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.”