Rockwell, George Lincoln
Rockwell, George Lincoln 1918–1967
In the middle of the twentieth century, George Lincoln Rockwell, a disgraced former naval commander and disowned son of a prominent vaudeville comedian, created a bridge between the racial ideology of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich and the racism of postwar America, thus facilitating the emergence of the contemporary white supremacist movement. Few twenty-first-century white supremacists remember Rockwell, and fewer still understand the significance of his contribution to their movement, but he was a significant catalyst in the formation of both the ideology and organization of white supremacist politics in the United States, even after his death in 1967.
George Lincoln Rockwell was born in Bloomington, Illinois, on March 9, 1918, the first child of George Lovejoy “Doc” Rockwell and Claire Schade Rockwell. Doc Rockwell was a rising star on the vaudeville comic circuit and a close friend of fellow performers such as Fred Allen, Groucho Marx, George Burns, and Jack Benny. Rockwell’s mother, Claire, was an extraordinarily beautiful woman and a professional dancer, but she gave up her stage career at Doc’s insistence once their baby was born. Doc Rockwell soon became a major vaudeville star, headlining throughout the country, appearing in several movies, and earning $3 ,500 per week by the early 1930s.
George Lincoln, or“Link,” as he was called within the family, took after his mother in both looks and temperament. He grew to be a tall, handsome, athletic boy with a shock of black hair, piercing dark eyes, and a winsome smile. Like his mother, he was sensitive and artistic, but he was also often the object of Doc’caustic and hurtful derision, disguised as humorous banter.
Doc and Claire Rockwell divorced when Link was six years old. Doc structured the divorce and his time with his children to his convenience. Link and his younger brother, Bobby, spent every summer with their father at his luxurious oceanfront home in Maine. As Link grew, Doc, a very small man physically, seemed to resent Link’s physical attributes and frequently used sarcasm to humiliate his son. But Link never stopped seeking Doc’s affection and approval, though he never quite seemed to attain either.
Link Rockwell attended several exclusive boarding schools in New England, but he never quite fit in. He was a capable student, bright and clever, but he seldom applied himself. He excelled at art, but did not seem to value what he did best. His charm and charisma were evident from an early age, however.
He attended Brown University but withdrew before graduation to join the U.S. Navy at the outbreak of World War II. Before leaving Brown, Rockwell courted and married a local socialite, Judith Aultman. He became a fighter pilot, eventually earning the rank of commander and seeing action in the Pacific theater during the war.
After World War II, Rockwell tried his hand at commercial art and advertising, but he failed at several businesses, each time failing just as the business seemed on the brink of success, often because of a falling out with a partner or a disagreement with an important client. His first marriage ended in divorce.
During the Korean War, Rockwell was recalled to active duty. While stationed in Iceland he met and married a statuesque blonde, Thora Hallgrimsson, the daughter of a prominent Icelandic businessman. It was at this time that Rockwell became drawn to the philosophy of Adolf Hitler and was awakened to the racial imperative that Hitler represented. At the conclusion of his Korean service, Rockwell returned to the United States and became active in right-wing politics. Whereas his thinking became increasingly radicalized, he remained within the political mainstream, although he steadily gravitated towards the fringe elements of acceptable politics during the 1950s.
In 1959 Rockwell met Harold Noel Arrowsmith, a wealthy racist and anti-Semite who was seeking a bolder political movement to confront what Arrowsmith saw as a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the United States. In Arrowsmith, Rockwell saw an opportunity to finance his transition to a full-time political operative. He would become the bolder alternative Arrowsmith sought, and that same year he formed the American Nazi Party and became its leader. From that point until his death eight years later, Rockwell was the most vocal anti-Semite and racist hatemonger in American politics, using dramatic confrontation, outrageous language, theatrical demonstrations, and violent provocations to garner publicity and coalesce supporters.
Despite its theatricality and prowess at achieving publicity, the American Nazi Party never achieved success by any conventional measure. Its membership never exceeded 1,000, and its sympathizers, broadly defined, likely never exceeded 25,000 nationwide. It operated in abject poverty and was often the subject of scorn and ridicule. As the leader of a political movement, Rockwell was a total failure. But Rockwell’s legacy is felt within the white supremacist movement of the early twenty-first century because of three concepts he developed that were later implemented to broaden the appeal of racism to a degree, and among a constituency, that Rockwell did not reach in his lifetime.
First, Rockwell recognized that in the United States the traditional white Aryan concept of the Hitlerian Nazis presented a natural barrier that doomed any white supremacist movement to failure. Rockwell recognized that there were not enough white people of Northern European stock (e.g., German, English, Irish, Scandinavian) in the United States to sustain a majority movement. So, in 1966, playing off an anticipated backlash to Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power movement, Rockwell coined the phrase “White Power,” defining “white” as anyone who is not black or a Jew. He thus added great masses of newly “white” people as potential recruits to future white supremacists movements.
