Historian draws connection between fascism and racism
Drawing on his research into the similarities between fascism during World War II and racism in this country, particularly in the South, Dr. Clive Webb, a historian and professor of modern history at the University of Sussex, urged a Lycoming College audience to “draw appropriate lessons from the past.”
Cautioning that he is not a political commentator, Webb noted, in an answer to a student’s question, that there is an analogy between the rise of the far right in the past and what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, this year when a march by white supremacists became violent.
Speaking earlier this week on the topic of “The Holocaust and the African-American Freedom Struggle,” Webb told of the struggle that African-Americans had during the period when Americans were horrified by the actions of Adolph Hitler toward the Jewish people in Germany, while Jim Crow laws in this country, which perpetuated segregation, went unchallenged.
Many were awakened to the similarity between the two when in 1965 during the showing of “The Judgment at Nuremburg” on television was interrupted for breaking news from Selma, Alabama, about the beating of civil rights activists, which later became known as “Bloody Sunday.”
“The television audience tuned to ABC that night; the sense of shame and outrage induced by the scenes from Selma was only more acute because of the unplanned juxtaposition with the movie,” he said.
The movie contained actual footage taken by Allied soldiers of Nazi concentration camp victims and, according to Webb, carried a clear and unplanned message to viewers that “Americans may help to defeat the causes of racial fanaticism overseas, but they still have to purge their own nation of the same violent extremism.”
He detailed a time when Hitler rose to power that some African-Americans felt that what was going on in Europe could not compare to the daily abuses they suffered in America with the “Hitler’s right here,” although this thinking remained the exception.
In the 1930s, according to Webb, Americans were becoming more aware of Hitler’s treatment of Germany’s Jewish population, leading one newspaper to compare Hitler to a modern Simon Legree, the villain in the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
“Drawing on the cultural experience and memory of others, the African-Americans used that in an interpretive way to understand the events that had taken place in Nazi Germany in the 1930s,” Webb said.
Also in that same era during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, African-American athlete Jesse Owens won the gold and, in 1938, boxer Joe Lewis defeated German Max Schmeling, which, according to Webb, were powerful, symbolic moments.
“This came as a defeat to Hitler’s notions of aryan supremacy,” he said.
African-Americans did, however, react with bitter anger, according to Webb, to the fact that Americans during this time became more sympathetic to the plight of the German Jews than to the struggles of the African-Americans in this country. They viewed it as hypocrisy, he said.
“How could the oppression of a minority in another country provoke outrage, while violent discrimination against fellow citizens appeared to induce only apathy and silence?” he said.
Webb told the audience how black artists in music highlighted the situation in Nazi Germany and tied it to their problems in this country.
According to Webb, a piece by Will Grant Still “articulated the affinity between African-Americans and Jews,” in its use of stereotypical language to show how each group was persecuted for their appearance.
“During the course of the second world war, there is a very acute awareness by African-Americans about the plight of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe,” Webb said. “The sheer scale of the oppression is becoming increasingly apparent.
“A second point is that there is a strong sense among African-Americans that what’s happening in Nazi-occupied Europe is a means by which they can point out the hypocrisy of their own country and pursue the cause of racial equality at home,” he added.
When the horrors of the concentration camps became known by the accounts of the Allied forces, the black activists pulled back from equating a parallel between their cause and the reality of what they Jews had suffered according to Webb. But, as the African-American troops started coming back from the war, they were met with racial violence.
Webb concluded by summarizing the long-term effects of the Holocaust on the civil rights movement in America.
“Firstly, the analogy the African-Americans drew between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow in the South had a profound presence. It not only impacted the black community in this country, it affected the way many white liberal American see the situation.
He noted that during the Cold War even allies of America were critical of racism in the U.S.
Webb said many believed “American racism was a manifestation of the same force of evil that had taken over Germany.”
The African-American community, following the war, sought to remind the country what they fought against in Nazi Germany.
“I often get asked about the relevance of history,” Webb said, “and the study of the past. I thought long and hard about this in relation to recent events in Charlottesville. None of you, I assume, can be ignorant of what happened in Charlottesville or the reaction from the White House. The ways in which African-Americans during the 1930s, ’40s and beyond, reminded their country of the reasons why they fought a war overseas. I would argue they are as relevant now as they were then.”