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“You would make little Nazis of them”: Lillian Smith, Jim Crow, and Nazi Germany

M A T T H E W   T E U T S C H   &

C A M I L L E   N U N N A L L Y

When we mentioned to people that we would be doing a course on the connections between Jim Crow and the Holocaust, some of our friends and family asked various questions: “How can you study the two side-by-side?” “What do Nazis and the Holocaust have to do with the South?” From their perspective as white Southerners, they could not see how the horrors inflicted by Nazis could ever intersect with white supremacy in the United States. Many white Americans struggled or refused to make connections between the widespread prejudice against Blacks in America and Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe. However, some white Americans recognized the parallels between the two societies. Lillian E. Smith, born and raised in the Jim Crow South, wrote extensively about her experiences growing up and being indoctrinated with white supremacy. She dedicated much of her focus to discuss race, gender, religion, and sex. She understood the significance of studying uncomfortable subject matter because she knew that doing so was the only way to learn and grow from a painful past. In a letter to Horace Kallen in 1954, Smith wrote, “When I want to find something, I write a book. It is my way of searching. Not to give the world ‘answers’ but to find them myself” (How Am I to be Heard? 144).  At the same time, Smith understood why so many white Americans, especially white Southerners, struggled to accept that their society was not so far removed from Hitler’s Germany.

The reluctance of white Americans to look at Nazi Germany as somewhat of a mirror of twentieth-century America is not surprising. In her 1949 memoir Killers of the Dream, Smith explains the process through which white Southerners gained the ability to distance themselves from the heavy weight of their conscience in order to let Jim Crow carry on in their communities. They were living contradictions, preaching and believing in Christianity, while refusing to sit alongside their Black neighbors on the church pews. Growing up, Smith “learned it the way all. . .  southern people learn it: by closing door after door until one’s mind and heart and conscience are blocked off from each other and reality” (29). This very mentality is the reason that white Southerners found it easy to denounce the Nazis, while at the same time they terrorized their Black neighbors. We do not need to look at the Holocaust and Jim Crow as one-to-one corollaries, but we must, as Smith and others did, look at the similarities between the societies from which they originated and which actively or passively participated in physical and psychological violence against Jews, Blacks, and others. As the authors of We Charge Genocide: The Crime of the Government Against the Negro People, a 1951 petition submitted to the United Nations by the Civil Rights Congress, point out, “Seldom has mass murder on the score of 'race' been so sanctified by law, so justified by those who demand free elections abroad even as they kill their fellow citizens who demand free elections at home (3-4).

Most white Southerners during this period, which saw the rise and consolidation of Nazi power leading up to the invasion of Poland in September 1939, did not equate the Nazis’ treatment of Jews and Afro-Germans to their own treatment of Blacks in the United States, specifically in the South. They ignored the similarities, especially the Nazi’s views on Afro-Germans and Blacks. If the white Southern press chose to present the Nazi’s views, as Johnpeter Horst Grill and Robert L. Jenkins note, it “would have created an instant and obvious mirror image of southern treatment of [B]lacks” (693). Although it proved to be a difficult task for most white Americans to see the hypocrisy of offering any criticism to the Nazis, there were many Black American writers who quickly made connections between their experiences and that of the German and Eastern European Jews as soon as the news of Nazi persecution spread. In 1936, Kelly Miller’s article “Race Prejudice in Germany and America” appeared in Opportunity, and she concluded it by commenting on the history of lynching in the United States and hoping that Hitler and Nazi Germany would not succumb to “such depths of depravity” (105). Miller ends by linking both Nazi Germany and America together in their racist ideologies, writing, “Between Hitler’s treatment of the Jews and America’s treatment of the Negro, you may pay your money and take your choice” (105). Earlier in 1935, Miller wrote an article for The Indianapolis Recorder in which she compared the Nazi laws that prevented Jews from marrying and attending school with Aryans to the Jim Crow laws that divided Black Southerners from whites (“Hitler Goes One America Better”). Similarly, Henry E. Banks, a Black college student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, saw the hypocrisy in American newspapers condemning the actions of the Nazis as deeply rooted racial issues spread across the soil of the United States. Following the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Banks wrote a piece for Morehouse’s The Maroon Tiger. Banks agreed with the critiques of the Nazis that he had read recently in American newspapers and heard from the pulpit; however, he also called upon the United States to reflect upon its own acts of injustice: “We do well, therefore, to condemn the racial policies of Hitler and oppose injustice wherever it is found, but it seems to me it would be far better if we would dedicate ourselves to the serious task of setting our own houses in order first” (3).

Smith, Miller, Banks, and others understood the connections between Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South, and they could clearly see how the United States impacted Nazi ideology, even if they did not know its full extent. Adolf Hitler, though, made the connections crystal clear because he looked at the Confederacy and the Jim Crow South as a fascist, totalitarian state not governed by democracy but rather governed with an iron fist. Herman Rauschning highlights this in The Voice of Destruction which appeared in 1940 and details conversations Hitler had between 1933 and 1934 when Rauschning was briefly part of the Nazi Party. Rauschning relates that at a dinner party in 1933 Hitler told advisors, who wanted him to convince the United States to support him and the regime, that the United States was in “the last disgusting death-rattle of a corrupt and outworn system” that has been on the decline since “the Southern states were conquered” (68). Hitler saw the South’s defeat during the Civil War as the first notch in the downfall of the nation. He said, “The beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by that war, and with them also the embryo of a future truly great America that would not have been ruled by a corrupt class of tradesmen, but by a real Herren-class that would have swept away all falsities of liberty and equality” (69). Rauschning continues by stating that Hitler became furious at the word “equality” and he spoke fervently about awakening the spirit of “the American middle class and the farmers” whose “wholesome aversion for the Negroes and the colored races in general, including the Jews,” made itself known partly through the work of “scholars who have studied immigration and gained insight, by means of intelligence tests, into the inequality of the races” and that the Nazi party could awaken and “liberate the American people from their ruling clique” that espoused, even if it did not enforce and enact, equality amongst all individuals (69). 

While many Black journalists and intellectuals, such as Miller, Banks, Thurgood Marshall, and W.E.B. DuBois drew direct correlations between Nazi Germany and Jim Crow, few white Southern liberals made such direct comparisons. Instead, most “continued to support segregation in order to save the white race” (Grill and Jenkins 693). However, Lillian Smith, in a similar tone as Banks, called for Southerners and the United States to take the plank out of their own eye before attempting to remove the speck from someone else’s eye. Smith’s “views were,” as Anne Loveland points out, “more in agreement with those of [B]lack Americans” than they were with white Southern liberals (36). Smith understood the “cognitive dissonance” of whites, a dissonance they willingly or unwillingly used to deny the genocide happening in their own nation. Writing around 1943 in “The White Christian and His Conscience,” Smith targets this dissonance, pointing out that when we talk about the atrocities of the Third Reich “[w]e talk about the problem of the Nazis and their racial beliefs and acts of exploitation” (3). We don’t call their actions the “Jewish Problem.” Yet, in the United States, we use(d) phrases such as the “Negro Problem” to shift the burden from the oppressor to the oppressed. Smith continues, “But in America we do, as people who are tormented by the conflicts always try to do: we attempt to push conflict outside ourselves, on to another. We study the Negro in order to keep from having to study the white man” (3). This “cognitive dissonance” works to create an enemy outside of oneself and to hinder the inward inspection one needs to progress towards a more equitable and just society.

During the rise of fascism in the early 1900s and leading up to the war, intellectuals in Europe noted that the United States “had embarked on the creation of something that looked unmistakably like the American version of a race-based fascist order” (Whitman 69). This “race-based fascist order” arose through legal avenues as well as through paramilitary organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan. In 1930, French author Charles B. Vibbert referred to the original Klan and the resurgent Klan as “American fascism” (332). Robert Paxton, writing over seventy years later, asserts that “the earliest phenomenon that can be functionally related to fascism is American: the Ku Klux Klan” (49). The Klan, in concert with other legal and extra-legal entities in the South and across the United States, created a state of physical and psychological violence and suppression. Smith saw the ways that the white supremacy spewed by “political demagogues” created within the psyche of whites “an external enemy to hate (the damnyankee), an internal enemy to fear (the Negro), an iron curtain which was first forged out of the reluctance of the democratic few to take a stand against such powerful forces” (How am I to be Heard? 120). 

Smith points out that racism and oppression have been used to do many things, but their “main use today is to keep the white man from seeing what he is doing to other human beings” (“The White Christian” 4). They work to keep whites from turning their gaze internally, and that is why, as she vehemently argues, “nowhere is hatred of the German Nazi worse than in the Deep South” (2). The need to fight an outside evil works to create a false absolution that falsely cleanses one of the crimes being committed at home. Smith understood that the hatred arose, partly, from the mirror that the Third Reich held up to the South, the mirror that pierced its conscience. However, instead of recognizing the reflection that stared back, most separated it from themselves, justifying their actions by saying they would never commit such atrocities, or they would speak up if, like the villagers next to Buchenwald or Dachau or elsewhere, they saw such atrocities occurring. Yet, they did stand by as the laws of the nation, social structures, and groups such as the Klan murdered countless individuals, not solely through physical lynching but through the continued systemic oppression and marginalization brought on by the deep-seated beliefs of white superiority.

Smith worked, throughout her career, to have white Southerners look at themselves, engaging with their own role in the upholding of white supremacy. In Killers of the Dream, she draws threads between the United States and Nazism. Between 1925 and 1948, Smith directed Laurel Falls Camp for Girls, the first private camp for girls in Georgia. During her time as director, campers did all of the regular camp activities such as horseback riding, archery, tennis, and more. However, Smith also had the campers participate in theater, dance, and other activities and engaged them in frank discussions about race, psychology, and sex. She sought to have the campers probe themselves and the society surrounding them, a society that contained both “legal” and “social, extra-legal” laws supporting Jim Crow and white supremacy. Smith succeeded in her efforts to have Southern children question the ways of their society, but the cultural roots that had already started to spread did not make this task any easier, and some pushed back against engaging the reflections of themselves and their places within a racist and xenophobic society. Smith recalls a conversation she had with a seventeen-year-old camper who, having spent many summers learning how to confront the racial prejudice that existed in her own self, felt conflicted about how to use that knowledge to confront white supremacy in her home and community. The girl knew what she learned at camp was right, but she feared having to confront herself and her community’s deeply entrenched way of life. The young girl told Smith, “It was as if somebody had swung a bright mirror in front of us. The whole thing opened up! How it would be–if we tried to live the way we have learned to want to live” (52). The camper expressed frustration and confusion because she ultimately feared her family’s and her community’s responses to her positions. She continued by telling Smith, “I’m all confused. My mind is full of barbed wire. It isn’t right for any one [sic] to feel the way I feel–inside” (54). The young girl sees the issues within herself, but the work of confronting those issues causes her to give up and claim that she will teach her future children to accept a Jim Crow and white supremacist society, without speaking up against it. To this, Smith tells the camper, “In other words, you would make little Nazis of them” (55). Through her response to the camper, Smith sets “the South’s segregated system alongside Nazi Germany’s totalitarianism” and calls upon her readers, four years after the war, to confront how connections between the Holocaust, white supremacy, and Jim Crow threaten “the future of democracy and [bolster] the threat of totalitarianism” (Brinkmeyer 2).

Though her teachings caused some white Southerners such as the seventeen-year-old camper to feel overwhelmed with a task that seemed near impossible in their deeply racist society, Smith and Paula Snelling offered, in a 1943 article entitled “Addressed to Intelligent White Southerners: There are Things To Do,” a list of “simple, undramatic things we all can do,” to slowly but surely bring an end to the plague of Jim Crow in the South (35). The steps they suggest are as simple as refraining from using racist language or telling racist jokes and asking others to try and do the same (35-36). They also called upon their mostly white Southern audience to try and better understand their Black neighbors, by thinking “how it must feel to be a Negro in the South today,” and by listening directly to the concerns of Black Southerners either by reading their books, magazines or newspapers, or by directly corresponding with them. Smith and Snelling argued that doing so would provide them with “information about Negroes, what they are thinking and feeling during these troubled days'' (37). Most importantly, Smith and Snelling addressed ways “to train our children now to be, not little Nazis, but democratic world citizens” (39). Here, Smith and Snelling make a direct connection between the Jim Crow South and Nazi Germany because the societal influences that impact children in the United States and Germany are the same in many ways.

Along with instructing campers, Smith pointedly addressed the hypocrisies of the United States and the Jim Crow South in relation to Nazi Germany. In the Spring 1942 issue of South Today, the first issue following the United States’ entrance into the war, she published the satirical dramatic monologue “Portrait of the Deep South Speaking to Negroes on Morale,” a piece that, through a white speaker, presents various arguments for African American support for the war effort. It ends, as Brinkmeyer notes, “with a fierce indictment of the fact that in a war declared to be for democracy blacks [sic] faced a very undemocratic segregation, both on the battlefield and on the home front” (129). Smith intended to publish an editorial, “There Are Some Things White Folks Can’t Say,” alongside the monologue, but as she told Walter White in June 1942, “our printers have refused to print the magazine this time” because they felt the editorial “would stir up racial trouble in the South" ("How Am I to Be Heard?" 59). Smith sent the editorial to White, and in it, she talks about the conversations she and Paula overheard during their travels throughout the South that spring as part of their Rosenwald Fund grant, specifically the talk about the war effort. Encapsulating a myriad of voices into the editorial, similar to the dramatic monologue, Smith writes that after African Americans argued for their equality, “white men grew angry” and claimed “[t]he Negro’s morale is poor.” The whites thought to themselves that they must “hush the Negro’s talk” and that the arguments arose from “Nazi propaganda” to divide the United States’ war effort. Calling “Negro leaders” into their offices, white men closed the door and told them to stop talking about police brutality, riots, integration of the military, medical personnel denied service due to being Black, housing, and more. Instead of focusing on the inequality at home, the white men explained “to the black man how fine democracy is and why it must be saved, and why to save it, the black man must stop his complaining.” Smith notes, as she does elsewhere, the hypocrisy of condemning Nazi atrocities while allowing atrocities against African Americans to exist and continue in the United States.  

The Spring 1942 issue also contained a symposium entitled “Winning the World with Democracy: A Symposium of Questions and Answers concerning Aims and Strategies, Ends and Means,” where Smith and Snelling asked a number of intellectuals and citizens a series of four questions and subquestions. Under the question, “Do we want to win the people of the world to a belief in democracy?”, Smith and Snelling asked the respondents directly about the connections between Jim Crow and Nazi Germany (9). To drive this home, they ask two specific questions pointedly addressing the links: “is not Jim Crow a greater menace to democracy than Hitler?” and “will he not have to be conquered in our hearts before Hitler can be conquered in Germany?” (9). Through these questions, Smith and Snelling distinctly highlight the hypocrisy of the United States refusing to acknowledge its own sins while at the same time arguing that it must keep the world safe for democracy, a democracy that, like Nazi Germany, denies a number of its citizens human rights. 

Throughout their work on the magazine, Smith and Snelling published the voices of individuals who shared their same views on the links between Jim Crow and Nazism. They republished a letter from Lewis Jones to New York’s U.S. Attorney where he expressed his reasons for refusing to register for the draft. “He refused to register,” Florence Murray notes, “for no other reason than that he would not serve in a segregated army, taking the position that he could best serve his country and race by fighting discrimination in the only way he could” (212). Jones directly pointed to the hypocrisy of the war rhetoric in relation to African Americans, and because of his position, he received three years in prison. Protesting the draft, Jones wrote, “I cannot fight Fascism in an army where I am treated as an inferior subject” (52). While not explicitly linking Fascism to Jim Crow segregation, Jones highlights the ways that segregationist policies mirrored fascist policies in Germany, and while he recognizes that if the Axis powers win the situation could get worse for African Americans, he states, “But we also have the duty to make our democracy in wartime square with its principles” of equality for all (52). Smith and Snelling reinforce Jones’ position in their introduction to his letter. They write, “Mr. Jones is protesting, not war itself, but the violation of his Constitutional right not to be discriminated against in the Army which he is conscripted” (51). Like Banks ten years earlier, Jones points out the error of looking outward at the sins of others while refusing to look internally. 

            Lillian Smith understood how crucial it was for not only herself but other white Southerners to look inward and assess their local situation before placing judgment on a community abroad. She outlined the connections between Jim Crow totalitarianism and Nazi fascism, asking whites to think about the sanctimonious condemnation of discrimination and violence abroad all the while allowing discrimination and violence to occur at home.  She knew that the Holocaust and Jim Crow were separate events that affected different communities in different ways, but she also recognized that they did not happen in a vacuum. Both the Holocaust and the implementation of Jim Crow laws in the American South happened as a result of fascist rule and fear mongering against minority populations. Both events drew inspiration from one another, directly and indirectly, and both claimed the lives of countless victims who committed no crimes other than ones that were concocted as weapons deployed by those who used them to maintain political and social power. Holding a mirror up to Southern history when examining the Holocaust is a necessary step for white America to understand its past and how it affects current issues from groups such as Moms for Liberty to book bans to anti-LGBTQ legislation to fights for reproductive rights, and Smith provides a lens to interrogate this history and to further our understanding of the interrelated threads that continue to impact us today.




Works Cited


Banks, Henry E. “Can America Afford to Condemn Hitler for his Racial Policies?” The Maroon Tiger, vol. 9, no. 1,  1 Oct. 1933, pp. 2-3.

Brinkmeyer, Robert. The Fourth Ghost: White Southern Writers and European Fascism, 1930-1950. LSU Press, 2009.

Grill, Johnpeter Horst and Robert L. Jenkins. “The Nazis and the American South in the 1930s: A Mirror Image?” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 58, no. 4, Nov. 1992, pp. 667-694. 

“Lewis Jones Writes a Letter.” South Today, vol. 7, no 2, Winter 1942-1943, pp. 51-52.

Loveland, Anne C. Lillian Smith: A Southerner Confronting the South: A Biography. LSU Press, 1986.

Miller, Kelly. “Hitler Goes America One Better.” The Indianapolis Recorder, 30 Nov. 1953, p. 10.

—. “Race Prejudice in Germany and America.” Opportunity, no. 15, April 1936, pp. 102-105.

Murray, Florence. “The Negro and Civil Liberties during World War II.” Social Forces, vol. 24, no. 2, Dec. 1945, pp. 211-216.

Paxton, Robert. The Anatomy of Fascism. Vintage Books, 2005.

Rauschning, Herman. The Voice of Destruction. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940.

Smith, Lillian. “Addressed to Intelligent White Southerners: There are Things To Do.” South Today, vol. 7, no 2,  Winter 1942-1943, pp. 34-43.

Smith, Lillian. Killers of the Dream: With a New Introduction by Margaret Rose Gladney. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1994.

Smith, Lillian. How am I to be Heard?: Letters of Lillian Smith. Edited by Margaret Rose Gladney, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.

Smith, Lillian. Letter to Walter White. 2 June 1942. Box II:A490. Records of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Manuscript Division. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 13 September 2022.

Smith, Lillian and Paula Snelling. “Winning the World with Democracy: A Symposium of Questions and Answers concerning Aims and Strategies, Ends and Means.” South Today, vol. 7, no. 1 Spring 1942, pp. 7-24. 

Vibbert, Charles B. “La Génération présente aux États-Unis.” Revue des Deux Mondes, vol. 58, no. 2, pp. 329-345. 

We Charge Genocide: The Crime of Government Against the Negro People. Edited by William L. Patterson, International Publishers, 2021.

Whitman, James Q. Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law. Princeton University Press, 2018.

Camille Nunnally is the co-author, with Dr. Matthew Teutsch, of “‘You would make little Nazis of them’: Lillian Smith, Jim Crow, and Nazi Germany.” She graduated from Piedmont University in the summer of 2022 with her BA in History. She went on to study history at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. She is a life-long lover of history and is most interested in the post-Civil War/Reconstruction era. She now lives in Conyers, Georgia and works for Hall Booth Smith, P.C. in Atlanta.

Matthew Teutsch is the Director of the Lillian E. Smith Center at Piedmont University. He’s published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEARMELUSMississippi QuarterlyAfrican American Review and Callaloo. His research focuses on African American, Southern, and American literature. He is the editor of Rediscovering Frank Yerby: Critical Essays (UPM 2020), and his current project examines Christopher Priest’s run on Black Panther. You can follow him on Twitter/X @SilasLapham.


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