Essay: The Neo-Nazi Movement

by Frederick J. Simonelli

After Nazi Germany swept through France in 1940, defeating in mere weeks a foe once considered Germany's equal on the continent, shocked observers blamed the French general staff for strategically preparing for "the last war," and for not understanding that the enemy had changed its form and its tactics. The French focused on stopping a massive frontal assault by German troops that had been so deadly in the Great War. They invested their hopes, and ultimately their survival, in fixed emplacements — the Maginot Line — that were bigger and stronger than the fortifications that had been overrun during World War I. Their folly in 1940 was that the enemy, with a mobile attack force employing the innovative strategy of blitzkrieg, looked and behaved nothing like the enemy they were expecting. Those of us who monitor the activities of neo-Nazis in the 21st Century must guard against falling into the same trap. 

In the decades after the fall of the Third Reich, Nazism was a discredited political philosophy. Few could envision its revival. Fewer still could conceive of a neo-Nazi presence in the United States. Yet, by 1959, only 14 years after the Allies crushed the last remnants of German Nazism in Berlin, an American war veteran from a prominent New England family who served as a Navy pilot in the Pacific theater donned an Americanized Nazi uniform and spoke bluntly about the tragic mistake the United States made in World War II by siding with the Allies instead of with Nazi Germany. George Lincoln Rockwell openly vilified Jews in language lifted right from Mein Kampf. He praised Adolf Hitler as a visionary leader and introduced a new generation of Americans to Nazi theories of racial purity and biological determinism. 

By any conventional measure, Rockwell's American Nazi Party was an abject failure during Rockwell's brief public career. Party membership was so small as to be insignificant beyond providing Rockwell with a cadre of loyal followers for his publicity-seeking demonstrations. Funds were chronically short, as the secret anti-Semites Rockwell counted on to support his movement never materialized. Rockwell's attempt to enter electoral politics with a run for governor of Virginia in 1964 failed dismally. Americans never flocked to his side, and never embraced the swastika he proudly flew over Hatemonger Hill, his Virginia headquarters. He never earned a place at the table of public discourse and remained shunned by all influential segments of American society. And his party ceased to exist after a disgruntled follower assassinated Rockwell in August 1967. 

But by another measure, Rockwell was startlingly successful. That measure was as a transitional figure that enabled future generations of neo-Nazi believers to see glimpses of an America cast in their light. Rockwell's legacy consisted of three new concepts that were designed to make Nazism, a product of fascist thought synthesized through German cultural assumptions, palatable to Americans in the late 20th Century and beyond. 

First, Rockwell understood that for a movement based on racial solidarity to succeed in America, the "white race" had to be more broadly defined than the Nordic Aryan ideal that stood at the apex of the German racial hierarchy. Rockwell embraced those whom the German Nazis marginalized: Eastern and Southern Europeans. He redefined "white" as any person who was not "a negro" or a Jew. He created the slogan "White Power" to represent the solidarity of white people in America.

Second, Rockwell understood that the historical reality of the Holocaust presented a serious impediment for the movement. As long as people saw the Holocaust as the end result of racial hatred and the demonization of Jews, they would reject Nazism as a political alternative. So Rockwell, a skilled propagandist, introduced into public discourse the idea that the Holocaust was a fabrication created by the Jews to gain a sympathetic advantage for their political and economic interests. Using the "big lie" strategy invented by Hitler's propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, Rockwell accused the Jews of foisting a fabrication upon the world for their own nefarious purposes. Rockwell conceded privately that it would take a generation or more for the "big lie" of Holocaust denial to permeate American culture, but once it did, he believed, the Holocaust would be neutralized as an obstacle to a Nazi resurgence and could even be turned against the Jews as an example of their perfidy.

Third, Rockwell understood that Americans were a religious people at their core. More than most other nationalities, Americans looked toward their church for validation of their political beliefs. Rockwell, advised by his German mentor Bruno Ludtke, set in motion the Nazi infiltration of an obscure, marginally Christian sect, Christian Identity. Within a decade, Christian Identity ministers, many of them former American Nazi Party officers, were preaching from "Christian" pulpits that Jews were the spawn of the devil, that God favored the white race as created in his image and likeness, and that Jesus Christ was a white Aryan who was put to death by the Jews who then recast him as a Jewish rabbi and his followers as devout Jews. The Christian Identity church survived Rockwell and the ANP and, into the 21st Century, is one of the bulwarks of Nazi racial thought.

