More lessons from Weimar, part 6

Published 12:20 am Sunday, August 27, 2017

We have come now to the defining principle of Nazism — racism. As in all racism, its appeal was its ability to sanctify society’s deepest insecurities and screaming paranoias into patriotic virtues. But too, it promised that social rank would not be determined by individual merit, but would be inherited at birth and guaranteed for life. For “Aryans,” it was a cradle-to-grave system of unearned privilege.

This, though, was something new. While legally-mandated anti-Semitism had a lengthy history in Europe, it had been based on religious prejudice rather than blood inheritance. So, in creating their own racist Nuremberg Laws, the Nazis downplayed medieval custom, and relied on a contemporary blueprint — white supremacist America. Yale legal scholar James Whitman tells us that “In the early 20th century, the US was not just a country with racism.” There were plenty of those, after all. But of all those, the US “was the leading racist jurisdiction — so much so that even Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration.”

The Nazis certainly admired the South’s contribution in this area, but the full rainbow array of our national color-discrimination drew their praise. They did not, though, apishly copy American race law. Jews had to be substituted for non-whites, of course. Also, some laws — the one-drop rule of racial identity, for instance — were judged too “harsh.”

Email newsletter signup

That racist Nazis in the 1930’s would look to democratic America for inspiration should not surprise us. Historian Robert Paxton suggests that the post-Civil War Ku Klux Klan may have been the “earliest fascist movement in the world,” offering “a remarkable preview of the way fascist movements were to function in interwar Europe” — a uniformed paramilitary practicing propagandistic “theater” as well as terrorism, extreme ethno-racial identity, paranoia over the rise of racial enemies. All abetted by conservative elites.

Cuts a bit too close to the bone, doesn’t it? But its undeniable that on this issue of race, our democracy has been willing, repeatedly, to go blind in its white eye, and to forsake its ideals. This has been destructive for non-whites, obviously, but it has actually been self-destructive for most whites as well. Just as with the con of “national socialism,” which we discussed last week.

There is no better example of this than the South’s Jim Crow. Consciously cultivated racism has always been about more than making whites supreme. It was a cunning ploy by white elites to divert the white majority’s often-justified anger away from themselves, and, by means of fear, toward non-white “others.” Those in the majority were then solemnly inducted into the aristocracy of race, rewarded, though, in exalted status rather than common coin. Even as white elites hoarded the royal share of actual wealth and power. It was a corrupt, authoritarian “closed society,” demanding absolute conformity in the name of racial solidarity. White rebels who dissented were shunned, crushed. In denying blacks’ liberties, whites forfeited their own.

Forced into relative dormancy at times, raging at times, racism’s “mobilizing passions” are endemic to this country. And so, if genuine fascism succeeds here, it will appear in traditional American racist garb. It will speak in the language of American demagoguery, and will entice us with a return to America’s good ole days.

But history tells us that the greatest threat to our constitutional system is not foreign born; it is native born. Our enemy-within is not a racial minority; it is racism. And yet, irrational racism, once again, is being rationally cultivated by some, enabled by others. And, as a result, racial fascism is beginning to rage.
Jim Wiggins is a retired history instructor at Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Natchez.