Analysis

American Nazis, Then and Now

Just when American Jews thought they were out, to paraphrase Al Pacino, Jewish history is pulling them back in.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan protest on the steps of Fulton Chapel at the University of Mississippi in November 2009.
Ryan Moore, The Clarion-Ledger, AP

Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan launched his early career with the help, of sorts, of American Nazis. Dylan wrote a song called Talkin’ John Birch Society Blues - later renamed Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues - that depicted the members of the archconservative, anti-Communist group as paranoid admirers of Nazis. When CBS refused to allow Dylan to play the song on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1962 or to record it on his second album, the controversy generated Dylan’s first national publicity. And the lyrics to the song were his first to ever be published.

“Now we all agree with Hitler’s views; Although he killed six million Jews; It didn’t matter too much that he was a fascist; At least you can’t say he was a Communist; That’s to say like if you got a cold you take a shot of malaria,” Dylan wrote. “Now Eisenhower, he’s a Russian spy, Lincoln Jefferson and that Roosevelt guy; To my knowledge there’s just one man; That’s really a true American: George Lincoln Rockwell; I know for a fact he hates Commies cus he picketed the movie Exodus.”

In the series the Man in the High Castle, the second season of which will be screened next month, the Nazi occupation authorities changed the name of JFK Airport to Lincoln Rockwell Airport. Rockwell, who was assassinated in 1967 by a disturbed disciple, is considered the founding father of the American Nazi Party. The movement thrived in the 1930s after Adolf Hitler came to power, under the name Friends of New Germany and then German American Bund, and it held rallies attended by thousands throughout the U.S., including New York’s Madison Square Garden, but it never struck roots among ordinary Americans because its members were mostly newly-arrived German immigrants and because it was run at first by a German citizen acting under direct orders of the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels. The movement gradually disappeared after the outbreak of the war but was reinvented by Rockwell in 1959. 

He never managed to raise the movement’s membership to more than 10,000-15,000 nationwide, but with a career as a fighter pilot and Navy commander and with his experience in public relations, he did manage to spark continuous media interest with the help of gimmicks and provocations. 

Rockwell was an unabashed worshiper of Hitler and one of the first Americans to openly deny the Holocaust, in his own special way: most Jews were traitors, he argued, and Hitler rightly had them killed. The same fate awaited 80 percent of American Jews, who were also traitors, he said. In 1961 he and some of his admirers donned S.S. uniforms and wandered the country to protest in front of cinemas in which Otto Preminger’s Exodus premiered, citing it as proof of the Jewish-Zionist control of Hollywood in particular and the U.S. in general. He was met in many places by angry Jewish protestors, including Holocaust survivors who, under the influence of the Eichmann trial being held in Jerusalem, vowed to stay silent no more. 

While he was touring the South, Rockwell tried to juxtapose his “Hate Ride” as he called it against the Freedom Riders who were fighting for civil and voting rights for African Americans. He ordered his disciples to help the Ku Klux Klan combat the civil rights movement. His anti-Semitic messaging complemented the Klan members’ growing resentment of Jews from the North who were helping African Americans in their struggle. A few years later, Rockwell’s book White Power became an all-purpose primer for racists, white supremacists and anti-Semites. One of the people who was impressed and influenced by the book was David Duke, who became a Nazi sympathizer, then a Grand Dragon of the KKK and later a not altogether unsuccessful politician in Louisiana. A few decades later, Duke would emerge as one of Donald Trump’s most vocal and enthusiastic supporters.

[Rockwell’s colleague and would be successor, William Pierce, published an even more successful “bible” for white supremacists entitled The Turner Diaries, which depicted a 2099 white uprising and race war in which Jews, blacks and Gypsies are all exterminated. The book was one of the inspirations for white supremacist Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, in which 168 people were killed. The murderer of British MP Jo Cox who was sentenced to life imprisonment this week, was also inspired by Pierce and was a member of his National Alliance Nazi offshoot set up by Pierce in 1974.]

Rockwell didn’t invent the link between anti-Semitism and white racism, of course, but he did provide it with an ideological underpinning. He wasn’t the first to recruit Christianity in the service of white supremacy either, though he did link racists with the Christian Identity movement, which gave a biblical base for viewing both Jews and blacks as inferior beings. Remember, the Ku Klux Klan reconstituted in 1915 not the basis of the fight against African Americans, which was its prime motivation when first set up after the Civil War, but against the backdrop of the waves of anti-Semitism sparked by the Atlanta trial and lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish factory superintendent wrongly convicted of murdering 13-year-old Christian girl Mary Phagan. His murderers belonged to a group called Knights of Mary Phagan, from which the KKK would soon blossom.

Meanwhile, DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, released the same year, cast the historic KKK in a positive light and provided an irresistible recruiting tool for the reborn Klan. (The movie was released this year with the same title but a different plot, focusing on the famous rebellion of the slave Nat Turner, who shares a family name with the protagonist of Pierce’s racist bestseller).

In the 1920s, therefore, just as America locked its gates before East European Jews, condemning them to annihilation in the Holocaust, and just as anti-Semitism flourished and expanded to include strict restrictions on Jews in universities and in various professions, four million Americans joined the Ku Klux Klan, including mayors, governors and Congressmen through the country. Their slogan was “100 percent Americanism” and one of their favorite targets, along with blacks and Catholics, was the Jewish “domination” of Hollywood and the media.

