When Antifa is being discussed, a common talking point among liberals goes something like “the soldiers who stormed the beaches at Normandy were the ORIGINAL Antifa!” That Americans are historically illiterate is a banal observation, but the revisionism on display here reflects a very insidious form of whitewashing in service of liberal nationalism. Recasting American soldiers as progressive anti-fascists obscures the reality that they were overwhelmingly motivated by nationalism and racialized propaganda and acting in service of the maintenance of white supremacy.
A 1942 survey showed that 76% of Air Force men felt that white and black soldiers should be separated during and after training. 88% thought that black and white soldiers should be kept in separate outfits. It was noted that while Southerners had the strongest feelings, enlisted men from the North also “show a strong prejudice against sharing recreation, theatre, and post exchange facilities with Negroes.” Even after the war, 63% of all Americans favored continuing segregation of the military.
The irony of a deeply racist institution being mobilized to fight fascism becomes even darker when one considers how influential Jim Crow laws were on Nazi racial policy. During the Second World War, thirty out of forty-eight states had anti-miscegenation laws, and according to James Whitman’s Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Racial Law, the classification systems used to determine race created by these laws not only inspired but were considered overbearing by certain Nazis.
For example, there was this passage in a 1934 book that was published as a guide for teachers on how to present Nazi race policies to their pupils. The author observed that Americans took the need for racial purity so seriously that they were prepared to take what even Nazis regarded as exceedingly harsh classificatory measures: “Sharp social race separation of whites and blacks has shown itself to be necessary in the United States of America, even if it leads in certain cases to human hardness, as when a mongrel of predominantly white appearance is nevertheless reckoned among the niggers.”
[…] And at least one aspect of American law may have carried some weight in the German debates: American states did not define “mongrels” strictly on the basis of descent. As Krieger explained, race classifications in the United States might also turn on other factors: The courts of some American states, in particular North Carolina and Texas, also looked to other “outward characteristics.” Texas in particular considered marital history: “[O]utward characteristics [may] be decisive in determining membership in this or that population group, e.g., former slave status (North Carolina), the fact of regular social association with one or another group (ditto) or, in the case of a second marriage, the racial identity of the first marital partner (Texas).” The idea that race classifications might turn on something other than descent, and in particular on marital history, deserves to be flagged: that idea was of critical importance in the ultimate Nazi definition of “Jews.”
In addition, deliberately exclusionary aspects of immigration and naturalization law were studied by the architects of the Nuremberg Laws. These features persisted, as did the most stringent anti-miscegenation legislation, until the late 1960s. It is little wonder, then, that the Nazis admired the vigor with which the American racial hierarchy was enforced.
Substantial overlap also existed in the field of eugenics. As Edwin Black notes in War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, “after the Hitler regime, after the Nuremberg Trials, some twenty thousand Americans were eugenically sterilized by states and untold others by federal programs on Indian reservations and in U.S. territories such as Puerto Rico.” In Puerto Rico, Law 116, which codified a sterilization program, was not repealed until 1960. As late as the 1970s Native American women were being forcibly sterilized. 7,686 people, predominantly black, were forcibly sterilized by the Eugenics Board of North Carolina between 1929 and 1974. The law authorizing involuntary sterilization was not repealed until 2003.
It is estimated that around 60,000 disabled individuals were forcibly sterilized in total. California alone makes up one-third of this number. This should hardly come as a surprise considering that during the era of Westward expansion California enacted perhaps the most unambiguously genocidal policies toward Native Americans. Peter H. Burnett, the first elected governor of California, declared “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.” As recounted in Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, between 1848 and 1910, the Californian Native population fell by 90%, from 150,000 to only 16,000.
Because slavery in US territories was a vexed question that increasingly polarized the nation, the officers sought to maintain existing systems of Indian servitude without overtly legalizing slavery. Thus began a protracted process by which military and civilian lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and judges stripped California Indians of legal power and rights, excluded them from colonial society, deprived them of their land, denied them protection, legalized their exploitation as both de jure and de facto unfree laborers, and ultimately all but erased legal and cultural barriers to their abuse and murder.
Former Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier said of the treatment of Native Americans during Westward expansion:
They were totally deprived of land rights. They were outlawed and all treated as wild animals . . . murdered . . . enslaved and worked to death . . . driven back to totally barren vastness . . . and they died of starvation. Their life was outlawed and their whole existence was condemned . . . and they died.
Ironically, during his tenure, Collier authorized the seizure of Navajo livestock, which resulted in widespread economic devastation. Resisters were jailed or forced into hiding. Collier was often criticized for being overly sympathetic to Native Americans.
As Norman Finkelstein noted:
Manifest Destiny anticipated nearly all the ideological and programmatic elements of Hitler’s Lebensraum policy. In fact, Hitler modeled his conquest of the East on the American conquest of the West.
Hitler himself said that “in the East a similar process will repeat itself for a second time as in the conquest of America.” He also declared that “Our Mississippi must be the Volga.” Waitman Beorne describes this fetishization of Manifest Destiny in The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: At the Epicenter of the Final Solution:
The American influence was clear. Inferior races would be destroyed, driven out, or used as slave labor. Hitler was very explicit: “the American ‘Nordics’ had colonized ‘the West’ after they had ‘shot down the millions of redskins to a few hundred thousand.’” It is no mistake that initial plans for dealing with Jews called for “reservations,” with the expectation of a large loss of life. Hitler compared his genocidal plans with American history. During one of his “table talks,” he ranted, “there’s only one duty: to Germanize this country [Russia] by the immigration of Germans and to look upon the natives as Redskins.” He further noted the apparent lack of concern among imperial powers for genocidal acts by saying, “When we eat wheat from Canada, we don’t think about the despoiled Indians.” In his second book, Hitler noted with envy that “the American union itself, motivated by the theories of its own racial researchers, established specific criteria for immigration.”
James Eastland, former Democratic Senator from, fittingly, Mississippi, said of Southern soldiers: “Those boys are fighting to maintain white supremacy.” He was correct.