Ever since the election of Donald Trump (since before it, actually), people in the US have been talking and worrying about the rise of fascism. Comparisons to Nazi Germany have abounded. And for many, the images coming out of Charlottesville this past weekend — white men carrying Nazi flags alongside Confederate ones, marching with torches (albeit tiki torches), and chanting the Nazi slogan “blood and soil” — seemed to crystallize the threat or existence, depending on who you ask, of a white supremacist fascist state.
Ironically, in response, a propaganda video made by none other than the US Military has gone viral on Twitter. First made in 1943 and then updated and re-released in 1947, the 17-minute film is called “Don’t Be a Sucker.” It features an older Hungarian man — now a US citizen — educating a younger American man named Mike about the dangers of fascism. The older man’s tale is a familiar one now: he talks about Hitler’s rise to power and how the Nazis took over Germany. But the morals of his story are sound and certainly timely. “We must guard everyone’s liberty, or we can lose our own,” he says. “If we allow any minority to lose its freedom by persecution or by prejudice, we are threatening our own freedom.”
The person who first tweeted the video, identified on Twitter as a Canadian anthropologist named Michael, shared only a two-minute clip from it on Saturday before linking to the whole film the next day. The snippet captures the most immediately relevant portion of the film: Mike and the Hungarian man end up standing side by side listening to a street preacher, who stands on a soapbox and spews invective against “negroes,” “alien foreigners,” Catholics, Freemasons, and others. “These are you enemies!” he cries. “These are the people who are trying to take over our country! Now you know them, you know what they stand for, and it’s up to you and me to fight them — fight them and destroy them before they destroy us.” At one point his lines sound even more eerily 21st century, down to his invocation of facts: “I happen to know the facts. Now friends, I’m just an average American. But I’m an American American, and some of the things I see in this country of ours make my blood boil.”
Naturally, since it’s a propaganda video, “Don’t Be a Sucker” has a lot of blind spots. The older man spends a lot of time talking about how everybody is a minority in America and everybody is free — a pretty rich claim to make in the time before Shelley v. Kraemer, Brown v. Board of Education, Loving v. Virginia, and the bulk of the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention the movements for gay rights and second-wave feminism. Also, as the Internet Archive page for the video points out, 1947 was exactly when the US was falling prey to the Second Red Scare and the rise of McCarthyism — not exactly an era in which everyone was afforded liberty and respect. And finally, in sharing the video now, it’s important to note, as many Black commentators have, that the constant comparisons being made to Nazi Germany right now can serve as deflections away from an honest confrontation with the violence and genocide of the US’ own history — which the Nazis in fact used as a model.
Still, if you can keep all of that in the back of your mind for 17 minutes, you can appreciate the film’s sharper moments. I particularly like when the Hungarian man calls Nazi Germany “a nation of suckers” (petty, I know, but they did kill a lot of my family) and points out that, after they had control of the state, the Nazis went after the “their oldest and most persistent enemy, the truth.” And a reminder of the importance of solidarity is always helpful to hear:
If those people had stood together, if they had protected each other, they could have resisted the Nazi threat. Together, they would have been strong. But once they allowed themselves to be split apart, they were helpless. When that first minority lost out, everybody lost out. They made the mistake of gambling with other people’s freedom.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that “Don’t Be a Sucker” was made in 1947; in fact, it was made in 1943 and re-released four years later. We regret the error. It has been fixed.