The alarming rise of white-power violence, from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh and now to Poway, Calif., has left many Americans scrambling to make sense of the toxic stew of racism, anti-Semitism and nativism that is swamping the United States and that has claimed yet another life in a house of worship. Given the Unite the Right rally’s fascist symbols and the swastikas appearing on synagogues, it’s hard not to wonder: Didn’t we already fight — and win — this war?
Well, not exactly. Because while Allied countries opposed the Nazis and Allied troops defeated them, the leaders of the United States and Britain rarely attacked the core tenet of Nazism: the belief in a master race.
In my World War II class recently, I had my students pore through the speeches and letters of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill from the years around the war’s start in 1939, searching for his basis for opposing the Nazis. They found Churchill wanted to stand up to the Nazis’ expansionism, fight their anti-democracy posture and resist what he called (but largely left undefined) their anti-Christianity. What he did not do, however, was call for the destruction of the essence of Nazism: race supremacy.
Historians know that everything that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi inner circle did was predicated on a belief that Germanic people would inherit the Earth, that people at the bottom of an imagined race hierarchy should be expunged and that competition between nations, supposedly ordained by nature, justified anything the “master-race nation” and her allies might do. Democracy, in the fevered Nazi mind, blunted the force of “the survival of the fittest,” giving power and voice to the “undesirables.” All of this should have been clear to anyone who picked up “Mein Kampf” or read the Nazis’ speeches of the 1930s.
Churchill’s friend President Franklin D. Roosevelt also either failed to comprehend the basic nature of German fascism or chose not to rally Americans to oppose Nazism as Nazism. In his prewar correspondence, he made no secret of his dislike of Hitler and his belligerent regime, but like Churchill, he never framed his opposition to Germany as a rejection of race hierarchy or race nationalism.
This is what we should expect of the man who signed Executive Order 9066, imprisoning 120,000 people of Japanese descent. Two-thirds of them were U.S. citizens, yet their “race” made them dangerous, he imagined. Further, the United States of 1940 was a nation where Jim Crow was in full swing, with African Americans denied full citizenship and race terror in the form of lynching a regular horror. Indeed, Hitler infamously congratulated the Americans on knowing how to keep “inferior” races in line. The case of the doomed Jewish refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis is only one infamous reflection of a wider anti-immigrant sentiment, with 61 percent of those polled telling Gallup in early 1939 that Jewish child refugees should be blocked from entering the United States.
Instead of fighting to crush the idea that purified nations could abuse, enslave or even eliminate people deemed lesser, Roosevelt used words similar to Churchill’s to frame the war as a resistance against “the forces of savagery and of barbarism.” Indeed, in the later war years, when Roosevelt tried at least to frame the war as a struggle for human rights around the globe, the White House’s propaganda office discovered that the message fell flat. Their research showed it was far more effective to sell revenge and the idea that Hitler might eventually attack the United States.
There certainly were people around the world who saw that the racism of Nazism — not just German aggression — was the problem. Muhammad Najati Sidqi was a Palestinian leftist activist and Republican veteran of the Spanish Civil War. He read “Mein Kampf” and the works of Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg and produced a book in 1940 that clearly delineated the problem: race supremacy. Not only was racial-supremacist theory anathema in its own right, Sidqi wrote, Nazism must logically weed out “lesser races,” including the Jews and Arabs, as the master race prepared the globe for its multiplication.
A long list of others echoed Sidqi’s argument, including black and Jewish Americans, though they lacked the influence of leaders such as Churchill and Roosevelt. The U.S. War Department issued a short propaganda film in 1943, meant to boost morale and help with the desegregation of U.S. forces, that equated anti-Nazism with anti-racism. (People circulated that film widely after the Nazi terrorism in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017.)
After Charlottesville, too, social media echoed with variations of the line: “My grandpa didn’t fight the Nazis only for them to return.” And it’s possible that a good many of our grandfathers might have fought the Nazis expressly to oppose their race supremacy. But it’s worth putting this plainly: The Allied leadership did not fight the war over fascist race-nationalism. That was the historical path not taken.
As it’s once again on the ascent across the globe, this historian imagines where we might be today had the Allies fought on the basis of eliminating the racial supremacy of the Germans (and, in their variation, the Japanese). What if that principle had been, through the greatest global struggle of humankind, woven into our social DNA? And how can we make that principle central to our societies today?