…[William Dudley] Pelley formed a new political-religious movement, the fascist and anti-semitic Silver Legion of America, the Silver Shirts. This was “a great Christian Army fortified by the inviolable principles of the Christ.” Pelley was the “beloved Chief,” a term which could equally well refer to his role as American Führer, or as the living Secret Chief, a not-yet-Ascended Master.
The Silver Shirts were explicitly modeled on the German Nazi Party, and Pelley claimed that he was inspired to form his movement on January 30, 1933, the day Hitler became German Chancellor. But Pelley also drew ideas and images from the popular media, as this day marked the first broadcast of the radio western series, The Lone Ranger, with its heroic Rangers and the recurrent silver themes. Pelley’s followers were also Silver Rangers, and that was the title of one of his newspapers.
Whatever the origins of the idea, Pelley now focused on the Jews as the source of most evils and problems in the world, and he offered a solution based on the formation of a Christian Commonwealth, a Christ-Democracy. Pelley became the nation’s best-known figure on the paramilitary far Right, and he inspired Sinclair Lewis’s imaginary American dictator Buzz Windrip in the 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here.
The Silver Shirts boomed in the mid-1930s, and the movement may have had up to twenty thousand members nationwide at its height in 1933-34. Support was heavily concentrated in California, Oregon and Washington, though other centers of strength were scattered across the Midwest, in Chicago, Cleveland and in the Ohio steel districts. Pittsburgh was another major center of organization, where it spawned leftist and Jewish counter-protests. Though the movement looks like a classic fascist sect, it never lost its strong occult motivation, and some adherents claimed to be less interested in the anti-Semitic rhetoric than in Pelley’s mystic revelations.
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