Rockwell at a news conference in 1965. Image credit: Associated Press.
Within the American neo-Nazi movement, there is perhaps no single individual more significant than George Lincoln Rockwell. Rockwell, who founded the American Nazi Party, was an active politician, former military commander, and grandfather of the neo-Nazi movement. Channeling conspiratorial beliefs and a dedication to the ideals of Adolf Hitler, Rockwell sought to bring National Socialism to mainstream politics in the United States.
Prior to his assassination by a neo-Nazi protégé, Rockwell had even run for governor of Virginia, garnering one percent of the total vote. Standing around 6’4” and in sound shape, the former military man seemed on the surface to be a prime example of another hero in a generation of heroes, but something had gone terribly wrong.
Information on Rockwell’s upbringing does not reveal a nurturing of extremist beliefs by family or close friends. In fact, Rockwell grew up with family friends who were Jewish. He was highly intelligent and studied philosophy at Brown University. During his time at Brown, however, Rockwell developed the belief that a sub-culture of communism was being fostered by the university; thus, he dropped out. Shortly thereafter, Rockwell volunteered as a pilot in the United States Navy. Rockwell served in both World War II and the Korean War, finishing his career in the Navy as a Commander- a title he insisted on being addressed by even after completing his time in the service.
Near the end of his military career, a copy of Adolf Hitler’s manifesto Mein Kampf came into his possession and he became obsessed. Observing the civil rights movement and associated civil unrest, Rockwell came to the conclusion that fascism was the only cure for the direction he saw the United States taking.
Rockwell regularly wrote various types of literature, from basic Nazi propaganda to full-length books. Looking into his own past, he stated that his time spent fighting Nazism during the second world war was regrettable. He referred to the war as a battle between criminal gangs consisting of ‘Bolsheviks & Zionists’, and considered himself ignorant for partaking in it.
Rockwell went out of his way to defend a history marked with indicators that he had a mental health condition. In the 1930s, just prior to his volunteering for the United States Navy, Rockwell was committed to an insane asylum; however, he was released after just 10 days of his scheduled 30 day stay, and writes that this is because he proved his sanity. However, his writings indicate a narcissistic personality. Rockwell believed that he possessed a ‘superior mind’ which could truly grasp and understand the universe and all its grand ideas and concepts, unlike the general population whom he describes as idiots. So grandiose was Rockwell that he on multiple occasions stated that he would be elected the President of the United States by 1973.
The American Nazi Party still maintains several of Rockwell’s writings on their website and speak about their founder with great admiration. In a post about Rockwell, the party states that “he single-handedly lifted our banner from the ashes of Berlin into the skies of America”. Interestingly, while the party speaks about Rockwell’s physical, mental, and leadership qualities, they also acknowledge that his rise occurred at least in part due to the social and civil unrest of 1960s America.
Rockwell’s legacy in the neo-Nazi movement in the United States is far from just a distant historical existence. Martin Kerr of the New Order, an organization that descended from the internal factions that split the American Nazi Party at the time of Rockwell’s death, views Rockwell as important to the neo-Nazi movement today. Speaking on the protests in Charlottesville that left one dead and dozens injured, Kerr declared that Rockwell’s spirit was alive and well within the protest.
Rockwell may have not been raised to be a Nazi, but several factors likely led to his ideological outcome. First, despite his claims of sanity, there likely was a mental health condition that led to his time in an asylum. This alone does not lead to the start of the radicalization process, but combined with societal and personal pressures, can contribute to the process. As Rockwell demonstrated in college, he was vulnerable to conspiratorial claims and through his writings he speaks with overtly narcissistic language. However, he also maintained a natural leadership capability demonstrated through his military career and his ability to gather followers once radicalized.
Rockwell was likely victim to, and later beneficiary from, societal stressors. The evolution of the civil rights movement and its accompanying civil unrest would appear to support racial conspiratorial claims found in Nazism. This both reaffirmed Rockwell’s Nazi beliefs and allowed him to market the ideology to others prone to the radicalization process.
While Rockwell’s conception of Nazism was more accurate to actual Nazi teachings and beliefs than some modern neo-Nazi groups, the lessons that can be learned from how Rockwell came to power in the movement are still relevant today. Rockwell was the perfect storm, at the almost perfect time. The civil rights movement allowed Rockwell to capitalize on racist beliefs and fears to attract a following. If it the atrocities of Nazi Germany had not still been fresh in the minds of Americans, there is a real chance that Rockwell’s following would have been much stronger. In the heated political climate of today, we must remember that there will be ‘perfect storms’ who will seek to capitalize on the divides in society.
John Patrick Wilson is a law enforcement professional as well as Research Fellow at Rise to Peace.