Didn’t he know they lost the war?
It seemed like a legitimate question at the time. I had just told a friend of mine that a guy he’d just met was in fact a former Neo-Nazi. My friend had laughed, and asked that question. To him the very idea that anyone, at any point in their life, would choose to be a Nazi seemed absurd. The Nazis did, if nothing else, lose the war. For him, and most ordinary people, the fact that Nazism = bad idea, falls into the bloody obvious category.
So why are Neo-Nazis still a thing?
Why would anyone find Nazism appealing after the horrifying madman’s train-wreck of World War Two?
To answer my friend’s joking question, losing the war didn’t necessarily discredit Nazi ideology. The belief in the superiority of the Aryan master race is not necessarily touched by the defeat of Germany. Aryans and Germans are not the same thing. The fact that the Germans failed… a disaster yes, an epic propaganda disaster for sure, but not a Jesus-coming-back-and-telling-you-he’s-a-Satanist kind of disaster.
And besides, you can always blame the Jews. Good old Jews.
If anything it’s a surprise there aren’t more Nazis. Think about it. What happened to them all?
With the end of the war, the Allied occupation, the Nuremberg trials, and Denazification, ye olde Nazism-original officially came to an end. Before that millions of people had been gripped by fanatical Nazi fervor. Then it was over. Nazism faded away. Indeed even before the end, Nazi fanatics failed to fight to the death as would have been expected. Where did they all go?
The sudden vanishing of mass Nazism may in large part be due to the nature of Totalitarianism. This form of totalizing government doesn’t so much persuade people of the truth of its ideology, as through sheer force of terror create an alternative reality in which the ideology is true. It is made true. Jews live in filthy ghettos. Therefore Jews are rats. And if Jews weren’t rats, then why did we put them in filthy ghettos? Alternative facts meets concentration camps.
The Allied defeat of Hitler’s Germany was not an act of persuasion. Instead it destroyed the alternate reality created by the Nazis. When the Nazis lost control, the Nazi universe ceased to be real. Everyone could sit up, shake off the dream, and carry on into the newly restored non-Nazi reality.
Nazism went back to how it had been in the beginning – a fringe group of true-believers. A number of Nazis continued some form of Nazism long after the war, providing a nucleus around which Neo-Nazism as we know it could form. Nazis and fascists also existed outside Germany: in other Axis powers, among collaborators of the occupied nations, and fascist parties across the world. These too allowed Nazism and its varieties to persist one way or another.
It’s understandable that Germans and fascists would still feel the pull of Nazism after the war. But why did Neo-Nazism end up so visibly present in nations like Britain and the USA – nations that pride themselves on having defeated Nazism? Isn’t a Nazi American a contradiction, a traitor to the nation by default? And stranger too, why is Neo-Nazism in places as disconnected from the whole WWII story as Mongolia and Taiwan?
To understand that you must understand what Nazism is actually about.
Nazism is universal. Nazism goes well beyond mere German nationalism. Nazism isn’t even about Germans. Nazism is about race, and race transcends all nations and all borders. This race ideology is more than mere racism. This is racism as a political movement. This is racism as the key to history. This is racism as the meaning of life.
To put it over-simplistically, Nazism is a religion of racism.
This religiosity can be quite literal. One of the ways Nazism survived the war was in the form of Esoteric Nazism. This gets drunk-fruitcake level weird: Hitler is a Hindu avatar, Aryans are from space, Jews are the work of Satan…. It’s a mash-up of Gnosticsm, ancient aliens, and Jewish genetic robots. Other Neo-Nazis prefer to dive into Norse paganism, satanism, and more. Ludicrous to outsiders perhaps, the esoterica does serve at least one purpose. It pushes the idea of race, the key dogma of Nazism, out of the world of scientific reality, and up onto the unassailable high ground of faith. Up in the clouds racism can live forever.
Even stepping back from these explicitly religious forms of Nazism, Neo-Nazis do come across a little religiousy. They come up with lists of eternal truths. They argue over arcane technicalities about who is and isn’t a member of the race. More entertainingly, or more worryingly, they have been known to engage in the make-yourself-relevant recruiting tactics that cheesy Christians are best known for. Take Nipsters for example: Nazi hipsters. Apparently the whole skinheads-in-trench-coats-threatening-to-kill-you look scares people. So they tried a hipsters-sipping-lattes-threatening-to-kill-you look. Anything to make Hitler cool for the kids of today.
