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Confederate flags and Nazi swastikas together? That’s new. Here’s what it means.

- August 14, 2017

At the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville over the weekend, marchers carried Confederate and Nazi flags side by side, protesting plans to remove Confederate statues from the city’s Emancipation Park. That would have surprised Southerners not that long ago. While both the Confederacy and Nazi Germany waged wars to defend white supremacy, those two symbols were mostly kept apart for decades after World War II. How those two symbols of white supremacy have come to overlap tells us a great deal about how white racist extremism developed – and where it might go.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern whites opposed the Nazis

In the 1930s and 1940s, Southern whites who supported Jim Crow racism fervently opposed the Nazi regime. Some Nazi leaders were intrigued by Southern racial politics. On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, a major German offensive against the Soviet Union, Joseph Goebbels apparently passed the time by watching the German release of “Gone with the Wind.

But for the most part, Southern whites did not reciprocate this interest. Southern Democrats in Congress were the quickest to support military action in Europe. As early as 1939, public opinion polls found that support for the Allies – including the possibility of U.S. military action – was strongest among Southern respondents. Southern newspapers, too, opposed the Nazis and rejected comparisons between the German regime and their own region’s racial politics.

That might not seem to make sense, given the white South’s deeply illiberal racial attitudes. Even by 1944, for example, just 20 percent of Southern whites agreed that “Negro blood [was] the same as white blood.” Southern members of Congress who supported intervention were often the same ones who limited liberalism during the New Deal, ensuring that social programs let states and localities discriminate against black Southerners.

Why did Southern whites oppose Nazi Germany?

There are several reasons. Nearly all white Southerners could trace their heritage to the United Kingdom, and evangelical Protestantism has long been an important component of Southern culture. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Southern whites were not particularly drawn to a regime that was anti-British and anti-religion. Once the United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the calculus of Southern whites was likely even simpler: They were fighting to defend their country and their way of life from an alliance of foreign enemies that included Nazi Germany.

Although Southern newspapers sometimes compared Nazi atrocities to the Ku Klux Klan, the Southern KKK itself was generally not pro-Nazi – at least not then. After the war, the Army sent Congress a list of 1,000 Nazi Party members living in the United States. Only about 2 percent lived in the Southern states.

Over time, Nazi symbolism became joined to the symbols of American white supremacy

The 1970s saw a “Nazification of the KKK,” as David Duke and others “fused Klan iconography with Nazi racialism,” as scholar John Drabble has written. The Klan and the American Nazi Party began to collaborate. That drew national attention when members of both groups joined up in 1979 to attack a Communist Workers’ Party rally in Greensboro, N.C. Five people were killed and at least a dozen wounded, but the perpetrators were acquitted at trial.

By the end of the 1970s, these new Nazi-KKK hybrid groups became more popular than traditional Klan organizations, marking an important shift in both the symbolism and tactics of white supremacist groups. Confederate and Nazi flags held side by side – which would have been nearly unthinkable in the 1930s and 1940s – became (and remain) commonplace on the racist right.

What does the Nazification of Confederate monuments mean for American politics today?

Many white Americans still view Confederate symbolism as standing for “heritage” rather than “hate.” That’s not true for Nazi symbols. While some whites might like the explicitly racist appeals made at the Unite the Right rally, the growing popular linkage between Nazi and Confederate symbols might backfire – and lead at least some observers to reevaluate what the Confederacy and what its monuments actually mean.

Steven White will be an assistant professor of political science at Syracuse University starting this fall. He is working on a manuscript about World War II and American racial politics. Follow him on Twitter @notstevenwhite.