The recent act of white-supremacy terrorism in Charlottesville and the Nazi flag I saw on TV carried by many of the Charlottesville marchers prompted me—or rather, terrified me—into contemplating the similarities between the German Nazi party and American white supremacism. White supremacists in America use Nazi symbolism and self-consciously evoke an association with the original German Nazi party. I wondered exactly what similarities American white supremacists and neo-Nazis might share with their historic German predecessors. Besides identifying with the belief in evolutionary Aryan superiority, today’s U.S. white supremacists seemed to me upon reflection to share additional social and economic similarities with Germany’s Nazis, so I decided to conduct some preliminary research to test my hunches.
Madden, by bringing together many previous and contradictory studies on Nazi profiles in Germany, has offered a thorough analysis of the social and economic factors closely associated with Nazism (Madden, 1987). He has argued that support for the Nazi party arose from Germans of differing social and economic strata, but was always most closely associated with the middle and working class. Even as he suggested that the common idea that the Nazi party took root among the middle class, called the “Mittelstand” thesis, had been blown out of proportion by previous scholars, Madden emphasized working class support for the Nazi party, or NSDAP (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei):
From the beginning of the party to at least 1928 the leadership of the NSDAP made concerted attempts to attract the working class into the movement (Kele, 1972; Noakes, 1971:104; Nyomarkay, 1967:26; Orlow, 1969:123). During this period, there was never an issue of the main party newspaper, the Völkischer Beobachter, which did not carry a minimum of one article appealing to German workers to join and lead ‘the movement.’ Another important party organ, Der Angriff, concentrated on appeals to workers above all other groups. Hitler’s speeches often contained direct pleas to the workers to join and support his movement, even though he insisted that the party transcended class and social barriers (Baynes, 1942) (Madden 1987, p. 274).
Madden also provided data showing that propaganda alone did not explain the higher propensity of members of the working class to become NSDAP members:
Propaganda alone cannot account for the sizable percentage of workers in the NSDAP. Other factors which must have attracted some workers into Hitler’s movement, including nationalism, anti-Semitism, and despair over the perceived failure of the Social Democrats and the Communists to adequately address the problems of workers. The super-nationalism of the NSDAP was attractive to workers who had been infused with patriotism since childhood (Langsam, 1950) and felt, along with other Germans, a deep sense of humiliation because of the lost war and the Treaty of Versailles (Madden 1987, pp. 274-5).
While certainly not as pervasive as it has often been portrayed, Nazism’s seduction of the working class, or Germans who faced, as Madden labeled them, “problems of workers,” was nevertheless a critical factor in the Party’s success. Both the prevalence of the working class in the Nazi ranks and the idea that Hitler’s Party addressed “the problems of workers” strike me as significant, when considering the fact that those most willing to join American white supremacy groups today are associated with the working class. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist who has undertaken pioneering research in the area of masculinity, has also connected white supremacy in America with members of the working class (Foste, 2014).
According to a summary of Kimmel’s book, “Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era,” published in the Journal of College Student Development, Kimmel examined neo-Nazism and white supremacy in America in his final chapter, and concluded that there are indeed certain ways in which “social class, particularly downward mobility, unites such groups” (Foste 2014). Yet, like the German Mittelstand thesis, labeling racists as generally working or lower-class citizens oversimplifies and misrepresents the reality that they come from other backgrounds as well (Coleman 2017; Cox et al. 2017). In fact, it is difficult to determine with certainty the extent of, and reasons for, the connection between racism and members of the working class. Here, I seek only to highlight that this appears to be a relationship worth contemplating, especially considering the relatively high level of working-class participation in the NSDAP and in the modern American white supremacist movement.
