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The politics of white identity have resurfaced in recent years in our national discourse and on college campuses. Some groups have even claimed kinship with the ideology of National Socialism.

Monica BlackMonica Black, associate professor and associate head of UT’s Department of History, is a historian of modern Europe. Her research focuses on the cultural and social history of Germany, with an emphasis on the era of the world wars and the post-1945 period.

What was National Socialism?

National Socialism—commonly referred to as Nazism—emerged in Germany in the violent aftermath of World War I. It was both an ideology and a political party, committed to an intensely warlike, militarized vision of society. In some ways, it can best be defined by what it set itself against: democracy, capitalism, individualism, liberalism, feminism, pacifism—the list goes on and on. Nazism also was committed to a virulently nationalist, racist, and anti-Semitic view of the world.

What was happening in Germany after World War I that allowed this idea to take root?

Germany’s defeat in that terrible war devastated the country. Millions of young men in the prime of life died, and there was no answer for why they died. If Germany had won the war, at least the nation’s sacrifice of a whole generation could have been explained away or justified. But in defeat, it couldn’t be.

At the war’s end, the country went through a revolution and then established its first democracy. That democracy was full of promise and beautiful ideas but also was plagued by difficulties the country and its political system found hard to overcome. Not least among those problems was the fact that, as a democracy, it provided a platform for political parties who detested democracy and openly advocated for its demise. The Nazis emerged as the most strident among those parties.

Lastly, democracies can empower some people in new ways—people who have historically been shut out of political power, such as women or religious or sexual or ethnic or racial minorities. That happened in Germany’s first democracy. And there were people who didn’t like it, and who called for a return to a more organic or traditional past. That rhetoric had a lot of appeal, even among people who never became full-dress Nazis.

What is happening in modern Europe and the US that is bringing this idea to the surface again?

White identitarian politics and anti-Semitism never went away in Europe or the US. They have always been there, lurking in the margins, holding underground rallies, setting up compounds and militias, trolling on the internet—and even, in some parts of Europe, founding political parties. But such groups have a tendency to feel threatened by change, and even more so by assertions of power by people they think don’t deserve to have it. And when the threat they perceive meets an opportunistic, empowering environment—one that colludes with them by refusing to shun them—they march right out into the open, tiki torches ablaze.