The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The shadow of an assassinated American Nazi commander hangs over Charlottesville

George Lincoln Rockwell, leader of the American Nazi Party, holds a news conference in Arlington on Nov. 3, 1965. (Harvey Georges/AP)

Shortly before noon on Aug. 25, 1967, a pale ’58 Chevy pulled into a shopping center in Arlington. Out stepped one of the most hated men in America.

As the founder of the American Nazi Party, George Lincoln Rockwell had hung swastikas on the Mall and picketed the marches of Martin Luther King Jr. He had called for shipping blacks to Africa and sending millions of “Communist Jews” to the gas chambers — all at a time when memories of World War II were still fresh.

Now, dressed not in his Nazi uniform but a simple white shirt and dark slacks, Rockwell grabbed his dirty laundry and headed into the Econ-o-wash, only to realize he had forgotten the bleach. As he climbed back into his car to return to Nazi headquarters — a large house a block away dubbed “Hatemongers Hill” — two shots rang out.

Rockwell died amid a flurry of Ivory Snow soap flakes.

For years, he had claimed his enemies were stalking him. But when police arrested the gunman minutes later, they identified him as 29-year-old John Patler: Rockwell’s neo-Nazi protege.

The killing made international headlines and led to a bizarre standoff over the Nazi’s body. It also crippled his party, which soon sank back into obscurity.

But Rockwell’s death did not dispel his ideas.

Half a century later, they were on display last weekend when hundreds of torch-carrying neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched in Charlottesville.

Among today’s white supremacists, Rockwell’s hate-filled books remain widely circulated. Even Rockwell’s assassin, now an old man, still struggles to shake off his influence. And “White Power,” the term Rockwell coined months before his death, lives on in the movements of David Duke and the alt-right, which advocates for a whites-only state.

The Charlottesville rally was “infused with Rockwell’s ideology,” said Martin Kerr of New Order, the successor to the American Nazi Party.

“He is the grandfather of the white racialist movement as it exists today,” he said of Rockwell. “To see these many hundreds of racially conscious white men on the streets of Charlottesville, I’m sure he would have been very pleased.”

‘Barnum of the Bigots’

When Martin Luther King Jr. arrived to the southwest side of Chicago on Aug. 5, 1966, to march for housing desegregation, he was met by thousands of angry white residents. Some waved Confederate or Nazi flags. Others pelted him and other civil rights activists with bottles and bricks. Many of them chanted “White Power.”

“I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the south,” King told reporters, “but I can say I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

Rockwell, who had spent the day egging on the crowd and distributing “White Power” T-shirts and posters, considered it his finest hour.

Chicago marked a turning point for Rockwell. Tall, handsome and sporting a corncob pipe in the style of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Rockwell had studied philosophy at Brown but dropped out to join the Navy after becoming convinced the school was a breeding ground for communism.

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After serving in World War II and rising to the rank of commander, Rockwell stumbled upon a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in a used bookstore and became obsessed with the racist manifesto. Rockwell, who once had fought against fascism, became convinced only it could save America. He moved to Arlington in 1955 and launched his party a few years later.

He initially ran his party out of a ramshackle house on Randolph Street in downtown Arlington. When police raided the swastika-draped den in April of 1959, they walked in on Commander Rockwell — as he liked to be called — and his followers celebrating Hitler’s 70th birthday with a cake.

When “Exodus,” a movie about the founding of Israel, opened in Boston in 1960, Rockwell stood outside the theater in his Nazi uniform — earning him mention in a Bob Dylan song. He and his troopers followed the Freedom Riders around the country in a “hate bus” covered in swastikas and picketed clubs that booked Sammy Davis Jr., whose wife was white. Rockwell’s parents had been successful vaudeville performers and he had inherited their showmanship, earning himself the nickname “Barnum of the Bigots.”

But those tactics gained him few followers. When Rockwell ran for governor of Virginia in 1965, he got one percent of the vote.

He saw the rapid rise of Black Power and decided to emulate it. At the urging of Patler — a short, dark-haired Greek American who had changed his name from Patsalos to Patler to sound more like Hitler — Rockwell began pitching his party to all whites, including southern and eastern Europeans it had previously shunned. Rockwell would eventually change its name to the National Socialist White People’s Party and even eschewed the swastika, according to the biography “American Fuehrer.”

“We will make White Unity the biggest thing in history,” Rockwell wrote to Patler, a Marine marksman who had been discharged for wearing his uniform to Nazi rallies.

Rockwell believed White Power would carry him to the White House.

In a 1966 Playboy interview, which began with Rockwell pulling out a pearl-handled revolver, Rockwell told black journalist Alex Haley that he planned on being elected America’s first National Socialist president in 1972. “The people will welcome a man who stands unequivocally for the white Christian majority,” he said.

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Behind the scenes, however, his party was in turmoil. Some did not like the denazification. Rockwell and Patler, once like father and son, had a personal falling out that ended with Patler’s expulsion from the party in the spring of 1967. A few months later, two men — one of whom reportedly looked like Patler — shot at Rockwell as he returned to Nazi headquarters, then escaped.

The Arlington parking lot where George Lincoln Rockwell was killed on August 25, 1967. Rockwell’s car is the white sedan at center. (AP)

On the morning of his death, Rockwell worked on his magnum opus — posthumously published as “White Power” — before heading to the Dominion Hills shopping center. Seconds before gunshots broke the midday humdrum, bystanders heard what sounded like footsteps on the roof.

