The American Reluctance to Fight Nazis

This piece also appears in the February 2017 issue of the monitor .

There is a righteous scene in the 1992 film Chaplin where a German diplomat with a swastika lapel pin greets the title character. When Chaplin responds to the man’s outstretched arm by saying “I’m sorry, I prefer not to shake hands with Nazis,” the other partygoers become embarrassed and apologetic. The exchange was invented for the film in order to represent Chaplin’s anti-Nazi position, but the situation that it represents is very real.

For at least the first five years of Hitler’s rule, American government and media largely downplayed the Nazi party’s militant anti-Semitism, and prior to the German invasion of Poland, the majority of the American public opposed accepting Jewish refugees from Europe. The growing atrocities of the German state were not entirely unknown however, and Jewish-Americans and anti-fascists had opposed Nazism from the beginning while mainstream America avoided the Hitler dilemma until the German conquest of Europe forced them to respond. For the majority of Americans, sentimentality and patriotism, rather than a disgust of white-supremacy and fascism, caused their hatred of Nazis.

In 1941, the United States officially began to fight against the Hitler regime for two basic reasons that coalesced with Germany’s Dec. 11 declaration of war—the Nazis were at war with our nation’s allies, and they themselves were an ally of Japan, who of course had just attacked Pearl Harbor. Additional anti-German sentiment derived from America’s horrific fight against the Central Power during the previous generation. If the American people and their government had been primarily interested in intervening against white-supremacist imperialism, then they should have tried both to undermine Hitler earlier and also to mobilize against their own violent Jim Crow culture.

Seventy-five years later, something very similar to Nazism is gaining ground throughout Europe and the United Sates as right-wing demagogues are summoning political strength from the pervasive fascism that fills their respective national boundaries. While millions are pushing back against the disgusting power-grabs of elites like Trump and Erdogan, the critical mass remains entrenched in the sentimentality and fear that entice nationalism. Whenever the refusal to stand for the national anthem offends people more than their government’s direct or indirect involvement in genocide and torture, then a body of people is embracing a superficial and nihilistic model of patriotism at a great cost to humanity and the planet.

In the 1930s, the Nuremberg Laws in Germany and the Jim Crow laws in the United States made Jewish and Black Americans, respectively, second-class citizens and facilitated widespread violence against them. While thousands of people lived in daily opposition to such oppression, hundreds of thousands remained ignorant, indifferent, or impotent to such atrocities, which allowed the oppression to grow into indescribable magnitudes of suffering. Now, as the U.S. executive publicly condones torture and bars refugees of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the time has come for those of us who find resistance uncomfortable to acclimate to conflict and sacrifice and to help proliferate dissent. If we, along with our families, friends, and neighbors, overemphasize our personal legacies, then our collective human inheritance will become the ultimate tragedy. We must overcome reluctance in order to enact the freedom and security that we desire.