Nazis are marching through Europe again. Real Nazis. Old ones, young ones, brazenly sporting the infamous uniforms and flags of a growing and genuinely dangerous movement.
To American ears, this has the sound of hysteria and impossibility. Nazism was defeated and repudiated, it is the unforgivable insult not just because it's so extreme but because it's incredible. The American post-war experience of Nazis ranged from the nuttiness of the American Nazi Party and its crazed head, George Lincoln Rockwell, to some of the militia groups, skinheads, Holocaust deniers and Aryan Nation types that pop up occasionally. They're annoying and angering, but they're clearly on the fringes of American society, a cost of our commitment to free expression.
That is not the case in many Eastern European nations. Numerous political parties and social movements have sprung up that support former and current Nazis and Nazi causes. This March 16 will see the emergence of the worst of this onto the world stage. Since the mid-'90s, in Latvia, there have been organized and growing demonstrations celebrating the Latvians who served in German Waffen-SS legions. Their activities included opposing the advancing Red Army, last-ditch fighting in Berlin, and for some of them liquidating ghettos and murdering Jews across Eastern Europe.
For about a decade a variety of Latvian right-wing parties have been seeking to provide government pensions to the Latvians who served Hitler. The explanations range from the apologist to revisionist to ideological. The central thesis is that most of the Waffen-SS soldiers were drafted, not volunteers and that they were fighting against Russian invaders, "Freedom Fighters" as a proposed Parliamentary resolution calls them. On March 16, In Riga, there will be another set of demonstrations and marches by SS veterans, with supporters from Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania and elsewhere.
What to make of all this? There will always be elements in society that actually want to resurrect Hitler, and others that use it for their own ends. But until recently there's been almost unanimity from governments and "responsible" political leaders that denied them any legitimacy or place of honor. Indeed, the German and French ambassadors were early and outspoken in their concern and opposition. March 16 has meaning beyond the event. It is the breaking of a taboo that has lasted since the War. If Europe agreed on nothing else, it agreed that Nazism was so repellant that any manifestation would be condemned and smashed before it could flourish. That United States is eroding. The lack of public concern from Western governments is upsetting and very short-sighted. It remains to be seen what, if anything, they will do as the SS assembles and marches again next week.
There are some that suggest we ignore these feral stirrings of hate and violence. In America, there are few who take this as a serious development. That's not good enough. One doesn't have to be Winston Churchill to remember how Nazism took hold the first time around. It may be that these are fringe developments. But we are better off, much better off, overreacting now and recreating the moral and political unity that defeated Hitler than we would be by yawning and hoping it all goes away. The U.S. State Department ought to lead this effort.