The first bullet nicked Rockwell’s shirt. But as he peered up through the shattered windshield at a figure perched atop the shopping mall’s roof, a second bullet tore through his chest.

Rockwell’s pipe fell from his mouth to the car seat. As the Chevy rolled backward, Rockwell crawled toward the passenger door and tumbled onto the asphalt. Witnesses said the fleeing gunman wore a yellow shirt, hat and a trench coat.

Fifteen minutes later, Arlington police officers spotted Patler, wearing a yellow shirt, his pants wet at the ankles, standing at a bus stop 1.5 miles away. They found a hat and trench coat hidden nearby. And the next day, they fished a German Mauser pistol out of Four Mile Run in Bon Air Park, between the bus stop and the crime scene.

The story stayed on The Washington Post’s front page for more than a week as it took one strange twist after another. Before Rockwell’s family could organize a burial, his Nazi followers attempted to inter him at Culpeper National Cemetery in Virginia — in a Nazi ceremony, complete with a swastika-draped casket.

Soldiers blocked their entrance. The American Civil Liberties Union backed the Nazis, but before a lawsuit could be settled, the Nazis smuggled the body out of an Arlington funeral home and secretly cremated it.

“You don’t mean they actually stuck the … in an oven?” Hank Burchard, a Post reporter who had infiltrated Rockwell’s group while in college, asked Rockwell’s second-in-command. Burchard was, he wrote, “struck by the irony of the end of a man who had dreamed of sending ‘the Jews that Hitler missed’ to the ovens.”

At trial, Patler denied killing his mentor. His attorney suggested it could have been another Nazi, upset with the direction Rockwell was taking the party. But the jury found Patler guilty. He was sentenced to 20 years.

‘Becoming poisoned again’

The script in Charlottesville could have been cribbed from Rockwell’s speeches.

“White lives matter! You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” the men chanted as they carried tiki torches around the University of Virginia.

“White power!” they shouted at counterprotesters the next morning.

If white nationalism is now resurgent in America, it is partly due to Rockwell.

Rockwell paved the way for white nationalists like David Duke and Richard Spencer, according to Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups.

“I don’t know if we’d have this type of activism or even this kind of president if there hadn’t been a figure like that,” she said.

“He had a very big influence on the resistance movement in this country to the destruction of European Americans,” agreed Duke. “He brought attention to a lot of issues.”

In Charlottesville, Duke echoed Rockwell, telling a crowd in Emancipation Park that “European Americans face massive discrimination” and were being “ethnically cleansed in our own nation.”

Spencer said Rockwell’s Nazi uniform was “unproductive” but admired some of his tactics.

“There was a trolling aspect to what he was doing, so you could connect him to some of the trolls on Twitter,” he told The Post. “Shock can be a positive means to an end.”

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Among the millions of Americans dismayed by the violence in Charlottesville was an adjunct professor of African American history at West Virginia State University.

Sitting in a McDonald’s in Mississippi, where he is doing research for a book on black leaders during Reconstruction, Nicholas Patler saw the hatred on a television screen and couldn’t help but think of his father.

John Patsalos, as he is again called, served a decade in prison before being released in the early 1980s. He is now 79 and lives in New York City. The man who once illustrated hate magazines for Rockwell now ekes out a living as a freelance cartoonist.

Patsalos refused multiple interview requests, including one left on his door, which is covered in Dr. Seuss-like cartoons and an “I voted” sticker. He is a staunch online defender of Donald Trump.

Patler said he learned of his father’s crime as a child. His parents divorced when his father was in prison, and his mother moved the family to Staunton, Va., near Charlottesville.

The KKK once attacked her family. Now she was writing to a former neo-Nazi.

His father’s hatred “inspired me to explore different things,” he said of his decision to study African American history. His students don’t know about his father, he said. But in 2013, Patler penned an afterword to another Rockwell biography, “For Race and Nation,” in which he said his father had been traumatized as a child. Patsalos’s father had killed his mother, and Patsalos was now ashamed of his time as a Nazi. “Today he describes that time as a period of ‘temporary insanity,’ ” his son wrote.

Over the past two years, however, Patler has seen his father change again.

“I don’t know what the climate is doing to him,” he said. “Now it seems like, little by little, he’s becoming poisoned again.”

Two days after Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally left a 32-year-old counterprotester dead and many others injured, Patsalos praised the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on the college town.

“It was a peaceful parade, with a coupl’a hundred white men, neatly attired, expressing their to free speech and objection to the removal of the statue of Gen. Lee,” he wrote on Facebook, where he uses an alias. “White Pride, Black Pride, Gay Pride, Transgender Pride, Greek Pride, Your Grandmother’s Pride … Hey, this is the United States of America, so can we not all exhibit pride?”

The remains of the man he killed are kept in an ivory urn with a photo of Rockwell on one side and a swastika on the other, said Kerr, who helps run New Order, the successor to Rockwell’s American Nazi Party. Kerr refused to reveal more about Rockwell’s ashes.

“We want to keep them in a secure location until a time when we can inter them properly,” he said.

“We’re not at the end of the Rockwell wave,” Kerr added. “We’re at the beginning.”