret Presidency of Edith Wilson. Washington, D.C.: Regency Publishing, 2016.

Serena, Katie. “Was Edith Wilson Actually America’s First Female President?,” All That’s Interesting, accessed June 5, 2018,

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

In April, the Japanese government released the names of over three thousand members of Unit 731. Unit 731 was a group in the Japanese Imperial Army responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II. Jack Gray explains.

Shiro Ishii, commander of Unit 731

Shiro Ishii, commander of Unit 731

(1)   Unit 731 is the commonly used name for the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army. It was a secret unit of the Japanese Imperial Army that carried out experiments in biological and chemical warfare using human test subjects. Unit 731 was only one unit of several in the Japanese Imperial Army that carried out medical experiments, but it is the best known. These units were known as the Ishii Network, after Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, the commanding officer of Unit 731 who spent his military career researching the development of biological weapons.


(2)   Unit 731 was established in 1936 and operated in the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. It was shut down in 1945 after the defeat of Japan. Lt. Gen. Ishii had been carrying out experiments in China in secret since 1933 during the second Sino-Japanese War, although most of these early experiments were much smaller in scale. After 1939, Unit 731’s headquarters were located in Pingfan, near Harbin in China. In its early days most of its members were medical researchers from various Japanese universities, not professional soldiers. There were only eight people in the first group posted to the unit, but it quickly grew in size until there were several thousand members (only a small number were doctors).


(3)   Unit 731 was known for their use of humans as test subjects in horrific experiments studying the effects of plague, frostbite, and other various diseases. While they did carry out several field tests using biological weapons, the use of their weapons was generally less successful than their gruesome experiments. In these, they examined the effects of diseases such as anthrax, cholera, dysentery, plague, smallpox, tetanus, tuberculosis, and typhoid on live human subjects. Researchers infected prisoners with the diseases and then performed vivisections on them while they were still alive to track the progress of the infection. Some experiments studying frostbite involved leaving prisoners outside until their limbs froze and then attempting various methods of reviving the necrotic body parts.


(4)   Many of the members of Unit 731 received immunity from the U.S. government in exchange for the data from their experiments. After the conclusion of the war, Americans began investigating the unit’s experiments and asked for the data, but never used it as evidence to prosecute any members, saying that the information gained from the experiments was too valuable not to take advantage of, since no similar experiments could be carried out in the United States due to moral scruples. In addition, seizing the data prevented the Soviet Union from being able to access it; using the experiments as evidence in a trial would have resulted in making the results public, thereby giving the Soviet Union the information as well. Regardless of the reason, no member of Unit 731 was ever prosecuted by the United States or by Japan.


(5)   The history of Unit 731 has been a contentious issue in Japan, as the government did not disclose any information about the group until recently. Only recently has more information come to light after a request from the public. Many people feel that the lack of any criminal charges against members of Unit 731 is a great injustice, and that the United States should have prosecuted every member. The publication of the names of several thousand members of the unit by the National Archives of Japan was the result of a petition led by Katsuo Nishiyama, a medical professor. The request was first made in 2015, but most of the names on the list were redacted. Only in January of 2018 did the government agree to release the rest of the names. Katsuo hopes that the release of the names will lead to greater awareness of the unit’s history and a new commitment never to repeat the crimes of the past.


To summarize, Unit 731 was a group in the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II that was responsible for war crimes involving experimentation on live human beings, but escaped prosecution. Only recently have the names of the members of the Unit come to light. Hopefully with this new information there will be new commitments to avoid further atrocities and remember those who suffered.


Jack Gray is from Pacific Atrocities Education,


What do you think of the article? Let us know below.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

New York City was changing in the 1930s – from the 1920s boom to the Great Depression, many people quickly went from a comfortable life to the breadline. And the Nazis entered this climate and tried to gain more influence. Terrence McCauley, author of the New York-based novel The Fairfax Incident (Amazon US | Amazon UK), explains.

