Hate Repackaged: Tailoring Nazi Ideology to Appeal to a New Generation

 By Marlo M. Buser

A rectangular flag, with a swastika at its center, flanked on the left side by 13 white stars on a blue field and by 13 alternating red and white stripes on its left. The letters NSM are at its top, and USA at its bottom.
The pre-2016 flag of the National Socialist Movement–note the swastika remains at its center. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Observers of the Charlottesville protests this past August may have noticed something different about the white nationalist demonstrators. Amid the familiar symbols of racism and anti-Semitism — the white hoods and the swastikas — were a bevy of other, newer symbols. One symbol in particular deserves extra attention: the odal (or othala) rune. A year before the protests, the National Socialist Movement, one of America’s largest white nationalist groups, officially removed the swastika from their flag and replaced it with the odal rune.

The symbol that replaced the swastika at the center of the flag, the odal rune.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

This shift away from well-known Nazi symbolism to more obscure imagery is not a new technique. This change is emblematic of a tactic that was first employed by white nationalist movements over fifty years ago, when then-leader of the American Nazi Party (ANP), George Lincoln Rockwell, decided to substitute the stereotypical Nazi imagery the ANP had clung to since the end of WWII with symbolism that had a pro-nativist, pro-Christian veneer. The hate at the core of the movement never changed. What changed was how that hate was packaged and who it could be sold to. The crowds at Charlottesville were the embodiment of that shift: the white power groups who marched by torchlight on city streets were wearing suits and clean-cut polos, not white robes or brown uniforms [1]. This technique has its roots in Rockwell’s strategy to remove familiar racist/anti-Semitic tropes from the public face of the ANP in order to appeal to society at large instead of catering exclusively to individuals who already openly held beliefs in line with the ANP platform.

Who was George Lincoln Rockwell?

In American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party, historian Frederick J. Simonelli pulls back the curtain of media furor surrounding Rockwell to show readers the details of his life and the evolution of his Nazi ideology. Readers who lived through the Sixties have most likely seen him or heard his voice — much like America’s present crop of racist ideologues, Rockwell was an excellent self-promoter and publicist, even if he could not promote his American Nazi Party into becoming a political force to be reckoned with at the ballot box. Simonelli’s work — the first biography of Rockwell written by a non-follower — explores the legacy of the failed American Nazi Party and its leader within far-right politics in America.

American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party.
Cover art by: James Mason

Rockwell himself was, unsurprisingly, a troubled man. The son of a famous vaudeville actor and a former-vaudeville child star who removed herself from the scene upon the birth of her first son, George (or “Link,” as the family called him) was a devoted son who strove for his father’s admiration. Unfortunately, his father, George Lovejoy “Doc” Rockwell gave his son little to no praise along with little to none of his time or affection. An aloof alcoholic, Doc divorced George’s mother, Claire, when the boy was six years old [2]. From that point forward, George Lincoln Rockwell’s life seemed to be motivated by two forces — an unstoppable desire for acknowledgement and an implacable hatred of authority figures. Rockwell was subjected to a series of them, including his mother’s sister Arlene, who spent whole evenings screaming in Rockwell’s face for being disobedient, and numerous teachers and professors, one of whom Rockwell managed to torment into resignation. Conversely, it seemed that some forms of authority had the ability to calm Rockwell into performing well — he succeeded as a US Navy pilot for several years during and after WWII.

Both Rockwell’s knack for hassling authority figures and his thirst for recognition melded well with his uncanny ability to sell himself and his beliefs. Rockwell excelled in art and graphic design — it would be Rockwell himself who was responsible for many of the anti-Semitic and anti-African American cartoons that littered the American Nazi Party’s publications. Occasionally, Rockwell used his talents for non-racist ends, briefly owning an advertising agency in Maine and founding a bevy of publications that he seemed to always withdraw from just before they achieved any lasting success. Ultimately, it seemed like the only endeavor Rockwell was capable of committing to in the long term was Nazi ideology.

