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Review April 2024

An interwar plot and America's place in the global far-right order

Review by Nick Warmuth
Rachel Maddow, 2023
ISBN 9780593444511
416 Pages
Published by: Crown
CPAC Hungary 2022. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Andor Elekes. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

As one of the leading primetime anchors for the 24-hour news network MSNBC, Rachel Maddow needs little introduction to most Americans who concern themselves even occasionally with current events. Of course, within the extremely polarized world of contemporary US politics, Maddow has no shortage of devoted viewers and aggressive detractors. To those unfamiliar with her, or the news organization to which she is so closely associated, it is safe to say that she sits decidedly within the progressive left wing of American politics. While international readers may find Maddow’s latest full-length book, Prequel: An American Fight Against Fascism, to be a relatively straight-forward account of historical non-fiction (incredible as the idea of a fascist movement in America may be), there is little doubt that the US domestic audience will approach this book with preconceived notions of the author and her intent. It is only on the very last page and a half, however, that the underlying impetus of this book—and its conspicuously suggestive title—is explicitly addressed. The word “Prequel”—as a story that chronologically prefigures another to which it is directly related—refers in this case to the organized far-right groups of individuals who attempted an insurrection at the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021. Thus, while the book is all but exclusively concerned with events that took place in the 1930s and 1940s, the title unflinchingly looks to the present. In this sense, it is a cautionary account of the last time far-right and fascist groups actively tried to overthrow the US government by force. As such, one may be reminded of George Santayana’s 1905 adage, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Prequel chronicles the largely unknown plot to subvert American democracy in order to install a Nazi-style fascist government, how it failed, and the subsequent attempts to hold those involved criminally responsible. Spoiler: both failed miserably. In any case, the story’s gripping momentum is structured via the familiar cat-and-mouse–like relationship between the would-be violent insurrectionists and the US government that comes to characterize the narrative. On the conspirators’ side are the domestic efforts by certain individuals (some quite powerful and well-known) to undermine American liberal politics, as well as their clandestine support from Nazi Germany, which, we find, largely bank-rolled the massive propaganda operation. Foiling the plot is a host of individuals who struggled to uncover, expose, and ultimately prosecute such treason. The book culminates with the “Great Sedition Trial of 1944,” which ultimately failed to convict the plotters of an armed and violent insurrection, aimed at weakening the nation against a Nazi attack… or to overthrow the government outright… whichever came first. Ultimately, the whole affair was largely forgotten after the Allies went on to defeat Nazi Germany and Soviet communism supplanted fascism as the greatest threat to American democracy.   

Today, historians largely agree that the fascist parties of Hungary, Romania, and the short-lived Independent State of Croatia (to name only a very few) were active agents in building a global fascist order.

Included in the front matter are more than two dozen names comprising the story’s entangled “cast of characters,” which is quite useful, as even those who are familiar with some will find themselves flipping back to confirm who’s who. Most of these names reappear once again in the epilogue, which is structured as a collection of individual post-script bios. Such an emphasis on the characters does well to remind readers that this fantastic series of events is indeed entirely true. This book is a compelling work of historical journalism, not to be confused with a story “based on historical events.” Much of the underlying narrative comprises existing publications by reputable experts on the topic, and Maddow makes sure to acknowledge the relevant individuals who carried out such tedious archival work. This includes Steven Ross’s Hitler in Los Angeles, Charles Gallagher’s Nazis of Copley Square, Bradley Hart’s Hitler’s American Friends, and Nancy Beck Young’s Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II. In addition, a number of further studies provide ancillary historical context to several chapters. For example, chapter 3 credits James Whitman’s 2017 Hitler’s American Model for its analysis of how Germany looked to the racist Jim Crow policies of early-twentieth-century America when developing a strategy to “criminalize Jewishness itself” (p. 27). The fact that the story of fascism in America has been previously researched and documented should not be confused here as criticism but rather an acknowledgment of Maddow’s efforts to collect all of the existing puzzle pieces. The ability to then synthesize a coherent narrative is this book’s strong suit.