A German-American Bund Parade in New York City in 1939. The group had links with Hitler's Nazis.

A German-American Bund Parade in New York City in 1939. The group had links with Hitler's Nazis.

One of the many reasons why I enjoy writing about 1930s New York is because of the complex social dynamics occurring in the city’s history at that particular time. By 1933, the city and the country were undergoing a period of great change. The Roaring Twenties had come to a screeching halt, Prohibition was repealed, a new president was in the White House and the Great Depression was beginning to tighten its grip on every strata of society.


Economic Problems

For the first time since it had assumed control of the city’s modern political machine, Tammany Hall was beginning to lose its legendary power thanks to many of the reforms that had been set in place by former governor and then president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The time of the omnipotent ward boss was on the wane and people like Mayor LaGuardia were poised to rise to power. The criminal underworld faced changes of its own as the Irish, whose immigrant population had been here the longest, began to leave the streets to become police officers, firemen, lawyers and yes, politicians. This criminal power vacuum was quickly filed by hungrier new immigrants like Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano.

As is usually the case in times of economic unrest, the middle class suffered the most. With their jobs gone and prospects of other employment scarce, many people lost their homes. Families were split apart as children were sent to live with relatives better suited to take care of them. Breadlines seemed to grow longer by the day. As the flop houses quickly filled, shantytowns known as Hoovervilles sprang up along the waterfront and even in the bucolic confines of Central Park. People accustomed to living in decent apartments were now forced to live in shabby structures comprised of any material the builders were fortunate enough to lay their hands on. The wolf was no longer at the door. It had blown the whole neighborhood down.


Germanic – and Nazi - Influence

The rest of the world faced revolutionary change of its own, especially in Europe. The monarchies of old had died away in the wake of the conflagration that came to be known as the First World War and a downtrodden Germany turned to a maniac they believed to be their savior. The man who vowed to restore their country’s dignity and make the world pay for punishing it so harshly in 1918. A man named Adolf Hitler.

As his Nazi Party took root in Germany, Hitler’s henchmen sought to export its philosophy to other parts of the world. America was no exception. Only here, its infiltration into society took a subtler, more devious approach. Knowing Americans would likely reject unpatriotic overtures from a foreign land, Hitler’s organization encouraged the formation of The Friends of New Germany, which spurred the American Bund movement. The Upper East Side of New York City, known as Yorkville, had a large German population and the organization found fertile ground there under the guise of a fraternal organization no different than the Knights of Columbus or the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They sought to encourage German immigrants and German-Americans to take pride in their heritage and cast off the shame of defeat in the Great War.

In New York, storefronts opened up featuring Bund material including Nazi propaganda and, of course Mein Kampf. It’s hard to believe such places could exist in as diverse a city as New York, but they did. Soon, the movement established Youth Camps in Long Island and New Jersey that claimed to be like the Boy Scouts, but more resembled the Hitler Youth in Germany.

The strength of the ties between the German Nazi Party and the Bund Movement have always been some matter of dispute. But there is no disputing the Bund’s power in organizing a large rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939 that drew 22,000 supporters who carried Nazi banners and saluted the evils of Hitler’s aims.

Despite the 22,000 people inside, over a hundred thousand protestors were outside, using their freedom of speech and assembly, not granted to the people in Germany, to voice their opposition to the movement. The event turned out to be a disaster, causing Germany to cut all ties with the movement, which collapsed completely when its members withdrew when the Second World War began.

A dark era in the city’s history was brought to an end by the brave citizens who took a stand against evil and promoted liberty.

I’m glad those ideas still exist in the city I call home today.


What do you think of the article and the role of the Nazis in 1930s New York? Let us know below.