American white supremacists also share an ardent nationalism with their German predecessors, as evidenced in the U.S. by individuals such as Billy Roper, who sought to unite fragmented white supremacy and neo-Nazi groups beginning in 2004 by means of his nationalist party (Dentice, 2011 and Newsweek, 2004). Another notable similarity between today’s American white supremacist extremists and Germany’s Nazis is one which garners special caution: a sensationalized leader. A plethora of recent articles have argued that Donald Trump has either inadvertently or consciously bolstered support for white supremacists. A certainly thought-provoking article published by UNWIRE entitled, “White nationalists are America’s ISIS” pointed out: “The Alt-Right and the Ku Klux Klan believe Trump’s presidency has made huge advances for the white nationalist community, and this passion is dangerous … these are the people our democracy has to fear” (UWIRE 2016). This is a tricky comparison; without Hitler, there would arguably have been no Nazism. He was literally and figuratively the head of that movement. The issue with Trump is more difficult, as he has not intentionally or overtly (depending on whom you ask) led any facet of the white supremacy movement in the U.S. What can be said is that white supremacists have usurped the image of President Trump, employing the president as a means of recruiting support and encouraging boldness. A conservative myself, I propose that this fact highlights the need for conservatives across America, especially those in public positions, such as President Trump, to distance themselves energetically from and condemn human rights violators who use their ideological agendas for sinister purpose, and to keep in mind that Hitler was able successfully to use and abuse the socialist party as a vehicle for his own aims.
Lastly, there is the issue of women. Overwhelmingly, neo-Nazis and white supremacists in America are anti-feminist. Although German women supported the Nazi regime in many different ways and were even in many cases deeply involved, those individuals were both understood to be and treated as “politically invisible;” their job being to support men (Nelson 2014; 2, 91). Similarly, Kimmel’s research revealed that white supremacists often disapprove of immigrants, individuals of other ethnicities and women in the workplace (Foste 2014).
What do these broad similarities mean? Do the discontent and strongly nationalist outlook of many working-class men in the United States constitute significant elements for the emergence of racism? What role do various levels of support from authority figures play in mobilizing white supremacy terrorism? How do treatment of and the role of women factor into and provide an indicator for potentially racist groups? More expertise than I possess, and extensive, thoughtful research certainly are needed to address these concerns. I have just skimmed the surface of potentially significant similarities and differences between Nazi party members and their modern American counterparts.
The Holocaust stands in world history as a reminder of the horrific darkness of which the human heart is capable, a darkness that knows no borders or boundaries. It is easy to hope that the Holocaust could not be repeated. But while America is not 1930s Germany, the similarities I have sketched suggest that we collectively must remember that past evils could surely be replayed on the modern stage, and that fresh atrocities similar to the Holocaust in aims, if not in scale, are not impossible, to imagine. To ignore any similarities might give genocide a proverbial foot in the door, and that potential is what I aim to emphasize here. An effective hedge against racism and genocide is always worth examination. It is surely worth contemplating more deeply, too, the apparent relationship between an animosity toward non-white races and the economic factors that may possibly fuel its ugliest expression (Madden 1987, Foste 2014), the potential dangers of nationalism (Madden 1987, Dentice 2011), leaders’ roles in mobilizing racist aggression (UWIRE 2016) and the connection between the abridgement of women’s rights and deeper anti-democratic actions (Nelson 2014, Foste 2014) as these phenomena were reflected in Nazi Germany and are now afoot in modern America.
Two differences that offer hope
To end this essay with the point just suggested, would be to leave the comparison between Nazi Germany and the current U.S. situation only half sketched. I would like to conclude by pointing out two striking differences that came to mind as I considered Nazi German perpetrators and modern American white supremacists. First, our nation was explicitly founded on the principle that all people are created equal and our laws and regime rest on that foundation. Irrespective of religious, social or cultural background, Americans are bound by the belief that all individuals are created equal, with unalienable rights and entitled to the dignity owed any and every individual. Our nation’s most fundamental ideals and values contradict the doctrine of white supremacy that has nonetheless plagued America since its birth.
From the Declaration of Independence onward, we have charted a course toward and fought in the interest of achieving a greater expression of equal rights and guarantees of human rights. If their adoption of Nazi flags were not already an indicator, we must insist to racist groups that although they may claim to be patriotic and nationalistic, they are betraying the very foundations of the nation they purport to love. As Cunningham has observed, “You can be Nazi or you can be American. You can’t be both” (Cunningham 2017). Nonetheless, slavery, (an evil so embedded that it was originally included in the U.S. Constitution), displacement and genocide of Native Americans (the Trail of Tears, was just one example) as well as other human rights infringements (Japanese internment camps, unjust persecution of Germans and communists, among others), highlight the continuing shortcomings of the American attempt to secure equal rights for all. They also remind us that a country’s intentions and ideals may be one thing, and its deeds quite another. With history as our guide and the admission that we have repeatedly and sometimes miserably fallen short of our noblest ideals, the importance of condemning any movement that refuses to recognize the human and civil rights of every person must always be recalled.