Making (and Breaking) the American Nazi Party

Rockwell made the leap from general anti-Semitic and racist beliefs to full-blown Nazism in the early 1950s in San Diego, where he trained pilots for the Navy and Marines during the Korean War [3]. Although the exact moment of his conversion is unclear, it was during this period in San Diego that Rockwell first read Mein Kampf and had a pseudo-religious experience with what he felt to be the soul of Adolf Hitler. After this, Rockwell would remain a committed Nazi until he was assassinated in 1967. However, he did not become a public figure associated with Nazism until the 1958 bombing of a Jewish synagogue in Georgia, an act of terror that he was implicated in, but that the FBI could never conclusively prove he actively took part in.

A photograph of George Lincoln Rockwell in his US Navy uniform taken in 1951.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The publicity this event gave Rockwell eventually snowballed into the impetus needed to form the American Nazi Party in late 1958. Despite talking big, the group always remained quite small: at its height, the ANP had a core group of 20-30 “stormtroopers,” 100 active participants, and a maximum of only 500 total followers nationwide. Instead of being committed to terrorism and the use of force, the ANP was a psychological and political vessel for popularizing Nazi ideology [4]. Propaganda was its mainstay, not street-fighting. This does not mean, however, that the ANP was in no way capable of having an impact on politics. For one thing, the ANP, simply by being so radically and vocally anti-Semitic and racist, made other right-wing racist parties in American politics seem more reasonable by comparison. (This effect is commonly known as “moving the Overton window,” which has become something of a catchphrase recently, used to describe the changing terrain of the American political landscape as extremist parties try to budge said window in their favored direction.) Rockwell, through the ANP, was also the inventor of several tactics used by other right-wing racist political groups after his death, some of which are delineated below. These tactics have been put to use by extremist right-wing parties to make inroads into public electoral politics that Rockwell, though he fought hard for them, never achieved.

Interestingly, most of these ways of spinning classical Nazi arguments to better suit the political palate of Americans also ultimately created internal fractures that led to the disintegration of the American Nazi Party. Some members of the ANP felt that Rockwell had betrayed the movement by utilizing three main tactics that would eventually become staples of extreme right-wing politics in the US. These tactics were: denying the Holocaust; including whites other than Anglo-Saxons and Nordic-Germanics, such as Italians, Greeks, and Slavs under the umbrella of white identity; and embracing Christianity, especially Christian Identitarianism, which is a Christian subsect that mingles aspects of the Evangelical tradition with white nationalist beliefs. All these methods were used to motivate individuals who were sympathetic to anti-Semitic and racist ideologies to join and be active members of fringe white nationalist parties.

Holocaust Denial and the “Quarantine” Tactic

There is no doubting the depth of Rockwell and his followers’ vitriolic anti-Semitism: though they hated African Americans, homosexuals, and other minority groups, every imagined conflict and slight eventually traced back to a supposed Jewish conspiracy to eliminate whites. Initially, Rockwell was not afraid to use this anti-Semitism as both a weapon against the Jewish community and as a way to garner more publicity for the ANP. Rockwell’s goal was to use anti-Semitic propaganda and protest events to goad Jewish individuals into lashing out at him and the ANP with harsh denunciations and perhaps even violence. Rockwell openly displayed swastikas and other Nazi symbols and used the terms “gassing” and “gas chambers” to describe what he envisioned as the “solution” to the Jewish population in America. This is because Rockwell knew that Jews (in particular immigrants who were Holocaust survivors) would react strongly to these words and images — and understandably so — and he hoped to use the resulting conflict to net himself and the ANP free publicity in newspapers and on radios across the US.

To counter this tactic, Dr. Solomon Andhil Fineberg of the American Jewish Committee came up with his own strategy ultimately called “quarantine.”There were two parts to the quarantine strategy: first, the Jewish community needed to coordinate to minimize public confrontations between themselves and anti-Semitic figures like Rockwell. Second, information needed to be given to all major news outlets on the tactics of anti-Semites to convince the media that without there being a violent confrontation involved, there was nothing newsworthy to report about anything an anti-Semite had to say, even if it was said in a public forum. By doing these two things in tandem, Dr. Fineberg was convinced that he could deprive anti-Semites like Rockwell of their public platform and, accordingly, of their ability to increase their numbers by putting their supposed struggle on display [5].