As a reminder, you can get a copy of Terrence McCauley’s novel, The Fairfax Incident, here: Amazon US | Amazon UK

The Cold War was becoming part of international relations by 1955. Here, some of the key events and trends at the time are explained: the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom, and between the US and Europe in general. And how the fledgling CIA operated is also considered. Bill Rapp, author of Cold War Spy thriller The Hapsburg Variation (Amazon US | Amazon UK), explains.

Kim Philby, an important member of British Intelligence who would later defect to the Soviet Union. 

Kim Philby, an important member of British Intelligence who would later defect to the Soviet Union. 

The most realistic thing about The Hapsburg Variation is the general background set at the height of the Cold War, as well as the developing relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom--a relationship that has been labelled as "special" for several decades now.  Following my own recent assignment in London, I can attest that it truly is special--especially in the fields of intelligence and diplomacy.  I enjoyed an extremely close working relationship with my British colleagues.  In fact, I even held a building pass to the Foreign Office that allowed me to move about the halls un-escorted.  I did often get lost, but that had nothing to do with the "special relationship," but more with the elaborate design and recent remodeling that steered British diplomats in the wrong direction on occasion.


That relationship has not always been as close as it is today, nor even that friendly, especially at the time of The Hapsburg Variation.  The British had just gone through the painful experience of having two of their rising stars (Burgess and Maclean) flee to Moscow as they were about to be exposed as Soviet spies, and suspicion for their warning and flight fell heavily on Kim Philby.  As Philby was also considered one of the darlings, and even a possible future leader of MI6, the British resisted the American push to have the man sacked, or at least have his security clearance revoked.  Not only did London resist, but he was even cleared shortly after the Maclean-Burgess affair by a government inquiry.  Washington, of course, remained suspicious and was eventually proven right when Philby disappeared from his Beirut posting and then resurfaced in Moscow as a hero of the Soviet Union some six years later.  Not that some in the American intelligence community hadn't been complicit in their refusal to accept Philby's guilt.  James Jesus Angleton, the head of the Agency's Counter-Intelligence bureau, had spent many a boozy and extended lunch sharing operational secrets with Philby, who promptly reported them to Moscow.  Readers will no doubt pick up Karl Baier's cautious and at times negative attitude toward his British counterparts in Vienna and London, an attitude driven by the CIA's disappointment with MI6's and London's refusal to face the proverbial music on the spies in their midst.  It would takes years for the "cousins" to regain the Americans’ full trust.


An important year in the Cold War

1955 also marked a high point in the Cold War.  Several of the events that precipitated the change in U.S. relations with the Soviet Union from that of wartime ally to peacetime nemesis were part of the very recent past: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, the Communist coups in Czechoslovakia and Romania, the Greek civil war, the Korean War, the East Berlin uprising and its suppression.  But not all the developments were negative.  Khrushchev had already decided that the Soviet system was badly in need of reform, and that the USSR would undoubtedly benefit from a relaxation in tensions with the West.  In fact, he had probably already begun to draft--or at least consider--his speech for the 1956 party congress that would denounce the crimes of Stalin and usher in a short-lived period of mild reforms at home and in the satellite states of the Warsaw Pact.  This almost certainly helped inspire the agreement to negotiate the reunification of Austria, the withdrawal of all foreign troops, and the restoration of full Austrian sovereignty, all of which culminated in the State Treaty of May, 1955.  Of course, Khrushchev did not enjoy unanimous support at home for this shift, and this opposition that would come to the fore during the Hungarian Revolt a year later.


The impact on European History

Then there is the broader sweep of European history and the part of the United States in that, thanks to the cultural and political legacy the country carries.  Europe had just emerged from two devastating wars, which would end its role as the preeminent geopolitical region. That role would fall first to the United States, and secondly to the Soviet Union, with China waiting in the proverbial wings.  And it would fall to Washington to ensure that the liberal and democratic traditions that were inherited from their European settlers would not be lost in their homelands.

