The German-American Bund filled Madison Square Garden in 1939. Nazis like Richard Spencer are nothing new in America.
The neo-fascist (don’t call it alt-right) movement made some waves this weekend with their torch-lit rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. It was ostensibly in response to the removal of Confederate monuments in public spaces, but was obviously intended as a kind of neo-fascist show of strength. I have found the reporting of this rally rather curious, though. I’ve been hearing a lot about the crowd chanting “Russia is our friend,” but little about chants of “blood and soil.”
The latter is much more alarming and significant, and needs greater attention. In case you don’t know, “blood and soil” is translated from the original German phrase “Blut und Boden.” That phrase is a kind of bumper sticker slogan for Nazism. At its base Nazism contained a very particular idea of what constituted German identity and belonging, summed up in that phrase. Only those of German blood could ever be German, and those not of German blood needed to be expelled from German soil. Hence German Jews, who had strongly identified with and assimilated to German culture after their emancipation, found themselves murdered and exiled.
“Blut und Boden” is farcical concept, of course, because there is no such thing as “German blood,” and what constituted “German soil” was historically widely variant. That concept is equally, if not more farcical in the American context. The only reason to invoke “blood and soil” is if you are the kind of person who admires Hitler and wants to incorporate his ideas into American politics. Those people chanting it in Charlottesville are basically Nazis if they buy into it, and ought to be labeled as such. Richard Spencer, the leader of this rally, is himself essentially a Nazi as well.
So why are news outlets calling this a “protest” about Confederate monuments? This might be mostly due to not understanding what these monuments actually mean. They were erected after the violent death of Reconstruction, and are thus monuments to the glory of white supremacy. Many of the monuments themselves are direct enough to even say so. Some try to defend their continued presence as evidence of the past, but we certainly never had that feeling about the statues of Lenin that were toppled in the Communist bloc after 1989. We understood that toppling to be a symbolic blow against a repressive regime, and the removal of Confederate statues ought to be seen in the same light.
The neo-fascists following Spencer understand this meaning, too. They too perceive the statues as monuments to white supremacy, hence why they would be chanting “blood and soil” rather than singing “Dixie.” They are using the opposition to the removal of these statues to recruit garden variety racists and resentful white people to be full fledged fascists. (I am sure that they are also aware that in Germany, where Nazi symbols like the swastika are banned, white supremacists fly the Confederate flag.)
The media doesn’t know what to do with this, because, as Kelly Baker so rightfully pointed out, they have a misbegotten notion that racists and Klansters look like the characters in Deliverance, not well-dressed, well-educated people like Spencer. They also seem to be under the misconception that Nazis are fictional beings or somehow not part of America’s social history.
Sadly, out and out Nazis have been present in this country practically ever since Nazism existed. There was the German-American Bund back in the 1930s, which dressed up in brownshirts and swastikas and managed to fill Madison Square Garden. Openly declared Nazis also fought to keep Atlanta and Los Angeles segregated after World War II and threatened to attack the March on Washington in 1963. Gerald Carlson, an ex-Nazi, managed to get the Republican nomination in Michigan's 4th District in the early 1980s. (I only just discovered this insane fact.) David Duke (who sported a swastika in the 1970s) almost won the governorship of Louisiana in 1991.
There’s a crucial difference today, however, that ought to make us more, not less concerned. Namely, the president of the United States has people affiliated with the circles that Nazis travel in as his close advisors. Steve Bannon, a man openly inspired by fascist intellectuals, still has the president's ear. The president also came to power with the support of Nazis like Spencer, who the president has been unwilling to disavow. These fascists have always been on the fringe, now they are actually getting traction in the political mainstream.
Seen in this light, pro-Russia chants are meaningless compared to the open embrace of Nazi “blood and soil” language. We are in a very dangerous moment, and anyone who urges “dialogue” with these people or laughs them off or gives them a public platform is sorely misguided. Combat and only combat is the sole response necessary.