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What links US and German neo-Nazis?

August 17, 2017

Swastikas on shields. Cries of "Blood and Soil." Nazi symbols and slogans were on full display in the Charlottesville confrontations. DW looks at where US and German neo-Nazis overlap.

Members of the Unite the Right rally carrying shields
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/A. Lohr-Jones

Confederate flags were to be expected at last weekend's far-right "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. After all, the organizers' self-described purpose was to protest the removal of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who led the South in the American Civil War in its fight to secede and continue slavery. But alongside white supremacists and white nationalists, the rally also drew neo-Nazi groups, who brought swastikas, anti-Semitic epithets and T-shirts splayed with the words "Blood and Soil."

Though the rise and fall of the Nazi party took place in Germany, Nazi ideology is alive and well in the United States.

Read more: White supremacy and neo-Nazis in the US - what you need to know

A Ku Klux Klan member in a white hood holds out his arm
There are more than 90 far-right hate groups in the United StatesImage: Getty Images

A transatlantic history

To understand the present day, Federico Finchelstein, an expert in the history of transatlantic fascism at the New School, said it is important to remember there are strong historical ties between German and American Nazism that go back to before the rise of the Nazi party. The Nazi party admired US racist and segregationist policy during the early 20th century, modeling its Nuremberg laws on Jim Crow legislation, which mandated public segregation.

Hitler himself admired German stories about the American West by Karl May. "His idea was that the US was an example of Aryan conquest," Finchelstein told DW. Hitler's belief is echoed in many American neo-Nazis' perception of themselves as inheritors of the Aryan legacy.

Numerous neo-Nazi movements rose and fell in the US, including the German American Bund in the 1930s, the American Nazi Party in 1959, and the National Alliance, founded by William Pierce in 1974.

Members of the German-American Bund parading through the streets of New York City
The groups that marched in Virginia aren't the first neo-Nazis the US has seenImage: Getty Images/Three Lions

The nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes in the US, has reported that 99 neo-Nazi groups - those that admire Hitler and perceive "the Jew" as their primary enemy - exist in the United States today, with many having attended the Charlottesville rally.

Nazi symbols

The neo-Nazi groups there displayed Nazi symbols including the infamous swastika, an ancient symbol used by Hitler as the Nazi Party's primary symbol. But other Nazi emblems were present, too. These included the Othala, a pre-Roman rune used by the National Socialist Movement of America since November 2016 that once was a favored symbol of the Nazi party. They also showed off the Black Sun, a symbol favored by Heinrich Himmler, a leading Nazi and chief of the paramilitary SS.

Read more: Growing anti-Semitism in the US

Neo-Nazis in Germany wearing jackets with Black Sun symbol on the back
The Black Sun symbol, seen here on neo-Nazis in Germany, also was seen in CharlottesvilleImage: Imago/Michael Trammer

Some of the far-right protesters came dressed in Nazi-era style steel helmets and fully armed in paramilitary style. In Finchelstein's opinion, invocation of violence evokes fascist ideology, such as Nazism.

He also said there "is a clear understanding" in the United States of what the German Nazi symbols mean and that people showing them were aware of their significance. 

'Blood and Soil'

No less present than the symbols of Nazi ideology were words - both written and heard - whose roots lie in Nazism.

Supporters of Vanguard America, one neo-Nazi group present at the Charlottesville protest, bore shirts with the group's slogan "Blood and Soil" and chanted it aloud. The phrase is a translation from the German "Blut und Boden," which expressed the idea dear to Nazis that ethnic purity is based on blood descent and land.

Read more: Three things that make the violence by the extreme right in Charlottesville unique

Other far-right individuals were members of some 31 Troll Army "book clubs" founded by the neo-Nazi newspaper The Daily Stormer. The daily digital publication takes its name from "Der Stürmer," a Nazi propaganda newspaper founded by Julius Streicher in 1923 that advocated for the extermination of the Jews.

Anti-Semitic sentiment went beyond this group association to explicit statements, with nighttime neo-Nazi marchers crying, "Jews will not replace us," and at least one white nationalist captured in a Washington Post video saying his goal was "killing Jews."

Links between leaders?

Though the historical ties and the common ideology between neo-Nazi movements in the US and Germany are well documented, the proven extent of ties between German and American neo-Nazi organizations today remain more nebulous. Most connections fall into the blurry area of extreme right-wing groups that deny neo-Nazi missions even as they employ elements of the ideology.

Read more: A guide to Germany's far-right groups

National Alliance founder Pierce died in 2002, but the neo-Nazi "frequently moved in NPD circles and spoke at NPD gatherings" in Germany, Thomas Drumke, an expert on US right-wing extremism at the Technical College for Public Administration, told DW, using the acronym for the right-wing National Democratic Party of Germany.

Drumke also said Richard Spencer, a leader of the "alt-right" - a catch-all branding euphemism for mainly US far-right, nationalist and white supremacy groups - "maintains very close ties to the Identitarians" in Europe. This group denies that they are neo-Nazis - as does Spencer - with both claiming a desire to preserve white identity. Spencer made headlines in November 2016 when he repurposed Hitler's "Sieg Heil" cry with his words, "Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!" and was greeted with Nazi stiff-arm salutes from the audience.

Spencer spoke at the Charlottesville rally, where the Identitarian-inspired American spin-off group Identity EVROPA was also present.

Additionally, the Institute for State Policy, a think tank in Schnellroda, Germany, that advocates turning away from modern liberal democracy, invited US white supremacist leader Jack Donovan to speak at a February 2017 conference. The think tank's other guests have included members of the NPD, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Identitarians.