Monday, July 22, 2013

Two Faces of Evil: The American South and Nazi Germany

In her book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson provides a detailed picture of what life was like in the Jim Crow South. She reminds us that there was a brief period after the Civil War when blacks were accorded the same rights as whites. This period, referred to as Reconstruction, came to an end when the northern troops and officials withdrew and left the blacks, once again, helpless.

"....the newly freed men were able to exercise rights previously denied them. They could vote, marry, go to school if there were one nearby, and the more ambitious among them could enroll in black colleges set up by northern philanthropists, open businesses, and run for office under the protection of northern troops. In short order, some managed to become physicians, legislators, undertakers, insurance men. They assumed that the question of black citizens’ rights had been settled for good and that all that confronted them was merely building on these new opportunities."

"....whites in the South began to resurrect the caste system founded under slavery. Nursing the wounds of defeat and seeking a scapegoat, much like Germany in the years leading up to Nazism, they began to undo the opportunities accorded freed slaves during Reconstruction and to refine the language of white supremacy. They would create a caste system based....solely on race, and which, by law, disallowed any movement of the lowest caste into the mainstream."

Note the reference to Germany. Wilkerson goes a bit further with the comparison.

"Not unlike European Jews who watched the world close in on them slowly, perhaps barely perceptibly, at the start of Nazism, colored people in the South would first react in denial and disbelief at the rising hysteria, then, helpless to stop it, attempt a belated resistance, not knowing and not able to imagine how far the supremacists would go. The outcomes for both groups were widely divergent, one suffering unspeakable loss and genocide, the other enduring nearly a century of apartheid, pogroms, and mob executions."

Given her wording in the last sentence, it is not clear, given that there is a scale to evil, exactly where the southern racists and the Nazis would fall relative to each other. While it is impossible to provide too harsh an assessment of the Nazis, it is possible to let the southerners off too lightly.

Pursuing such analogies further was not Wilkerson’s intent. However, other authors have commented on the two political systems and suggested that the American South provided the paradigm Hitler was looking for when he began his campaign to marginalize, isolate, and ultimately, eliminate the Jews.

David Runciman describes the admiration the Nazis had for the southern system in an article in the London Review of Books.

"Casting around for kindred spirits in the blighted international landscape of the 1930s, Hitler looked fondly towards Dixie. What was not to like? The South was effectively a one-party state. In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Democratic ticket won 97 per cent of the vote in Mississippi, 99 per cent in South Carolina. In some counties no votes at all were recorded for Republican candidates. The figures compare very favourably with the 98.8 per cent the Nazis secured in their own national elections the same year."

Political control was insured in both situations, but by different means.

"The difference was that Hitler used the coercive power of the state to secure an artificially high turnout (99 per cent of the German electorate was reported as having voted) whereas the Democrats used coercion to keep the turnout low. The population of Mississippi in the late 1930s was more than two million. Yet the number of people whose votes were counted in the 1938 congressional midterms was barely 35,000. This remarkably limited franchise was achieved by means of elaborate rules – including a poll tax – designed to make voting both difficult and expensive; it was backed up by threats of violence to anyone who challenged the status quo. The aim, of course, was to make sure the electorate remained exclusively white. Of the residents of Mississippi nearly half – roughly a million people – were black."

Of particular value to the Nazis were the South’s race-based laws and the total prohibition of intermarriage between the races.

"This was the other thing the Nazis admired about the South: it was a political order organised around an unambiguous idea of racial superiority, and geared towards keeping the races separate. Miscegenation was to be feared above all else. Anything was permitted to prevent it."

The Nazis and the southerners walked the same walk and talked the same talk.

"In a debate on anti-lynching legislation in the US Senate in 1938, the senator from Mississippi Theodore Bilbo echoed Mein Kampf in asserting that merely ‘one drop of Negro blood placed in the veins of the purest Caucasian destroys the inventive genius of his mind and strikes palsied his creative faculties’."

There was even a touch of anti-Semitism that could be shared.

"Bilbo suspected a Jewish conspiracy behind what he saw as Northern interference: ‘The niggers and Jews of New York are working hand in hand’."

The South’s ability to murder any black person for any reason also provided a model for the Nazis to follow. Wilkerson provides this bit of insight:

"Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889 to 1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching."

"....violence had become so much a part of the landscape that ‘perhaps most of the southern black population had witnessed a lynching in their own communities or knew people who had,’ wrote the historian Herbert Shapiro. ‘All blacks lived with the reality that no black individual was completely safe from lynching’."

