Although President Trump, among others, has tried to draw a sharp line between the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville and the presumably “very fine people” who were “also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee,” the line between fascism and worship of the Confederacy is not so clear. In fact, it never has been.
The Nazi order praised the Old South, seeing in Dixie a society that exalted white leadership and kept African Americans on the lowest rungs of the social order. Recognizing this, civil rights activists have worked for over 80 years to expose those links and to show how the veneration of the Old South can provide a nurturing climate for hateful, fascist ideologies. Revealing the deep connections between Nazi and Confederate beliefs became essential to proving that Southern racial practices were, in fact, clearly antithetical to American values like democracy and equality.
Nazis themselves saw a clear line from their own beliefs to those of the antebellum South. Although Hitler took a decidedly negative view of the United States, attributing its economic woes in the 1930s to its allegedly degraded racial stock, he believed a Confederate victory would have set the country on a proper course. “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality,” he explained in 1933 to a fellow Nazi leader, “were destroyed” when the South lost the Civil War. Northern victory ushered a “corrupt caste of tradesmen” into power and hastened the condition of racial “decay.” It also destroyed the possibility that a “truly great America” ruled “by a real Herren-class” might have emerged, casting aside “all the falsities of liberty and equality.”
As Hitler rose to power in Germany, his sympathizers in the United States likewise found the building blocks for a home-grown fascist system in the Southern slave society. The founder of an explicitly violent anti-Semitic organization, the Black Legion, explained that he based his organization on Southern chivalry and other “principles of the Old South” before the Civil War.
Most white Southerners, of course, were not fans of Adolf Hitler, and many enthusiastically joined the fight against Nazi Germany when the United States declared war in 1941. Yet fighting Nazis in no way meant a repudiation of white supremacy. In fact, one white Louisiana man affirmed his region’s patriotism by insisting that being “under the rule of these boneheaded n‑‑‑‑‑s here” would be as bad as living under Hitler. Another white Southerner saw defeat against Nazism as better than “victory with Negro equality and black domination.”
This type of unwavering commitment to white supremacy may have allowed a space for Nazi sympathies to persist — and not just in the South — despite a national revulsion against Nazism in other parts of American culture. For example, in 1946 a Life magazine reporter discovered an Atlanta organization affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan that venerated both Robert E. Lee and Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
As a result, activists worked to expose the link between the explicit racial hierarchies espoused by Nazis and the more submerged narrative of white supremacy — a narrative ingrained in Confederate monuments — that exalted Southern “heritage” while avoiding a direct discussion of slavery. This campaign began as early as the 1930s, when activists saw these kinds of links as further proof of the evils of race hatred practiced both in the South and in Hitler’s Germany. “Adolf Hitler, K.K.K.,” proclaimed the headline of a black newspaper when Hitler came to power in 1933, while another identified the Nazi leader as “Another Klansman.” In this way, too, many of these activists understood the common cause of blacks and Jews, both subject to oppression in both Germany and the United States.
Activists targeted both the explicit political connections between Nazis and Southern politicians defending the Jim Crow system and those that arose from seemingly benign quarters. “Hollywood,” proclaimed the black-owned Los Angeles Sentinel as production neared completion on “Gone With the Wind,” “Goes Hitler One Better.” Hitler himself might have agreed with this headline, as “Gone With the Wind” was one of his favorite films. Despite being banned in Germany in 1941, the film was a popular offering at private parties for Nazi leaders.
Hollywood’s full embrace of the sentimental view of slavery as a benign and even beneficial social system, further reinforced for civil rights activists the similarities between Nazi Germany and the Old South. According to the Sentinel, the film’s “Ku Klux Klan slanders against Negroes” were no better than the lies Hitler fomented about Jews. Films that glorified the Old South buttressed the claims of Southern white politicians who insisted on keeping African Americans in their place and far from the levers of political power. Later, NAACP leader Walter White would argue that the popularity of “Gone With the Wind” helped kill the impulse for a federal antilynching law.
On Tuesday, Trump perpetuated a long-standing fiction, one that countless pro-Confederate groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy have also maintained: that support for Confederate symbolism can be understood as something separate from race hatred. But honoring men like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson is explicitly racist. The historic links between the reverence for the Confederacy and Nazism prove it. Exalting the Old South became a tool, in the United States and in Germany, to nurture fascism. And sympathy for Hitler’s Germany hinged on a common belief in the need for a white supremacist social hierarchy.
Historian Glenda Gilmore has explained that when African Americans compared the Southern system of racism with Nazi oppression during Hitler’s rise to power, they acted to “unsettle white supremacy’s place in a democratic system,” thereby stripping away “the nostalgic glow that white Southerners” had given to their Confederate past. Ultimately, nothing destroys that “nostalgic glow” more completely than the events of Charlottesville. Chanting “Jews will not replace us” to reflect their outrage over the removal of Robert E. Lee’s statue, these neo-Nazi protesters revealed the indelible link between the Confederacy and the detestable, and sadly still potent, legacy of fascism.