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Will the History of White Supremacy Help Stop American Fascism?

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It’s hardly surprising that this nation is moving again into a period of racial violence, scaremongering against foreigners, and ethnic and religious tribalism. It’s hardly first time that’s happened in the United States. The 1920s, with the end of immigration, the deportation of radicals, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, is just one of those incidents. Of course, since historians today openly explore the violent and awful corners of American history in order to expose broader truths about the always contested struggle for freedom and the dichotomy between how Americans describe themselves and how they actually act toward others, we know a lot about this. And we can use that information to expose the hypocrisy of people such as the Trump supporters who want Muslims banned from the country. I wonder how many of them are Catholic after all?

“The cowardice of a Roman thug has no parallel in either the human or animal kingdom,” the newspaper frothed in one 1914 edition, calling for “men with red blood in their veins” to defend women and children from Catholics. “If we are compelled to live in this county with Romanists, as our weak-kneed Protestant critics say we are, the Romanists will have to be taught their place in society.”

“OPEN ROME’S PRISON HOUSES IN AMERICA!” blared one headline for a December 1911 story that claimed the church was murdering the babies of nuns and throwing the infant corpses into a pit.

In the same issue, the Menace urged its readers to vote against all Catholic political candidates regardless of party or platform, describing the church as “the most dangerous power that threatens our government today.” It added ominously, “A defeat at the polls today is far better than a defeat at arms tomorrow.”

And while Republicans don’t actually appeal to Jews, fantasy Jews appeal to Republicans so that their beloved apocalypse can come true. So could it matter to them to be reminded of the long history of antisemitism around the world?

Partly out of identification with this newly vulnerable Christ, partly in response to recent Turkish military successes, and partly because an internal reform movement was questioning fundamentals of faith, Christians began to see themselves as threatened, too. In 1084 the pope wrote that Christianity “has fallen under the scorn, not only of the Devil, but of Jews, Saracens, and pagans.” The “Goad of Love,” a retelling of the crucifixion that is considered the first anti-Jewish Passion treatise, was written around 1155-80. It describes Jews as consumed with sadism and blood lust. They were seen as enemies not only of Christ, but also of living Christians; it was at this time that Jews began to be accused of ritually sacrificing Christian children.

Ferocious anti-Jewish rhetoric began to permeate sermons, plays and polemical texts. Jews were labeled demonic and greedy. In one diatribe, the head of the most influential monastery in Christendom thundered at the Jews: “Why are you not called brute animals? Why not beasts?” Images began to portray Jews as hooknosed caricatures of evil.

The first records of large-scale anti-Jewish violence coincide with this rhetorical shift. Although the pope who preached the First Crusade had called only for an “armed pilgrimage” to retake Jerusalem from Muslims, the first victims of the Crusade were not the Turkish rulers of Jerusalem but Jewish residents of the German Rhineland. Contemporary accounts record the crusaders asking why, if they were traveling to a distant land to “kill and to subjugate all those kingdoms that do not believe in the Crucified,” they should not also attack “the Jews, who killed and crucified him?”

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews were massacred in towns where they had peacefully resided for generations. At no point did Christian authorities promote or consent to the violence. Christian theology, which applied the Psalm verse “Slay them not” to Jews, and insisted that Jews were not to be killed for their religion, had not changed. Clerics were at a loss to explain the attacks. A churchman from a nearby town attributed the massacres to “some error of mind.”

But not all the Rhineland killers were crazy. The crusaders set out in the Easter season. Both crusade and Easter preaching stirred up rage about the crucifixion and fear of hostile and threatening enemies. It is hardly surprising that armed and belligerent bands turned such rhetoric into anti-Jewish action.

Of course this history won’t matter to American fascists. I never thought I’d live to see the day where a major party presidential front-runner was citing FDR placing Japanese-Americans into concentration camps as a plus, but here we are. Reminding people about how their ancestors were oppressed just goes to prove to them that the Muslims of 2015 are the Protestants of 1914 or something. We can document this all we want to and we should. But I am sadly skeptical that even if fascists see this information that they wouldn’t just distort to their own ends.

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