As the militia movement that characterized much of the American radical right in the 1990s fades, a harder-edged, more Nazified scene has emerged to take its place.
Holocaust denial, the identification of Jews rather than people of color as the chief enemy, and an open embrace of the symbols and language of Nazism may be at a higher level in the United States than at any other time in the postwar period.
It is in this context that Frederick Simonelli's excellent study of George Lincoln Rockwell and his American Nazi Party should be read and appreciated as a remarkably clear-minded, original and well-written study of the roots of American neo-Nazism.
Simonelli's biography, informed by extraordinary access to a variety of sources including private archives, operates on two levels: as an insightful examination of Rockwell's dysfunctional early family life and its role in creating a personality that was forever consumed with misogyny, sexual machismo and authoritarianism; and as an analysis of Rockwell's remarkable, and under-appreciated, political legacy.
George Lincoln Rockwell was the first child of George Lovejoy "Doc" Rockwell, an egotistical vaudeville comedian with little interest in his children, and Claire Schade Rockwell, a talented toe dancer and child stage star who became a submissive and largely ineffectual woman when she married Doc.
After her divorce nine years later, Claire and her children moved in with her sister, Arline, a tyrannical and humorless woman who beat down young Link, as he was known, at every opportunity.
As Simonelli points out, Rockwell was full of rage for Arline throughout his life. In a revealing letter written to his mother a year before his 1967 assassination, Rockwell alternated between enraged diatribes about the "bullying" he endured at Arline's hands, and what he saw as the "gangs of Jews, Negroes and Commies" who were similarly "bullying" his country.
Although Simonelli doesn't purport to fully explain Rockwell's psychology, Rockwell's relationships with his father, mother and aunt go a long way toward explaining his boiling fury.
The book then traces Rockwell's development as he marries, divorces, marries again and is left by his adored second wife. It recounts his time at Brown University, then at a New York City art school, and his tours as a naval aviator that began in 1941 and ended with his promotion to full commander — a title he would use for the rest of his life.
It describes his earliest encounters, in the early 1950s, with the ideas and the men who then animated the American radical right. And it identifies the year 1958 as Rockwell's "personal political Rubicon," when he broke with other fringe groups, took up the swastika and created the American Nazi Party.
The party, based in a shabby Arlington, Va., house that came to be known as "Hatemonger Hill," was not particularly successful. By all accounts, it never was able to muster even 200 "storm troopers" — and usually considerably less than that.
For almost all of Rockwell's active years as a Nazi (1958-1967), his followers ate poorly and were housed in terrible conditions; at one point, the party pleaded for money from supporters by describing how the Arlington troopers were "EATING STALE BREAD AND 10 CENT-A-POUND MEAT INTENDED FOR DOGS."
Believing that publicity was the lifeblood of his movement, Rockwell pulled off a number of attention-getting stunts — but more often than not, he was stymied by the "quarantine" imposed on him by American Jewish leaders who sought to convince newspapers and other media that Rockwell was best not covered at all.
Simonelli also discusses at length Rockwell's connection to a fanatical German follower, Bruno Ludtke, who provided the American with an unending store of personal adulation, information about the first stirrings of European Holocaust denial, and links to non-American neo-Nazis that helped make Rockwell one of the first internationalists on the traditionally isolationist American radical right.
Indeed, this internationalism was enshrined in the principles adopted by the World Union of National Socialists that Rockwell co-founded in 1962 and long led.
In many ways, the heart of Simonelli's book lies in the three-pronged Rockwell legacy that he describes.
First, Rockwell established the concept of "White Power," expanding Hitler's vision of the master race to include Slavs, Greeks, Spaniards and others without Aryan roots — a brilliant and successful gambit in a nation largely peopled by immigrants from all over Europe.
Second, he became "the first postwar American neo-Nazi to appreciate the strategic necessity of Holocaust denial," and, in fact, succeeded in popularizing the idea that Jews had pulled off a "monstrous and profitable fraud" long before Willis Carto, commonly seen as the father of American denial.
Third, based on a cynical understanding of Americans' persistent religiosity, Rockwell married the generally atheistic ideology of orthodox Nazism to Christian Identity, a grossly heretical reading of the Bible that describes Jews as biologically satanic and people of color as soulless.
Rockwell actually despised Christianity as a Jewish-inspired myth, but he was quite willing to use the Bible in an attempt to gain more popular support — a strategy that crystallized effectively in later groups like the Aryan Nations, which seamlessly joined Christian Identity with neo-Nazism.
Today, these legacies form part of the bedrock that underlies the American — and indeed, to some extent, the European — radical right.
"To simply say that [Rockwell] failed," Simonelli concludes, "is to dangerously underestimate the ultimate course of the struggle. ... Rockwell's legacy remains in those who carry on his work. For them, his words and deeds reach beyond those people he touched and inspire new generations of racists and anti-Semites. ... Leashing George Lincoln Rockwell did not leash the beast forever. Each generation must confront that demon anew."