For a longtime Leftist, my familiarity with Fascism is more complex than most because I spent several years living in the basement pantry of a WWII era Nazi sympathizer and published a 2014 memoir (Babette: The Many Lives, Two Deaths and Double Kidnapping of Dr. Ellsworth) about our relationship. That individual was Dr. Babette Ellsworth, a well known Northwest intellectual and college professor. Originally American, she was taken from her birth family as an infant and raised in France among aristocrats that supported Germany. Decades later, I took daily care of her through regional lecture tours, international travels and many more bizarre adventures. It was a fascinating time that provided unusual insights into the world of Right wing subcultures now taking more violent form.
(above) Ross Eliot with Babette in 1999
This occurred during my early twenties as the late ‘90s anti-globalization movement unfolded and I took part with great enthusiasm. It was a bizarre contrast; morning meetings with anarchist groups to plan strategy, maybe being thrown out of a newspaper office in the afternoon while distributing anti-capitalist flyers, then serving Babette tea in the evening, surrounded by historical artifacts, including wartime medals her relatives won fighting alongside Axis troops.
It’s important to mention at this point, Babette was a trans-pioneer, active in the local LGTBQ community and who maintained close friendships with people of color and Jews plus any number of others generally considered antithetical to Nazi beliefs. She defined her values as influenced by Hitler, but only selectively. We often argued about politics, before viewing old mystery films together or playing marathon Scrabble games which she virtually always won.
Personal stakes felt much lower in Portland during that time. Several years before, racist gangs had been kicked out of town by anti-Fascist skinheads and punks through violent clashes at shows and in the streets. Subculture youths like myself floated dreamily along, enjoying a peace dividend hard won by our elders with fists and baseball bats. The idea of combating bigotry in a meaningful way through physical confrontations seemed naive. May Day marches and anti-globalization actions drew token Right wing counter-protesters, but few seriously worried any of them might ram a vehicle into our crowds. Everyone knew institutional racism and systemic injustices were the real problems, not scantily attended White power rallies or solitary madmen who assassinated abortion doctors. Big picture economic justice issues ruled the agenda, by comparison.
Because of that, Babette’s political inclinations felt like eccentric— even mildly charming character flaws. We could squabble over her adoration for the Chilean dictator Pinochet while cooking a lavish dinner together, before serving it to a group of her Hispanic students. While everyone ate, she might entertain us by lecturing about Latin American history in fluent Spanish. Frequently after such gatherings, I would lead guests downstairs for a tour of her extensive library where observant individuals might notice a first edition of Hitler’s Mein Kampf or 1928 translation of Mussolini’s autobiography. When eyebrows raised at this I would sigh and explain: “Oh yes, Dr. Ellsworth is a bit of a Fascist.”
But reality shifted. In the age of Trump, America transitioned from a place where regressive bureaucratic policies like prison sentencing disparities and other aspects of structural racism flew under mainstream detection to one where emboldened White Nationalist candidates could openly run for office and receive thousands of votes. Where hordes march through the streets with torches while shouting anti-Jewish slogans in spectacles hearkening back to Kristallnacht. Where violent attacks on minorities are drastically increasing and domestic body counts stretching from the Charleston church shooting to Pittsburgh synagogue massacre. Even the FBI acknowledges militant racist groups have strategically infiltrated the police and military.
Amidst all this, one iconic symbol of resistance became the image of Fascist leader Richard Spencer being slugged in the face during a television interview. Exuberant stuff…but punching Nazis? I used to chauffeur one to her medical appointments!
Babette came by her Fascism early, combined with Old World elitism from childhood. The wealthy family she grew up amidst came from generations of French landed gentry and their patriarch, Foulques de Lareinty-Tholozan, owned a grand chateau that dominated the southern Sigean region. They maintained close relations with the nearby Spanish upper crust and also many Russian nobles who escaped revolutionary purges following WWI. In fact, Babette remembered frequent visits from Prince Felix Yusupov, the man notorious for murdering Rasputin in 1916.
Particularly because of their Russian connections, Babette’s family were staunch anti-communists and this only hardened once the Spanish Civil War broke out. The Right wing dictator, General Franco, who eventually triumphed against anarchist and communist forces supporting the Republic, found backing from both aristocratic and church establishments. This dynamic repeated itself in France after their 1940 surrender to Germany and solidified when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union. Because young Babette absorbed first-hand atrocity stories from survivors of anti-communist conflict to the south and east, it’s not surprising she interpreted the Fascism her family promoted as necessary for saving Western Civilization. Of course, from a privileged social position, she understood little that motivated ordinary people to overthrow centuries of Czarist oppression or combat Franco’s murderous authoritarianism.
Babette was only sixteen by the time WWII ended in Europe and never backed up her Fascist ideals with a rifle, yet many relatives did exactly that. She fondly remembered one cousin, named Foulques Honore de Lareinty-Tholozan (after his father), a slender, fair-haired youth several years older who enlisted with a French division of the Waffen SS. Reports indicated he was last seen alive retreating among German soldiers in 1945 but counted as missing in action.
