”We even got the black kid to throw it up.”
– Baraboo Wisconsin School District @GoBaraboo parody account

Last May a group of about 60 Baraboo High School students from the senior class of 2019 stood in front of the Sauk County Courthouse building to pose for prom pictures. It should have been just another innocuous photo of high school students. But something made this particular picture stand out.

About 30 of the students were giving the Nazi “Sieg Heil” salute. The photographer has claimed they were not. The photo has gone viral and brought attention to the school and upset Baraboo school leaders and parents alike.

The photo had been on the website of the photo studio for some time. The photographer claims the students were waving hello to their parents. One of the students in the photograph was his son. It is not clear if his son was one of the students giving the Nazi salute.

My question is if this was the case, which it obviously was not, why is the caption above attached to the photo on social media? Are we supposed to be so naïve as to not know the Nazi salute when we see it? One student in the front row photo also showed a hand signal (the three fingered OK sign) that is popular with white supremacist groups as well.

Just this past week I spoke at an event at Milwaukee City Hall commemorating the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Armistice Day is designed to raise awareness of the ending of WWI, which was later called “The War To End All Wars.”

That bloody war, which cost the lives of over 38 million people, was the bloodiest war in history until WWII. On 11 November 1918 the Armistice ending the war was signed, and halted four years of brutality. The armistice was an agreement by both sides to stop fighting, not a surrender by the protagonists. The armistice left in place a possibility of further combat moving forward.

I have been particularly interested in how the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Once the Allied forces sat down to draw up a formal treaty ending WWI, they held the upper hand over a defeated German nation. They used the Treaty of Versailles to punish Germany and prevent a repeat of the calamity that was seen during the “Great War.” For the continent of Europe, war was nothing new. And a subsequent conflict, the Second World War, came less than twenty years later and claimed 65 million lives around the world.

I took a class years ago in college called The History of Western Civilization. It was not as much about civilization as it was about internecine warfare in Europe. I clearly remember learning about the almost constant state of war in the history of the continent leading up to the 1940s.

For centuries Europeans killed each other in wars such as the multiple Wars of Succession, the multiple Byzantine wars, the Hundred Years War, the Anglo Dutch War, and so many others. World War I was simply an extension of warfare among Europeans that spread over the entire continent.

The German National Assembly reluctantly agreed to sign the Treaty of Versailles on 28 June 1919. The terms of the “peace” treaty caused a great stir in Germany. The most difficult part to swallow was the provision requiring Germany to accept “the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” which would become know as the War Guilt clause. In addition Germany was forced to disarm its military, give away territory, and pay massive reparations to many of the countries it attacked. Those who blamed the leadership for signing the treaty led to the rise of right wing political parties in Germany in the years after the war.

According to the great work The Rise of the Third Reich, the right leaning “conservatives still held the economic power. They owned the industries, the large estates, and most of the country’s capital. Their wealth could be used, and was, to subsidize political parties and a political press that would strive to undermine the Republic. The Army began to circumvent the military restrictions of the peace treaty before the ink on it was scarcely dry.”

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party, more commonly known as the Nazi Party, grew in strength as Germany dealt with the defeat and economic turmoil after WWI. They were famous for having defeated Communism in Germany and were an ultra-nationalist group. Eventually this party’s leader, Adolph Hitler, would become German Chancellor and ultimately dictator of Germany. They created a nation-state that segregated the small black population, Jews, and homosexuals who were considered inferior. As they gained control of the military, they built the most powerful fighting force in the world. They also were complicit in intentionally destroying the German economy by continuing to print money, increasing inflation by the trillions. They used this as justification for not paying all of the war reparations they had agreed to.

Under Adolf Hitler’s leadership, the Germans killed millions in death camps while justifying the deaths as good for the nation. They slaughtered those who were deemed “unfit” while attempting to create a so-called “Aryan Master Race.” What the Nazi Party became most infamous for was the “Final Solution,” the systematic genocide of Jews and the attempted extermination of the entire Jewish population across Europe. They very deliberately mυrdеred over six million Jews.

Anti-Semitism in America prevented many Jews, who wanted to flee to our shores, from escaping the Holocaust. The Holocaust is what Nazis are most closely associated with. The fact that people in Germany and many other places still celebrate and belong to factions of this group is beyond unfathomable. For those Jews who escaped and their children to see the continuing existence of Nazi emblems and behaviors is more than just problematic. It is terrifying. The recent mυrdеr of Jews at the Pittsburgh synagogue just a few weeks ago is a realization that some people want to continue the Nazi tradition and follow in their footsteps.

As many around the world condemned the Baraboo students for their Nazi salutes, I began to reflect on what it says about the condition of our society. How is this event tied to the current state of affairs in America, and what does it say that on a day designated to honor the ending of a massive war we still have multiple wars that our military is taking part in?

