I’ve been listening, somewhat belatedly, to Rachel Maddow’s eight-part Ultra podcast, which Rolling Stone described like this in an Oct. 3, 2002, article:
For a historical podcast, Rachel Maddow’s new project could hardly be more timely. As the seditious conspiracy trial seeking to hold the Oath Keepers accountable for their role in the Jan. 6 insurrection ramps up in Washington, D.C., Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra explores a World War II-era prosecution known as the Great Sedition Trial of 1944.
The prosecution – and determined amateur sleuths in the general public — exposed a Nazi-backed plot that connected sitting members of Congress — many of them tied to the original, nativist America First movement — and militias and street thugs who wanted to overthrow the republic and install a fascist, authoritarian regime.
It’s quite riveting. But as I have made my way through episode 5 (“Shut it down”) I’ve had to stop listening because I can tell it’s going to be too depressing in the end because all the clues are there that not a single elected right-wing Republican member of Congress is going to be held accountable for colluding with German spies.
Which brings us to this NPR Fresh Aire interview with Maddow from December of 2022:
GROSS: So you describe the (eventual Ultra) sedition trial as turning into bedlam. There’s so many, like, outrageous things that happened. Like, during the period when potential jurors are questioned before they’re chosen to be jurors, the defense asks some incredible questions, including things like, are you Jewish or do you have a relative who is? Do you read Jewish publications? What does Jew mean? What does international bankers mean? What’s meant by Mongolian Jews? And do you think Jesus was a Jew? And there were no Jews, no African-Americans on the jury, but at least three German Americans. It’s amazing that the judge let this kind of questioning happen and that there were no Jews, but there were three German Americans.
MADDOW: Yeah. This is flummoxing in some ways. I mean, defense counsel can propose all sorts of crazy things to be asked to potential jurors, but it’s up to the judge to decide what actually gets asked. And for Judge Eicher to have allowed some of these questions specifically designed to keep Jews off the jury, and also to sort of push-pull the jury on being disinclined toward any Jewish perspective, is a remarkable thing. And indeed, there were no Jewish people on the jury.
I feel like one of the things that might explain why bedlam broke out and why the trial was so out of control and why things like that happened with selecting the jury pool, it may have had something to do with the fact that Judge Eicher was very inexperienced. He was in his mid-60s by the time the trial was happening, but he’d only been on the bench for two years. He had been a congressman from Iowa. He’d been on – I think – the SEC, had had some other government jobs. He’d had a sort of distinguished career and was well-regarded, but he was not experienced as a judge. When he was put in charge of this trial with, you know, 28 incredibly rowdy, incredibly disruptive and in many cases incredibly eccentric defendants, almost as many defense lawyers, the highest profile case in the country on incredibly inflammatory charges, it was going to be a challenge for any judge, but for somebody who didn’t really know what he was doing yet, he was very clearly overmatched from day one of that trial.
GROSS: And you say that the defense tried to prevent the trial, tried to postpone the trial, tried to have a mistrial declared, and they kept doing that, like, over and over. The trial came to a kind of a dramatic conclusion because the judge went home one night after the trial had been going on for months, had dinner, and then died in his sleep. So what happened after that?
MADDOW: It was a crazy moment. I mean, the trial never got less chaotic from the very beginning. And you can see it in the newspaper coverage at the time that there’s reporters who are planning on being in the courtroom every day, who are planning – you know, and they’re recording with great detail everything that happens. And then the news coverage sort of dwindles over time because nobody can follow what’s going on, and the case is so chaotic and the courtroom is so uncomfortable and it’s so out of control. Judge Eicher’s seven months into the trial when the prosecution, which goes first in a criminal trial, they weren’t even halfway through their presentation seven months into it already. He felt ill one day in the courtroom, went home and died in his sleep that night.
The defendants were given the option that they could allow another judge to come in and pick up where the trial left off, and the defendants did not want to do that. They wanted to start all over again from day one. And of course, they did, because I think the bedlam and chaos in the courtroom was to their benefit at this point. The Justice Department then had to decide whether they were going to do that, whether they were going to start over from day one or whether they were just going to dismiss the charges and let it go. And they let that decision linger for quite a long time, and one of the things that happened in the interim, while it was still possible they could restart the trial, is that the prosecutor asked leave from the court to go to Germany.
A U.S. Army captain who was part of the Nuremberg prosecutions contacted this prosecutor, John Rogge, at the Justice Department and said, hey, you know, we’re interrogating these Nazi leaders here, and all of your sedition defendants’ names keep coming up when we’re interrogating these Nazis about who they were working with in the United States and what they were trying to do. You ought to see this evidence. And Rogge went to Germany to collect that evidence and then brought it back to the Justice Department and – for them to inform their decision as to whether or not to proceed with the case.