Nazi salutes as Richard Spencer addresses a National Policy Institute gathering in Washington on November 19, 2016.
The Atlantic, YouTube screenshot

The Klan lost its power and influence in the 1930s because of exposes of financial misconduct and intolerable violence and cruelty both in and outside its ranks, but anti-Semitism continued to grow stronger. Catholic priest Charles Coughlin and other anti-Semitic firebrands drew audiences of millions while Nazi sympathizers and isolationists depicted the Jews as warmongers trying to drag America into another war with Germany.

The latter group was eventually called America First, a slogan that Trump adopted and refused to relinquish even when told that Jews found it offensive. After the war, anti-Semitism didn’t disappear, despite the reports of extermination and Holocaust, as scores of Jews in Hollywood and the media were dragged before Senator Joe McCarthy’s Inquisition as suspected Communists. Rockwell was a great admirer of McCarthy in the early fifties and of the John Birch Society, of which Dylan sang, when it was set up at the end of the same decade.

Which is to say that what goes around comes around. Life is often a vicious circle and the more things change, the more they stay the same, despite evolving circumstances. A hundred years ago low-income white Protestants, most of them rural, were wary of Italian and Irish Catholic immigrants taking their jobs and were scared of Jewish communists and anarchists supposedly aiming to take over their country. Fifty years ago, Southern whites were petrified at the sight of blacks asserting themselves, clamoring for better jobs and claiming equal status, and were enraged at the uppity liberal Jews from the northeast who were helping them do so.

In 2016, rural white Americans are once again worried about immigrants taking their jobs, foreigners threatening their country and Jews aiding, abetting and possibly masterminding everything, either because of their liberal naiveté or because of some master plan to dilute the white race, if you listen to many members of the alt-right movement, whose leader, Richard Spencer, shocked America by spurring Nazi salutes and cries of “Heil Trump” in Washington last week.

For the past decade, the Jewish establishment, along with the American right, with the encouragement of the government of Israel, has tried to equate support for BDS and the radical left wingers with anti-Semitism. But throughout most American history, the bulk of anti-Semitism originated with the right, and not only in its extreme fringes. The efforts to differentiate between the alt-right and the different kinds of white racists are also artificial: it’s a matter of emphases, not actual substance. Most white racists may not idolize Hitler, but they all believe in the inherent superiority of white America, they are all terrified that its purity is being diluted by blacks and immigrants, and they all regard Jews as the masterminds and enablers of everything from immigration laws to the liberal media to corrupting Hollywood. And all of them supported Trump in the elections and saw in his election a victory of almost biblical proportions.

/>In this Saturday, April 23, 2016 photo, members of the Ku Klux Klan participate in cross burnings after a "white pride" rally in rural Paulding County near Cedar Town, Ga. Born in the ashes of the smoldering South after the Civil War, the KKK died and was reborn before losing the fight against civil rights in the 1960s. Membership dwindled, a unified group fractured, and one-time members went to prison for a string of murderous attacks against blacks. Many assumed the group was dead, a white-robed ghost of hate and violence.
John Bazemore / AP

Most Trump voters, one assumes, are not anti-Semites. Trump himself, as far as is known, is not an anti-Semite, though he seems to harbor several anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews. What he is, though, is reckless. He allowed racist, neo-Nazi movements to come out of the woodworks and flourish under his wings and refused to renounce or abandon them either because he wanted them to work for his election or because his sole criteria in life is IFF, identification friend or foe. Even the feeble condemnation that he issued in his meeting with the New York Times this week was extracted almost by force, unlike his harsh and swift reactions to the cast of Hamilton and to any and all of his own critics in the past.

Even this disavowal, however, sufficed to sting Spencer and his cohorts, after they had convinced themselves that the appointment of their main promoter Steve Bannon to the White House was a clear-cut signal that they had finally arrived. After all, it was Bannon’s breitbart.com that portrayed Spencer and other alt-righters as intelligent and dedicated pioneers whose words should be heeded by the rest of the conservative movement.

But Trump’s foolhardiness wasn’t evident just in his weak responses to Duke and other supporters on the racist right. When he was under pressure, he didn’t hesitate to resort to some anti-Semitic incitement of his own. Less than a week before his election, when the polls seemed to be turning against him, Trump started to talk of a sinister global conspiracy threatening to take over America. He released a video detailing the plot, in which three prominent Jews were the only villains. Ninety years ago, Trump’s ad would have been produced by automotive pioneer Henry Ford, purveyor of anti-Semitic smut and distributor of the English version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Trump is now resting on the laurels of his stupendous victory. He is trying to walk back some of his more outrageous campaign statements and to soften the image he projected as a brawling, isolationist enemy of the elites, which is probably making many of his supporters raise their eyebrows already. He is allowing his Jewish front men, in Israel and America, to try and erase the memory of his tolerance for anti-Semites and dissemination of anti-Semitic motifs.

But the real question is how he will conduct himself when his outlandish campaign pledges and his completely ungrounded programs and his largely inexperienced appointees confront reality and possibly crash into it in the process. Experience shows that Trump is not one to readily admit mistakes or assume responsibility and that he prefers to lash out at everyone else instead. No matter how he’ll phrase it, his racist and neo-Nazi fans will understand that he’s really talking about the Jews.

Jewish Americans gathered around Thanksgiving dinner tables on Thursday night and they have much to be thankful for: their diaspora is the most powerful, most successful and most accepted in all of Jewish history. This year, though, their appreciation and gratitude must have been tinged with a certain apprehension. Trump’s victory has released familiar ghosts that many Jews had thought were long dead and buried. Just when they thought they were out, to paraphrase Al Pacino in Godfather III, Jewish history seems to be pulling them back in.