F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby may seem an odd place to begin a discussion of events that led up to the Holocaust. Fitzgerald, the poster boy for the Roaring Twenties, was rather ambivalent when it came to the Jews. In The Great Gatsby, Meyer Wolfsheim, a utility character, is described as “a small, flat-nosed Jew [with a] large head” who fixed the 1919 World Series -- and didn’t exactly speak the King’s English. Actually, the true life culprit, Arnold Rothstein, was a debonair gambler who would never have been heard saying “Oggsford” instead of “Oxford,” as in Oxford College, Wolfsheim’s rendition of the hallowed English institution.
At least Fitzgerald avoided the trite stereotype of the Jew as crooked-nosed, e.g., the Shakespearean villain Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. The play was farce, to be sure. The fact is there were no Jews in England in Shakespeare’s day (only marranos, converted Jews): King Edward I, the villainous Longshanks in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, banished the Jews in 1290, and they didn’t return for 350 years, not until the time of Oliver Cromwell. Fitzgerald defended his description of Wolfsheim’s physiognomy by countering that it “fulfilled a function in the story and had nothing to do with race or religion.”
His longtime Jewish secretary Frances Kroll, whose unofficial duties involved refereeing the writer’s tempestuous affair with Hollywood gossip columnist Sheila Graham (nee Lily Shiel, born in Leeds, England, to Ukrainian Jewish parents), didn’t see him as anti-Semitic. In her memoir, Against the Current, Kroll wrote: “My memory harbors a gentle man with a nearly collapsed dream whose prevailing gift gave him the strength to keep doing what he did best – to write.”
It is racism, not necessarily anti-Semitism, that we encounter in The Great Gatsby and in the very opening chapter. One of the novel’s chief characters, Tom Buchanan, racist and narcissistic in today’s language, is talking to his wife Daisy and a woman friend: “Civilization’s going to pieces…Have you read The Rise of the Colored Empires by this man Goddard? “ And then: “…if we don’t look out the white race will be – will be utterly submerged. It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been proved…It’s up to us, who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things.”
One of Fitzgerald’s close friends, from his Princeton days, was the noted literary critic Edmund Wilson, whom he considered his “intellectual conscience.” In a letter to Wilson in May 1921, Fitzgerald wrote: “The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race…Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter.”
The title the novelist’s fertile mind came up with, The Rise of the Colored Empires, combined lawyer, conservationist, eugenicist, environmentalist, philanthropist, and author Madison Grant’s World War I-era influential volume, The Passing of the Great Race: The Racial Basis of European History (1916), with his colleague Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy. Both authors were leading racialists prior to World War II spouting “scientific racism,” which was hard-core, racist-based eugenic intellection.
Hitler, it should be emphasized, was quite aware of what was going on in America. His formal education didn't go beyond the high-school level, but he was fond of reading. Early in the 1930s, he read The Passing of the Great Race. According to historian Jonathan P. Spiro (Defending the Master Race, 2010), Hitler wrote to Grant: “The book is my Bible.”
Another example of his familiarity with the American scene, in 1937, the school building in New London, Texas, blew up due to a gas leak killing 297 students and teachers – no one in the school survived the explosion, which remains the deadliest school disaster in the nation’s history. Adolf Hitler immediately sent a telegram expressing his condolences. (A copy of the telegram remains on display in the London Museum.)
Perhaps Hitler was prompted by his propaganda minister Josef Goebbels into taking such compassionate action. Goebbels was a master at manipulating public opinion, having learned much about the art of public relations from studying Edward Bernays’ Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) and Propaganda (1928). Bernays, the founder of modern public relations and propaganda, was Sigmund Freud’s nephew. One example of Bernays’ PR approach, he came up with the slogan, “Make the World Safe for Democracy,” to help whip up anti-German sentiment for Woodrow Wilson in 1917. Apparently, Goebbels, one of the most virulent Jew-hating members of Hitler’s diabolical gang, didn’t mind taking lessons on polishing up his craft from a Jew.