Today’s guest post comes from Barefoot Boomer. Boomer is a career Army officer and strategist. He is also a historian with an emphasis in American and German military history. The content and opinions of this article are the author’s only and do not reflect the opinions of the United States Army or the Department of Defense.
The generation of Americans who fought the Nazis from 1941 to 1945, dubbed the Greatest Generation by journalist Tom Brokaw, is disappearing at an exponential rate. However, seventy years after they fought in World War II, the same ideology they defeated is rising again. This time, here in America. While there have always been white supremacists and American Nazi sympathizers, this current election year has been showcases rather than condemns these groups and individuals. The acceptance and proliferation of National Socialist ideas by party followers of one Presidential Candidate – and his refusal to disavow them – dishonors the men and women who fought to rid the world of it.
The 2016 Presidential race has become one of the most virulently racist and bigoted in American history. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee, has proven to be a lightning rod for racists, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites who have, historically, been ostracized and marginalized. We have always been a nation of the middle way, swaying a bit right or left, yet always course-correcting back to the center. Those ensconced on the fringes were seen as too extreme and out of touch with the norm. Not so anymore. Today they have come out of the shadows and moved into the mainstream of media and public attention. And because of this, they are now becoming part of the face of the Republican party – something that most Republicans would probably decry.
As we see memes and pictures of Nazi-inspired (or real Nazi) propaganda flash across social media or people espousing the hate and bigoted ideals of the Third Reich, the question we have to ask ourselves is, “What would the generation who fought the original Nazis, the Greatest Generation, our grandfathers and great grandfathers, think of it?”
Americans have dealt with Nazis before, both abroad and at home. The rise of National Socialism in 1930’s Germany wasn’t seen as much of a threat to Americans in those days. A majority of Americans would have considered themselves isolationists, not wanting to get involved in the internal affairs of other nations. There was much too much to deal with at home with the Great Depression and labor issues. The Great Depression itself was first and foremost in most people’s minds at the time. Not having food, money, a job, or a future weighed heavily on them.
There was also a growing curiosity about National Socialism. Just as there had been after the Russian Revolution at the end of World War I, the draw of the new politics of Germany swayed some Americans – especially those with German ancestry – to become Nazis themselves. The German American Bund, an American offshoot of the National Socialists in Germany, grew in prominence during the late 1930’s out of previous pro-Germany organizations and established itself as a voice for Nazism inside the United States.
But as the decade rolled on, the German American Bund lost its influence and National Socialism lost its luster. German expansion in Europe and the overt racist, anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Bund scared away many German Americans and angered Americans in general. Most came to see the Bund as a proxy for Nazism in America and the organization lost influence and a semblance of patriotism it might have had.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany declaring war on the United States, the support America was giving the Allies became more than just materiel. Millions of men – and women – enlisted in the military to go fight the Germans, just like their dads did a couple decades before. But this fight was more existential than 1917; this was about freedom versus totalitarianism, protecting American democracy from the evils of Nazism. Eventually, millions of American G.I.s fought in Europe and hundreds of thousands were killed and wounded. Their sacrifice has always been celebrated by a grateful nation and by the people they freed from oppression.
Canvassing all of the remaining World War II veterans for their thoughts on the rise of Nazi supporters of Donald Trump would be a Sisyphean task. But we can surmise what they would think about such overt support of a Presidential candidate by the same folks they fought decades ago. Also, we do have the words of one of them. In a New Yorker article by Roger Angell, a 96 year old World War II vet and a senior editor and staff writer, he seems to speak for an entire generation when he says of his 19th Presidential vote, “My country faces a danger unmatched in our history since the Cuban missile crisis, in 1962, or perhaps since 1943, when the Axis powers held most of Continental Europe, and Imperial Japan controlled the Pacific Rim, from the Aleutians to the Solomon Islands, with the outcome of that war still unknown.”
To him, that danger is a President Donald Trump. In his op-ed from September 24th he wrote:
“I take this personally, representing as I do the last sliver of the sixteen million Americans who served in the military in my war. I had an easy time of it, and was never in combat, but, even so, as I have written, I experienced the loss of more than twenty close friends, classmates, and companions of my youth, who remain young and fresh in memory.”
To Angell, the transgressions of Trump – his overt racism, sexism, Islamophobia, anti-immigrant rhetoric – all fly in the face of the America that the Greatest Generation fought and died for. He also questions his narcissism and the almost cavalier attitude Trump takes with important issues. But Angell’s biggest beef against Donald Trump was his comment about always wanting a Purple Heart. Pointing to his history as a Soldier in World War II and his experiences, Angell reflects on close friends and compadres who fought and were decorated for their service.
“Every American of my generation can supply stories like these, and once learned and tried to forget that, worldwide, seventy million people died in our war.”
There used to be one thing we could all agree on: Nazis were the bad guys. They were the bad guys in comics, on TV shows, and in movies. If you played war with your friends the bad guys were inevitably Nazis (or the Soviets). There were smatterings of American Nazis after the war but they were always on that fringe that were looked upon as the extremists and un-American. That really can’t be said in 2016.
The acceptance of the hateful, racist ideology of National Socialism by so many Americans has moved anti-Semitism and white supremacy into the mainstream of Republican Party politics. While not every Republican is a Nazi, every Nazi seems to be a Republican, and the tacit acceptance of them today where just a few years ago they would be ostracized and ridiculed is troubling to say the least. And it shows that for some, winning at politics is more important than ideas or morals or history.
When our grandfathers and great grandfathers got on planes and ships to cross the Atlantic 70 plus years ago, they went to protect an ally from invasion and to liberate a continent from the scourge of National Socialism. They fought and died for the concept of liberty and freedom for all, not just for a select few or a certain group.
Their memory and their sacrifice deserve better than a resurgence in the ideology they fought to destroy, as well as the tacit approval through non-action of that resurgence by a Presidential candidate. Our grandparents would be very disappointed.
Editor’s Note: Both of Angry Staff Officer’s grandfathers fought in World War II against the Nazis. A whole part of his family was wiped out in the Holocaust. While he tries to remain apolitical, the resurgence of National Socialist rhetoric is deeply disturbing and troubling – as is the Republican candidate’s refusal to disavow these groups entirely. These groups are completely counter to the Army ethos and the Army Values, and are diametrically opposed to the American Republic. This is not a piece advocating for the Democrat candidate – it is opposing an ideology that America waged a bloody four year struggle against. Most Republicans disavow the hateful rhetoric of these groups; we only ask that the Republican candidate for the highest office in the United States do the same.