Friday, September 18, 2020
September 18, 2020: Nazis in America: Neo-Nazis and Charlottesville
[On September 20, 1945, the first group of Nazi scientists repatriated to the US under Operation Paperclip arrived at a landing point in Boston Harbor. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of histories and stories of American Nazis, leading up to a special post on that fraught anniversary.]
On how to respond to a resurgent neo-Nazi movement.
The American neo-Nazi movement has been present for more than half a century—in the same mid-1960s years that Tom Lehrer was releasing “Wernher von Braun,” a dishonorably discharged Navy veteran named George Lincoln Rockwell founded the American Nazi Party (ANP), and the organization has been active in American politics ever since (despite Rockwell’s August 1967 murder by disgruntled former ANP member John Patler). Over those decades it has also spawned competing organizations such as Matthias Koehl’s New Order, a monthly magazine (The Stormtrooper), and a briefly active 1970s youth organization (the National Socialist Liberation Front, or NSLF). Reading all the info in those hyperlinked posts (none of which, to be clear, are from the organizations themselves) makes me want to take a shower, but it’s important not to look away from the fact that American Nazis have been a vocal political force (if of course a minority one) for more than 50 years.
In August 2017, however, almost exactly 50 years after Rockwell’s murder, neo-Nazis enjoyed their moment of greatest national visibility: the August 11-12 white supremacist “Unite the Right” rallies in my hometown of Charlottesville. The single most famous neo-Nazi participant in those hateful rallies was James Fields, the domestic terrorist who drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing Heather Heyer. But while neo-Nazis might want to disavow Fields’ blatantly illegal action, I’m sure they were much happier with the Friday evening march and rally on the University of Virginia grounds, at which neo-Nazis sporting swastikas and offering Hitler salutes chanted slogans such as “Blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us!” By emphasizing the presence of neo-Nazis at the rallies, I don’t mean to downplay the many other white supremacist forces there, nor quite frankly the centrality of these communities to mainstream 2010s right-wing American politics (there’s a reason why President Trump argued for “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville). But while white supremacist rhetoric and violence has been a common thread in Charlottesville and American history, the overt embrace of Nazism in this moment felt distinctly new and even more threatening still.
So how do we respond to that resurgent neo-Nazi movement (other than by punching Nazis, which I’m fine with but isn’t sufficient by itself as a collective response)? It will come as something less than a surprise to know that a main answer of mine is that we need to better engage with our histories, including those about which I’ve written in this week’s series. But we really do, for lots of reasons but especially this one: despite our understandable desire to define it as something entirely outside of and opposed to our national identity, Nazism is indeed as American as, well, the Ford Mustang. Or, y’know, the moon landing. But so too is fighting Nazis, not just on the battlefields of Europe but in communities and conversations here at home. Which is to say, the original Antifa wasn’t just all those WWII soldiers—it was also, and I would argue especially, someone like Isadore Greenbaum. As always, learning the horrific histories of American Nazism also means learning the inspiring histories of figures like Greenbaum (and the 100K New York protesters with whom he shared that 1939 activism). There are no more important lessons than those for our renewed fight here in 2020.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other histories or stories you’d highlight?