The Second World War also accelerated the fracturing of Europe that emerged from the collapse of the three great Central and Eastern European empires in 1919.  Although World War II had helped the nations of Western Europe to put their nationalistic and even xenophobic pasts behind them, further east it strengthened those national and ethnic animosities that continue to bedevil American and European policymakers to this day.  Nonetheless, there have always been some who regretted the loss of the Hapsburg Empire in particular, viewing it as the best answer--with some serious reforms, of course--to the divisive animosities that have undermined the region's stability and prosperity ever since.  Herr von Rudenstein represents those who moaned the loss of that world, a feeling captured in the numerous studies of fin de siècle Vienna, the novels of Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig, and more recently the film The Budapest Grand Hotel.  Such nostalgia should never have a part in policy-making, but you would never convince the likes of Herr von Rudenstein that his dreams were not the stuff of realistic goals.  The history of the twentieth century in the region would suggest that he might have had a point.


The Central Intelligence Agency

Finally, there is the matter of a young Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), just eight years old at this point.  The CIA was still emerging from its apprenticeship as the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, during World War II.  From those early years the Agency carried an unfortunate, in my mind, fascination with covert, paramilitary action that did gain some notable--if momentary--successes with the coups in Iran and Guatemala, but also a host of unmitigated disasters in futile attempts to foment revolts in the Communist states of Eastern Europe.  The Agency was also, again in my mind, too reliant on the British “cousins” in those early years, an admittedly natural dependency given their long history in the business of espionage.  It would take the Americans some years to develop their own capacity for recruiting and handling agents in hostile environments, learning how to vet and protect them, and provide the sort of human intelligence that can best inform policymakers in Washington.  But the Americans were learning in 1955, and they would soon emerge as the more powerful and more successful of the two.  This is the sort of environment Karl Baier was operating in during his tour in Vienna, and he was prone to many of the same assumptions, resentments, and expectations that governed the outlook and perspectives of his real-life colleagues in those days.  But he also learned to overcome the challenges those presented and reach his goals, occasionally with the help and assistance of his hosts and his British partners.


Let us know what you think about the article below.

Bill’s book, The Hapsburg Variation, is available here: Amazon US | Amazon UK


Eight years into his career with the CIA, Karl Baier once again finds himself on the front line of the Cold War. He is stationed in Vienna in the spring of 1955 as Austria and the four Allied Powers are set to sign the State Treaty, which will return Austria's independence, end the country's postwar occupation, and hopefully reduce tensions in the heart of Europe. But the Treaty will also establish Austrian neutrality, and many in the West fear it will secure Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe and create a permanent division. Asked to help investigate the death of an Austrian aristocrat and Wehrmacht veteran, Baier discovers an ambitious plan not only to block the State Treaty, but also to subvert Soviet rule in lands of the old Hapsburg Empire. Then Baier's wife is kidnapped, and the mission becomes intensely personal. Many of his basic assumptions are challenged, and he discovers that he cannot count on loyalties, even back home in Washington, D.C. At each maddening turn in the investigation, another layer must be peeled away. Even if Baier succeeds in rescuing his wife, he faces the unenviable task of unraveling an intricate web of intrigue that reaches far back into the complicated history of Central Europe. Book 2 in the Cold War Thriller series, which began with Tears of Innocence.




Bill Rapp recently retired from the Central Intelligence Agency after thirty-five years as an analyst, diplomat, and senior manager. After receiving his BA from the University of Notre Dame, an MA from the University of Toronto, and a PhD from Vanderbilt University, Bill taught European History at Iowa State University for a year before heading off to Washington, D.C. The Hapsburg Variation is the second book in the Cold War Spy series featuring Karl Baier. Bill also has a three-book series of detective fiction set outside Chicago with P.I. Bill Habermann, and a thriller set during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He lives in northern Virginia with his wife, two daughters, two miniature schnauzers, and a cat. For more information, go to

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones

While there has yet to be a female president, first ladies have been important in shaping many presidencies and their policies. Following her article on Abigail Adams (here), Kate Murphy Schaefer considers the role of Eleanor Roosevelt in World War II. Specifically she looks at Eleanor’s opposition to the internment of Japanese-Americans following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

A White House painting of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Tammy Wynette said “sometimes it’s hard to be a woman,” but it can be especially hard to be a woman married to a man in the public eye.[i] While history generally paints First Ladies as ornamental, many played important roles in guiding presidencies. Like Abigail Adams, a first lady can be her husband’s sounding board, confidante, and greatest supporter, but what if a first lady takes issue with her husband’s decisions and policies?