A second difference between the Nazis and today’s home-grown white nationalists, is that the nascent Nazi party was largely ignored, while millions in our nation (and many others, including many citizens of modern Germany) were outraged at the recent Charlottesville act of white-supremacy terrorism. Today’s general citizenry is surely more educated about the cruelty of genocide and racism than Germans were in the early 1930s prior to the Holocaust. The public outcry following Charlottesville ought to give Americans hope, as it implies that most U.S. residents know better than to embrace the hate on offer there. The outrage many Americans voiced in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy is exactly the kind of patriotism and expression of free speech that keeps our nation good and betters her.
In sum, it is worth reflecting on the similarities and connections between Nazi Germany and American white supremacy in order to remind our nation’s citizens that hate and its most horrific product, genocide, must start somewhere. While offering a lecture during my undergraduate studies, scholar and historian Lady Ester Gilbert observed, that if there is one lesson to take away from the Holocaust, it would be that, “there is no such thing as a small encroachment on human rights” (lecture at Hillsdale College, 7 February 2017). We cannot fail to be vigilant.
Cox, Daniel Ph.D., Rachel Lienesch, Robert P. Jones, Ph.D. 2017. “Beyond Economics: Fears of Cultural Displacement Pushed the White Working Class to Trump PRRI/The Atlantic Report.” PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) and The Atlantic. (9 May 2017). Accessed September 2, 2017. https://www.prri.org/research/white-working-class- attitudes-economy-trade- immigration-election-donald-trump/
Cunningham, Paul. 2017. “Cunningham: You can be Nazi or you can be American. You can’t be both.” TheTucsonSentinel.com. 18 August. Accessed September 13, 2017.
Dentice, Dianne. 2011. “The Nationalist Party of America: Right-Wing Activism and Billy Roper’s White Revolution.” Social Movement Studies 10, no. 1: 107-112. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost.
Foste, Zak. 2014. Review of Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era by Michael Kimmel. Journal of College Student Development 55, no. 6 (2014): 633-635. Project Muse. Accessed 2 September, 2017.
Gilbert, Lady Ester. “Moral Dilemmas of Those Under Siege: Three Examples from the Holocaust.” Lecture at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI. 7 February 2017.
Madden, Paul. 1987. “The Social Class Origins of Nazi Party Members as Determined by Occupations, 1919-1933.” Social Science Quarterly 68, no. 2 (1987): 263-80.
Nelson, Courtney D. 2014. “Our Weapon is the Wooden Spoon: Motherhood, Racism, and War: The Diverse Roles of Women in Nazi Germany.” M.A. Diss., East Tennessee State University. ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. Accessed September 2, 2017.
Newsweek staff. 2004. “A Racist on the Rise.” Newsweek.com. 9 May. (accessed 17 September, 2017). http://www.newsweek.com/racist-rise-127859
Ross Coleman, Aaron. 2017. “Timid Reporting On Racism Skews Our Political And Economic Debates: The truth behind ‘economic populism’ and ‘identity politics.’” The Huffington Post, 30 May. Accessed September 2, 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-timid-reporting-on-racism-skews-the- american-political_us_592c1e0ee4b0a7b7b469cc17
“White Nationalists are America’s ISIS.” UWIRE Text, November 9, 2016, 1. Infotrac Newsstand (accessed August 28, 2017). http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?url=http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/ps/i .do?p=STND&sw=w&u=viva_vpi&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CA469579567&si d=summon&asid=c2ffd9e4aade79fa75b0d4f792d57137.
Rebekah Molloy is now pursuing her Master’s degree in Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. She also serves as a graduate assistant for the program and, in that role, assists Dr. Joel Peters, its Chair. She obtained her B.A., majoring in English and German, from Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan in 2017. While at Hillsdale, she was involved in the International Club as secretary, foreign language coordinator and also served as its English and essay-writing tutor for international students. She is interested in Just War Theory, national defense, conflict resolution and Holocaust commemoration. Rebekah grew up in a military family and is deeply grateful to have had the eye-opening opportunity to live overseas and experience other cultures.