Review – Gallagher, “The Nazis of Copley Square”

Charles Gallagher, “The Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front” (2021) – A member of my dissertation committee wrote this! It’s a fascinating story along with one that illuminates various odd corners of history with academic chops, a rare combo. I know a fair amount about the history of fascism, and I knew very little about the Christian Front- and nobody knew some of the stuff Charlie, as I know him, uncovered before he published it.

The Christian Front was, basically, the street instantiation of the vision of American Catholic fascists like Charles Coughlin, a sort of radio-based catholic Glenn Beck figure for the thirties. Catholic meatheads flocked to Coughlin’s message and sought out conflict with the many enemy figures Coughlin pointed them to: communists (also a growing movement in the thirties), liberals, Jews. It was a weird moment in Catholic America, and here we’re mostly talking Irish Catholics though Italians, Poles etc come up sometimes too. Catholics were sort of outsider-insiders. They had been around for long enough, had dense enough populations especially in northern cities, and done enough of the assimilationist things — Charlie especially emphasizes Catholic participation in the American effort in the First World War — that they felt some ownership in Americanism. But this period saw the rise of an Americanism that was explicitly anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, as exemplified by the resurgent KKK of the twenties, and a crippling economic depression. Perhaps it looked like they were, to borrow a line from a guy Christian Fronters wouldn’t have liked, assimilating into a burning house.

None of the Fronters say that- they’re all flag-waving Americans, even when they’re actively undermining American war efforts as some of them would go on to do. If nothing else, it’s hard to say what exactly an American Catholic anti-Americanism would look like… they’re hardly going to secede… in any event! The Christian Front became a thing on the scene, especially in New York and Boston, brawling with leftist groups, making speeches back when street corner speechifying was a big deal. There was already a custom of neighborhood conflict that you could paste an ideological skin on to. 

One thing about eras of ideological ferment — the thirties, the sixties, right now — is that they allow nerds, goons, and pedants to take the things they’d do normally and dream of expanding them in terms of scope and importance. The brawls between Irish and Jewish kids suddenly aren’t just scraps between poor ethnics stuffed like rats into overcrowded cities, but part of some global conflict between Christianity and judeo-bolshevism; your clique of nerds and weirdos that you met in college aren’t just free-standing public assholes but a revolutionary vanguard. You can see why Christian Front people would think they could get real big, real fast. They had a deep well of American hatred and ignorance to tap into, and the classic fash assurance that the cops and the military are with them. So when a few got too big for their britches and started stealing and training with National Guard weapons, they were as surprised as anyone when they got pinched by the FBI.

The prosecution of the New York Christian Fronters has two main points of interest. The first is how the American Catholic establishment, both the actual church itself and politicians aligned with it, moved heaven and earth to get across two things: the Christian Front was no real threat; and that they had nothing official to do with the Church. Both are funny claims, true in some ways, but more revealing of how people in power understood political violence in this period than anything else. 

The Christian Front was extremely unlikely to overthrow the American government, like Hoover’s FBI informants caught them saying they wanted to. That the FBI insisted on going after them for this — and not, say, for their many plans to indiscriminately attack Jewish targets, in the idea this would bring about a communist uprising that the Front would then help their pals in the police and the army repress — speaks to their priorities. Fascists are right that cops share a lot of their views (with soldiers, it usually depends on the makeup of the service in question). What they get caught up on is a powerful police service usually sees street fash as cats paws, at best, and have no intention of taking orders from them. Hoover’s FBI was quite strong- perhaps not as professional as it would eventually become, but Hoover felt no need to bend the knee to any would-be fuhrer. They don’t care that much if you bash up people they don’t like- they do care if you overstep, make more work for them. 

The “are they Catholic?” part also has interesting historical questions attached. Charlie is a Jesuit along with being a historian, and an expert on the history of American Catholicism. In the fine Jesuit tradition, he does not evade intellectual responsibility: the Fronters were deeply invested in two Catholic doctrines that are either unpopular or officially derogated now, but were big deals at the time. One is the idea of the “mystical body of Christ,” that all Catholics are part of one body, and an injury to one is an injury to all, and to God. The other is “Catholic action,” which held that even if lay Catholics doing good works in the world couldn’t formally lay claim to the mana of the apostolic succession like priests could, they could claim to be doing the church’s work and deserve some kind of institutional recognition as such. Sometimes, these ideas inspired charity or even solidarity. Other times, they inspired fascism. American Catholics couldn’t claim to be systematically oppressed by the time the thirties came around, but as part of a “mystical body” with Russian, Mexican, or Spanish Catholics catching hell from leftists, they could take “Catholic action” and lash out at the supposed oppressors, and this usually meant Jews. 

So, the church fathers and their political friends could tell the truth- no bishop made the New York Christian Front plan to bomb Jewish community centers. But they were wrong to say that the Front had nothing to do with Catholicism. The FBI flubbed the prosecution of the New York Front leaders, but they went relatively quiet after that. Much of the action, in the Front and in the book, shifted to Boston. In characteristic Boston fashion, the leader was less of a street orator and more of a pedant and a sneak. What Francis Moran’s plans lacked in outward violence compared to his New York comrades, they made up for in ambition and sly interweaving with existent community practices in the Boston area.