The quarantine tactic worked. Increasingly, despite the atrociousness and outlandishness of Rockwell’s displays, he was no longer netting headlines. Interestingly, while Rockwell’s tactics have had long-term use, so has Fineberg’s quarantine tactic, aspects of which can be seen today in the similar tactic of no platforming alt-right speakers. Whether this kind of quarantine should remain a commonly used tactic, however, is an entirely different question. The American political and economic landscape is very different in 2017 than it was in the 1960s, and whether or not that makes a difference in the effectiveness of the use of quarantine-like measures against modern racist and anti-Semitic grandstanders like Richard Spencer is something that policy-makers and equal rights advocates are debating heatedly at present. However, in response to Fineberg’s use of quarantine in the 1960s, Rockwell took another position, one that other white power movements worldwide have adopted as a different way of enabling Nazi ideology to spread despite the horrors of the Holocaust: namely, by making the argument that the Holocaust never existed.

Nazi ideology has always been open and willing to incorporating conspiracy theories into its core ideology (especially when the Jewish community is involved), so it should come as no surprise that Nazis embraced, once it was put forward, the notion that the Holocaust itself was merely another Jewish conspiracy [6]. Rockwell was not the first post-World War II Nazi to happen upon the strategy of Holocaust denial. A large amount of Holocaust denial propaganda first appeared first in Europe, which is where Rockwell received the bulk of his initial talking points on Holocaust denial [7]. Rockwell played a  main role in creating a foothold for the Holocaust denial narrative in America by spreading it to massive numbers of readers in his 1966 interview with Playboy magazine. This serves as a prime example of the successful implementation of the sort of public notoriety that the quarantine tactic hoped to curtail [8].

The utility of the Holocaust denial conspiracy to anti-Semitic right wing groups is that it provides a means for erasing the atrocity from public memory, or to at least minimize the emotional impact of the history of the Holocaust enough that individuals with anti-Semitic leanings can cast aside their discomfort  and engage in Nazi ideology and activities without guilt. The fact that denying the Holocaust seems rather peculiar coming from a group that endorsed Jewish genocide  is an example of the mental gymnastics that leaders like Rockwell were more than willing to do in order to de-stigmatize and spread their racist ideology.

Expanding Notions of Whiteness: The White Power Movement

Another prime example of the mental gymnastics Rockwell was willing to go through to maximize his exposure and increase the number of potential recruits he had access to was his willingness to expand whiteness to include ethnicities in his movement that would have never been accepted by Hitler. In response to SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael’s coining of Black Power, Rockwell shot back with White Power — an idea that both capitalized on the United States’ racial dichotomy and on the anxiety among some middle and working-class whites generated by the civil rights movement. Although the main target of Rockwell’s hatred would always be Jews, his hatred of African-Americans was also strong, and just as real. The idea of White Power — the inclusion of all whites regardless of ethnicity into an umbrella group to oppose the acceptance of the advances of the civil rights movement — was useful to Rockwell on many levels and continues to be used today for several of the same reasons.

Firstly, the idea of a White Power movement takes advantage of a form of racism that is deeply embedded in American history and society, one that does not carry with it the baggage of World War II. During World War II, Americans (even Rockwell himself) fought against the Nazis. No such memory existed in the minds of middle and working-class whites in regard to African-Americans. Nazism took advantage of racial and ethnic hatreds deeply-rooted in European history, hatreds that were unique to European conceptions of race, ethnicity, and identity. Some of those hatreds — namely the Nazi belief that southern and eastern Europeans, especially those of Slavic ethnicities, were decidedly non-white — did not mesh well with American social and material conditions.

Secondly, White Power removed some of the constraints on the concept of whiteness that had been used by earlier white nationalists in America — that concept being that whiteness was a matter of being Protestant and nativist. A pan-white movement, on the other hand, allowed both more recent immigrants as well as Catholics to be part of the unified White Power movement. In Rockwell’s opinion, without expanding the umbrella of whiteness to include these groups as well, Nazism would never become a viable political force in America. There simply were not enough people in America who fell within Hitler’s Nordic-Germanic definition of whiteness for the movement to continue without the expansion [9].

