Anyone who has been paying attention has heard many times the assertion that the flag of the Southern Confederacy is equivalent to the banner of the Nazi German Reich. That this idea should gain any credit at all is a sign of how debased American public discourse has become by ignorance, deceit, and hatred.
To make an obvious point: The Confederacy fought a defensive war against invasion. It had no design to rule others or exploit their resources---only wished to be let alone. Nazi Germany was a militarist state, dedicated to a boastful, bullying, brutal conquest of other peoples. Rather like the U.S. Army in 1861—1865.
Another obvious point. Nazi Germany was a regimented totalitarian state. On the other hand, a number of observers have suggested that the Southern people were too loosely governed and individualistic to accept the strong central authority that was needed to win their war against a larger aggressive state organized for conquest. In this respect the Confederacy was the last Jeffersonian regime in America.
The Nazi analogy rests on the idea that both the Confederacy and Germany were “racist” states. The term “racist” has become so elastic and pejorative that it is no longer used by honest writers. History and ordinary observation indicate a vast variety and gradation of the “racist” ideas that the various races of mankind have had about each other, many of them involving notions of significant differences and superiority/inferiority.
If “racist” means in this connection that the Confederacy generally assumed an attitude of “white supremacy,” it is true. This tells us very little. In the sense intended the overwhelming majority of white Europeans and Americans were white supremacists from the first contacts with Africa in the 16th century until well into the 20th century. Abraham Lincoln expressed this idea several times. Many of his supporters did so frequently and firmly.
By the time of the War Between the States, the South had been a biracial society with more than two centuries of adjustment to that situation. Certainly by that time, the widespread attitude of the South toward the blacks was paternalistic. It was an attitude assumed in everyday living. Unlike Yankees and Germans, Southerners did not make “racist” ideologies. Healthy black children proliferated in the South at a time when half the white children of New York City died before the age of five.
It is well to remember that until World War I, when factory labour was needed, the number of African American people who lived outside the South was very small---and moving North was discouraged. Undoubtedly one of the North’s motives in the War Between the States was to keep the black people in the South and out of the North. In the midst of the war the Radical Republican abolitionist governors of Massachusetts and Illinois fiercely protested the admission of a small number of freed slaves into their states. Governor Andrew of Massachusetts was certain that black people would not be happy there and would be better off in the South.
Yet another bootlegged assumption in support of the Confederate “racist” theory is that the war was being fought to emancipate the slaves and therefore was against “racism.” This is obviously untrue. Emancipation (partial) became a goal as a war measure after the conflict had assumed titanic proportions and seemed to Lincoln unwinnable. A number of the scrawlers of graffiti on Confederate monuments have declared them to be offensive as symbols against “racial equality.” Emancipation, tainted as it was, was not driven by desire for racial equality. In a sense it was a support to “racism,” indicating a lack of interest in the black people except as tools of conquest.
Emancipation of millions presented a tremendous problem for American society and particularly for African Americans who faced a daunting change of conditions and a catastrophic decline of everyday living standards that had compared favourably to those of Northern and European workers. It is evident that the emancipators had little interest in racial equality until after the war when they discovered the usefulness of Republican-voting black men in the South. When asked what was to become of the emancipated people, the saintly Lincoln replied, “Root, hog, or die.” The abolitionists’ foremost guru, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said that the black people were unfit for modern civilization and would become extinct.
Preserving slave property and “white supremacy” was not a primary incentive for those who fought under the Confederate banner, whether they were slaveholders or not. The incentive was repelling invasion. They did not so much defend slavery as resent interference in their society by an outside force that preached hatred against them and never had any constructive solutions for a difficult situation. Those the Confederates fought against were quite as “racist” as themselves. Although they lost, they put up a spectacular fight which has long been admired around the world. Confederate monuments, often erected by the financial sacrifices of ordinary people, are memorials of that fight and what it cost in blood.
Were the evils of Nazi Germany perpetrated in the name of the “white supremacy” that governed American belief for so long? I don’t think so. While the Nazis had a policy about “Aryan supremacy,” they in fact made wars of conquest entirely against other white people and countries, and in alliance with Japanese and Muslims. And were defeated by other white people, many or most of whom were “white supremacists.” I once saw a documentary about survivors of the great Battle of Stalingrad. The Russians were tall and fair “Aryans” and the German soldiers were mostly short and “Slavic” looking. Nazism was not driven by “white supremacy” but by German nationalism of a particularly grandiose and vicious sort. It caused the deaths of more white people than anything else in history.
It is worth mentioning in this connection that in the period before World War II there were strong manifestations of isolationism and pro-German sentiment in the North. A large pro-Nazi rally was held at Madison Square Garden. Such stuff hardly existed in the South. Public opinion surveys showed overwhelming pro-Allies sentiment among Southerners.
It is also worth pointing to the strong connections that German statists had with Lincoln and the Northern war of conquest. Early German settles in what became the U.S. were mostly peaceful farmers. After the failed European revolutions of 1848, many militant, aggressive Germans immigrated to the U.S., especially the Midwest. These were revolutionaries experienced in conflict, dedicated to social revolution by violence, and ignorant or contemptuous of American constitutionalism. Lincoln courted these people assiduously. It has been shown that Lincoln’s election as President was a product of the influx of Germans into the Midwest, outvoting the traditional Democratic majority there. Some of the Germans were also ignorant peasants who could be made to believe the cynical Republican lie that Southerners intended to enslave them.
These immigrant “Union” enthusiasts were proto-fascists or proto-communists. It amounts to the same thing. A number of Germans were generals in the Northern army, which also had several entire divisions composed of German immigrants. European Communists boasted that these people had played a big role in the federal government’s winning the war. This is not true---their battle record was quite poor. But it was certainly known that these German immigrants were the most brutal of Union troops in their treatment of American civilians in the South.
The Christian philosopher Gerhart Niemeyer recorded an experience when he was studying in Spain just before World War II. At the next table were two Germans, discussing what a fine country Spain was and what a valuable conquest it would make for the Reich.
Here is a Massachusetts colonel of the Union army writing to his sympathetic governor in the midst of the war:
“The thing we seek is permanent dominion: and what instance is there of permanent dominion without changing, revolutionizing and absorbing the institutions, life and manners of the conquered peoples? They think we mean to take their slaves. Bah! We must take their ports, their mines, their water power, the very soil they plow.”
This is a far more typical expression of what the Confederate soldier was against than pleas for “racial equality.” Who are the best candidates for the Nazi label in the War Between the States?
Clyde Wilson is a distinguished Professor Emeritus of History at the University of South Carolina He is the author or editor of over thirty books and published over 600 articles, essays and reviews