A shocking documentary was nominated for an Academy Award this past spring. Called “A Night at the Garden,” it is a seven-minute compilation of film clips that were found in archives around the country. The night is Feb. 20, 1939, and the garden is Madison Square Garden. On that night, 20,000 Americans wearing swastikas and shouting “Heil” vowed to bring about a “white, Gentile-ruled United States.”
This rally was led by the German-American Bund, an organization of tens of thousands of American Nazi sympathizers in 70 divisions across the country. They led rallies like the one in the Garden; indoctrinated youth at summer camps where streets were named “Adolph Hitler Strasse”; and marched and carried Nazi banners from Kenosha, Wisconsin, to the streets of midtown Manhattan.
Their pro-Nazi ardor was amplified on the radio. Fr. Charles Coughlin, antisemitic, anti-communist, and isolationist, was one of the most influential men in the U.S. during the 1930s. He had a radio show on a station in a small Michigan town and his program was quickly picked up by CBS for its affiliates throughout the country, spreading antisemitism into households from coast to coast.
But the radio reach wasn’t enough for Coughlin. He founded the National Union for Social Justice, a political action group representing his views in Washington, and he had more than a million paying members. He established a journal, Social Justice, which soon had a million subscribers reading Coughlin’s vilification of Jews. Then he helped create the Christian Front, a militia-like organization of armed men who perpetrated street violence against Jewish-appearing men and women, organized boycotts of Jewish shops, and sought recruits for a private army.
Eventually Coughlin was booted off the air and the Christian Front leaders were arrested by the FBI.
There were other prominent Nazi supporters, chief among them auto mogul Henry Ford. Ford published a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, and he ran articles in 91 issues claiming that a Jewish conspiracy was infecting America and the Jews were the cause of every social ill in the country. Ford bound the articles into four volumes titled The International Jew and distributed 500,000 copies to his network of dealerships. People from coast to coast were exposed to the toxic ideas advanced by the richest and perhaps the most powerful man in the country. Ford’s words were viewed as having authority and credibility, which led other papers to pick up and run his articles as well.
Ford was finally sued for libel and he eventually closed the paper.
And then there was the American hero, Charles Lindbergh. He moved to Europe after the kidnapping and murder of his infant son and he became enamored of all things German, particularly German air power. He formed an organization called “The America First Committee,” promoting isolationism, antisemitism, and support for the Nazi movement as the war in Europe was ramping up. The organization had a membership of more than 800,000 people, among them Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and Father Charles Coughlin.
A few days after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, America First disbanded. Once the U.S. entered the war, it became dangerous for groups to espouse pro-Nazi, pro-German views, and American Nazism became largely invisible – but it didn’t go away.
After World War II, many people had the goal of either restoring the Nazi order or establishing a new order similar in fascist, nationalist, white supremacist, and antisemitic beliefs. Neo-Nazism, or ‘new’ Nazism, is the broad label for the organizations that were established on this foundation.
In the U.S., supporters of Nazi ideals formed the American Nazi Party in 1959. It was based on Nazi-era beliefs, policies, and iconography. The party has since had many incarnations and offshoots with various names, leaders, and locations, but it has never disappeared. In fact, neo-Nazi political candidates have found at least minimal support in many local, state, and national elections.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a leading national civil rights organization, has documented more than a thousand hate groups in the U.S. today, a significant increase since the 2015 presidential campaign and subsequent election. The majority are neo-Nazi, and at least 11 of them are in Minnesota.
Not surprisingly, there was a corresponding increase in hate crimes during this same period, 2015 to today. The FBI Hate Crime Statistics report cited a 17% rise in hate crimes in 2017, the third consecutive year of increases. Nearly a quarter of the reported 7,106 hate crimes that year were motivated by religious bias, and more than half of those crimes targeted Jews. It should be emphasized that this information is based only on reported crimes; experts assert that actual figures are significantly higher.
The Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2016 was today’s version of the rally portrayed in “Night at the Garden.” White supremacists shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” the mantra of the conspiracy-theory “white genocide” movement; they chanted “Blood and Soil,” Nazi Germany’s nationalist slogan; they carried enormous swastika-decorated flags; and they proudly raised their right arms in fascist salutes. Almost every segment of the white supremacist movement from across the U.S. was represented in Charlottesville that day.
In that same year avowed neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin set loose a troll storm targeting Tanya Gersh, a Jewish resident of Whitefish, Montana. She received more than 700 social media messages of hate, including death threats.
White supremacists have committed at least 73 murders since Charlottesville, including two shootings at synagogues, the worst anti-Jewish violence that has ever occurred in the United States.
The perpetrators of these atrocities against individuals and groups have not gone unpunished. The penalties have included lengthy imprisonment, the fate for over two dozen of those at the Unite the Right rally; job loss; “de-platforming,” being banned from social media sites; civil lawsuits like Tanya Gersh’s successful court case against Andrew Anglin, which resulted in a verdict awarding her $14 million; domestic and foreign travel bans; and rejection by family and friends.
Nevertheless, the neo-Nazi movement continues to spread through online recruitment and propaganda techniques, including hate music, videos, podcasts, and even political campaigning. Patrick Little, who participated in Unite the Right, made an antisemitic-based campaign run for Dianne Feinstein’s U.S. Senate seat in 2018. After his crushing defeat he launched a nationwide “Name the Jew” tour, bringing antisemitic vitriol to cities across the country.
We have a bitter struggle in the U.S. right now over two rival ideas of nationhood. One is that the country champions the poor, the downtrodden, and gains strength from its pluralistic and diverse population. The other is that American greatness is due solely to our white Christian foundation. The neo-Nazis believe that this foundation is being eroded because of immigration – and Jews are blamed for organizing an invasion of nonwhite immigrants who would slaughter and replace the white race.
The outcome of this ideological and real struggle is certainly unclear.
We are approaching the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Nov. 9 and 10, 1938, when German paramilitaries and non-Jewish civilians burned a thousand synagogues and homes throughout Germany and Austria. They destroyed 7,500 Jewish shops. They desecrated Jewish cemeteries with sledgehammers. They rounded up and incarcerated more than 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps and beat and killed Jews in public. These riots raged while ordinary citizens stood by and watched. It was known as The Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, named for the shards of glass covering sidewalks and streets, the remnants of the smashed windows of the vandalized Jewish businesses.
On Wednesday, Nov. 6, Fred Amram, a Holocaust survivor, and I will speak about Nazism and neo-Nazism in memory of those who perished during the Holocaust and in the violence perpetrated today. The program at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, 875 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., is open to the public. Co-sponsors include the Minnesota Chapter of the Federal Bar Association; the Germanic-American Institute; CHAIM – Children of Holocaust Survivors Association in Minnesota; Mt. Zion Temple; and the student chapter of World Without Genocide. Registration is requested.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is the executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law.
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