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Valentina Pisanty in Confronting Hatred: Neo-Nazism, Antisemitism, and Holocaust Studies Today

By Janet Ward at University of Oklahoma for The Journal of Holocaust Research

The six contributions to Volume 35, Number 2 of The Journal of Holocaust Research (2021), ‘Confronting Hatred: Neo-Nazism, Antisemitism, and Holocaust Studies Today,’ were first presented at events organized by Janet Ward (University of Oklahoma) and Gavriel Rosenfeld (Fairfield University), including a seminar at a conference of the German Studies Association (October 2019, in Portland, Oregon), and a roundtable at the American Historical Association’s annual meeting (January 2020, in New York City). By inviting a group of German and American scholars to collaborate and explore the complicated continuities between the fascist past and today, amid the rise of populism, racism, antisemitism, and white ethno-nationalism in the United States, Germany, and beyond, we deepened our collective understanding of the connections and challenges for our teaching, scholarship, and public outreach. Mindful of the need for a more effective scholar-activist approach, this JHR special issue offers the first grouping of research emanating from our discussions; and our other, equally urgent focus, ‘Fascism in America, Past and Present,’ is currently a work-in-progress (coedited by Gavriel Rosenfeld and Janet Ward).

The authors of this special issue of the Journal of Holocaust Research, ‘Confronting Hatred: Neo-Nazism, Antisemitism, and Holocaust Studies Today,’ draw attention to the ways in which the racism that ferments contemporary extreme-right politics has been impacting the history and memory of the Holocaust. They offer some possible trajectories for how activist scholarship, teaching, and policymaking may best respond to this crisis. However, the paths ahead are not straightforward. Research on antisemitism and the Holocaust is becoming increasingly subordinated to the need to combat the mainstreaming of white supremacist politics, especially as the latter regroups in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, which has emboldened its growth in the US and overseas. How do we reassess the Holocaust as the traumatic epistemic break of the middle of the twentieth century in relation to the current dangers posed by neo-Nazism? Race-based ethnonationalism has shown itself to be a destabilizing threat to democracy (a tendency made only more visible to us during the COVID-19 pandemic), and its white supremacist underpinnings appear likely to impact our world until at least the Holocaust’s centennial. How do we reconsider the Holocaust’s relevance in this urgent context? How can Holocaust history help us teach rising generations who desperately need an analytical framework that can reformulate our era’s complexities?

There is still insufficient scholarship weaving together the interrelated strands of racist hatred by white supremacists against non-whites and against Jews.1 All too often, K–20 educators assume that these strands do not really belong together in the same syllabus or department. As a result, the significance of antisemitism and the Holocaust has been unthreaded from the main activist plank of combatting racism and building antiracism for today’s political environment—a position that inadvertently ends up strengthening the causes of the extreme Right. If we go too far in pulling apart the connected histories of race-based hatred, we do so at our peril.

Racist agitators, by contrast, exhibit no qualms about showcasing the links between the targeted groups in the past and the present. Thanks to social media, they are able to superimpose their narrative very effectively onto popular consciousness. The Charlottesville protests of August 2017 were ostensibly over Confederate monuments, but in fact marked, in litmus-test fashion, how swiftly US society subsequently devolved into no longer being shocked by populist politics tending toward regular outbursts of neo-Nazi performativity. In tandem with a rise in racial hatred, the general decline in cultural awareness about the Holocaust is steepening as survivors pass away: as of 2018, over 30 percent of the American public does not know how many perished and over 40 percent does not know what Auschwitz was.2

European countries have witnessed similar situations. As Valentina Pisanty notes in her book, The Guardians of Memory, the xenophobic Right grows when nations fail to address their collaborationist or other failures during World War II yet seek to integrate present-day refugees and migrants. Paying reparations or commemorative homage is not enough, and so ‘before lancing the boil of xenophobic nationalism, it is necessary to understand the setting it has taken root and flourished in.’3 Sadly, it is a setting where expectations about the global cosmopolitan memory culture of the Holocaust as a universal ethics of human rights no longer apply to a significant proportion of the public. Natan Sznaider and Daniel Levy were not alone in hoping that such ethics would dominate for post-Cold War civil society.4

The Trump administration actively fostered a white ethnonationalism that viewed immigration from non-whites as an existential, ‘cultural threat’ and ‘not just an economic or security challenge.’5 The roots go much further back, of course. American Blacks were not allowed to become naturalized until 1870, most American non-whites were not granted citizenship until the 1940s, and the US kept a white racial definition of citizenship until 1952.6 The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) has been offering aid to refugees since 1881—and included among its volunteers on Ward’s Island and Ellis Island none other than Emma Lazarus herself, the author of the famous poem about the Statue of Liberty as the ‘Mother of Exiles’ welcoming new immigrants and refugees.7 Precisely for this, HIAS was targeted in the online rantings of the extreme right-wing terrorist Robert Bowers, who carried out the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in October 2018, the country’s deadliest attack on Jews. The Tree of Life Congregation supported HIAS’ aid to groups of asylum-seekers (dubbed terrorist caravans) walking from Honduras to the US. In other words, the ‘screw your optics’ killer thought he was combating ‘white genocide.’8