Speaking of Skinheads, more important than any outward resemblance to religion is the role Neo-Nazism plays in it’s members lives – a role similar to that of a religion. If you’re not a Skinhead then you might not realize that Skinhead and Neo-Nazi are different things. You can in fact be an anti-fascist Skinhead. But if you can understand why Skinheads have become inseparably identified with Neo-Nazism then you’ll understand Nazism’s perennial appeal.
Nazism meets psychological needs.
Racism as an ideology, Nazi style racism-as-the-meaning-of-life, is a trembling hand grasping for a lost sense of identity. Belonging. Someone to be. Something to fight for. An explanation. A purpose. A destiny.
When all other group identities are stripped away from you, the most basic thing you have left, second only to gender, is race: the pure physical fact that I look like you, and you look like me. Therefore, says the race-ideologue, surely we must belong together. Do we not share a common identity… at some level… somewhere?
Say yes, and on this foundation you can build an identity, a purpose, a political movement.
The reality is that race suffers from the same problem as all other forms of mass identity, like patriotism and religion: most members of the mass group have never met. When they do they routinely discover that their differences mean as much to them as their commonalty. The reality is that ideological racists only experience true solidarity with themselves – to the extent that they have carved out a community within this world. But by claiming me, and you, and anyone else who looks like them, ideological racists make themselves part of something much larger. A world-historical struggle. A grand narrative in which they have a purpose, they have a place, and they belong.
They can belong even when they are alone.
They can belong even when they don’t belong anywhere. They can stare at the strangers in the shopping mall and think to themselves, “I am one of you. I am fighting for us. We are one people… if only you would wake up to your race.”
Racism also allows an escape from identifying with humanity as a whole. A strange desire? We take our common humanity as a given nowadays. We are all human. Obvious. But to truly identify with all of humanity is actually a terrifying prospect.
If you see yourself as a Citizen of the World, if you personally identify yourself first and foremost as a human being, then you must accept into your self-identity the horrifying realities of the human species. Cannibals. Rapists. Drug addicts. Lunatics. The homeless. Fraudsters. Filth. Smell. Hypocrisy. Fools. Strange rituals. Frightening faces. Slaves. Black and white and all the shades in between. Accepting your humanity can be as difficult as accepting your animal side. Racism lets you escape a common human nature, just like believing in immortal souls lets you escape a common animal nature.
Splitting humanity into races has a further psychological upside. Identify the right racial group for the task, and you can make everything you hate about the world flesh and blood. Then you can lash out. Beat the human voodoo doll to a pulp. Antisemitism is no accident. The Nazis singled out the Jews for a reason. Historically Jews were associated with banking, internationalism, and the government. The very things people had come to hate. You can’t stab abstract internationalism. But you can stab Jews.
While Neo-Nazis can’t let go of the Jews – it’s tradition – immigrants have become a more meaningful group to hate for today’s racists. They are our modern symbols of the globalized world. The world that uproots people, destroys communities, annihilates solidarity, fragments identity, and has left the working class, and much of the middle-class, insecure, hopeless, and angry. The super-rich and all those abstract global forces are out of reach, too hard to see, too hard to touch. But immigrants are in your face. And they scream when you hit them.
Alienation. Ugliness. Hate. Fear. Hopelessness. Confusion. Anger. The psychological bread of Nazism.
Which brings us back to the Skinheads. They started out as a 1960s British working class subculture. Hence practical buzz-cuts and work-men’s boots. Working class youth were simply one of the earlier and more prominent groups to express the angry despairing alienation of modern times. Hence why one of their styles – the Skinhead – has become the style of Neo-Nazism.
While some people find Nazism (and ideological racism more broadly) desirable on its own merits, or because that’s just their background, the experiences of the alienated poor make Nazism all the more appealing – the same way joining a gang is appealing. Nazism is a religion for gangs.
Poor neighborhoods are the most exposed to humanity’s ugliness, the place where it’s easiest to give up on the notion of a brotherhood of mankind. A philosophy of division, of hate, of exclusion, of the lust for power feels more natural when your experience of the world is of division, of hatred, of exclusion, and of a desperate need for power.
