In the Spring 1942-1943 issue of South Today, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling wrote two articles: “Buying a New World with Old Confederate Bills” and “Addressed to Intelligent White Southerners: There are things to do.” Each of these articles confront the connections between the Jim Crow South, and the United States as a whole, and Nazism in Germany and the European theatre. At one point in the former essay, Smith writes, “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe. It is just possible that even German nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world living for a long, long time.” In the latter essay, Smith and Snelling write about educating children, saying, “We can all begin to train our children now to be, not little Nazis, but democratic world citizens.” Within these statements, Smith and Snelling link the horrors of the Third Reich with the horrors of the United States, and they are not the only ones.
We know that the Nazi regime looked to the Jim Crow South for a lot of the Reich’s laws against Jews and other individuals. In 1992, Johnpeter Horst Grill and Robert L. Jenkins wrote about the connections between the Nazis and the United States South. They noted, “Like many southerners, [the Nazis] saw African Americans as a major threat to white civilization. Hence, the American South, with its long established system of white supremacy, was a source of interest to the Nazis as they, too, sought to work out their own system of Aryan supremacy.” James Q. Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law dives deep into the influence of American race law on the construction of September 1933 Preußische Denkschrift, the Prussian Memorandum, the National Socialist Handbook and Legislation from 1934-1935, and the Law on the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, the Reich Flag Law, and the Reich Citizenship Law, which stripped the rights of Jews in the Reich, which all came out of Nuremberg in 1935. Each of these, as Whitman and others note, have roots within the white supremacist Jim Crow laws of the United States.
Hermann Rauschning’s The Voice of Destruction (1940) relates conversations Rauschning, who briefly joined the Nazi party early on then quickly renounced it, had with Hitler, specifically during 1933 and 1934. During a dinner party in June 1933, Rauschning relates Hitler’s views on the United States and specifically the South. Advisors pushed Hitler to seek “friendly relations with the United States,” but Hitler declined, falling on his anti-Semitic views and claiming as well that the present government in the United States was in “the last disgusting death-rattle of a corrupt and outworn system” that has been on the decline since “the Southern states were conquered.” For Hitler, the South’s defeat in the Civil War paved the way for “progressive self-destruction,” and he said, “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America that would not have been ruled by a corrupt class of tradesmen, but by a real Herren-class that would have swept away all falsities of liberty and equality.”
Hitler continued by arguing that the the Nazis, instead of seeking friendly relations with the United States, would instead play upon the racial tensions within the nation, fermenting an internal revolution that would cause them to rise to the aid of Germany. He told those gathered at the dinner, “The wholesome aversion for the Negroes and the colored races in general, including the Jews, the existence of popular justice, the naivete of the average American, but also the skepticism of certain intellectual circles who have found their wisdom vain; scholars who have studied immigration and gained an insight, by means of intelligence tests, into the inequality of the races–all of these strains are an assurance that the sound elements of the United States will one day awaken as they have awakened in Germany.” Joseph Goebbels agreed, chiming in that a “bloody revolution in North America” would be easy to accomplish because of the “many social and racial tensions.”
What becomes abundantly clear within this exchange is that Hitler and the Nazis understood what was happening in the United States, specifically in relation to Jim Crow and segregation. They understood that Jim Crow served as a mechanism to enact terror and to maintain white supremacy (i.e. pure Aryan stock). In 1925, a German paper labeled the new Ku Klux Klan chapter in Berlin as “American fascism.” In his first public Berlin speech, on November 21, 1928, Hitler railed against the mixing of races, claiming the mixing of culture and music “negrified” the populace. Earlier, he railed against the mixing of white women coming in contact with French colonial troops in the Rhineland following World War I, a mixing that would dilute the pure Aryan blood. This same false fear roved through the United States South thanks in part to the Lost Cause mythology and specifically through D.W. Griffin’s Birth of a Nation (1915). One of Hitler’s favorite films, supposedly, was Gone With the Wind (1939), because, as Jenkins and Grill note, of “its romantic portrayal of the Old South and exaggerated view of black-white relations in the postbellum South.”
The point here is that Hitler and the Nazis looked to the United States for a lot of its ideas. They mined, specifically, the fields of eugenics and the Jim Crow South to formulate their own positions and laws that would lead to the extermination of over 11 million people during the Holocaust. He even had plans to try and connect with German immigrants in the United States South in order to increase the Nazi party’s reach. In fact, numerous cities in Texas and Louisiana, as well as elsewhere in the South, had chapters of the German American Bund. Of the supporters in the South, about 79% lived in Texas and Louisiana. However, reaction to the Nazi regime in the South faced resistance, and numerous papers, including staunch segregationist papers, refused to see the links. Lillian Smith in “The White Christian and His Conscience” sums this up by writing,
I think sometimes that perhaps we hate the Nazis even more than we otherwise would because we know that their conscience has hurt so little while ours has ached and pained for 300 years! And nowhere has it hurt us more than in the Deep South where we have lynched, burned and segregated human beings simply because their skin was darker than ours. And nowhere is hatred of the German Nazi worse than in the Deep South . . .
Smith understood that the hatred arose, partly, from the mirror that the Third Reich held up to the South, the mirror that pierced its conscience. However, instead of recognizing the reflection that stared back, most searated it from themselves, justifying their actions by saying they would never commit such atrocities or they would speak up if, like villagers next to Buchenwald or Dachau or elsewhere, they saw such atrocities occurring. Yet, they did stand by as the laws of the nation and as groups such as the Klan and as social structures murdered countless individuals, maybe not through physical lynching but through the continued systemic oppression and marginalization brought on by the deep seated beliefs of white superiority.
While the white press, for the most part, refused to acknowledge the connection between Nazi positions and the South, the Black press made the connections crystal clear. Roy Wilkins, in a 1938 editorial, wrote, “The South approaches more nearly than any other section of the United States the Nazi idea of government by a ‘master race’ without the interference from any democratic process.” Key to this “interference” were the attacks on the right to vote, the right to education, and other human rights. There were calls for the repeal of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments. This intimidation and interference continued following World War II as well.
In the next post, I will continue this discussion. Until then, what are your thoughts? As always, let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.