When Rockwell died, the neo-Nazi movement he left behind fragmented. His former lieutenants, Matt Koehl, William Pierce, and Harold Covington, led splinter groups that looked much like Rockwell's ANP and had similar limited success. The neo-Nazis of the late 1960s and 1970s were indistinguishable from Rockwell's ANP, utilizing swastikas or stylized versions of the Nazi twisted cross as well as extreme racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. But from that milieu new leaders and groups eventually emerged. Matt Hale and his World Church of the Creator and David Duke and his American White People's Party brought forward a public face more suited to the late 20th Century. Other groups also emerged, including the White Aryan Resistance and the skinheads, who were reminiscent of the thugs in jackboots from Nazi Germany. The sanitized and full-strength versions were both neo-Nazi to the core. 

These groups were collectively identified as the neo-Nazi threat in America. Community groups closely monitored them, measuring their proliferation and keeping them under public scrutiny. Scholars, journalists, and activists recorded the number of neo-Nazi groups operating in every part of the country, followed the writings and ranting of movement leaders, and tracked the frequent shifts in alliance among the volatile hate groups. Law enforcement agencies, often prompted by community groups, prosecuted the acts of violence and criminal harassment that erupted in the wake of neo-Nazi agitation. Innovative tactics, such as the use of civil lawsuits, were developed to combat hate groups through seizure of their assets [Editor's Note: The Southern Poverty Law Center pioneered the use of civil suits against hate groups]. These strategies were society's attempt to keep American neo-Nazis in view and under control. 

Hate groups proliferate during periods of economic distress and societal uncertainty, and they attract larger numbers of adherents within communities that suffer from high unemployment and the dissipation of blue-collar jobs. The American experience with neo-Nazi hate groups followed this pattern in the mid-1970s when social and economic conditions resulted in a growing number of neo-Nazi groups and the number of followers they attracted.  

While the very presence of hate groups in a free society is an affront to democratic ideals, it became apparent in the 30 years after the end of World War II that the neo-Nazi groups under surveillance, despite spikes in membership and activity, simply hadn't established a meaningful presence within American politics. They remained on society's fringe, with periodic eruptions of activity likened to a latent disease that flares up under the right conditions but is unlikely to be fatal.

But as we assess the status of neo-Nazism in America in 2008, we must ask if we are looking in the right place for signs that measure the presence of the neo-Nazi worldview in our society. Does the relative impotence of the open hate-mongers and swastika-wavers really mean that the danger of neo-Nazism as a force in American society has been averted? Or are we, like the French in the late 1930s, guarding against an enemy that has evolved beyond the scope of our vigilance? Swastikas, jackboots, stiff-armed salutes, racial violence, perversion of religion to justify genocide and epithets screamed by haters against Jews, blacks, and gays offend and frighten people of good will. But are these the truest measure of the pathology of neo-Nazism in the American body politic? Or are they, in the 21st Century, distracting trees that conceal the monster in the forest?

Nazism developed in the early 1930s as a permutation of fascism, a political theory that originated in Italy in the early 1920s under Benito Mussolini. Fascism was seen as the answer to a world in chaos after the devastation of World War I. The democracies of Western Europe were unable to solve the social and economic problems that bred strikes and armed uprisings over rampant inflation, lack of work, and food shortages. As the governments of Europe looked on helplessly, the world moved into the Great Depression. To the fascists, the impotence of Europe's governments signaled the need of a new approach to governance, a new worldview that framed problems and potential solutions in simple, clearly understood terms. 

Mussolini's fascism rested on four pillars: (1) the leader principle, a pyramidal governance structure with a strong leader at the top, one who had the authority to resolve conflict and take direct action for the public good; (2) corporate syncretism, in which the government and the leaders of industry jointly manage the economy to maximize profits and employment; (3) militarism, in which the state perpetuates a state of war to fuel industrial expansion, acquire raw materials and colonies by conquest to enrich the state, and marshals the populace with a call to protect the homeland from external enemies; and (4) political homogeneity, in which dissent and opposition to government policies are banned as treasonous. 