What must be noted is the cruelty associated with these "illegal" killings. Practices involved methods that the coldly efficient Nazis could neither match nor stomach.

"Newspapers alerted readers to the time and place of an upcoming lynching. In spectacles that often went on for hours, black men and women were routinely tortured and mutilated, then hanged or burned alive, all before festive crowds of as many as several thousand white citizens, children in tow, hoisted on their fathers’ shoulders to get a better view."

"Fifteen thousand men, women, and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas in May 1916. The crowd chanted ‘Burn, burn, burn!’ as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.
‘My son can’t learn too young,’ the father said."

To make sure that the reader is aware that this was not a practice of the dark, distant past, Runciman points out that lynching was still taking place in the era of Roosevelt and Hitler, and the rest of the country had not summoned the will to declare it a federal crime.

"This tacit acceptance of extra-legal killing was something else that struck a chord with the Nazis. In fact, what happened in the South was in the early 1930s more overt and more bestial than anything taking place in Germany, where state-sanctioned murder was treated as an unpleasant necessity rather than a public festival. As Ira Katznelson records, in November 1933, more than a year after FDR’s election, Lloyd Warner was burned alive before a cheering crowd of ten thousand in Princess Anne, Maryland, after an attempt to hang him had failed. Nothing so ghastly was permitted on the streets of Hitler’s new Reich."

Both the Nazis and the South treated their targeted citizens as economic assets. The Jews had property that could be confiscated, after which they were no longer of any value. The blacks were required as a quasi-slave labor force. The Nazis’ ultimate crime was genocide. That of the South was to impose a form of slavery on blacks that extended into the middle of the twentieth century.

It was not economical for southerners to practice genocide, but it was effective to threaten it. Wilkerson provides this example.

"’If it is necessary, every Negro in the state will be lynched,’ James K. Vardaman, the white supremacy candidate in the 1903 Mississippi governor’s race, declared. He saw no reason for blacks to go to school. ‘The sole effect of negro education,’ he said, ‘is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.’....Mississippi voted Vardaman into the governor’s office and later sent him to the U.S. Senate."

While the institution of slavery disappeared, new mechanisms were devised to keep the blacks in a subservient state that closely approximated slavery.

Instead of working the field as a slave for a landowner, blacks became sharecroppers. In principle the blacks were independent laborers who gave a share of their earnings to the owner as compensation for use of the land. In practice, the sharecropper had to borrow from the owner to cover expenses until the crop came in. Only the landowners were able to market the produce. This left the sharecroppers totally at the mercy of the landowner when the time came to settle accounts. The results were small earnings at best, or more likely, no earnings or a loss. And one could be killed for accusing an owner of cheating. The result was that most sharecroppers were tied to the landowner in much same way as when they were slaves.

Under various guises, blacks could be assessed monetary fines which they could not pay. For this they could be sent to prison and assigned to work gangs that were then rented out by the state to those who needed the workers. This, again, was slavery by another name.

This practice, known as debt peonage was widespread. During the war in the 1940s black labor was particularly valuable because of the manpower shortage. Rather than pay increased wages the whites preferred to utilize forms of slavery.

"From the panhandle to the Everglades, Florida authorities were now arresting colored men off the street or in their homes if they were caught not working. Charged with vagrancy, the men were assessed fines of several weeks pay and made to pick fruit or cut sugarcane to work off the debt if they did not have the money, which few of them did and as the authorities fully anticipated. Those captured were hauled to remote plantations or turpentine camps, held by force, and beaten or shot if they tried to escape."

"It was an illegal form of contemporary slavery called debt peonage, which persisted in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and other parts of the Deep South well into the 1940s. Federal investigations into neoslavery in Florida uncovered numerous abuses of kidnapping and enslavement...."

Forms of slavery existed in the United States until the middle of the twentieth century. Yet we refer to our nation as the "land of the free."

Germany bears the burden of its history. The United States deserves no less.


  1. Dear sir you might wana check your history the north owned slaves also and were treated just as bad 1% of the south owned slaves and another thing slavery didnt even become an issue till jan of 1863. If you think 800,000 men would leave there familys and homes for slaves then you need a history lesson the war was started over unfair taxation and states righta

  2. If anyone should check their history sir, it is you.Not the official Klan version but real history. The Civil War was fought over secession and the spread of slavery.


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