“Barnum of the Bigots”

simonelliNot exactly the pride of Bloomington, Illinois, American Nazi leader George Lincoln Rockwell was born into—of all things—a family of vaudeville performers. A former associate shot him to death on August 25, 1967.

Frederick Simonelli’s UIP biography of this powerful and enigmatic figure draws on primary sources of extraordinary depth, including declassified FBI files and manuscripts and other materials held by Rockwell’s family and associates. As Simonelli shows, Rockwell broadened his constituency beyond the Radical Right by articulating White Power politics in terms that were subsequently appropriated by the one-time Klansman David Duke. He also looks at how Rockwell’s influence remains potent almost fifty years after his assassination. The first objective assessment of the American Nazi party and an authoritative study of the roots of neo-nazism, neo-fascism, and White Power extremism in postwar America, American Fuehrer is shocking and absorbing reading.

As Alex Haley memorably wrote in 1966, “Rockwell would have been first on any one’s list of those least likely to succeed as a racist demagogue or even to become one.” He had his failures, but his life had considerable successes, too. After a stint at Brown, he entered the U.S. Navy. He rose to the rank of commander, serving in World War II and the Korean War and earning plaudits for his skills as a pilot and officer. His second marriage, made while serving in Iceland, was conducted by the country’s Bishop in the National Cathedral. Once back in civilian life he won prizes for commercial art and by many accounts that career lay open to him.

But, ah, civilian life. That he was back in it at all hinted at the problem. In 1960, the Navy gave him an honorable discharge because… well, because during a period of naval service in San Diego, Rockwell became a virulent racist.

He founded the American Nazi Party in Arlington, Virginia. Thereafter he used a combination of marketing, provocation, and canny self-promotion to make himself one of the most recognizable fringe political figures in the nation’s history. (His Playboy magazine interview with Haley, the African American journalist and future Roots icon, remains legendary.)

Rockwell was also one of the most influential of his ilk. Amidst the many marches and pamphlets and posing in his stormtrooper uniform, he gathered various strains of right-wing thought into a new religion called Christian Identity, a sect that found violent expression in the 1980s and 1990s. He all but mainstreamed Holocaust denial and internationalized the neo-Nazi movement. He even founded a record company that released white supremacist music, mastering an effective recruitment tool still used in the white power underground today.