GROSS: And they proceeded with the case.
MADDOW: They did not proceed with the case, which is a remarkable…
GROSS: They did not proceed.
MADDOW: No. They allowed the mistrial to be the end of the story. And Rogge’s report from Germany, with all the evidence that was collected from German officials confirming the central charges of the sedition case – that these Americans had been receiving support from Germany, that they were working in cahoots with the German government to try to overthrow the U.S. government and install fascism here – he brought all this evidence back including the names of 24 members of the House and Senate who had been involved in the propaganda part of this operation.
He brought it all back. He gave it to the attorney general. The attorney general brought it straight to the White House, by then occupied by Harry Truman. And Harry Truman said, this report will never see the light of day. This is not a report that will be made to the American people. This will not be given to the court. This will – this is over. This is done. This cannot come out.
After a commercial break, Terri Gross brings it back to the question of prosecutions – or lack, thereof:
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to my interview with Rachel Maddow. Her new podcast series, “Ultra,” is about plots from ultra-right groups to overthrow the U.S. government in the years leading up to World War II.
So none of the congressmen who were colluding with Hitler’s Germany ever got indicted. Is that right?
MADDOW: That’s right. And it’s a good question as to why not.
GROSS: Yeah, why not?
MADDOW: (Laughter) Well, I mean, Viereck himself, who was the German agent, was charged. And in his individual trial and, again, in the evidence that was brought forward against him in the sedition trial, the government laid out what he was doing with these members of Congress including paying them to do this work that had been assigned to him by the Hitler government. So they had the evidence of it. The Justice Department did bring in a couple of members of Congress to testify to the grand jury. They did indict one congressional staffer. They had a lot of evidence about members of Congress having been part of this plot, and they chose not to indict the members. And there isn’t an explanation from that that I think all parties would admit to.
But my view, having sort of marinated in this research for the past year or more, is that the Justice Department just did not want to incur more ire and more wrath from the members of Congress who were already giving them such a hard time for this case. Members of Congress knew they were implicated. They knew what they had done. And they did everything they could to try to get this prosecution blown up from getting, first, one and then the second prosecutor in the case fired by political pressure.
They – in one case, one of the members of Congress who was brought in to testify to the grand jury and who had his congressional staffer indicted, he tried to get the sedition law taken off the books. So it would result in the American justice system no longer having that available as a charge to bring against people who did these things. They really did everything they could to make life miserable for the Justice Department in pursuing this and in so doing, protected themselves, I believe, from being charged when the evidence existed that would have justified a charge.
GROSS: So the legal system never held anybody accountable for this sedition and for the violence that these ultra-right-wing groups were behind, and the congressmen weren’t held accountable. Did the people hold the colluders accountable?
MADDOW: Yes, in almost every instance. And this was a surprise to me and a really interesting part of the research. This, as a prosecution, didn’t work. But the Justice Department’s investigation was of interest to the public. It was done at the same time that there was a lot of journalistic and even activist investigation of these matters. There was really good investigative reporting both in book form and in magazine-and-newspaper journalism done about these scandals at the time. There were activist groups who infiltrated some of these violent ultra-right groups and then publicized their findings about what those groups were doing. They not only brought it to law enforcement; they brought it to the press and made sure that people knew what was happening.
And the result from the public was that almost all the members of Congress who were implicated in this, including some who were seen as presidential timber, some of whom were among the most popular and powerful members of Congress, of their – household names – almost to a one, they were voted out as soon as they came back up before the voters, either voted out in primaries or voted out in general elections including huge figures at the time like Gerald Nye from North Dakota and Burton Wheeler from Montana and Hamilton Fish from New York.
And all of these very powerful, very famous members were thrown out on their ear because constituents and, in some cases, their political parties recognized that – recognized what they’d been doing to help the Nazis. It was a form of political accountability that worked even when criminal accountability fell short.
I think Maddow gives way too much weight here to the idea of public shaming as some form of accountability.
The lessons learned then by the Nazi collaborators in Congress – much like what we see happening thus far with the members of Congress who helped the Jan. 6 rioters try to overthrow our government – were that, yes, you can commit treason or take part in a seditious conspiracy, and the government won’t prosecute you because doing to will be seen as harmful to the fabric of America cohesion.
I will likely finish listening to Maddow’s podcast at some point because she’s quite good and it’s very well done.
But for now I have to take a break to get used to the fact that it’s happened before and Republicans got away with it, just as it’s appearing that the members of Congress who aided and abetted the Jan. 6 rioters will likely get away with it.