Faced with such incidents, we cannot help but worry that the basic ethical assumption of the intergenerational ‘postmemory’ of the Holocaust to which Marianne Hirsch eloquently drew our attention—the very ability to properly represent and commemorate Holocaust trauma in contemporary societies—now seems increasingly endangered.9 Despite the sustained mass resistance of the Black Lives Matter protests during 2020, the rise of the extreme Right in Trump’s America and beyond appears to be moving faster than the progressive Left’s ability to quell it.10 Parliamentary debates at the European Parliament now include antisemitism and other hate speech and hate crimes because ‘the dams [against antisemitism] are breaking.’11 The increasing crescendos of QAnon conspiracies that aim to destabilize democracy are beholden to the 1999 ‘White Genocide’ manifesto with its directly genocidal references to Jews and such phrases as ‘all Western nations are ruled by a Zionist conspiracy to mix, overrun and exterminate the White race,’ or ‘Let those who commit treason with the Zionist destroyer, or who sit on the fence, be aware.’12 Indeed, the infamous ‘Fourteen Words’ of the ‘White Genocide’ manifesto (‘We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children’13) was clearly visible on signs carried by the Trump supporters who assaulted the Capitol building in Washington, DC, on 6 January 2021 in a thwarted attempt to overthrow the result of the November 2020 election and prevent the US presidency of Joe Biden.14

The fact that these threats of white extinction are déjà vu effects does not make them any less dangerous. Jews, Muslims, and other minorities are being marked by recognizable terms that the Nazis and earlier antisemites once used to portray Jews. Both the National Socialists’ antisemitism and the ethnonationalism of the contemporary extreme Right aim to strengthen white identity by means of the same ‘negative demarcation’: as Enzo Traverso emphasizes, white ‘cultural despair’ remains the ‘humus of postfascism.’15 Even the aesthetic troping is the same: the documentary montage film that was shown to explicitly rouse Trump supporters at the rally in Ellipse Park immediately before their 6 January invasion of the US Capitol building betrayed a well-known combination of antisemitic and fascist visual codes, as philosopher Jason Stanley has explained.16 We are seeing an increasingly clear resurrection of the oldest stereotypes about a global, institution-controlled, miscegenation-based conspiracy run by a Jewish elite to control and breed out whites, features of the fearmongering hatred of texts like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Belgian city of Aalst’s Carnival (Fasching) processions have regularly included grotesquely antisemitic caricatured characters and Jewish conspiracy-themed floats. The city even lost its UNESCO World Heritage status as a result, but simply continued with floats that they claimed were merely humorous and countercultural.17

There will be multiple opportunities ahead to more fully involve the groups that are the ‘implicated subjects’ of our societies (to use Michael Rothberg’s skillful term)—the majority populations that are the beneficiaries of past exploitations.18 To take the example of memorials, they can be increasingly understood as bearing active witness to the past, not whitewashing it. While most of the Confederate monuments are still standing (including in Charlottesville), more people are insisting that public memorials bear responsible witness to a society’s evolving contests over racial and national belonging. One memorial that stands out in relation to confronting racial hatred is the Wheel of Conscience (2011), at the Pier 21 immigration museum in Halifax, Canada—architect Daniel Libeskind’s contribution to the memory of those Jewish refugees who lost their lives after the ill-fated SS St. Louis was forced to return to Europe in 1939. Pier 21 is the Canadian equivalent of Ellis Island. As Canada’s immigration minister, Frederick Charles Blair worked to keep Jewish refugees out of Canada during World War II; the ugly phrase ‘None is too many’ is attributed to him in his role as director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. The Libeskind memorial was moved away for repairs after just one year, but after protests it was returned in 2015.19 This memorial makes literal and legible its call to activism to turn our wheel of conscience against all the cogs that typically work in tandem to shut out refugees and exclude racial others.

