The alt-right rally Friday night at the University of Virginia campus and Saturday in the city of Charlottesville is technically about a statue of Robert E. Lee. But common to many participants in the rally is a willingness to use — and celebrate — Nazi symbols and ideology.
Friday’s protesters shouted anti-Semitic and Nazi-associated slogans, including "blood and soil”: a phrase that references the German ideology of Blut und Boden, or the idea that a person is defined by his or her relationship to ethnic ancestry (blood) and the land they cultivate (soil).
Protesters also shouted “Jews will not replace us” (a more explicitly anti-Semitic take on “you will not replace us,” a white-supremacist alt-right slogan that arose in response to actor Shia LaBoeuf’s anti-Trump performance art piece “He Will Not Divide Us”).
Attendees at the rally also wore Nazi paraphernalia, carried flags with swastikas alongside Confederate flags, and wore shirts with quotations by Adolf Hitler.
Protesters are doing something more terrifying than expressing hatred
The use of anti-Semitic slurs and display of Nazi imagery is ubiquitous among certain factions of the alt-right. But the rhetoric and imagery of Charlottesville, in which the tropes of the Ku Klux Klan — including the burning torches of Friday’s protest — and the trappings of Nazism collide, is particularly unsettling. In adopting the Nazified ideology of Blut und Boden, the Charlottesville demonstrators aren’t just expressing hatred against one group of people, which would be sickening enough on its own.
Rather, they’re doing something even more terrifying: advocating for a radically reactionary understanding of societal relations that’s predicated on the idea that people are solely obligated to fight for the future and well-being of people who look just like them.
They’re also, implicitly, firing up their base by creating an even greater chasm between the “good old boys,” whom they portray as defending their own, and the gold old boys’ enemies: the implicit metropolitan (and coded-as-Jewish) elites. It’s a strategy that may yet work to gather more disenfranchised, rural whites into the fold.
After all, Blut und Boden worked so powerfully — and insidiously — as a Nazi ideology not just because it privileged certain bloodlines among others, but also because it harkened back to an ahistorical, nationalist notion of rural idyll. Today, many on the American right today see that same rural idyll in their idealized recollections of the pre-Civil War South.
Nazi propaganda used Jews as a convenient scapegoat for the economic crises of the 1930s. Blaming Jews for “making wretched” ethnic Germans by lending them money and demanding they pay interest, one Nazi propaganda pamphlet characterized Jews as singly responsible for the decline of rural Germany:
They had to move to the cities. Torn from the land to which they belonged, robbed of their labor that gave their lives purpose and meaning, they fell victim to poverty and misery. Worn down, their souls crushed, they accepted Jewish doctrines that denied the Fatherland and opposed all that was nationalistic. Their strength and ability faded. The Jew had reached his goal.
In other words, “blood and soil” is about stoking the twin fires of false nostalgia and outright bigotry. It’s at once an invitation to “good old boys” to Make America Great Again and a channel through which they can direct their anger by blaming an imagined other.
The use of anti-Semitic slurs in Charlottesville this weekend, therefore, is about more than just insidious bigotry. It’s about creating an alliance between two historic hatreds, predicating the imagined “greatness” of Trump’s America on expelling the undesirables.
That propaganda worked in the 1930s. It cannot be allowed to work today.