(above) Babette riding behind her cousin Foulques in the 1930s
Most of the war geographically isolated Babette from its violence, but protections her family enjoyed quickly evaporated once Axis troops pulled back following the 1944 Normandy invasion. A local resistance group summoned the elder de Lareinty-Tholozan to explain himself, and, (presumably expecting the partizans could be bribed or reasoned with), he promptly appeared. They immediately sentenced him to death, but before the firing squad assembled, allowed him one final letter. He did so, addressing it to his old Russian friend, Prince Felix Yusupov.*
Fearing for their own lives, Babette fled with her adopted mother to Paris where they presented themselves on December 14, 1944 at the Swiss embassy and requested asylum. Even amidst the tragedy of a world war, it must have given officials bemusement seeing a posh French collaborator admitting her child was actually an American citizen and leveraging their status for protection. Still, the Swiss dutifully filed a report with the US State Department who investigated and verified Babette was indeed American, in Europe illegally, and a minor who rightfully belonged with her birth family near Yakima, Washington.**
Babette was sent back to the US, which she remembered as a terrifying solo journey into the land of the enemy. Customs screeners confiscated her portrait of Hitler, and it seemed a teenage French Fascist might find little sympathy among citizens so recently stirred into battle against Nazism. However, she soon realized the postwar world could be very receptive for anti-communists, and not very concerned about their activities pre-1945. Across Europe and Asia, former enemies were put back in power, from Greece to Germany and Vietnam to the Philippines. Most famously, under Operation Paperclip, the US imported hundreds of Nazi scientists and protected them from war crimes prosecution.
In this environment, by 1949 Babette felt bold enough to include pro-Hitler statements throughout college papers while studying at Portland University, and soon after, expressed such devotion to the Third Reich at a Portland radio station that the FBI was alerted and launched a probe. They eventually concluded her Fascist tendencies presented no threat, but several years later when Babette developed professional relationships with East German academic institutions, she was put under investigation as a potential communist. This surveillance stretched over decades, with the last unredacted entry in her extensive file dated from 1975.***
If anything valuable was learned from my relationship with Babette that can help activists opposing emergent Right wing power in our times, it is recognizing Fascism’s dynamic flexibility. All too frequently, Leftists view the ideology through obsolete prisms forged by decades of simplistic historical interpretation. Successful analysis must be sinewy and tough, not so brittle it splinters.
Here’s one example: A year or so ago, I marched with a column of anti-Fascists in downtown Portland during an action confronting Patriot Prayer, a Right wing group notorious for its association with a man who murdered two locals during a 2017 racist assault. We passed several people, apparently tourists, and they asked what was afoot, gesturing at the flags and banners up ahead. A comrade informed them we were opposing Nazis, at which point the visitors shivered in terror! Afterwards I called for a discussion about proper terminology, because if those tourists had ventured closer, expecting goose-stepping Aryans in Waffen SS regalia or White racist skinheads, they would have been confused by the largely suburban Patriot Prayer crowd which usually includes several people of color (including the founder) and no obvious swastikas on display. I recommended substituting Fascist in the future as a less sensational but more accurate description of them.
But Fascism is a slippery word, easily dismissed, then embraced or even used synonymously with other terms. After an original century-old use by Mussolini’s political party, the term drifted into a simple catch-all for any authoritarianism. Conversely, it’s most popular synonym, the word “Nazi” (thanks to Joseph Goebbels effective propaganda) became an almost admiring noun connoting ruthless efficiency and cold exactitude. Both are typically used when discussing members of the stereotypical Western status quo: White cisgender heterosexual men. Recognizing the limitations of such assumptions is an important first step in defeating Fascism.
Of course, that was a lesson I learned years ago from Babette. When my professor recounted initially seeing foreign troops marching through the countryside, she remembered not ethnic Germans, but East Indians. These were presumably some of many abandoned by Great Britain early in the war, or captured later, who resented being treated as cannon fodder by the brutal occupiers of their own country. Indeed, several thousand formed a Wehrmacht legion that was eventually absorbed into the SS. Patriot Prayer may not appear the way Fascists are popularly conceived, and indeed, our grandparents generation who triumphed over Nazism did not always fight people who looked like Nazis.
Babette operated as a high profile trans member of Northwest academia, but that should be no surprise, as Fascism maintains deep roots in queer communities. Many remember the pink triangle eventually worn on concentration camp uniforms, though in their early days, Nazis (particularly SA Brownshirts organized by the openly gay Ernst Roehm) were often derided for that association by homophobic anti-Fascists. Despite a close friendship with Hitler, Roehm finally fell victim to a 1934 purge, his sexuality vilified as partial excuse.