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reassurance there was “nothing to fear but fear itself” seemed hollow.[ii] As the nation went to war with the Empire of Japan, distrust and fear spread to anyone of Japanese descent. On Valentine’s Day 1942, General John DeWitt warned the president of the threat posed by Japanese Americans, saying, “racial affinities are not severed by migration. The Japanese race is an enemy race.”[iii] The absence of evidence supporting DeWitt’s claims of a fifth column of Japanese-Americans actively plotting against the government did not discredit them. Instead supporters like California Attorney General Earl Warren argued DeWitt’s claim was proof attacks were imminent and “(o)ur day of reckoning is bound to come.”[iv] Five days later, FDR signed Executive Order 9066, creating “military areas” in which thousands of Japanese-American men, women, and children would be interned for the duration of the war. Forcibly removed from their homes, their belongings, livelihoods, and civil liberties were forfeited because local military officials believed their presence near military bases and installations posed a threat to national security. Fear and suspicion trumped the protection of constitutionally-guaranteed civil liberties, and Order 9066 gave Americans a legally-sanctioned domestic scapegoat on which to heap their outrage over the Pearl Harbor attack.


“You’ll have bad times and he’ll have good times, Doin’ things you don’t understand”

Eleanor Roosevelt was horrified. Taken under the wing of a progressive boarding school headmistress as a teen, she was dedicated to social justice. While many of her peers viewed education as preparation for an MRS, not a BA or MA, Roosevelt used it as a springboard for what would be a lifelong calling to serve others. She used her platform as first lady and her syndicated newspaper column to highlight civil rights issues.

Eleanor recognized the threat to Japanese-Americans early on, even meeting with the editor for Japanese-American newspaper Rafu Shimpo. In an October 1941 press conference, she said “the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants to the United States) may be aliens technically, but in reality they are Americans and America has a place for all loyal persons regardless of race or citizenship.”[v] Less than two weeks before her husband signed the Executive Order, she gave another address, vowing “no law-abiding citizens of any nationality would be discriminated against by the government.”[vi] The executive order rendered both promises moot.

Others also recognized the threat Order 9066 posed to American democracy, especially as the press shifted from reporting the news to outright fearmongering. Archibald McLeish, FDR speechwriter and (ironically) the Director of the Office of Facts and Figures, tried to convince news editors to provide more balanced media coverage instead of giving in to sensationalism. McLeish also spoke with Eleanor Roosevelt on the situation, believing she was could counsel her husband. FDR refused to speak with his wife on the subject. In all fairness, though, he refused to speak to anyone about the issue. With the domestic “threat” contained, he focused on the war in Europe.

In March 1943, Congressman John Tolan briefed Eleanor Roosevelt on the status of the internment camps and updated her on the investigations, telling her the government never found evidence of sabotage or espionage committed by Japanese-Americans. DeWitt’s “fifth column” had never materialized. The American government had taken away the civil rights of thousands of legal citizens with no real justification. Eleanor went to her husband immediately with this news, requesting permission to visit one of the internment camps herself. She also asked if they could invite an interned Japanese-American family to live in the White House as an expression of goodwill to the Japanese-American community. Her second request was denied.