Armistice Day eventually turned into Veterans Day in America, to honor those who have served in our military. I served for six years in the US Navy, most of that onboard the USS Missouri (BB-63), the WWII era battleship that the Japanese surrender was signed on in 1945. The ship, along with its sister ships the USS Iowa (BB-61) and the USS Wisconsin (BB-64), were re-commissioned in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. It cost over $400 million each to refurbish and update these Iowa-class battleships for Reagan’s proposed 600-ship navy.

The USS New Jersey (BB-62) had never been decommissioned. We sat across the pier from the USS New Jersey at the Long Beach Naval Station in southern California. Both the Missouri and Wisconsin fired 16-inch shells in support of Operation Dessert Storm in the early 1990s. All four of the battleships have been since decommissioned due to the expense of maintaining them.

The rise of far-right groups has spread across Europe in recent years, and led to the creation of many opposition parties in governments. These Nationalist parties have gained support in European elections and put pressure on centrist leaders to conform to their views. The groups are staunchly anti-immigrant and are a part of the backlash arising from the wave of immigrants fleeing war torn areas in Africa and throughout the Middle East. The struggling economies in Europe have exacerbated the conditions leading many to reject their former leadership structures.

Austria, Switzerland, and Denmark have seen nationalist parties gain more than 20% of votes in recent elections. Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and Finland have seen these parties win in the upper teens. Several other nations in Europe have witnessed significant growth in these nationalist parties as well. A group formed only five years ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party entered the German parliament for the first time in 2017. Leaders of the group have been accused of downplaying Nazi atrocities. Holocaust deniers among these far-right movements have grown in stature.

Here in the United States, the President and many Republican candidates in the recent midterm elections have failed to distance themselves from far-right groups. President Trump went so far as to say that he is a “Nationalist.” After being rebuked, he denied it has anything to do with “white nationalist” groups. Openly white supremacist candidates ran in elections around the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) stated that nine candidates who ran in the midterm elections have ties to white nationalists or Nazi groups.

“More white nationalists are running for state or federal office than in any other election in modern history,” according to the SPLC.

Representative Steve King, (Iowa, 4th Congressional District) has re-tweeted a number of British neo-Nazis, as well as spreading anti-immigrant rhetoric. He has defended white supremacists and used to have a Confederate flag on his desk. David Duke and Richard Spencer have supported his candidacy. He won re-election on November 6 by winning 50.4% of the votes. The strong support President Trump has among his base portends events like what we saw in Baraboo, as well as being indicative of King’s election victory.

Having a Commander-in-Chief who threatened the people of North Korea in 2017 is troubling. During his first appearance at the United Nations last year President Trump said, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Most Americans took this with a grain of salt even though many warned of the threat of nuclear war after these remarks.

The United States has “1,350 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 652 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers” according to the US Department of State and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. We are one of nine nations (United States, China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea) with nuclear weapons. Only Russia has more active nukes than the United States.

We are the only nation to ever use these weapons, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly killed as many as 80,000 and as many as 150,000 died from radiation. In Nagasaki, 40,000 were killed instantly and as many as 80,000 eventually died. We can only imagine what would have happened had the Nazis acquired these weapons.

Currently there are about 1.3 million active duty service members in the United States military. They are stationed on about 800 bases in nearly 80 different countries. Many Americans were surprised and shocked to hear about the death of four American soldiers killed during an ambush in Niger, along with four Nigerian soldiers and an interpreter on October 4, 2017. Most Americans had no clue that we deployed troops on the ground in the middle of a desert in Central Africa. Some U.S. lawmakers were also unaware of the presence of U.S. troops there.

The United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM) is headquartered in Germany and has the mission statement saying, “in concert with interagency and international partners, builds defense capabilities, responds to crisis, and deters and defeats transnational threats in order to advance U.S. national interests and promote regional security, stability, and prosperity.” They are responsible for U.S. military efforts in all 53 nations in Africa, but most Americans have never heard of this command. It was created in February 2007 under the Bush administration. Just recently the Department of Defense announced it would draw down the current force in Africa of 7,200 by less than 10% over the next several years.

The carnage of current wars is directly attributed to the American “Defense” industry. President Dwight Eisenhower gave a dire warning about the role of an arms industry as a threat to democratic government just days before President Kennedy began his presidency.

“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

These following companies are the largest contractors of military hardware in the world.

Lockheed Martin (U.S.), Boeing (U.S.), BAE Systems (U.K.), Raytheon (U.S.), General Dynamics (U.S.), and Northrop Grumman (U.S.)

The five American companies had a combined contractual obligation from the U.S. government of over $115 billion in 2017 according to data from the Federal Procurement database. The New York Times reported last year that 10% of the $2.2 trillion in factory output in the United Sates goes towards military weapon production. President Trump’s first budget proposal included massive cuts to social service programs, while increasing military spending by more than $469 billion over ten years. The cuts included reductions in these programs:

• Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program: – $616 billion
• Welfare programs: – $272 billion
• Student loans: $143 – billion
• Disability programs: – $72 billion

These program cuts would mostly impact the poor. Apparently, we prioritize our military apparatus spending over helping the poor. We sacrificed programs for the poor to pay for the military in the 1960s during the Vietnam War. President Johnson’s War on Poverty was dismantled to pay for the war on the poor of Southeast Asia.

