Nazi sympathizers walked the streets of Boston — and held rallies in Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, where a Nazi propaganda film was screened. A Nazi spy operation was conducted out of a brick townhouse not far from the Bunker Hill Monument. Nazi propaganda was distributed on the byways of the city. Speakers railed against Franklin D. Roosevelt and “those atheistic-Jewish communists” and said the president needed to be “removed from office by force and violence.”
Apparently everyone knew. But a great proportion of that “everyone” has died, and for those of us who followed, this is a great, but deeply unsettling, revelation.
Now Charles R. Gallagher, a Boston College historian with a taste for old newspaper clippings and a relentless capacity for burrowing into long-ignored archival files, has recreated this lost world and the largely forgotten story of the way the Christian Front pumped Nazi views into the conversation of Boston and promoted antisemitic incidents on the streets of Boston in the days before (and, more shocking still, after) the American entry into World War II.
The result is “Nazis of Copley Square,” a searing examination of how a city — where for nearly four centuries the phrase “cradle of liberty” has slipped effortlessly off the tongue with a distinct Boston accent — played host to a group whose leading figures spoke favorably of Nazi Germany and eagerly of “Let’s kill all the Jews!”
Gallagher tells us that “we are worse off for having forgotten the Christian Front” and then proceeds to explain how a blend of anticommunism and antisemitism was stirred by the radio priest Father Charles Edward Coughlin, a fervent critic of FDR and an avowed champion of human rights, and Arnold Lunn, a British covert to Catholicism, to produce a toxic movement that had adherents nationwide but a particularly venomous version in the Bay State.
Indeed, it was in Boston that this movement had perhaps its most virulent power. Boston was, according to then-Governor James Michael Curley, “the most Coughlinite city in America.” Both he and Joseph P. Kennedy, later the ambassador to Great Britain and a prime advocate of appeasing Nazi Germany, were cozy with Coughlin. This was a period when ideologies had a particular and peculiar idiocy, with propaganda sprouting everywhere; Beacon Hill created a Commission to Investigate Activities Within This Commonwealth of Communistic, Fascist, Nazi, and Other Subversive Organizations, led by Sybil Holmes of Brookline, the first woman to be elected to the state Senate.
Just a week after the 1939 German invasion of Poland that began World War II, a crowd of between 8,000 and 12,000 crowded into the old Boston Arena where Francis Moran, the principal figure in the local Christian Front, proclaimed, “Father Coughlin is the greatest American in the United States today.” Before long Moran fell under the sway of Herbert Wilhelm Scholz, Germany’s consul in Boston and a hardened Nazi, SS officer, and spy who operated out of 36 Chestnut St., transforming the Hub into something of the hub of Nazi activity and intrigue in the United States.
Gallagher argues that their “partnership would become one of the most effective espionage and secret propaganda relationships of World War II,” explaining, “Moran’s reconciliation of Catholicism with Nazism was a complex act of moral flexibility, driven above all by his conviction that his faith enjoined anti-Semitism.” A Nazi flag hung from the building where the two conspired.
There may have been no Olympic Games in the wartime year of 1940, but there was a surfeit of intellectual, ideological, and theological gymnastics. “Moran was willing to do Scholz’s bidding,” Gallagher writes, “because he recognized what was good for the Nazis was also good for the Front and because he was able, ultimately, to reconcile Nazism with his faith in Christ.”
Gallagher takes pain to explain that the Christian Front differed in some important ways from right-wing extremists of our time and was not a white supremacist group, nor did it celebrate the Confederacy. He is above all precise and fair-minded, urging readers not to apply 2020s perspective to 1940s events, and he explains with care the nuances in some Catholics’ thinking. “The humanism that rejected racial thought,” he writes, “could also inspire anti-Communist frenzy, which the Judeo-Bolshevist myth refracted into anti-Semitism.”
Even after Pearl Harbor and the American entry into the war, Christian Front leaders insisted that, as Gallagher characterizes their view, “America’s war with Germany was a product of Jewish and British fifth columnists.” Remnant Christian Front cells continued to operate, with Moran spewing what Gallagher describes as “pure Nazism, without compromises” and spawning a surge of antisemitic violence in 1943, with gangs on Blue Hill Avenue, a center of Jewish life at the time, shouting, “There’ll be no more Jews on Jew Hill Avenue when the war is over!”
This book is more than an account of Boston in wartime. It is a warning.
“The political rhetoric of the Christian Front feels remarkably contemporary,” Gallagher writes. “Fronters were adept at cloaking their anti-Semitism in a shroud of deniability knit from terms such as ‘globalism’ and ‘international bankers.’” He argues, moreover, that “it is not only Moran’s Christian-imbued patriotism and anti-Communism that live with us still, but also his techniques for exploiting America’s reverence for free speech.”
Who knew? We all know now.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.
Nazis of Copley Square: The Forgotten Story of the Christian Front
Charles R. Gallagher
Harvard University Press, 336 pages, $29.95