“But if you love him you’ll forgive him, Even though he’s hard to understand”

In a draft speech summarizing her visit to the Gila River internment camp, Roosevelt did not criticize her husband’s policy or the camps it created. Instead she perpetuated the more comfortable and conscience-soothing argument that the camps were as much for the Japanese-American community’s safety as for other Americans’ safety from the Japanese-American community and praised the internees’ “ingenuity” in living in such difficult circumstances. She navigated a more precarious political tight rope than McLeish: she had to perpetuate the lie that internment was justified while also arguing for its end. “To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally but we seldom have the foresight,” she said.[vii]

She found her true balance by striking at the heart of racism, and American racism in particular. The fears exacerbated by the attack on Pearl Harbor were “aggravated by the old economic fear on the West Coast and the unreasoning racial feeling which certain people, through ignorance, have always had wherever they came in contact with people who are different than themselves.”[viii] Calling out the Americans who profited from Japanese-American misfortune, she also implied any non-white, non-natural born ethnic group could share the same fate. “We have no common race in this country, she said, “but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion…We retain the right to lead our individual lives as we please, but we can only do so if we grant others the freedoms that we wish for ourselves.”[ix] Roosevelt also skillfully reminded Americans of the thousands of immigrants serving in the American armed forces. The military had depended on immigrants to fill its ranks in WWI, and the trend continued in WWII. They needed soldiers and did not care what color they were or language they spoke.

Internment ended in 1945 through the Supreme Court’s ruling on Endo v. United States. Though the court reached a decision in December 1944, it graciously allowed FDR the ability to save face by delaying its verdict announcement until he could announce he was closing the camps. The president died the following April, and Harry S. Truman took over the nation and war he left behind. Truman ensured Eleanor maintained a public role after her husband’s death, appointing her as delegate to the United Nations. She was later elected president of the committee tasked with writing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1946. Referencing her tireless work to protect human dignity and rights, Truman referred to her as the “first lady of the world.”[x]


“Stand by your man, and show the world you love him”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s most lasting post-war role, however, was keeping and shaping her husband’s legacy. Whatever their differences during life, Roosevelt focused on her presidential husband’s strengths and accomplishments in her writings and in interviews given after his death. She never mentioned his role in internment, and especially not her objections to that policy. She “stood by her man,” and so did the American people. Americans tried hard to forget the internment of citizens of Japanese descent during World War II, leading many historians to fear it could—and will—happen again. America’s tendency to consolidate national unity through common hate, our “propensity to react against ‘foreigners’…during times of external crisis, especially when those ‘foreigners’ have dark skins is a recurring pattern in times of crisis.”[xi] The pattern persists, the only change is the ethnic group, race, or religious tradition targeted. Though the “military necessity” of internment was never proven and the Supreme Court ruled it was based on “race prejudice, war hysteria and a failure of political leadership,” the legal precedent stands.[xii]

Internment recently made the news as some politicians floated the idea of revisiting the policy for use in containing what they perceived to be the domestic “threat” posed by Muslim-Americans. If we refuse to learn from the mistakes of the past, perhaps we can learn from historical figures. Though most likely not as forceful as she would have liked to be, Eleanor Roosevelt was a voice of dissent in a difficult time. She tried to lend her voice to those silenced by racism and prejudice. Who will decide to be the voices of dissent in ours?


What do you think of Eleanor Roosevelt? Let us know below.


[i] Tammy Wynette, “Stand By Your Man (1968),” lyrics available on Song Facts,

[ii] “Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself: FDR’s First Inaugural Address,” History Matters, accessed December 6, 2016,

[iii] John DeWitt quoted in Richard Reeves, Infamy: The Shocking Story of Japanese American Internment in World War II (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015), 41.

[iv] Earl Warren quoted in Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 37.

[v] Togo Tanaka, ‘Mrs. Roosevelt Talks to Local Representatives,” Rafu Shimpo, November 1, 1941, 1.

[vi] Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), 71.