Francis Moran was a failed priest and failed businessman, a classic smart underachiever. If you think those sorts are bad now, throw in growing up in the urban overcrowding and sexual repression of the Catholic American milieu at the time and you’ve got Moran. He got into the Coughlin movement and found a talent for organizing and public speaking. He made the Christian Front into a local organizing force, getting at least implicit nods from big politicians like James Curley. He, like the New York Fronters, was lucky in his choice of prosecutors, bumbling Irish-American political cops who more than half agreed with him about Jews and leftists. 

The war was probably the worst thing to happen to all of these little fash chieftains, and before it happened, before even aligning with Hitler, they wanted to make sure no such thing happened. In fact, this was a substantial part of their appeal. It’s a historical tragedy that the American people almost learned a lesson from the First World War — don’t let the British gull you into winning their stupid imperialist wars for them — just in time for the one time in history when that lesson was, in fact, invalid. A lot of people were slow to pick up that Nazi Germany was a different beast than the Kaiserreich (and yes, I get the latter was no picnic either, I’m a socialist), didn’t want to believe it. And of course, plenty thought that the Nazi program sounded good. But once the war was on, it was pretty hard to sustain American patriotism — which all of the fash groups, then as now, lay at least some claim to — while supporting other fascists, to say nothing of the massive expansion of police power that came with.

One of Charlie’s big discoveries is that Moran was working with the Nazi consul in Boston, a creepy SS intellectual named Herbert Stoltz. There were limits to what Gallagher could find or what Moran could provide- it mostly looks like Stoltz cultivated Moran as a potentially useful asset to sow discord in an important population center, should the US go to war. It seems that both the FBI and antifascist researchers — led by an indefatigable Irish-American Catholic leftist, Frances Sweeney — had at least some evidence that this was the case, but were unable (or, perhaps, in the FBI’s case, unwilling) to bring Moran down, especially after the Boston cops muddied the waters. Moran might have passed on intelligence, but more than anything it looks like Stoltz valued Moran as a political actor, a counterweight to pressure for America to join the war on the British side, and to spread a mood of defeatism and general shittiness that would make America less effective if it did jump in. 

Charlie also discovered that the Nazis weren’t the only foreign intelligence agency active in Boston at the time. British intelligence also funded political groups to bring America into the war, precisely the sort of thing Moran and others crowed about. The British intelligence and foreign policy establishment were especially worried about Irish-Americans impeding the political campaign for intervention and possibly the war effort itself. They set up Irish American groups to try to counter groups like the Christian Front, with little success. Frances Sweeney got her start working for an MI-6-funded front group, though she continued pursuing Boston fascists well after the British got what they wanted, American involvement in the war, and gave up funding local antifascism. 

Likely Moran’s most lasting legacy — he left politics in the forties, never recanted, and lived out his days as a reference librarian at the Boston Public Library — was his work to radicalize the already extant antisemitism of the Boston Irish. This, more than anything involving the war, is what local antifascists like Frances Sweeney were fighting hard to abate. There was serious antisemitic violence in Boston in 1943, as mostly Irish-American gangs coordinated attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions, aided and abetted by the largely Irish Boston Police Department, and ignored by the largely Irish-American political leadership of the city. Evidence Charlie dug up, including statements Moran made to FBI and antifascist infiltrators, suggests that Moran worked hard from underground to encourage this violence to go from the endemic condition of urban life to serious, planned assaults. Things only cooled down once the national media started paying attention.

One of Moran’s last recorded political statements was that he thought the returning veterans of the war would join him in sorting out “the Jewish problem.” Perhaps this is why he felt comfortable taking the heat off the Boston burner after the riots in 1943. It didn’t quite work out that way for him. But in other respects, Moran accomplished a good amount of what he set out to. He helped sew antisemitism into the fabric of twentieth century Catholic life in the area, and helped make a pigheaded authoritarianism a prime expression of Boston Catholic identity, especially among the Irish. It might sound like the community didn’t need much help with that, and there’s truth to that crack. But the twentieth century put a lot of pressure on the circuit between bigotry, conservatism, and ethnic identity in the US, and things could have gone a different way. What Moran showed was that you could get away with a lot, as a white bigot, through sly cultivation of publicity and politicians, playing that half-blind wrestling ref that is mainstream liberalism for all that it’s worth. 

What this reminded me of was, in part, the fascists I fight here, but more the population base they seek to reach: those sullen pasty faces in the suburbs, the progeny of the mobs Moran once moved, feeling that glowering itch to stamp out anything or anyone who would make the world better than a bad night at one of their shitty sports bars. It’s up to us to disconnect the circuit between their resentments and the ability to harm others, once and for all. This book doesn’t show us how, or purports to, but it’s a fascinating read with some unfortunate contemporary resonances. *****

Review – Gallagher, “The Nazis of Copley Square”

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