Fascism promotes itself as a meritocracy for the intelligent and strong, with charismatic leaders highly celebrated. Babette certainly embodied those qualities and built up a cult of personality over decades in Northwest academia. Always robust and passionate, even throughout old age, she loved flouting social conventions, and that formed a large part of how she endeared herself. My professor delighted in the subversiveness of having participated in the Catholic church while still male identified and then, following her 1994 sex reassignment surgery, as a women. In fact, I possess several smirking photographs of her in drag during the 1960s after attending Mass and later on, wearing a Benedictine nun’s habit.
Yet her true mirth came through in the fact she was a complete Atheist privately and told me about such pranks as inserting pornographic pictures in Bibles and hymnals. Indeed, she once stole a pair of panties, forgotten at our house by my girlfriend, and later claimed she hid them in the pulpit at a church. Humorous antics like these made her politics more palatable, and not just to me. Years later, one longtime teaching colleague told me about a series of highly inappropriate jokes Babette told, before letting slip an admiring comment about Hitler. The other professor recounted laughing and then exclaiming cordially: “You’re not fooling anybody! We all know you’re an old Nazi!”
Because she presented a living connection to the Fascism of WWII, it’s unsurprising my professor maintained connections among far Right subcultures. I discovered she was longtime friends with Mark Weber, notorious for leadership in neo-Nazi groups since the 1970s and most well known as director of the Institute for Historical Review, an organization dedicated towards diminishing Nazi war guilt, particularly the Jewish Holocaust. It seemed astonishing that Babette, who possessed an encyclopedic memory and often lectured for hours on topics from astronomy to feminism or geology— in three fluent languages no less, could be taken in by, for example, poorly researched pamphlets declaring Anne Frank’s diary a fake.
In the right packaging Fascism can be seductive. It raises up leaders and asks the rest to simply follow. The exact opposite of what I’d always believed in. Despite my Leftist credentials, after years caring for Babette and mesmerized by her intoxicating life story, I felt ideologically worn down. A worldly individual who earned her Ph.D by age thirty-four from the University of Bordeaux, she dominated our conversations intellectually. Over time I wondered, was I perhaps a Fascist too?
When Mark Weber visited the area in 2000 and spoke with an Arab students group at Portland State University, Babette urged I attend and curious… I did. It was quite anticlimactic. The other youths brought up issues with him related to Israeli apartheid policies and their discourse took place as interchangeably as if Weber were one of many Leftists I’d heard lecture about Middle Eastern topics. The brief encounter left me less illuminated than ever.
Then on February 16, 2002, Babette passed away as sensationally as she lived, collapsing from a heart attack in front of forty students preparing for one of her renown local history tours. After calling my professor’s basement home for three years, this catastrophe made life extremely complicated. Amidst personal grief, dealing with her estranged family and a host of other surreal happenings, Mark Weber sent an invitation to a symposium his organization was hosting in California. Having dipped my toes into the waters of Right wing subculture under Babette’s guidance, another hand now reached out, ready to draw me in further.
So I took one more step. Seventeen years later, remembering the whole experience is a high-speed blur of contrasts. The presenters ranged from Tony Martin, a professor of Africana Studies to Said Arikat, a Palestinian writer and Joe Sobran, the former National Review editor. Most attendees were White men, but women or people of color well represented also. One moment I talked with a Jewish couple who were volunteer coordinators over the weekend and the next, overheard a lady nearby bragging she was listed by the FBI as one of the most dangerous White supremacists in the nation.
It felt easy dismissing Babette’s politics as harmless, something to roll my eyes at before buttering her toast or clearing the board for another Scrabble game. Her charming ways dulled the edge of something that now cut too deeply to ignore. My professor’s house welcomed everyone and she accepted my friends and partners from all backgrounds. Yet now I conversed with earnest young men who recoiled when I mentioned dating people who weren’t White. The fact they sat and listened politely when a Black academic lectured about the role Jewish merchants played in the transatlantic slave trade made as little difference as when early 20th century KKK members supported Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement in concert with the bloodstained Jim Crow system. The whole experience left me numb and I rode a Greyhound bus back to Portland, heavy hearted.
Despite everything, I’ll forever miss my friend who swept me through her whirlwind history into a moment of time when cognitive dissonance could make it seem like her version of Fascism was just another colorful identity without real consequences. But it wasn’t then and it isn’t now. Fundamentally, Fascism remains a system of genocidal exclusivity occasionally masked by popular inclusivities. A successful resistance must recognize what lies beneath the mask and hopefully awareness of Babette’s story can help raise it, before smashing what lies underneath for a better world that benefits everyone, not just an elite few.
*Much of my information about Babette’s early life comes from her personal accounts, private documents, interviews with the decedents of relatives in France and also the historical research of Jean-Pierre Géa-Torres in La sombre destinée du Château-du-Lac -Une histoire de familles. Géa Editions, 2013.
**Freedom of Information Act (FOI/PA# 1308317-0 pg. 10-11
***FOI pg. 23