By Arlene Stein
At a summer camp in northwest New Jersey, cabins surround a lake. A photograph from 1937 shows hundreds of teenage boys dressed in light brown shirts and shorts, and girls in white blouses and black skirts carrying flags. At first, it looks like a typical summer camp of that era. But on a closer look, one sees pressed uniforms, lockstep marching, and flags with swastikas, alongside stars and stripes.
On 205 acres, Camp Nordland was the largest of more than 20 camps established by the German-American Bund, “America’s Brownshirts,” in the 1930s. At camp rallies and storefront meetings, Bund supporters pledged to make the United States ’'a white man’s Christian country again.” They denounced the “melting pot” as a Jewish invention and gave one another the fascist salute while chanting “Heil Hitler, Heil America!”
As a child in Newark in the 1930s, author Philip Roth witnessed the activities of American fascists, including rallies, denunciations of Jews and communists, and brawls. In his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, he altered historical reality to make aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, America’s 33rd president while keeping everything else “as close to factual truth as I could.” After Trump’s election, reviewers saw the novel as eerily prescient; few seemed to recognize that the author based much of it on reality.
The truth is that white supremacist and fascist-inspired movements have been a recurrent part of our history. They were particularly strong during the 1930s and early 1940s, when dozens of extremist groups in this country openly espoused racist, anti-Semitic and authoritarian ideologies, and many of them called for armed revolt. Tens of thousands of Americans dedicated themselves to white Christian supremacist activities and many more were casual supporters.
Historian Philip Jenkins writes that in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the active membership of extreme rightist organizations numbered 2,000 between 1938 and 1941, with some 20,000 supporters and associates. Though they did not speak with one voice, they shared the goal of white Christian domination over Blacks, Jews, communists and immigrants, and were often willing to use violence to achieve their goals. Unlike their European counterparts, they never gained formal political power. Yet groups such as the Silver Shirts, Black Legion, Christian Front and German American Bund exerted influence by consolidating popular support for immigration restrictions, delaying the entry of the United States into World War II and suppressing working-class organizing.
Today, as thousands of Americans openly espouse violent racist and anti-Semitic beliefs and our now former president mobilizes them to wield power, this history has largely been forgotten. Yet our shock is made possible by this collective forgetting.
We sociologists know that “collective memory,” the term coined by Maurice Halbwachs in 1950 to describe the parts of history that we remember, does not emerge spontaneously. Understandably, few have wished to commemorate this shameful part of our national past. That is why there are no local statues to commemorate racist extremists or even those who fought them in local communities. More curious is the fact that this history is rarely, if ever, taught in classrooms.
Perhaps, this is because some view these extremist groups as comprised of deviant outsiders. The fact that some of them, like the Bund or the Italian Blackshirts, were organized by new immigrants with ties to fascists in Europe gave rise to the belief that far-right extremists were literally a foreign import. But most far-right activists were local small business people who were well integrated into their communities, family men (and occasionally women) and mainly American born.
Further contributing to this erasure was the fact that when the United States entered World War II, many extremist organizations were outlawed, their adherents shamed and ideologies repudiated — or so many believed. But the belief that our nation rightly “belongs” to white Christians has long appealed to a sizeable minority of Americans — or Donald Trump would not have been able to tap into these beliefs and mobilize them toward destructive ends.
Today, Camp Nordland is used as recreational fields for Sussex County. The huge swastika emblazoned on the ceiling of the original clubhouse is gone, but the building still stands. When local historian Wayne McCabe conducts slideshows about the history of the camp, some people resent his effort to dredge up difficult memories. “They can’t deal with this history,” he tells me. “But I want people to know.”
In the wake of our national racial reckoning, statues honoring confederate leaders in the South are now the subject of long-overdue attention. It is important, too, for us to teach our children about the local history of violent white Christian supremacy because it continues to haunt us.
Arlene Stein is a distinguished professor of sociology at Rutgers University. She is the author of “Reluctant Witnesses: Survivors, their Children, and the Rise of Holocaust Consciousness.”