CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WJZY) — Ninety years ago today signaled one of the darkest moments in history, Adolph Hitler took control of Germany.
But, did you know not long after that, a man named William Dudley Pelley did his best here in the Carolinas to be just like the Fascist leader?
“Pelley was pretty clear about his desire for a white Christian nation,” says Western North Carolina historian Jon Elliston has written about Pelley over the years.
“The nicest thing Pelley would say about the Jews was he’d like to give them a separate land to live on, a place to concentrate them almost in a camp if you will. His ultimate objectives would have been a lot like Hitler’s.
Pelley created the Silver Legion or Silver Shirts. No swastika, but a scarlet L for liberation. And much like Hitler, they were a cult of personality.
“The silver shirts, like the brown shirts that inspired them, were very obsessed with their attire. Pelley was something of a dandy and wanted to make sure the uniforms were just so. They would get their uniforms on, do marches, hold occasional public rallies and speeches…”
Pelley’s greatest strength was his publishing, which he did in a building in Biltmore Village.
“Eccentric. Dark eccentric, better run the other way for 9 out of 10 people, but I just happen to be in the minority that my curiosity was aroused,” Asheville Historian Vance Pollock said. “Everybody knows the name William Dudley Pelley in Asheville. The two words most commonly associated with him are Nazi and ghosts.”
Pelley stayed bankrolled by a handful of wealthy benefactors, mainly widows, who were not interested in Pelley’s politics but his spiritualism.
“Reincarnation was a tenant of his philosophy or doctrine, which was generally not accepted in America in those days,” says Pollock.
Elliston adds, “The exact same sorts of threads that run the Qanon movement that have surfaced in recent years.”
Pollock says Pelley pressed on with his publications into the early 40s with his main target to agitate then-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who viewed Pelley with great ire. Pelley accused Roosevelt of being the American dictator after being elected for a fourth term and that he was in bed with the communists.
Pelley ended up serving seven years in prison for sedition.
“Pelley found a receptive audience and parts of America where people felt dispossessed and felt left out in the American project. And there are certainly people today who feel like no one speaks for them, so the attraction of an authoritarian leader could be understandable to some.
Historians like Elliston and Pollock argue today’s politics are not about left or right, blue versus red. Republican or Democrat, but more about democracy as a whole – and preserving the American way of life.
“Sure, I think there are a lot of the same sort of characters. Well, we’ll say charismatic characters who are maybe pitching ideas that aren’t, you know, very American,” Pollock said.
“We can learn from this history. We can learn about bad examples from our past just as good ones. Pelley will provide plenty of insight of how a fringe fascist lived among us.”
William Dudley Pelley ended up just a footnote in American political history.
“He wanted to make himself the American fuhrer,” Pollock said.