[vii] Eleanor Roosevelt, “To Undo a Mistake is Always Harder Than Not To Create One Originally,” in Jeffery F Burton, Mary M. Farrell, Florence B. Lord, and Richard W. Lord, Confinement and Ethnicity: An Overview of World War II Japanese-American Relocation Sites. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002), 24.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] “Voices for Human Rights: Champion of Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962),” Human, accessed May 24, 2018,

[xi] Roger Daniels, Prisoners Without Trial: Japanese Americans in World War II (Hill and Wang Critical Issues) (New York: Hill and Wang, rev. ed. 2004), 113.

[xii] Deju Oluwu, “Civil liberties versus military necessity: lessons from the jurisprudence emanating from the classification and internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II,” The Comparative and International Law Journal of Southern Africa 43, no. 2 (July 2010): 190-212, accessed December 5, 2016,, 207.


Highly evocative and worryingly effective, Nazi propaganda targeted its viewers in a very specific way. By targeting the viewer’s emotions, Goebbels and his underlings turned many of the German populace into a nation of followers in the National Socialist agenda from when the Nazis took power in 1933. Emotions were key to the entire apparatus, from hate of the ‘other’ to joy of the German rebirth. Maddison Nichol explains the troubling Nazi propaganda machine.

Adolf Hitler speaking in 1933. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-506 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available  here .

Adolf Hitler speaking in 1933. Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1987-0703-506 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0, available here.

It was in Mein Kampf, that now infamous political manifesto of the National Socialists, that Hitler wrote:

Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech. And all great movements are popular movements, volcanic eruptions of human passions and emotional sentiments, stirred either by the cruel Goddess of Distress or by the firebrand of the word hurled among the masses; they are not the lemonade-like outpourings of literary aesthetics and drawing room heroes.[1]


 To simplify, Mein Kampf would never create a populace of believers. Nonetheless, Nazi propagandists worked tirelessly to create new forms of propaganda to evoke that emotional response from the viewer and realign the German masses with the ideals of the Nazis.



Films were an important way to move the people in line with the ideology of the Nazis. Two films used two very different emotions to try to create a populace of believers in the Nazi cause, or at least a populace willing to follow Hitler. The first was the Triumph of the Wills.

The opening of Triumph of the Wills is a black screen with a small caption of text. It reads: “On 5 September 1934, 20 years after the outbreak of the World War, 16 years after the beginning of German suffering, 19 months after the beginning of the German rebirth, Adolf Hitler flew once again to Nuremberg to review the columns of faithful followers.”[2] By prefacing the film in this light, German citizens watching the film were reminded of their once dire situation, now being improved by Hitler. The film then launches into a scene with throngs of eager people waving, smiling, and cheering as their Führer drives past them, waving as he goes.

The people here are seen as being overjoyed by the arrival of Hitler because of the supposed improvements he had made since taking power in 1933. By showing the enthusiasm of the Germans in Nuremburg to a wider audience in Germany, Triumph of the Wills succeeded in creating an emotional response from the viewers. For the first time since the outbreak of WWI, the German people were led to be proud of their nation and their leader. Hitler was reviving Germany from its ill state under the Weimar Republic and the people could see it. That was the point of the film, to show an overjoyed populace where previously there was only uncertainty.

Alternatively, at the other end of the spectrum of emotions, hate films were conceived to rile up the German people against the ‘other’ that was supposed to be poisoning pure German blood. Jew Süss was such a film. The film briefly documents the fall of an honorable German duke in the Middle Ages by listening to a Jewish advisor. By tricking the duke into heavily taxing his people, Süss created an environment ripe for uprisings and revolt. The film goes on to show more vile sides to Süss and the other Jews who enter the city, depicted as a horde of dirty, unsavoury vagabonds marching into a pristine German city. The depiction of the Jews in Jew Süss is in line with previous Nazi anti-Semitism to drive the point home to the viewers that Jews were the creatures depicted in the film. Ultimately, the film ends with the downfall of the duke, and the Jews are exiled from the city.

