How Should We Protest Neo-Nazis? Lessons From German History

| Strategize!

Above Photo: A supporter of President Donald Trump, center, argues with a counterprotester at a rally in Boston on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2017. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many people are asking themselves what they should do if Nazis rally in their city. Should they put their bodies on the line in counterdemonstrations? Some say yes.

History says no. Take it from me: I study the original Nazis.

We have an ethical obligation to stand against fascism and racism. But we also have an ethical obligation to do so in a way that doesn’t help the fascists and racists more than it hurts them.

History repeats itself

Charlottesville was right out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, running for seats in Germany’s Parliament. For most of that time, it was a small, marginal group. In 1933, riding a wave of popular support, it seized power and set up a dictatorship. The rest is well-known.

It was in 1927, while still on the political fringes, that the Nazi Party scheduled a rally in a decidedly hostile location – the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-of-center that the neighborhood had the nickname “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies right where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The people of Wedding were determined to fight back against fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents showed up too, organized by the local Communist Party. The antifascists tried to disrupt the rally, heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive brawl. Almost 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt they had won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the rally in Wedding helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the brawl got them media attention. But what was far, far more important was how it fed an escalating spiral of street violence. That violence helped the fascists enormously.

Violent confrontations with antifascists gave the Nazis a chance to paint themselves as the victims of a pugnacious, lawless left. They seized it.

It worked. We know now that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. Germans opened their morning newspapers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Voters and opposition politicians alike came to believe the government needed special police powers to stop violent leftists. Dictatorship grew attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting the violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was to gain emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to suppress leftist violence

Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a Communist neighborhood in Berlin on Jan. 22, 1933. Thirty-five Nazis, Communists and police were injured during clashes. AP Photo

Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a Communist neighborhood in Berlin on Jan. 22, 1933. Thirty-five Nazis, Communists and police were injured during clashes. AP Photo

The left takes the heat

In the court of public opinion, accusations of mayhem and chaos in the streets will, as a rule, tend to stick against the left, not the right.

This was true in Germany in the 1920s. It was true even when opponents of fascism acted in self-defense or tried to use relatively mild tactics, such as heckling. It is true in the United States today, where even peaceful rallies against racist violence are branded riots in the making.

Today, right extremists are going around the country staging rallies just like the one in 1927 in Wedding. According to the civil rights advocacy organization the Southern Poverty Law Center, they pick places where they know antifascists are present, like university campuses. They come spoiling for physical confrontation. Then they and their allies spin it to their advantage.

A demonstration on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

A demonstration on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

I watched this very thing happen steps from my office on the University of Washington campus. Last year, a right extremist speaker came. He was met by a counterprotest. One of his supporters shot a counterprotester. On stage, in the moments after the shooting, the right extremist speaker claimed that his opponents had sought to stop him from speaking “by killing people.” The fact that it was one of the speaker’s supporters, a right extremist and Trump backer, who engaged in what prosecutors now claim was an unprovoked and premeditated act of violence, has never made national news.

We saw this play out after Charlottesville, too. President Donald Trump said there was violence “on both sides.” It was an incredible claim. Heyer, a peaceful protester, and 19 other people were intentionally hit by a neo-Nazi driving a car. He seemed to portray Charlottesville as another example of what he has referred to elsewhere as “violence in our streets and chaos in our communities,” including, it seems, Black Lives Matter, which is a nonviolent movement against violence. He stirred up fearTrump recently said that police are too constrained by existing law.

President Trump tried it again during the largely peaceful protests in Boston – he called the tens of thousands who gathered there to protest racism and Nazism “anti-police agitators,” though later, in a characteristic about-face, he praised them.

President Trump’s claims are hitting their mark. A CBS News poll found that a majority of Republicans thought his description of who was to blame for the violence in Charlottesville was “accurate.”

This violence, and the rhetoric about it coming from the administration, are echoes – faint but nevertheless frightening echoes – of a well-documented pattern, a pathway by which democracies devolve into dictatorships.

The Antifa

There’s an additional wrinkle: the antifa. When Nazis and white supremacists rally, the antifa are likely to show up, too.