War is almost always fought by the poor to the benefit of the wealthy. I was in City Hall with members of Veterans for Peace on Veterans Day. They are “an international organization made up of military veterans, military family members, and allies, dedicated to building a culture of peace, exposing the true costs of war, and healing the wounds of war.” I sat with men and women who knew the deleterious impact of war in a way that most will never understand. Many of them are disabled due to injuries incurred during their military service to our nation.

The 100th anniversary of the end of WWI was an occasion to suggest that we, as Americans, should question how our military forces are being used. We stand as a very uninformed population about how and why we as a nation use the military might we pay so much for. We are not told how we produce more weapons of war than any country in the world. In fact, we make more than and sell more than the other top five nations combined. The current wars taking place around the globe are only possible today as a result of U.S. made weapons.

The 14 million suffering from famine in Yemen are directly a result of weapons we sell to Saudi Arabia, who has bombed that small nation unmercifully since 2015. The small nation was already the poorest in the region when a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia began a war to restore the Yemeni government from Houthi rebels. As of March 2018, at least 10,000 Yemenis had been killed by the fighting, with an estimated 40,000 casualties overall. Save The Children estimated at least 50,000 children died in 2017, an average of 130 every day. The bombs and drones being used by the Saudi coalition are mostly American made.

As our nation becomes poorer, our large cities like Milwaukee suffer with difficult cuts to services to our poor citizens. Our rural communities have the fastest growing rate of poverty in the country. We prefer, on the federal level, to place more emphasis on our military while discharging our duty to the poor and downtrodden. Political rhetoric leads us to see many as the “undeserving poor.” Our economy has suffered from the loss of high wage manufacturing jobs for decades. In Milwaukee, these jobs were the backbone of the city’s blue-collar workforce.

More than 91,000 manufacturing jobs were lost in Milwaukee from 1963 to 2015. It led to increasing levels of poverty, especially among the black and Hispanic communities. As the manufacturing jobs moved further away from the central city, we made large cuts to public transportation, preventing many from gaining access to the suburbanized manufacturing sector. The poverty rates of blacks and Latinos in the city both exceed 30%.

The people who have suffered the most by the shifting priorities of our local, state and federal governments have been the increasing number of poor and working-poor. This population, disproportionately black and Latino, have been attacked by those from far-right organizations and blamed for their conditions.

This is why the growth of far-right, white supremacist organizations like the “alt-right” are so dangerous. These young boys from Baraboo, who thought that giving a Nazi salute was somehow a joke are just the type that are easily recruited into these groups. The murderous rampage in Charlottesville should have been a wake up call. We did not look closely at the number of young men walking in lockstep like the infamous “brown shirts” of Nazi Germany. We forget the role that the Nazi Youth played in the Holocaust.

I fear that we have such unrestricted delivery methods for hate today. Social media and the Internet make it exceptionally easy to share hateful messages anonymously. Some worry that we are on a similar path to post-WWI Germany, in the ways we have demonized people of color, Muslims, and mostly non-white immigrants. The growth of Anti-Semitism has many in the Jewish community fearing for their lives. We have been “warned” that a caravan of mostly women and children from the abject poverty of Central America are “invaders.”

The messages of what used to be “fringe” right wing groups are now part of the mainstream press. President Trump has continuously called the media “fake news,” confusing many. How do we know whom to trust? Our divided nation is becoming more divided at the same time it is becoming more multi-cultural and multi-racial.

We must maintain vigilance in our fight against hate. The photograph from Baraboo is simply a warning of how easily we spread these messages of hate, and people make excuses immediately. Those who see the reaction to Baraboo as over the top are sorely lacking in understanding. It is not “boys being boys.” The photographer Peter Gust described the day the photo was taken with many parents present as nothing out of the ordinary.

“At no time were the boys given any kind of direction that said ‘do a Nazi salute. At no time did any parent say, ‘Hey, Pete, don’t do that.’ At no point in time did any of the parents recognize it and say, ‘Oh, that’s a bad picture, don’t do anything with that one, get rid of that one.’”

As calls were made to remove the photo he said “Due (to) malevolent behavior on the part of some in society; this page has been modified. It is too bad that there are those in society who can and do take the time to be jerks; knowingly and willingly to be jerks!” He also wrote “To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize.” Gust says he has never seen any acts of racism in Baraboo during his career as a teacher and football coach.

The danger is to bury our heads in the sand and deny racism. What is even more dangerous is the rise of rhetoric supporting the denial of racism in the mainstream political discourse, and the growth of this type of mindset in the hands of those who have control over our military.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
– George Santayana

© Photo

Peter Gust