How the swastika became a Confederate flag
American racism played role in notorious Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which set Germany on the road to Holocaust
A statue of Robert E Lee is removed from a 70ft column at a prominent traffic circle in New Orleans, May 19th, 2017. Opposition to the removal of the statue and three others symbolic of the Confederacy has been intense; the state legislature passed a law in an attempt to thwart the removals, and contractors involved have been threatened. Photograph: Edmund D Fountain/New York Times
The easy-listening white supremacists who surged out of the shadows during the presidential campaign are no less dangerous than their white power survivalist or raving skinhead counterparts. But they are hoping to rebrand themselves by wearing business clothes and attempting to sound reasonable as they advance a racist agenda. The debate about removing monuments to white supremacy that were built throughout the South a century or more ago is tailor-made for this tactic.
The white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month over a plan to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, shows how this is likely to go. The marchers feigned civility. But a closer look shows that the protest drew on the toxic symbolism of the Third Reich in ways that few Americans would recognize.
By wielding torches in a protest staged by night, the demonstrators nodded to Nazi rallies held during the 1930s at Nuremberg, where the open flame was revered as a mystical means of purifying the Aryan spirit. They reinforced this toxic connection by chanting “blood and soil,” a Nazi-era slogan that connected German ethnic purity to cultivation of the land and, more broadly, to the notion that the “master race” was divinely entitled to confiscate the holdings of “lesser peoples,” even if it meant slaughtering them along the way.
‘Assault on white race’
The demonstrators at Charlottesville — led by the theatrically inclined white supremacist Richard Spencer — had no real interest in the civic or aesthetic value of the monument they ostensibly came to defend. The essence of their argument was that any attempt to renounce Confederate ideology by moving this — or any — monument would be an assault on the white race.
The protest also celebrated the intimate connection between Nazi-era rule in Germany and Jim Crow-era rule in the United States. That connection, long overlooked by historians, was obvious to the network of black-owned newspapers that reached the peak of its influence during World War II.
The barons of the Negro press ridiculed the attempt to frame the war as a fight for liberty at a time when the military was segregating by race soldiers, nurses and even plasma in the wartime blood bank, and running Jim Crow military bases in ways that were fully consistent with the German view of Negroes and others as not fully human.
Editorial cartoonists underscored this point by depicting Hitler and Hirohito together, laughing uproariously, while reading newspaper accounts of lynchings in the American South. The Pittsburgh Courier finally made it palatable to African-Americans to support the war in Europe by recasting it as a struggle to vanquish Nazism abroad and Jim Crow racism at home.
Hitler drew a similar, more sinister comparison in “Mein Kampf.” He describes the United States as “the one state” that had made headway toward what he regarded as a healthy and utterly necessary racist regime. Historians have long sought to minimize the importance of that passage. But in recent years, archival research in Germany has shown that the Nazis were keenly focused on Jim Crow segregation laws, on statutes that criminalized interracial marriage and on other policies that created second-class citizenship in the United States.
The Yale legal scholar James Q. Whitman fleshes this out to eerie effect in his new book “Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law.” He illustrates how German propagandists sought to normalize the Nazi agenda domestically by putting forth the United States as a model. They assured the German people that Americans had “racist politics and policies,” just as Germany did, including “special laws directed against the Negroes, which limit their voting rights, freedom of movement, and career possibilities.” Embracing the necessity of lynching, one propagandist wrote: “What is lynch justice, if not the natural resistance of the Volk to an alien race that is attempting to gain the upper hand?”
“Hitler’s American Model” shows that homegrown American racism played a role in the notorious Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which deprived “non-Aryans” of citizenship and the right to marry “true” Germans. As Whitman writes, Nuremberg “signaled the full-scale creation of a racist state in a Germany on the road to the Holocaust.”
Same poisonous tree
Nazism and the tradition of American white supremacy that is memorialized in monuments throughout the South are the fruit of the same poisonous tree. In this light, the Confederate flag can legitimately be seen as an alternate version of the Nazi emblem.
After the war, Germany tried to put Nazism back in its box by banning public display of swastikas and other emblems of the Third Reich. Later generations understood that to wear such an insignia was to smear oneself with history’s worst filth. Many Americans have failed to grasp this point. This explains why one still sees people parading around with both Nazi emblems and Confederate flags, openly embracing the meanings of both.
The new-age white supremacists who want so eagerly to expand their market shares recognize that covering themselves with swastikas is a route to marginalization. They are betting that they can achieve the effect they seek by embracing the Confederate cause, while serving up easy-listening Nazism on the side.