The Turner Diaries, Other Racist Novels, Inspire Extremist Violence
The Turner Diaries didn't just inspire a lot of extremist violence — it also inspired a lot of extremely violent novels
By Camille Jackson
Few works of fiction have moved readers to action quite like The Turner Diaries. Written under a pseudonym by William Pierce, late founder of the neo-Nazi National Alliance, the bloody race-war novel has been dubbed the "bible of the racist right" by the FBI.
Published in 1978, The Turner Diaries has fueled some of the last two decades' most infamous outbreaks of extremist violence, including Timothy McVeigh's bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Although The Turner Diaries may be the most famous such novel, it is neither the first nor the last novelized version of dire conspiracies and drastic solutions.
Pierce told his seminal story through two years of diary entries by his white-supremacist hero, Earl Turner. Turner carries out orders for the Organization, an underground group struggling against the System — an anti-white, anti-gun U.S. government that continually puts more restrictions on its citizens.
Using "detonators, timers, igniters and other gadgets" built by Turner, the Organization spawns vicious warfare between blacks, Jews and whites as it takes over the country, city by city.
Despite Pierce's stilted prose — a holdover, maybe, from his career as a physics professor — the violence is unforgettably vivid. Turner describes slicing the throat of a Jewish shop owner "from ear to ear," murdering a Washington Post editor with two shotgun blasts, and watching starving blacks barbecue and eat white children.
By the novel's end, Turner is working for an elite survivalist group called the Order and plotting a suicide mission — flying a crop-duster plane strapped with a warhead into the Pentagon, the System's last remaining military stronghold. "Two-thirds of the troops around the Pentagon are niggers," Turner writes in his journal, "which should greatly enhance my chances of getting through."
Published by Pierce's own National Vanguard Press, The Turner Diaries didn't exactly rocket up the best-seller lists when it first appeared. But Pierce certainly got through to Bob Mathews.
A neo-Nazi follower, Mathews organized a real-life group called The Order, based on Pierce's fictional Order, which committed a series of armored car heists and plotted serious racist violence before ambushing and murdering Jewish radio talk show host Alan Berg in 1984.
The Turner Diaries reached its pinnacle of popularity in 1995, after it was widely reported that pages of the novel were found in a plastic baggie in McVeigh's car shortly after the bombing that killed 168 people in Oklahoma City. McVeigh, who sold copies of his favorite novel at gun shows across the country, later said that while he didn't subscribe to the book's racism, he was inspired by its "pro-gun rights" message.
After McVeigh brought widespread attention to The Turner Diaries, the pace of violence it inspired picked up. In subsequent years, a variety of Earl Turner wannabes have been arrested — for stockpiling biological weapons, engaging in a racist shooting spree, robbing banks, and assembling pipe bombs with Jewish and black targets in mind.
In 1998, before three white men in Texas beat and dragged James Byrd Jr. to death behind a pickup truck, one of the men, John King, reportedly announced, "We're starting The Turner Diaries early."
Pierce, who died in 2002, seemed incredulous — though pleased — that his hastily written novel had attracted so much attention. Pierce began the book as a series of installments for Attack!, a racist tabloid published by his National Youth Alliance.
After years of writing nonfiction, both about physics and about neo-Nazism, he wanted to explore the propagandistic possibilities offered by fiction. Pierce later told biographer Robert S. Griffin why he believed novels could be so effective: "If the protagonist learns something or comes to believe in something, if he changes his ideas, the reader tends to do the same thing, he changes too. So what you have is a powerful teaching tool, a persuasive tool."
Violence and Virtue
In the past 15 years, dozens of racist and extremist novels have been published by writers hoping to use the tool of fiction as persuasively — if, perhaps, to a less explicitly violent end — as Pierce. The novels span every category of extremism — neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, radical environmentalist, anti-immigration, antigovernment — but most stick to Pierce's formula: a white male hero, learning of a massive conspiracy against law-abiding whites, undertakes violent revenge.
The excessive violence draws readers in, says Griffin, a professor at the University of Vermont. But the ultimate message, he told the Intelligence Report, is "that European people, white people, have a right to stand up for themselves, have a right to self-determination, to pride, to collective action."
Though most are simple, formulaic and no more colorfully written than The Turner Diaries, these novels are finding readers (see sidebar, above). Their authors aren't in a big hurry to sell a million copies, though. They know that Pierce's novel marinated on bookshelves for 17 years before the Oklahoma City bombings made it famous.
"There are some books that become more popular as the years go by," says Gerald James McManus, author of a racist fable called Dark Millennium. "Moby Dick was not a great success when it was first written, and today it's a classic, so you never know."
America's first important extremist novel also took a while to catch on. Published in 1905, Thomas Dixon's The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan made its impact 10 years later when D.W. Griffith adapted it into the landmark film, "Birth of a Nation." Once the movie became a hit, Dixon's maudlin ode to white supremacy helped fuel a massive resurgence of the KKK, which had nearly died out after Reconstruction.
Dixon's novel even gave Klansmen a new technique: cross-burnings, which had not been part of the first Klan movement.
The Clansman depicts a South under barbaric "black rule" during Reconstruction. The plot is touched off by an "apelike" black man, his "yellow teeth grinning through thick lips," raping the daughter of a white politician.
Shamed, the daughter and her mother are both driven to suicide — which is later avenged by the "chivalric" Klan, hooded and robed men Dixon describes as "noble in sentiment, generous in manhood, and patriotic in purpose."
Noble sentiments were hardly the key to The Clansman's success, says Notre Dame professor Rory McVeigh. "The novel and the film played on fears and prejudices held by many white Americans of the time," says McVeigh. "In particular, they appealed to stereotypes that portrayed black men as lust-crazed beasts who posed a danger to the safety and virtue of white women."