The largest wheel on Libeskind’s memorial, antisemitism, is moved by xenophobia, which is moved by racism, which is moved by hatred. These cogs all conspired to prevent the refugees on board the SS St. Louis from disembarking in Halifax (as they had conspired to prevent them from disembarking in Havana, or Miami) in 1939. Some 140,000 survivors of the Holocaust came to the US in the immediate years after World War II—an apparent testament to the idea of America as both an architect of liberation and refuge, as befits the contemporary interpretation of the Statue of Liberty (thanks to Lazarus’ poem). If only the US immigration response during the German Jewish refugees’ migration crisis leading up to and during World War II had been so inspiring: it was not. Similar mechanisms conspire to turn the wheels of hatred, racism, xenophobia, and antisemitism today. The acceptance of asylum-seekers is systematically prevented, and the spread of ‘white genocide’ conspiracy-thinking is facilitated instead; both are made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.20

The articles of this special issue confront these crises head on and help us pinpoint these continuities. ‘Confronting Hatred: Neo-Nazism, Antisemitism, and Holocaust Studies Today’ is structured around two principles: showing 1) how the hatreds of the past are increasingly being utilized by the far Right to feed into the present, and 2) how activist responses that openly address that past are, in turn, needed to make confronting those hatreds more effective. Our special issue opens with a discussion of the Italian fascist intellectual, antisemite, and conspiracy theorist Julius Evola, who died in 1974, but whose influence has been growing ever since World War II. In ‘The Evolian Imagination: Gender, Race, and Class from Fascism to the New Right,’ Robert Deam Tobin focuses on Evola’s writings that have helped fuel right-wing identity politics not just in Italy but in various countries, until becoming effectively mainstreamed in their current revival as applied by the American Alt-Right. Tobin thus offers a significant contribution by showcasing a key instance of the continuity of the past into the present. In so doing he upends the traditional scholarly narrative of a vanquished fascist history. Tobin’s article shows us how the genocidal racial war underpinning World War II has typically been distinguished from the current era, yet evidence is mounting that ‘the Evolian imagination—of a world of Tradition, harking back to pre-modern times, when intimately bonded elite men ruled, with clear-cut boundaries separating sexes, classes, and races,’ in conjunction with the racial hatred and antisemitism that accompanies such distinctions—is busy feeding into and attempting to destabilize today’s democracies.

This baton-passing of fascist mentalities is continued in Michelle Lynn Kahn’s essay, ‘The American Influence on German Neo-Nazism: An Entangled History of Hate, 1970s–1990s.’ By offering a literal trail of evidence for how neo-Nazism first gained a foothold in West Germany’s postwar but pre-internet years, Kahn effectively doubts the typical triumphalist heralding of the de-Nazification and democracy-building narrative of the Allied Occupation of West Germany. In fact, Kahn reveals it to be a tale of inadvertent re-Nazification, instead. As she reminds us, the paradoxical consequence of the cherished ‘US Cold War value of freedom of expression’ was no less than a flourishing of neo-Nazi networks in postwar West Germany, occurring at the very same time as the initial growth of Holocaust commemorative practices in the 1970s and 1980s. Worse yet, American transatlantic influence played, as Kahn states, ‘a crucial role.’ Through an analysis of the successful efforts of the American neo-Nazi Gary Rex Lauck (based in Lincoln, Nebraska) in building out the networks of the neo-Nazi organization, NSDAP/AO, until his arrest in 1995, Kahn shows how neo-Nazism spread in the pre-internet era from the US to (as well as throughout) West Germany—via Lauck’s masses of airmailed publications, multiple transatlantic visits, small activist cells, and transatlantic sharing of influences, texts, and mentors. By the time the Wall fell and a reunified Germany began, the West German networks that Lauck had helped to spread were very well positioned to facilitate the rapid catch-up of neo-Nazis from the former East German states.

Given the continuities and blending together of old and new fascisms, what are some effective ways for anti-racism and pro-democracy work to succeed in contemporary practice? Can racial hatred be mitigated by transforming institutional and legal frameworks? In educational settings, how can we resituate and improve the teaching of the Holocaust in relation to the goal of anti-racist societal transformation? As Joshua Shanes, historian of antisemitism, has stated: ‘Words matter’—both the words of hatred and, equally, the words of resistance and positive transformation.21 The next three articles of this special issue (by Heidi J. S. Tworek, Manuela Achilles and Hannah Winnick, and Atina Grossmann) offer pragmatic reflections on the anti-racist challenge. In ‘Fighting Hate with Speech Law: Media and German Visions of Democracy,’ Heidi J. S. Tworek explores the causes and consequences of Germany’s government opting for a censorship law that is aimed at curbing online hate speech. The Network Enforcement Act (Netzwerkdurchsetzungsgesetz, or NetzDG) of 2018 can be read as a specifically German response to quell the tide of conspiracy theories and violence against the (currently 1.77 million) refugees who were accepted into Germany after fleeing war and terror in the Middle East. The NetzDG law constitutes a strategic intervention by the former author nation of the Nuremberg Race Laws. It attempts to protect Germany’s latest immigrant arrivals at the highest level of the law and to shield against the concomitant rise of antisemitism and the overall impact of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), as well. Tworek’s article provides the first full analysis of the Network Enforcement Act’s regulatory ability to curb hate speech on social media platforms in Germany, but her article simultaneously ponders the limitations of such laws intended to safeguard a tolerant democracy. Can successful progressive activism ever be forged in this way, or are the human rights protection principles of such regulations ultimately unsustainable? Beyond the principle of criticism of censorship of free speech, Tworek points to how a domino effect of this law has ended up lending a helping hand to authoritarian governments seeking to apply similar measures but for their own purposes.