Christian Identity: Channeling America’s Evangelical Traditions

Rockwell was aware that there was another subsection of the American population that his movement could reach but that it was not yet actively appealing to: namely, the country’s large population of fundamentalist Christians. But bringing Christians into the Nazi fold seemed as ideologically tricky as inviting in non-Nordic-Germanic whites — some Christian true believers, after all, would find Rockwell’s beliefs abhorrent. Likewise, some of the Nazis in Rockwell’s retinue found the notion of putting on a veneer of Christianity unacceptable. Nazism, in the way it was promoted by Hitler, was a decidedly anti-Christian movement, associating Christian religions with effeminacy and Judaism [10]. But Rockwell found the notion of melding Nazism with Christian Identitarianism (a Christian sect that believed Anglo-Saxons were the true lost tribe of Israel and that the Jews were satanic impostors who wished to make use of the world’s non-Aryan population to destroy the Anglo-Saxons) incredibly appealing. It provided the ANP with another means for funneling people into the movement, a way to draw splintered groups of racists and anti-Semites together into a coordinated whole, and the means to give the party some semblance of respectability. Although most evangelical Christians would not identify as Identitarian, the presence of individuals from the ANP at Christian-centric demonstrations, such as those in favor of school prayer or the preservation of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, could garner the American Nazi Party positive press. Rockwell realized that one key aspect of becoming “acceptable” in America was adopting the trappings, at the very least, of Christianity.

Nordic Racial Paganism: the Alternative to Christian Identity

Those members of the ANP who did not agree with the union of Nazism and Christianity went a different direction, one that hearkened back to the neo-pagan and völkisch ideology at the heart of WWII-era Nazi mysticism.  During the late nineteenth century, ideologues in Germany and Austria who were instrumental to crafting what would eventually become Nazism searched for a spiritual explanation for the ability of ancient Germans to resist Roman rule.  This explanation was found in Germanic and Nordic pagan religiosity. In particular, the worship of Odin and the power of his runic magic had significant resonance due to Odin’s depiction as the wandering Faustian hero who hungered for experience and knowledge [11].

The racist Nordic neopagan ideology advocated by these nineteenth century ideologues was repackaged by ex-ANP spokespeople and other white nationalist leaders into several distinct racist neopagan sects and religions during 1960s and 70s. One of the most powerful sects that would later emerge out of these is the Wotansvolk movement created by David and Katja Lane and Ron McVan in 1995 [12]. David Lane, aside from being one of the creators of Wotansvolk, is widely known in the white nationalist and Nazi community for creating the 14 Words slogan, “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children.” (This slogan is why the number 14 is common in white nationalist tattoo iconography, along with 88, which is coded shorthand for “Heil Hitler,” H being the eighth letter of the alphabet.) The Wotansvolk movement focuses on the use of ritual magic and the recreation of Germanic tribal hierarchy to support a move away from globalization and liberalism. Wotansvolk is staunchly opposed to immigration in any form, which may explain part of its current strong appeal [13].

This appeal can be seen in the recurring (if not increasing) use of runic symbols in recent white nationalist iconography.  The odal rune, which has replaced the swastika at the heart of the National Socialist Movement’s flag, emerges from this racist Nordic neopagan milieu. The rune was used during WWII as a Waffen SS insignia, but part of the reason why it was resurrected so successfully from the depths of Nazi iconography is because of its currency among the neopagan/Wotansvolk potion of the white nationalist movement. It also is, however, a legitimate religious symbol used by non-racist pagans and Odinists. The confusion this causes is both highly damaging to already much-maligned religious minorities and highly useful to white nationalists, who can cite the rune’s use in legitimate religious contexts as a way to obscure the racist and anti-Semitic meaning that they assign to it [14].

