Rockwell and the Church of Racism
Myles B. Kantor
Friday, Jan. 24, 2003
Last January the Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion published the first installment of the Nuremberg Project, which documents the German National Socialists' plan to paganize Germany and abolish Christianity. Hitler's would-be successor in the United States, American Nazi Party founder George Lincoln Rockwell (1918-1967), shared this contempt for Christianity.
To discuss Rockwell's significance and ideological legacy in this regard is Frederick J. Simonelli, a history professor at Mount St. Mary's College and the author of "American Fuehrer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party."
What distinguishes Rockwell from lesser-known white supremacists?
Above all, the endurance of his legacy. Most racist agitators and hate mongers burn hot and bright for a time but quickly fade from public consciousness because in the end they really add nothing new to the message. Rockwell, however, was a gifted strategist. He understood the adaptations that needed to be made in order to make his brand of white supremacy / neo-Nazism palatable to a broader and younger audience. These strategic adaptations were:
1) broadening the definition of "white" to include everyone who was not born black or a Jew.
Rockwell recognized that the KKK brand of whiteness, which excluded Catholics, and the Nordic-based traditional Nazi brand of whiteness, which excluded all but Northern Europeans, was too restrictive within the context of late 20th century U.S. society to form the foundation of a mass movement. Rockwell's re-definition of whiteness opened the movement to the sons of Eastern and Southern European Catholic immigrants in the U.S. urban centers, Poles, Greeks, Italians, Slavs. Today we've adopted Rockwell's definition of "white," and not the more restrictive definitions of an earlier time.
2) recognizing the power of religion to bind and energize his followers.
His active infiltration of obscure Christian Identity congregations laid the groundwork for such contemporary white supremacist cults as the World Church of the Creator, The Church of Jesus Christ-Christian, and many others [On Jan. 8, World Church of the Creator leader Matthew Hale was arrested for allegedly seeking the murder of federal judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow.]
3) recognizing the need to discredit the Holocaust in order to make the Nazi past "respectable."
While Rockwell alone did not introduce the notion of Holocaust denial to American historical discourse, he popularized it and pioneered its use as a political strategy.
While Rockwell was not terribly successful in implementing the strategies he conceived, all three remain at the core of neo-Nazi strategy in the U.S. in the 21st century.
What kind of support did Rockwell have?
I found no evidence that Rockwell's direct following, meaning people who actually joined his American Nazi Party (ANP), ever exceeded 200-300. Most of the time, the numbers were far below that, 25-50. His financial backing was also negligible.
He raised enough money, from small cash donations in the mail and occasional larger gifts from a handful of wealthier admirers, to keep his movement going, but just barely. He was always fighting off bill collectors and the IRS, and struggling to raise enough cash for another edition of his newspaper.
His most consistent support came from people who sent him small amounts of cash through the mail. He found that these contributions increased in the days after some outrageous speech or stunt. Haters from every corner of the country responded to his attacks on Jews or blacks with what he called "Atta-Boy, George" contributions.
Keep in mind that these never amounted to large sums from large numbers, just enough to keep the presses going and to feed the storm troopers for another day or two.
Rockwell served as a Navy pilot in World War II. You note that he received several commendations and was promoted to lieutenant commander in October 1945. Was he ever confronted about the incongruity between his service and subsequent efforts to Nazify America?
Rockwell was very proud of his war record and his Navy rank, but he often said, after 1960 and his emergence as a Nazi, that the U.S. fought on the wrong side in the war and that he followed his country blindly during that conflict.
He explained it as a growth process. During World War II, he claimed, he was motivated by unquestioning patriotism. Once he learned the "truth" about the Third Reich, years after the war, he understood that his country was misled into conflict with Hitler.
Rockwell blamed the "international Jewish conspiracy" for distorting Hitler's aims in the minds of Americans and leading the nation to war with Germany.
You mentioned Rockwell's role in contemporary white supremacist movements' fusion of racism with Christianity. Please expand on this.
Rockwell is the source of that strategy. In the mid-1960s he wrote extensively, in private correspondence with Bruno Ludtke, his German Nazi mentor, about a strategic infiltration of marginal Christian sects in order to provide a popular cover for his movement and a mechanism for popularizing his racist views.
The sect he chose was Christian Identity. Ralph Forbes, one of his closest aides and an ANP officer, became a Christian Identity minister. Richard Butler was the transitional figure between Rockwell and the national Christian Identity movement.
While racists and anti-Semites throughout American history have tried to use religion, specifically Christianity, to justify their views, prior to Rockwell this was situational and sporadic. Rockwell seized upon it as a strategic tool to advance his movement. The contemporary fusion of racism with nominal Christianity is the product of that strategic initiative.
The distinction must be made, however, between "Christianity" as it is used and interpreted by white supremacists and legitimate, mainstream Christianity. No legitimate Christian theologian gives credence to the white supremacists' interpretation of Christian dogma.
Rockwell never viewed Christianity as anything more than a marketing tool. In fact, he despised Christianity and everything it represented. To him, Christianity was a "feminine" and weak religion. Notions of forgiveness and charity and loving one's enemies were anathema to him and he despised those who embraced those beliefs.
If Rockwell had any personal religious beliefs, they were closer to Germanic Odonism.
How did Rockwell market his Christianized white supremacy?
Rockwell didn't live long enough to fully implement his plans in this regard. He developed this strategy with Bruno Ludtke in the mid-1960s and launched the preliminary phase by assigning Ralph Forbes to infiltrate the Christian Identity movement in 1965-1966, but was dead by mid-1967. From the available evidence, I have no doubt that had he lived Rockwell would have pursued this strategy vigorously.
The "Christian Naturalist Church" was one of several names Rockwell and his followers played with as vehicles for their strategy of fusing Nazi ideology and Christian symbolism. The only meaningful and lasting implementation of this strategy was within the Christian Identity "Church." I use "church" lightly here because the Christian Identity movement is really a loose alliance of several dozen virtually independent congregations nationwide.
You discuss Rockwell's conflict over his Christian front with friend Colin Jordan, leader of the British National Socialist Movement. What was the nature of this conflict?
Jordan didn't like the strategy of utilizing Christian symbolism and religious imagery to advance the neo-Nazi program. He thought it would confuse their followers and obfuscate their core message. Of course, Jordan had much more faith in, and respect for, their followers than did Rockwell. Rockwell regarded everyone outside his inner circle, including ANP members and supporters, as "chumps" to be led and manipulated. He had the carnival pitchman's attitude toward the public.
A second reason for the conflict was the rivalry between Jordan and Ludtke. Both wanted to be Rockwell's primary confidant and adviser. Jordan reacted against the religious strategy, I believe, because he saw it as Ludtke's strategy, and if it succeeded it would enhance Ludtke's standing with Rockwell and diminish his own.
In describing Nazism as antithetical to the "Christian Weltanschauung," Jordan seemed to give the authentic Nazi position, e.g., Hitler's secretary Martin Bormann: "More and more the people must be separated from the churches and their organs, the pastor … only the Reich government and by its direction the Party, its components and attached units, have a right to leadership of the people."
The original Nazi leadership was fearful of the power of the churches and jealous of any authority that could potentially rival the party. In this regard, Jordan was a more true, pure Nazi than Rockwell.
But Rockwell never hesitated to modify, or jettison entirely, any aspect of Nazi philosophy that didn't seem useful to his larger plans. Although he was certainly a Nazi by temperament and belief, he was not dogmatic. He saw himself as the latest incarnation of the Fuehrer and as such he held the unquestioned right to alter party dogma to suit his purposes.