2018 will see the return of the grim dystopian TV series The Man in the High Castle – an imagining of the United States conquered by both the Nazis and Japanese at the end of World War II. Several years after the conquest, the east coast is depicted as firmly part of the Third Reich. Americans in SS uniforms enforce Nazi race codes dictated to them by their masters in Berlin.
You might wonder what kind of American in real life would ever salute the swastika? Though since the 2016 riot in Charlottesville and the proliferation of extreme right wing accounts on Twitter – it’s getting easier to imagine such a thing. The truth is that there has been a long history of Americans flirting with Nazism.
Just months before President Franklin Roosevelt took the country into World War II, American Nazis held a huge rally at Madison Square Gardens. The German American Bund, an organisation aspiring to be the Nazi party of the United States, was led by a naturalised American, born and educated in Germany, called Fritz Julius Kuhn.
Some of the footage of that rally has only recently been re-discovered and turned into an excellent film short by Marshall Curry. It’s truly chilling to watch:
Throughout the 1930s, he rallied a large number of German Americans and fans of Hitler. Click HERE to see some startling copyright images of Nazis marching in America at that time. You almost have to rub your eyes to believe what you’re seeing.
Although Kuhn staged some disturbingly well attended spectacles, he met opposition from other German Americans opposed to Hitler, the Jewish community and both federal and state authorities. But in spite of protests by anti-Nazis, the fascists continued to openly recruit. For example, supporters of the German American Settlement League, another Nazi front organisation, organised a youth camp in Yaphank, New York state in 1938.
On that occasion, the assistant district attorney moved fast to arrest some of those involved on the grounds they were working for a foreign power….Germany. He could not tolerate young people saluting the Nazi flag and pledging allegiance to the Fuhrer instead of the US President. Here is the assistant DA explaining why he had to take action against the youth camp:
Kuhn met Hitler in 1936 – the year Germany hosted the Olympics. But he got a cool reception. Most likely, Hitler didn’t want to provoke Washington when he was planning his various invasions of Europe.
Kuhn was eventually imprisoned in late 1939 for embezzling funds from the Bund. In 1943, he was stripped of his US citizenship. Then he was deported to Germany. Unfortunately for him, Hitler and the Nazis had been wiped off the face of the earth. Kuhn was put on trial and sentenced to ten years in prison. Here is a news report from the time where he tries to plead his innocence.
In the years after World War II, you’d have thought that being a Nazi would have been beyond the pale. Scenes from liberated concentration camps showing emaciated survivors disgusted millions of decent people across the world. But not one man: George Lincoln Rockwell.
Rockwell formed the World Union of Free Enterprise National Socialists in 1959 – shortened a year later to the American Nazi Party. He is widely regarded as the founder of today’s white supremacist movement in the US. Speaking with his trademark and rather cartoonish pipe stuck in his mouth, Rockwell opined that black people should be returned to Africa and unbelievably, advocated exterminating Jewish people. Unlike other Nazis, he didn’t attempt to deny the holocaust so much as embrace it.
He also exhibited another common trait of the extreme right – rank opportunism. Convinced he could get elected US president, Rockwell decided to swallow his hatred of Latino and Slav-heritage Americans to build an anti-Jewish and anti-African American white power coalition. But more incredibly, Rockwell flirted with the Nation of Islam (NOI) and Malcolm X.
In 1961, he and a group of fellow American Nazi Party members attended a Nation of Islam rally – with permission from the organisers – in the belief that they held a shared hatred of Jews. It’s an uncomfortable fact that Malcolm X was present, though not NOI leader Elijah Muhammad. The Nazi leader fantasised about a grand alliance with the NOI:
Can you imagine a rally of the American Nazis in Union Square protected from Jewish hecklers by a solid phalanx of Elijah Muhammad’s stalwart black stormtroopers?”
Mercifully, this alliance never materialised. But it’s a stain on the history of the NOI. In the end, Rockwell’s hatred of African-Americans trumped his ability to negotiate with Elijah Muhammad’s racialised version of Islam. Malcom X later split with the NOI’s black separatist ideology and sent Rockwell a threatening telegram in 1965.
This is to warn you that I am no longer held in check from fighting white supremacists by Elijah Muhammad’s separatist Black Muslim movement and that if your present racist agitation against our people there in Alabama causes physical harm to Reverend King or any other black Americans….you and your Ku Klux Klan friends will be met with maximum physical retaliation…
Rockwell was assassinated in his car while on a launderette run. He’d apparently forgotten the soap powder and returned to his vehicle when he was gunned down in 1967. His assassin was John Patler, a member of Rockwell’s own party.
Patler’s real name was Yanacki Patsalos but he changed it to Patler in the belief that sounded a bit like Hitler! A social misfit from a Greek family that had migrated to the US. As a young man, he had fallen into gang activity as well as being discharged from the Marines for his Nazi activity. He got twenty years for the killing.
Anti-semitism and white supremacism are on the rise today in the United States. A recent media report highlighted the growth of hate crime against the dwindling Jewish population in Yaphank – the New York state town that planned to have a Nazi youth camp in 1938. Incredibly, the German-American Settlement League still operates in that town and only recently has a ban on non-German descent people buying property been lifted.
The 2016 riot at Charlottesville evidenced that the extreme right is still able to dragoon disaffected white males into action. Many of them dream of an America run by the jackbooted racially pure. But that nightmarish vision is highly unlikely – even allowing for Donald Trump! Nevertheless, those of us who value democracy and harmony in our society must remain vigilant against a resurgence of fascist hate politics.
Here is the trailer for the forthcoming season 3 of The Man in the High Castle