“Antifa” is short for antifascists, though the name by no means includes everyone who opposes fascism. The antifa is a relatively small movement of the far left, with ties to anarchism. It arose in Europe’s punk scene in the 1980s to fight neo-Nazism.

The antifa says that because Nazism and white supremacy are violent, we must use any means necessary to stop them. This includes physical means, like what they did on my campus: forming a crowd to block ticket-holders from entering a venue to hear a right extremist speak.

The antifa’s tactics often backfire, just like those of Germany’s communist opposition to Nazism did in the 1920s. Confrontations escalate. Public opinion often blames the left no matter the circumstances.

What to do?

One solution: Hold a counterevent that doesn’t involve physical proximity to the right extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among its recommendations: If the alt-right rallies, “organize a joyful protest” well away from them. Ask people they have targeted to speak. But “as hard as it may be to resist yelling at alt-right speakers, do not confront them.”

This does not mean ignoring Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.

The cause Heather Heyer died for is best defended by avoiding the physical confrontation that the people who are responsible for her death want.

 

  • rjochs

    2017 America is not 1933 Germany. Demographics are different. In 20 years we will be majority non white. In Germany most people were anti-Jewish. Here most people are not anti-Black or anti-Hispanic or even anti-Muslim. I do not expect fascism to arise from fighting the KKK. The governments and media are sympathetic with removing statues. We won in Charlottesville by getting statues removed in many cities. Without the publicity, that would not have happened.

    Having said that, I think the author has a point in having separate gatherings when racists try to provoke us. That is a good idea, but for a different reason. The real Nazis are not in the streets but in the suites. The street Nazis are a diversion from the schemes of the real Nazis, who are the right wing bourgeoisie. The latter are the ones who want war and a police state and suppression of the working class.

    So I propose when the street fascists show up anywhere, we call a rally elsewhere against a bank, politician, agency or corporation. Instead of a “joy festival,” we aim anger at corporate exploitation.

    Our message: “Fight the real fascists, the criminal banksters”, “Race war is a diversion from class struggle”, “Banks, not minorities, are the enemy”. “Warmongers, not scapegoats, are the enemy”. “Bankers are more dangerous than the KKK”, “NSA is more dangerous than KKK”, “CIA is more trouble than KKK”, “War Machine is more dangerous than KKK”, “Fight City Hall, not losers”, “Fight Wall Street, not losers”, In govt bldgs: “Whose suites? Our suites”, “Beware deliberate fascist diversion!”, “Real fascism is Wall Street”, “Fight real fascism: Wall Street”, “Don’t waste ammo on decoys”, etc etc etc.

  • DHFabian

    The past thirty-plus years of behaving nicely have achieved very little. Here, I think of the Poor People’s Campaign.They can hold very good rallies in designated protest zones, that end up serving the sole purpose of hearing themselves speak. The message that comes to the rally, stays in the rally.

    THERE is no playbook, no single strategy to deal with the tremendously complex, urgent issues we face today. Just understand that, for a good chunk of the population, the arguments and rules laid out by the “liberal bourgeoisie” don’t make sense today.

  • mwildfire

    Some good points, but this piece begs the question: WHY is it that the public blames the left for violence provoked, and often largely carried out, by the right? Answer–because the media is allied with the right, and they see to it that public opinion is never sympathetic to the left. I oppose violence, I even oppose tolerating the “diversity of tactics” brigade in our actions. But I will point out that, even if we adhered 100% to this, all the opposition has to do is dress a few cops in black, send them among us, and have them smash up a few local businesses and cars–as they were caught doing in Genoa during an international demonstration (I think it was a G8 meeting). Likely locals there to this day think the cops were justified in attacking the peaceful demonstrators after “those thugs” did all that mayhem. Likely the reporters actually filming never knew how they were manipulated. I think the efforts to ridicule the fascists and to do “joyful” stuff like dance parties, alongside the fascists, make sense.

  • BRAVO! it’s white supremacists/fascists in the suites that have always been behind those in the streets (such as White Citizen Councils in southern states who quietly backed the KKK, to enforce Jim Crow).