By opening the door to the “Master Race” to southern and eastern Europeans (e.g., Italians, Slavs, Poles, Greeks, Russians) Rockwell redefined what it meant to be white in America. Large numbers of ethnic Americans who previously had no common identity began seeing themselves by what they were not: black or a Jew. While white racial identity grew slowly in the 1960s and was primarily still only significant as a force of localized backlash to racial incursion in previously segregated neighborhoods, by the late twentieth century Rockwell’s definition of white racial identity was the organizing force behind racialist movements such as David Duke’s National Socialist White People’s Party, William Pierce’National Alliance, and Matthew Hale’s World Church of the Creator (later called the Creativity Movement).
Second, Rockwell was the first movement politician to understand the power of combining religious fervor with racialist politics. As early as 1961, Rockwell and his German mentor, Bruno Ludtke, were exchanging correspondence regarding the advantages of utilizing a pseudo-Christian veneer for a neo-Nazi movement in America. By 1965, Rockwell was infiltrating fringe Christian sects with American Nazi Party operatives. His lieutenant, Ralph Forbes, became an ordained Christian Identity minister in California with the assigned task of merging that fringe group with Rockwell’s racialist anti-Semitic politics. Rockwell’s death in 1967 denied him the opportunity to reap the poisoned fruit his seeds eventually bore, but by the early twenty-first century, dozens of Christian Identity congregations were flourishing throughout the United States, with a theology infused with racist and anti-Semitic principles. Other so-called neo-Nazi religious denominations, such as the Creativity Movement, exist within the contemporary racialist community based on the Rockwell model.
Third, Rockwell popularized Holocaust denial in the United States as a political strategy. Rockwell recognized that the reality of the Holocaust and the impact of the memory of that tragedy within the human community was an impediment to the resurrection of Nazism as a viable political movement. His strategic response was an assault on historic memory. By altering the historic memory, he reasoned, he would lay the groundwork for the eventual acceptance of Nazism in the future. Rockwell understood that acceptance might not come in his lifetime, but, unlike most politicians, Rockwell was willing to plan and implement a strategy that had far-reaching implications.
Rockwell did not originate Holocaust denial, and he did not introduce the concept to the United States. His role was to bring the “big lie” to a mass audience, initially through an interview he gave to Playboy magazine in 1966, an interview conducted by the author Alex Haley and read by more than two million readers. In that forum, for the first time, average Americans were introduced to the outlandish notion that the number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II was greatly exaggerated, that the very existence of death camps was a fabrication by the Jews themselves to elicit sympathy for Jews worldwide, and that the State of Israel was behind a worldwide plot to trick the world into paying huge reparations and supporting Israel against its Arab neighbors as a form of guilt response to a genocide that never really happened. Rockwell hammered at this theme consistently whenever he spoke during the last two years of his life, and his Holocaust-denial proselytizing energized anti-Semites worldwide.
Rockwell was a unifying figure in the fractious world of neo-Nazi revival in the decades after World War II. At a time when no one else was willing to openly wear the swastika or openly adhere allegiance to racialist and anti Semitic beliefs, Rockwell held the tattered banner aloft as a rallying point for the demoralized troops of the defeated Reich and its adherents. In 1961 he organized the World Union of National Socialists (WUNS) and became its first commander.
At a time when neo-Nazi activity was banned throughout most of Europe, Rockwell, with the help of a former Nazi soldier, Bruno Ludke, organized a nascent postwar neo-Nazi party in Germany itself, as well as neo-Nazi cells in France, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Italy, England, Ireland, Iceland, Sweden, Argentina, Brazil, and Canada.
In 1962 Rockwell slipped into Great Britain illegally and attended the first WUNS Grand Council Meeting, held in the Cotswalds, England, and hosted by the English Nazi leader Colin Jordan. The national neo-Nazi leaders greeted Rockwell as their führer and the group signed the Cotswold Agreement, a document that pledged international cooperation in the resurgence of white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and anti-Semitic movements worldwide.
George Lincoln Rockwell was murdered on August 25, 1967, a short distance from his American Nazi Party headquarters (Hatemonger Hill) in Arlington, Virginia, by John Patler, a young captain in his party and his protégé. Although Patler was convicted and went to prison for the killing, he never admitted to the murder and many questions regarding motive remained unanswered. The American Nazi Party did not survive long after Rockwell’s death.
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_____. 1999. American Führer: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Zeskind, Leonard. 1986. The Christian Identity Movement: A Theological Justification for Racist and Anti-Semitic Violence. Atlanta: Center for Democratic Renewal.
Frederick J. Simonelli