Nazism can give it all a justification.
A reason to hate. A reason to crack skulls. A reason to exclude the world that excludes you. A reason to feel powerful. A reason to feel good about yourself when you have absolutely nothing to feel good about.
Nazism gives you an explanation for why your life is shit. The poor black kids can blame slavery. The poor indigenous kids can blame colonialism. But what about the poor white kid? What is he supposed to do? All he gets is society’s all consuming belief in meritocracy – where everybody gets what they deserve. Therefore we tell him that his life is shit because he is shit. And if that weren’t enough, do-gooders then go slap absurdity on top of insult. They demand he think of himself as white. Then they ask him to feel guilty about it. Over-privileged complaining white kid. Loser.
Nazism can take all that shame away.
Nazism lets you take pride in your blood – the one thing nothing can take from you. Nazism lets you go and make the black boy next door bleed, grind his teeth into the pavement, because you know in your gut that the fastest way to stop being at the bottom of the pile is to forget about pulling down the guy on top. Forget about the rich kids. No. The quickest way to stop being on the bottom of the heap is to beat down the guy standing next to you, and stand on his face. That is the promise of Nazism. You don’t have to be a loser anymore.
Of course racism isn’t the only form of gang-land salvation on offer. If you’ve got a Middle Eastern background then ISIS and its suicidal dreams of global empire fill the same role. For a white kid in the West the Neo-Nazis are simply the more logical choice. But it’s no surprise really to discover the story of teenaged Devon Arthurs, who switched from Neo-Nazi to radical Islamist, then murdered his Nazi friends for blasphemy.
Which reminds me of that mutual acquaintance, that guy my friend and I were talking about, the ex-Neo-Nazi. His choices seem somewhat less absurd now. Our acquaintance had also escaped Nazism by finding God. It seems to be a common enough way to leave the fascist flock. I heard him give his testimony once, the story of how he got saved. He told how he’d grown up feeling rootless. He had no identity. But then he’d found his roots in his grandfather – a grandfather who’d grown up in Nazi occupied territory. A grandfather who’d developed a long-abiding admiration for his Nazi conquerors. It’s a typical enough Neo-Nazi story: one part true Nazi legacy, one part identity crisis.
And so our acquaintance found himself in a Skinhead world, contemplating if he should shave his own head, go all in, his heart a pressure cooker of hatred for every non-white person around him. Until he snapped – swapped love for hate and went looking for a better religion. Jesus was the new Hitler. A happy ending then. Although, as we chatted after he’d given his life-story speech, he did express his approval for hunting down and murdering abortion doctors. Old habits I guess…. Still, I suppose it was an improvement over wanting to murder four-fifths of humanity for being born.
So why are Nazis still a thing? Perhaps we should ask, when will Nazis not be a thing?
As long as society has members who feel alienated and lost we are going to have Neo-Nazis. At the very least, we will have something like them. Even if we expunge racism from existence something else will fill the psychological vacuum. Rage always finds a way out. Alienation doesn’t sleep quiet. If you want the Nazis to go away, then make the pain go away.
Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:
Hannah Arendt, “The Origins of Totalitarianism”. A book well worth reading if you want to understand Nazism and Totalitarianism more generally. A preview on Google Books, here.
An example of Esoteric Nazism, Miguel Serrano’s 1984 book “Adolf Hitler The Ultimate Avatar”, here.
Read about Nipsters and Neo-Nazi struggles with branding and fashion in “Heil Hipster: The Young Neo-Nazis Trying to Put a Stylish Face on Hate”, in the Rolling Stone, here.
The unfortunate case of Neo-Nazi turn Islamic fundamentalist Devon Arthurs, in the New York Post, here.
The Turner Diaries, the novel that inspired Timothy McVeigh and other acts of terrorism. This novel that will show you what the world looks like if you’re a Neo-Nazi. A brief summary from the Encyclopedia Britannica, here.
Neo-Nazis turn up in some unexpected places. “Mongolian Neo-Nazis: Anti-Chinese sentiment fuels rise of ultra-nationalism”, in the Guardian, here.
Life stories of former Neo-Nazi’s, on Reddit, here.