Going beyond the incredible revelations (inconceivable for many Americans) that a domestic breed of National Socialism was indeed alive and active in America, critical readers will note the direct financial and covertly collaborative relationship that existed between American fascists and Nazi Germany. In the academic field of comparative fascist studies, the concept of transnationalism has been among the most discussed and debated topics. Long gone are the days in which political scientists understood twentieth-century European fascism as merely a one-way distribution of ideas, provided in a top-down manner by the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini. Today, historians largely agree that the fascist parties of Hungary, Romania, and the short-lived Independent State of Croatia (to name only a very few) were active agents in building a global fascist order. They participated in a collaborative cross-pollination of violent right-wing and racist ideals with plans to establish a pan-national fascist union. Today, despite various individuals and political special interest groups working tirelessly in each of the above-mentioned countries to whitewash their respective nation’s fascist past, contemporary public admission of the historical existence of Hungary’s Arrow Cross regime, Romania’s Iron Guard, and Croatia’s Ustaša is undisputed. Conversely, such a base-level acknowledgement that an organized and violent fascist party ever existed in the United States is largely absent among the domestic public. Furthermore, it is also doubtful that this history is generally known to non-Americans. 

The 22 relatively short chapters often develop as seemingly independent affairs, later contributing to a tapestry of events whose sum is far more cognate than its individual parts.

Maddow’s book thus provides a throughline between the United States and Europe within the context of a global fascist network in the mid-twentieth century and even during the Second World War. As it relates to the contemporary world’s increasing far-right movements, Prequel quietly compels readers to recognize similar events and relationships growing once again. Cases-in-point: the arrest and prosecution of individuals for the attempted insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January—not to mention the still on-going attempts to foil any and all legal accountability for those criminally involved; and, as for threats of a growing trans-national, far-right relationship between the United States and Europe, look no further than the Conservative Political Action Conference’s (CPAC) 2022 international convention in Budapest, Hungary (its first in Europe) which included a keynote speech by Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. CPAC-Hungary, whose own website proclaims its agenda as “the international convergence of national forces,”1 not only returned in 2023 but has since announced its third iteration, slated for April 2024. Meanwhile, back in the US, CPAC made national news as recently as late February 2024 for apparently allowing a group of openly identifying national socialists to attend its latest gathering. A video appears to show one of them making the Hitler salute in the lobby of the convention, while another was identified as having attended the 2017 white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.2 That CPAC did not refuse entry to such individuals (as it has done in the past), nor made any attempts to remove them after the fact, is evidence of what one reporter characterizes as a “frog-in-boiling-water moment for the right.” In other words, the mainstream of American conservativism—via immensely influential organizations like CPAC—is normalizing racist and often violent far-right ideology both at home and abroad.

Prequel is definitely intended for a broad popular audience and, as such, sits comfortably within the historical non-fiction genre. It is very much at home on the New York Times bestseller list (where it debuted at number one upon its release) rather than on the university library shelf. The 22 relatively short chapters often develop as seemingly independent affairs, later contributing to a tapestry of events whose sum is far more cognate than its individual parts. But this is very much Maddow’s objective. The intended audience is not necessarily the history buffs (nor the academics), rather it is decidedly aimed at the American citizen, who will be casting his or her presidential ballot in November 2024. Just consider the variety of options through which one can consume this story. In October 2022, Rachel Maddow Presents: Ultra was released as an 8-episode podcast. Despite apparent shifts in chronological order and context, Ultra presents the very same story that was to comprise Prequel the following year (the book incorporates a more traditionally chronological development). Moreover, it has been confirmed that Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment has purchased film rights to the story, which will supposedly focus attention on the sedition trial. Three different media outlets provide three different approaches to the very same history—and this disregards entirely the fourth option of listening to Prequel via audiobook. Such diversity in media consumption is actually quite revealing, not only of the technological times in which we live, but the apparent urgency with which the growing threat of American fascism needs to be publicized. That is the sleight-of-hand that Prequal intends to achieve. The textual content of this book is a well-written work of popular non-fiction. However, it simultaneously aspires to be an educational tool for America’s long-forgotten fascist past and what the author suggests could be its second coming. 

Nick Warmuth, PhD is a historian and research associate at the University of San Diego, in California. He studied at San Diego State University and King’s College London before receiving his doctorate in Comparative History from Central European University. His dissertation examines the social and legal dynamics of the US justice system in its pursuit to prosecute Nazi atrocities committed at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. He is a former recipient of the William J. Lowenberg Memorial Fellowship on America, the Holocaust and the Jews, at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. He is also a contributing member of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies. His research interests include Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Fascist Studies, and Transitional Justice and International War Crimes.


1 “CPAC RETURNS TO HUNGARY THIS APRIL!,”, accessed 3 March 2024.

2 Zeeshan Aleem, “Nazis at CPAC is a frog-in-boiling-water moment for the right,” 26 February 2026,, accessed 3 March 2024.