How should we protest against neo-Nazis? The lessons of German history

After the murder of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, many people wonder what to do if the Nazis gather in their town. Should they put their bodies on the line in counter-protests? Some say yes.

History says no. Believe me: I study the early Nazis.

We have an ethical obligation to oppose fascism and racism. But we also have an ethical obligation to do so in a way that does not help fascists and racists more than it hurts them.

The story repeats itself

Charlottesville was straight out of the Nazi playbook. In the 1920s, the Nazi Party was just one political party among many in a democratic system, contending for seats in the German parliament. For most of this period it was a small marginal group. In 1933, surfing on a wave of popular support, he seized power and installed a dictatorship. The rest is well known.

It was in 1927, when it was still on the fringes of politics, that the Nazi Party organized a rally in a resolutely hostile place, the Berlin district of Wedding. Wedding was so left-leaning that the neighborhood was nicknamed “Red Wedding,” red being the color of the Communist Party. The Nazis often held rallies where their enemies lived, to provoke them.

The residents of Wedding were determined to fight fascism in their neighborhood. On the day of the rally, hundreds of Nazis descended on Wedding. Hundreds of their opponents also showed up, organized by the local Communist Party. The anti-fascists tried to disrupt the rally by heckling the speakers. Nazi thugs retaliated. There was a massive fight. Nearly 100 people were injured.

I imagine the people of Wedding felt like they won that day. They had courageously sent a message: Fascism was not welcome.

But historians believe events like the Wedding Rally helped the Nazis build a dictatorship. Yes, the fight got media attention. But much, much more important was how it fueled a growing spiral of violence in the streets. This violence helped the fascists enormously.

The violent clashes with the anti-fascists gave the Nazis the opportunity to present themselves as the victims of a pugnacious and anarchic left. They took it.

It worked. We now know that many Germans supported the fascists because they were terrified of leftist violence in the streets. The Germans opened their morning papers and saw reports of clashes like the one in Wedding. It looked like a bloody tide of civil war was rising in their cities. Opposition voters and politicians came to believe that the government needed special police powers to arrest violent leftists. The dictatorship has become attractive. The fact that the Nazis themselves were fomenting violence didn’t seem to matter.

One of Hitler’s biggest steps to dictatorial power was gaining emergency police powers, which he claimed he needed to quell left-wing violence.

Thousands of Nazi storm troops demonstrate in a communist district of Berlin on January 22, 1933. Thirty-five Nazis, communists and policemen were injured in clashes.
AP Photo

The left takes the heat

In the court of public opinion, accusations of chaos in the streets will, as a rule, tend to be aimed at the left, not the right.

This was the case in Germany in the 1920s. This was true even when opponents of fascism acted in self-defense or tried to use relatively mild tactics, such as heckling. This is true in the United States today, where even peaceful rallies against racist violence are branded as riots in the making.

Today, right-wing extremists travel the country to organize rallies like the one in 1927 in Wedding. According to the civil rights organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center, they choose places where they know anti-fascists are present, such as college campuses. They come to spoil the physical confrontation. Then they and their allies turn it to their advantage.

A protest on the University of Washington campus where far-right commentator Milo Yiannopoulos was giving a speech on Friday, January 20, 2017.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

I saw this thing happen just steps from my office on the University of Washington campus. Last year, a far-right speaker came. It was met with a counter-protest. One of his supporters shot a counter-protester. On stage, in the moments after the shooting, the far-right speaker claimed his opponents sought to stop him speaking “by killing people”. The fact that it was one of the speaker’s supporters, a right-wing extremist and a Trump supporter, who carried out what prosecutors are now calling an unprovoked and premeditated act of violence, did not never made national news.

We also saw this play out after Charlottesville. President Donald Trump said there was violence “on both sides”. It was an incredible claim. Heyer, a peaceful protester, and 19 other people were intentionally hit by a neo-Nazi while driving a car. He appeared to paint Charlottesville as yet another example of what he has elsewhere called “violence on our streets and chaos in our communities”, including, reportedly, Black Lives Matter, which is a nonviolent movement against violence. He aroused fear. Trump recently said the police were too constrained by existing law.

President Trump tried again during the largely peaceful protests in Boston – he called the tens of thousands of people who gathered there to protest racism and Nazism “anti-police agitators”, although later, in a characteristic volte-face, he congratulated them.

President Trump’s claims hit their mark. A CBS News poll found a majority of Republicans thought his description of who was responsible for the violence in Charlottesville was “accurate.”

This violence, and the rhetoric about it coming from the administration, are echoes – faint but nonetheless frightening echoes – of a well-documented pattern, a path by which democracies turn into dictatorships.

Antifa

There is an additional wrinkle: antifa. When Nazis and white supremacists rally, antifa are likely to show up as well.

“Antifa” is short for anti-fascists, although the name by no means includes all those who oppose fascism. Antifa is a relatively small far-left movement, linked to anarchism. He appeared on the European punk scene in the 1980s to fight against neo-Nazism.

Antifa says that because Nazism and white supremacy are violent, we must use whatever means necessary to stop them. This includes physical means, like what they did on my campus: form a mob to prevent ticket holders from entering a venue to hear a right-wing extremist speak.

Antifa’s tactics often backfire, as did those of Germany’s communist opposition to Nazism in the 1920s. The clashes escalate. Public opinion often blames the left, whatever the circumstances.

What to do?

One solution: organize a counter-event that does not involve physical proximity to right-wing extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has published a helpful guide. Among his recommendations: If the alt-right is mobilizing, “hold a joyous protest” away from them. Ask the targeted people to speak. But “as hard as it may be to resist shouting at alt-right speakers, don’t confront them.”

This does not mean ignoring the Nazis. It means standing up to them in a way that denies them a chance for bloodshed.

The cause for which Heather Heyer died is best served by avoiding the physical confrontation that those responsible for her death want.