Last Saturday, self-proclaimed white nationalists carried torches through Charlottesville, Virginia, to invoke the racist legacy of Nazi Germany. Fire is more than a dramatic flare. In a charged context, it signals violence and destruction. The Nazi regime began by carrying torches at parades and rallies and, by 1938, burning buildings and Torah scrolls. It eventually burnt the bodies of millions of human beings. The very word Holocaust derives from the Greek, meaning sacrifice by fire.
Marching with torches in the American South has an additional, more specific resonance—nights of fire bombs and lynchings. In the 1920s and ‘30s, members of the Ku Klux Klan marched in torchlight parades, harnessing the theater of terror. White hoods and flame were their stagecraft. For the Nazis, it was the swastika, the jackboot, and fire. On January 30, 1933, torchlight parades announced the onset of the Nazi regime as Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany.
These two movements shared more than rituals; they both insisted on venerating an idealized, imagined past of racial purity. On May 10, 1933, in a symbolic act, university students across Germany burned 25,000 books in public bonfires, signaling an era of state censorship and control of culture. In university towns not unlike Charlottesville, right-wing students marched “against the un-German spirit” in torchlight parades. Students then threw “degenerate” books onto the fires and proclaimed so-called fire oaths, reading from carefully worded scripts. One such oath was, “Against the falsification of our history and disparagement of its great figures. For reverence for our past.”
The Nazis were masters of propaganda who regularly used torchlight spectacles to create drama and show force. Perhaps the best known scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will features dramatic footage of torch bearers at a 1934 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg marching in choreographed formation to form a massive human swastika. In a similar vein, Hitler himself made repeated references to torches as symbols of national and racial revolution in his book Mein Kampf.
Few people today realize that the most famous contemporary torch—the Olympic torch relay used to literally spark the Opening Games—was a modern reinvention from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. During the so-called Nazi Olympics, athletic imagery drew a direct link between the Third Reich and ancient Greece. These portrayals embodied the racial myth that a superior German civilization was the rightful heir of an "Aryan" culture of classical antiquity. By reviving the long dormant Olympic torch relay, Nazi propagandists used flame in a calculated strategy to legitimize their mythology, similar to their adoption of the ancient symbol of the swastika. And that torch’s drama endures to this day, embraced by every country which hosts the Olympic Games.
The synagogue in Charlottesville was explicitly threatened with burning by neo-Nazis, and, as a precaution, the congregation made the painful and unprecedented decision to move its Torah scrolls off site. Among them was a Torah salvaged from a European Jewish community destroyed during the Holocaust. Many American synagogues today are stewards of “rescued” Torah scrolls, tangible manifestations of the millions of Jewish lives and centuries of religious tradition that were lost. These salvaged scrolls have also come to symbolize the values of a pluralistic America—and to celebrate the security and openness that American Jews have felt in the postwar period.
Yet in Charlottesville, according to the rabbi, his congregants were forced to leave in fear through a back door as three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood nearby. The rabbi reported that, “Several times, parades of Nazis passed our building, shouting, ‘There's the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil’ and other anti-Semitic language. Some carried flags with swastikas and other Nazi symbols.”
Unlike in Germany in 1933, American democracy has checks and balances to prevent racist violence from dominating our streets or laws; but those checks did little to restrain the lynch mobs of the Jim Crow South. The torches carried during a nighttime march in a university town—this time in the United States—deliberately echo the smoke of these earlier, racist, and murderous eras.