H.L Mencken’s reputation as an independent-minded journalist rests on his lampooning of American politicians, his championship of, but not political sympathies with dissidents prosecuted and deported by the American government during World War I, and his public role as a defender of Scopes during the Evolution vs Bible Monkey Trial in 1925. Conservatives today claim him for his libertarian opposition to the New Deal, his fierce commitment to civil liberties, and his denouncement of collectivism in all forms. Liberals adopt him for his attacks on Christian fundamentalism, his faith in science, and his opposition to World War I.
But what powered all of the above was his less attractive traits, all traceable to his fervent support of Germany. Despite being born in America, Mencken did not consider himself an American and regretted that this was his homeland:
“My grandfather, I believe, made a mistake when he came to this country [from Germany]. I have spent all of my 62 years here, but I still find it impossible to fit myself into the accepted patterns of American life and thought. After all these years, I remain a foreigner.”
Much of his criticism of American democracy stemmed from his Socialism Darwinism, in which he believed that some individuals were innately superior to others; but, because of American representative democracy, the “inferiors” were always in power. By contrast, his beloved Germany, particularly under the un-elected Kaiser Wilhelm was governed by “a superbly efficient ruling caste.”
His hatred of religion in all forms stemmed from his belief that such doctrines got in the way of the natural ascension of the superior by its compassion toward helping the “lower orders.” By contrast, evolution, particularly his racial version of it, allowed the triumph of the superior into power.
“There must be complete surrender to the law of natural selection–that invariable natural law which ordains that the fit shall survive and the unfit shall perish. All growth must occur at the top. The strong must grow stronger, and that they may do so, they must waste no strength in the vain task of trying to lift up the weak.”
For him, this unimpeded natural selection resided in World War I Germany and his opposition to American participation in the war didn’t stem from anti-war concerns as it did his pro-Kaiser sentiments. All of the qualities he admired resided in Germany, and American opposition to it violated the doctrine of natural selection:
“Germany is strong, and fearless, and ruthless, and resolute. Ergo, Germany must, shall and will prevail.”
Apart from his–let’s be fair–defense of socialists and the American Civil Liberties’ Union, much of his defense of those bullied by the mob by American “patriots” in World War I had to do with their German heritage.
Following his pan-German train of thought, he naturally regarded anyone not of German ethnicity as inferior. He hated the South because he regarded it as overrun with white trash. Jews were equally, if not more so, inferior:
“The Jews could be put down very plausibly as the most unpleasant race ever heard of. As commonly encountered, they lack many of the qualities that mark the civilized man: courage, dignity, incorruptibility, ease, confidence. They have vanity without pride, voluptuousness without taste, and learning without wisdom. Their fortitude, such as it is, is wasted upon puerile objects, and their charity is mainly a form of display.”
Blacks were included in his racial list of inferiors. He once said of them that “it is impossible to talk anything resembling discretion or judgment to a colored woman.”
Such sentiments naturally led him toward a carefully trimmed admiration of Hitler. He defended Hitler’s anti-semitic rise to power as necessary because of a “Jewish-Bolshevik” threat that had once taken over Germany in 1919 “The bloody Raterepublik at Munich–long forgotten elsewhere, but only too well remembered in Germany–had been set up and bossed by a Jew, and there were other Jews high in the councils of the Communist party, which proposed openly to repeat the Munich pillages and butcheries all over the country.”
To his credit, Mencken did champion the writings of the African-American Richard Wright, and had contempt for the segregationist South:
“But if you marvel at the absurdity, keep it dark! A casual word and the united press of the South will be upon your trail, denouncing you bitterly as a scoundrelly damnyankee, a Bolshevik Jew.”
However, this could have been merely an instance of one prejudice winning out over the other—the segregationist South was highly religious, and particularly vicious to German-Americans during World War I. Whatever his more honorable moments, one senses a struggle within Mencken to briefly overcome the prejudices that guided so much of his writings.