Jew Süss was seen as being successful in creating an atmosphere of hatred towards the Jews and it was shown to the SS at times before a mission against Jews.[3] That’s a startling thought. The film was shown to everyone who had access to a cinema, including youth, especially youth. The central idea here is that the once honorable German duke was tricked by an evil Jewish man to betray his loving people. In Nazi propaganda, Jews were depicted as doing just that, twisting the righteous and corrupting them. [4] Through Jew Süss and other similar films, the Nazis encouraged anti-Semitism in the German populace.[5]

Nazi films used emotion just like modern films do, but in a politically charged way. By evoking emotions like hatred and pride, Nazi propaganda films wanted to create a population of believers motivated by National Socialism and loyalty to Hitler. To an extent, they succeeded, but by 1945 many Germans despised Hitler and the Nazis for the horrors of war they brought upon the German people.



Historian Felicity Rash quoted Hitler by saying that spoken word is better to replace one’s hatred with your own.[6] This was an important feature of Nazi propaganda as speeches and oration were given as frequently as possible. Cheap radios were manufactured so all Germans could tune into a speech given by Hitler or a member of the Nazis. We’ve all heard people speak in such a way that moves us into action, be it at a protest or listening to an inspirational speech like Charlie Chaplin’s famous The Dictator speech. Oration, when used well, moves people into action.

Hitler was infamously good at it. His speeches moved much of a nation to rally behind him and work towards his version of a brighter future. In a speech, Hitler once said:

“When someone says, ‘You’re a dreamer’, I can only answer ‘You idiot…. If I weren’t a dreamer, where would we be today? I’ve always believed in Germany. You said I was a dreamer. I’ve always believed in the rise of the Reich. You said I was a fool. I’ve always believed in our return to power. You said I was mad. I’ve always believed in an end to poverty! You said that was utopian! Who was right? You or me?! I was right!’”[7]


Unfortunately, people ate this stuff up. According to Goebbels, the task of propaganda was to mobilize the mind and spirit of the people for National Socialism.[8] By using oration powerfully and constantly, the people were mobilized to support Hitler and the Nazis. All of this was done through emotion. By reading the above quote we can see some semblance of an emotional response, but by listening to it you can feel it. Reading doesn’t really have the same effect as listening to someone passionately proclaiming it from balconies and from stages.

In the end, to create an emotional response from the viewer, you need to show them an emotional reaction yourself. Nazi propaganda was skilled at that, more so than most propaganda in WW2. By evoking emotions from the viewers, Nazism went from a radical fringe party to the radical ruling party of an industrial powerhouse in the middle of Europe. People flocked to the cinemas to see the latest propaganda film and the rallies. They listened to their leader speak on the radio in a highly provocative manner just to evoke an emotional response from the masses.

Emotion was key to Nazi propaganda because Hitler did not seek acquiescence or even acceptance from the German masses. He craved a nation of believers in the Nazi cause. Only through emotion would that happen. By showing people the supposed improvements since 1933 both politically and economically, people felt joy and pride. By harping on slogans and oration, people rallied behind Hitler. It was only at the beginning of the end of the German war effort that propaganda became less effective.

But that’s a whole other story.


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[1] Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. Ralph Manheim, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1971), 107.

[2] Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, YouTube, Germany: (Universum Film AG,

1935), Viewed on YouTube, 12/04/2018.

[3] Eric Rentschler, The Ministry of Illusion, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), 150.

[4] Andreas Musolff, Metaphor, Nation and the Holocaust: The Concept of the Body Politic, (New York, Routledge, 2010), 37.

[5] Ibid, 43.

[6] Felicity Rash, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2006), 47.

[7] Der Souverän, “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer [ENG Sub], published December 2016, YouTube video, 2:35.

[8] David Welch, “Nazi Propaganda and the Volksgemeinschaft: Constructing a People’s Community”, Journal of Contemporary History 39, No. 2 (April 2004), 217.

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones