On May 7th, 1945, around 6 P.M., Private First Class Charles Havlat was on patrol near Volary, Czechoslovakia with fellow soldiers of the Fifth Infantry Division. He was manning a machine gun in a jeep driven by the Lieutenant leading the unit.
His squad was ambushed, and during a “brief, but intense skirmish,” Havalt was shot through the head and killed. The shooting ended only because both sides were informed that hours earlier, Nazi Germany had signed an instrument of surrender. It was due to take effect at midnight of the next day, and when it did, World War II in Europe was over.
Killed in a completely unnecessary action, PFC Havlat is generally regarded as the last American to die at the hands of Nazi aggression.
Or at least he was until this weekend.
Saturday was a day of protests and counter-protests over Charlottesville, VA, removing a statue of Robert E. Lee. Groups of white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, armed “three percenter” militias, and alt-right nationalists engaged in violent battles with counter-protesters as demonstrations and marches raged.
One member of a peacefully marching anti-fascist group was 32-year-old Heather Heyer. She was killed when James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove his car into a large crowd of protestors, injuring 19 others.
Fields is 20, and had been photographed in Charlottesville marching with Vanguard America, described by the ADL as “a white supremacist group that opposes multiculturalism and believes America is an exclusively white nation.”
Those who knew Fields were quick to describe his white supremacist leanings and frequent use of racial slurs, with one former high school classmate telling CBS News that Fields “loved Hitler and he loved, you know, the Nazi movement.”
While it’s a cheap and often historically-inaccurate dodge to denounce anyone we disagree with as a Nazi, it seems clear in the case of Alex Fields and his fellow tiki-torch carrying violent white supremacists.
They use brutal violence to silence dissenters. They shout Nazi slogans, lift their arms in Nazi salutes, openly call for the repression of minorities, and profess their admiration for Adolf Hitler.
They are Nazis.
In fact, James Alex Fields, Jr. isn’t just a Nazi, he’s the prototypical recruit of the early years of the Nazi party.
In the early years of the Nazi movement, before vast waves of soldiers and torch-bearers marched through Nuremberg and into Poland, Adolf Hitler depended on a cadre of street toughs to keep him and his rallies safe from violent counter-protestors.
That small group of Hitler’s army comrades tasked with “hall protection” eventually grew into the dreaded Sturmabteilung (SA), a full-fledged paramilitary organization with hundreds of thousands of members. Its job: enforce party doctrine, espouse Nazi ideology, and protect Nazi leaders through physical combat.
The nascent Nazi propaganda machine bombarded disaffected young men, enraged by what they saw as Germany’s stabbing in the back by its own leadership and its shabby treatment by the Western allies. Unemployed, poor, and lacking structure, they flocked to the organization and patriotism offered by the Nazi Party. Many had served in the Great War, and were eager for revenge against those who had humiliated their nation.
By the time the Great Depression left nearly a third of the population unemployed, the SA had swelled to nearly two million men. Their street brawls of the early 1930’s became legendary for their violence and bloodshed
The group engaged in what one history of the Nazi Party called a “campaign of street terror” They beat up protestors, took part in violent riots, ransacked government buildings, and even engaged in shootouts. In July 1932, brawls between the SA and paramilitary fighters of the German Communist Party left dozens dead on both sides. That same month, the Nazi Party won the most seats in Germany’s Parliament, and Adolf Hitler seized power less than a year later.
This brutal, bloody, street fighting was a critical part of the Nazi rise to power. And it involved countless hundreds of thousands of men like Alex Fields. They were young, angry, violent by nature, directionless, and blamed others for their own predicaments. And they flocked to groups that could focus and reward their violent anger.
70 years ago, it took the deaths of countless Allied soldiers like Charles Havlat to destroy what was born in those street brawls. This weekend, Heather Heyer was killed by the same tactics.
What happened in Charolottesville wasn’t born out of some ridiculous notion of “Southern pride” or economic anxiety. It was copied straight out of the Nazi handbook: charismatic leaders rile up angry youths with propaganda, then set them loose to violently attain their political goals.
And this was likely just the first of many brawls to come.