Lessons from Goebbels and Charlottesville

Special to the Gazette

It was sheer coincidence.

I was reading a book entitled, "Goebbels: Ballantine's Illustrated History of the Violent Century," written by Alan Wykes. The book was lent to me by Robert Ochsenhirt of Williamsburg, who has a library consisting of more than 1,000 books, all on history.

The volume described in great detail Adolph Hitler's rise to power and Joseph Goebbels' role in it. Wykes quotes extensively from Goebbels' private diaries where he outlines how he intends to attract attention to the embryonic Nazi group in Berlin, where he served as "Gauleiter" (District Leader).

"There is no more effective way of attracting attention than by creating a violent scene, particularly if the scene is prefaced by a display of flag wagging and pseudo-military efficiency."

I finished the chapter and turned on the TV to listen to the news. The first image on the screen that appeared was of a large group of white nationalists, in military formations, carrying torches, marching on the campus of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, shouting, "You will not replace us" and "Jews will not replace us."

It was on Aug. 11., Friday night. The march was labeled as a "pro-white" demonstration.

Next day, Saturday morning, it spiraled into violence, involving hundreds of people. According to official statements, multiple white power groups gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of General Lee's statue from a public square.

Among the groups were members of neo-Nazi organizations, racist skinheads and members of Ku Klux Klan factions. It was believed to have been the largest group of white nationalists to gather in a decade.

On Saturday, a car driven by James Alex Fields Jr. of Ohio, 20 and a Nazi sympathizer, plowed into a crowd of people peacefully protesting the white nationalist rally, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring 19 others. Two State Police officers also died when their helicopter crashed. The death of the troopers was linked to the rally.

The organizers of the Charlottesville rally, Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, two well-known white supremacists, must have fashioned their play-book after Goebbels' script.

"Propaganda is a way of twisting the mind into acceptance of an idea or doctrine by way of emotions," wrote Goebbels in his diary. "Although propagandists talk blithely of 'educating the masses,' they make their appeal not to reason, but always to emotion and instinct.... Lies are as easily propagated as truths."

Spencer, a graduate of the University of Virginia, and Kessler a Charlottesville native, absorbed well Goebbels teachings. As Matthew Heimbach, a white supremacist proclaimed, "We showed that our movement is not just online, but growing physically. We asserted ourselves as the voice of white America."

Laura Goldblatt, a postgraduate fellow at the University of Virginia, commenting on the rally in Charlottesville said, "Some response on the street was necessary. History shows that ignoring white supremacy in terms of shutting your doors and not coming out to confront them, has been a really dangerous strategy."

It brings to mind a quotation from Martin Niemoller, a prominent German Protestant pastor who emerged as an outspoken foe of Hitler. He spent the last seven years of the Nazi rule in concentration camps.

He wrote: "First they came for the Socialist, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me."

Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Bruton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.

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