Charlottesville as Seen Through Rockwell’s Eyes

A group of demonstrators at the Unite the Right rally carrying Identity Evropa flags.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

In American Fuehrer, Simonelli highlighted these three tactics — Holocaust denial, White Power solidarity, and Christian Identitarianism — as Rockwell’s three lasting contributions to extremist right-wing politics. All three tactics have one underlying theme in common: they all work to repackage the message of anti-Semitism into a form that is more acceptable to a wider number of people. Rockwell put these tactics into action by removing the swastika and inviting non-Nordic-Germanic whites and Christians into the Nazi fold. The white nationalists who gathered at Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee put these tactics into action too, in ways disturbingly similar to those employed by Rockwell. The National Socialist Movement did it by taking a page directly out of Rockwell’s playbook, replacing the swastika at the center of their flag with the odal rune. The odal rune, while having been used as part of Nazi symbology since World War II, does not inspire the reflexive horror and disgust that the swastika does. This switch to the odal rune also speaks to the heavy prevalence of images and groups at the Charlottesville rally that made use of a historicized pan-European identity, a derivation of the pan-white emphasis of Rockwell’s White Power ideology, to gain more followers.

For example, the organizing movement behind the torchlight march that was featured heavily in the news coverage of Charlottesville was Identity Evropa. Identity Evropa is not the sort of ideological movement one would expect to find protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. It is not a pro-nativist, pro-Protestant white nationalist movement like the Ku Klux Klan or other Southern “heritage” groups. Identity Evropa is an offshoot of the European-based identitarian movement, which focuses on nationalist white ethnic identities as a means to reject multiculturalism and oppose immigration. Identitarian groups have been behind most of the large-scale European protests in France and Germany against the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Considering their anti-immigration stance, it becomes clear how European-style identitarianism could find a foothold in America today.

It has also become apparent that Rockwell’s willingness to invite all non-Jewish Europeans into the White Power movement (which, incidentally, are the exact same membership boundaries as Identity Evropa) has been widely accepted by the extreme right-wing as a whole. The most telling example of this at Charlottesville, was the fact that one of the organizing leaders of the Unite the Right rally, Matthew Heimbach, was photographed wearing a t-shirt bearing the image and name of Corneliu Codreanu while he was protesting outside of the courthouse where James Alex Field Jr., man responsible for driving into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring nineteen other, was being denied bail.

A portrait of Corneliu Codreanu, who was the head of the fascist movement in Romania.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The man on Heimbach’s t-shirt was recognized and drawn to the media’s attention by a Romanian Holocaust survivor, Jack Rosenthal. Codreanu had been the head of a fascist group in Romania who had called for the murder of Jews before and after World War II.

The fact that a leader this obscure (even as an Eastern European historian, I had not heard of Codreanu until I learned of this incident) could show up on the chest of one of the main organizers of a white nationalist rally in America is startling. Due to the internet, anti-Semitic and racist groups are connected more than ever before, capable of coordinating real world action and sharing the propaganda of their movements’ most prominent leaders with the click of a button. Whether continued exposure to one another’s ideologies will lead to fracturing or further coordinated public rallies remains to be seen. However, should it be the latter, it would signify that George Lincoln Rockwell’s Whtie Power strategy of using pan-European inclusiveness against minorities has been as effective as he claimed it would be, and will most likely continue to haunt American politics for decades to come.

About the Author:

Marlo M. Buser is a Ph.D. student in the Department of History at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on nationalism and state formation in Yugoslavia and the post-Yugoslav republics, in particular on the dissonance between (supra)national legal designations and and self-identification. She also holds a JD from Marquette University Law School.

Footnotes:

[1] For a lengthier description of the “uniform” clothing worn by members of extreme right-wing groups at Charlottesville, watch this video from Mic that discusses the relative absence of KKK uniforms at Charlottesvlle.

[2] Frederick J. Simonelli, American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 7.

[3] Ibid., 20-21.

[4] Ibid., 33.

[5] Ibid., 52-53.

[6] For more on the relationship between Nazi ideology and conspiracy theories/the occult, see: Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazismand the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 279-302. Goodrick-Clarke’s theorizing on the effects of civil rights programs on white nationalism is spurious to say the least, but his knowledge of Nazi occultism and theology is comprehensive.

[7] Simonelli, American Fuehrer, 109-11.

[8] Ibid., 112-13.

[9] Ibid., 100-102.

[10] Ibid., 119-20.

[11] Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke, Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 258.

[12] Ibid., 269.

[13] Ibid., 278.

[14] Anti-Defamation League. “Othala Rune,” https://www.adl.org/education/references/hate-symbols/othala-rune.