Mussolini's principles formed the basis of fascist governments in Germany, in 1933, and Spain, in 1936. While each built a regime based on Mussolini's four pillars, the fascism in Germany and Spain took forms that reflected the German and Spanish cultures. In Germany, anti-Semitism and racial purity were central to Hitler's message and to his appeal for the German electorate, reflecting a deeply imbedded belief in Germanic superiority and animosity toward Jews. As a worldview, Nazism provided clear answers to the seemingly insoluble problems of a complex society. Like a cult or religious dogma, it took away painful uncertainty and replaced it with the comfort of formulaic nostrums that can adapt to any circumstance. Within the Nazi worldview there is a clear demarcation between good and evil. It identifies enemies based not on what they do, but on who they are. Uncertainties are resolved by a leader who takes action on behalf of the volk without the corrupting compromise inherent in democratic processes. 

Nazism was fundamentally undemocratic, and the Nazi leaders blamed "parliamentarianism," their code word for democracy, for the failures of German society. And, of course, all explanations of Germany's failings returned to the treachery of the Jews. Hatred of the Jews and an elaborate structure of racial hierarchy, sustained by an amalgam of social Darwinism and biological determinism, led the Nazi state on a direct path to the Holocaust.

Under Nazism, the state identified the peoples' enemies and offered a plan to deal with them. There was an excess of patriotic fervor surrounding every crisis, with emphasis on slogans, flags, and symbols. Questioning any policy of the state was disrespect for the nation itself, and those who tried to voice legitimate dissent were branded unpatriotic, and thereby marginalized.

Through the coercive force of the state, Nazism controlled the parameters of public debate and intimidated the news media. It cleared a path for generous corporate profits for favored enterprises and promoted industrial and commercial consolidation. Companies favored by the Nazis were rewarded with generous state contracts to facilitate the consolidation of economic power into the hands of those who were either complicit with or compromised by the regime. The decision to go to war, under the Weimar Republic, rested with the national legislature. The Nazis put that power solely with the executive. Under the Nazis, a state of war was not declared by the legislature on behalf of the people, it was undertaken by the leader and his leadership cadre with only a rubber-stamp approval sought from the legislature after the fact. Of course, preparedness for war, pitting the loyal German against a vague but ominous enemy, became the norm.

As we assess the status of neo-Nazism in America in 2008, we would most profitably ask to what extent the underlying worldview of Nazism, or its more fundamental fascism, has taken root in the American consciousness? Does our society accept assumptions that made the Nazis who they were? Each manifestation of fascism develops specific characteristics that emanate from the host culture. While Italy, Germany, and Spain shared fascist assumptions and a fascist worldview, each was unique — so those fascist assumptions come to fruition within the context of Italian, German, and Spanish culture. It is folly to think that the form of fascism that emerged within one national culture can be transplanted to another and re-emerge in the same way. Anti-Semitism, to the degree it erupted in Germany, was the product of German culture far more than any inevitable product of fascism alone. For this reason, the absence of virulent anti-Semitism in the United States does not mean that the fascist core of Nazism has not taken root. 

There is, in fact, some evidence that the intellectual pillars that form the fascist superstructure upon which Nazism was built in Germany in the 1930s have taken hold in 21st Century America. The "leader principle" doesn't necessarily have to emerge through one charismatic individual. It can be manifested in the receding of legislative prominence and increasing reliance on executive power to solve the nation's problems. Eventually, the legislature is perceived as ineffective and unable to address serious problems and becomes marginalized, and the executive is seen as speaking for the people; "corporate syncretism" involves the unbridled growth of giant corporations so that a few major companies dominate each segment of the economy and government policy itself is formulated for the purpose of enhancing the advantage of those corporations in the world market. Such consolidation has taken place in the United States and accelerated in the last two decades of the 20th Century.

The role that racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia may play in the future if a fascist worldview becomes more prominent is uncertain. Past experience suggests that fascist regimes find scapegoating useful for controlling public passion and manipulating the public's fears toward acceptance of the government's policies. While virulent anti-Semitism is not a central part of American culture, racism is integral to the American experience. The current hysteria over illegal immigration, which often takes the form of racist animosity towards immigrants, suggests that America may not be immune to this tactical exploitation.

Frederick J. Simonelli is a professor of history and political science at Mount St. Mary's College in Los Angeles. He is the author of American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party(Champaign, Ill., University of Illinois Press, 1999).