The turn toward activist civic engagement in pedagogy, called for and instantiated by our special issue’s contributors Manuela Achilles and Hannah Winnick, is a timely response to the 2017 Charlottesville events at which neo-Nazis chanted the white-genocidal tenet of ‘Jews will not replace us’ during their protests to keep pro-Confederate statues in place. In ‘Memory, Responsibility, and Transformation: Antiracist Pedagogy, Holocaust Education, and Community Outreach in Transatlantic Perspective,’ Achilles and Winnick offer an eloquent series of reflections on ‘history’s architectural power over society today,’ while at the same time sharing a practical syllabus-based experience that inspires students to engage the past and help make a better democratic future. Achilles and Winnick explain the impact of a series of guest residencies by German academics, artists, and activists, working both with students on the University of Virginia campus and with community partners in the Charlottesville locality, and funded by the partnership initiative between the university and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. Their pedagogical narrative demonstrates some of the ways in which the US might come to learn ‘from,’ ‘with,’ or ‘through’ the Germans (to further adapt Susan Neiman’s book title) and perhaps yet arrive at the stage where elected leaders pay reparations, engage in more activist commemorations, and acknowledge more responsibility for the crimes committed against minorities by the nation in its past iterations. Achilles and Winnick point to the incremental yet bold steps of ‘intersectional solidarity’ that they encourage students to take toward such goals. At the same time, one of the exchange scholar–activists invited to Charlottesville, Ármin Langer, reminds us of the many hurdles that US society faces before more overt successes with American equivalents with Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung may be reached. The deadly violence of neo-Nazi protests and terror attacks prepare us for the sheer scale of human rights memory work needed for the present and future; it has also prompted the UVA–Böll Foundation partnership, which exemplifies how groups working toward progressive activism can be more effective together than apart.

The challenge of bridging from Holocaust history to new urgent contexts of antiracism is also addressed by Atina Grossmann in the article ‘Holocaust Studies in Our Age of Catastrophe.’ How do we assert the significance of the Holocaust in relation to contemporary decolonizing paradigms? Grossmann points to the Holocaust’s relative erasure, for the generation we are teaching, from its former prestige position as a cultural reference point, and yet she also acknowledges its obvious importance for the extreme Right, as well as its renewed potential for the decolonizing curriculum. Relevant intersectional pedagogical strategies already enacted by Grossmann in her own research include communicating Holocaust studies as a transnational, experiential narrative still in need of much remapping—via, for example, the global stories of Jewish refugees, especially those who reached non-Western, colonial countries, and of Jews in non-Ashkenazi communities, the gendered and sexual experiences of victims and survivors, and the expanded geographical limits of the Holocaust, such as the Soviet Union as a place of precarious refuge for Jews. Grossmann’s goal is both to ‘integrate and differentiate’ the multiple histories of the Holocaust as they relate to the catastrophic challenges of our era.

Our final essay, by David N. Myers, notes how the Trump presidency years were marked by a rapid rise of hate speech in public discourse and violence against minorities. The Anti-Defamation League’s 2019 audit of antisemitic acts in the US found ‘the highest number on record since ADL began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979.’22 In ‘The Perils of Naming: On Donald Trump, Jews, and Antisemites,’ Myers focuses on the way in which name-calling became part of a successful rhetorical strategy for Donald Trump both before and during (and now no doubt also after) his presidency. His administration, as Myers reminds us, began with Trump naming Jews by not naming them during Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2017. To name a person or group in a new way external to their wishes is to wish to own or control them; to purposefully avoid naming them, when it is the expected time and place to do so, is to attempt to force them into a forgotten void. Myers’ essay advocates for greater attention to be paid to society’s need for a clear ‘ethics of naming,’ wherein a ‘group’s right to define itself (often in multiple ways)’ could be expected and respected. Instead, we were given the December 2019 Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism, which as Myers explains ostensibly protects American Jews against discrimination but in practice shifts them away from citizenship as a potentially separate group or even race, and positions American Jewish loyalty as indivisible from Zionist loyalty. Myers’ reflection on the shortcomings of this executive order reveals it to be ‘deeply problematic and unavoidable’—problematic because of the racist and reductionist recategorization of Jews, and unavoidable because any attempt at legislatively protecting a group from discriminatory protection also includes an attempt at naming them.

Timothy Snyder has usefully advocated that we ‘take responsibility for the face of the world’ and ‘notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate.’23 The six wide-ranging, courageous, and forthright contributions to this special issue have done just that, and they can help inspire The Journal of Holocaust Research readership to mobilize against those signs.

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