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Worrying Programming For Worrying Times: PBS' ‘Frontline’ and ProPublica Hold Their Lens to ‘New American Nazis’
November 20, 2018  | By Alex Strachan

We live in worrying times.

A week ago, the prominent, now-retired BBC radio broadcaster and journalist Robin Lustig penned a personal column for London’s Sunday Observer, about how, on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, he went to the German embassy in London, accompanied by his son, daughter and brother, to reclaim their German citizenship.

Kristallnacht (right) was the night of Nov. 9, 1938 when Nazis smashed thousands of windows in Jewish-owned shops, businesses, homes and synagogues throughout Germany, in the hours, days and weeks leading up to the Holocaust. Days later, Lustig’s father and grandfather, in hiding at the time, fled to Portugal and eventually settled in London, where they escaped the worst of the Holocaust’s ravages. Nazi Germany stripped all who fled the country of their German citizenship, and many Jews who fled became essentially stateless. Lustig has no intention of settling in Germany, he wrote in The Observer. As a gesture of atonement for crimes committed under the Nazi regime, post-war Germany passed a new law granting citizenship back to any German-born family, and their descendants, who fled Nazi repression. Lustig wanted to reclaim his family’s ancestral German citizenship to demonstrate, to anyone who cares, that the Nazis failed in their mission to rid Germany of any evidence that Jews had even existed there.

Lustig had another reason — the rise of anti-Semitism and reemergence of violent, far-right groups throughout the civilized, developed world. It was not lost on him that, just two weeks before the day he reacquired German citizenship, a gunman murdered 11 Jews at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh (right).

As a new PBS Frontline-ProPublica exposé points out, this is not a new phenomenon. Just days ago, the FBI published a report that shows a spike in hate crimes across the US for the third year in a row. According to FBI figures, there were 7,175 reported hate crimes in 2017, up from 6,121 the previous year. Crimes against Jewish-Americans alone jumped 37% during that period.

This matters today because, in virtually every year leading up to 2015, that number would have been closer to 2,000 — still too many, but nothing like today. Civil rights groups claim the present-day numbers may well be under-reported, too, because so many victims choose not to come forward.

The PBS Frontline-ProPublica investigation, Documenting Hate: New American Nazis, pulls back the curtain on disquieting, little-known details of a domestic neo-Nazi group, dubbed Atomwaffen (German for “nuclear weapons”) Division, that has quietly but assiduously recruited inside the U.S. military.

Atomwaffen’s (right) alt-right philosophy, if you can call it philosophy, touches on all the old tropes about “the Other.” What makes the Frontline revelations so troubling is growing signs that far-right groups like Atomwaffen feel emboldened, not discouraged, by the 2017 Charlottesville riots.

Regular readers of TVWW know about Frontline’s reputation for courage and fearlessness in speaking truth to power, all the while revealing uncomfortable truths about the society we live in. For the uninitiated — reason enough to give the program a try — Frontline won the 2016 Peabody Award for news and information programming; it’s not some cheap knock-off, made on-the-quick, half-hearted obligatory space-filler designed to meet some predetermined quota of “public service broadcasting.” Frontline’s slogan is “Serious Journalism for Serious Times,” and Documenting Hate: New American Nazis qualifies on both counts.

It’s easy to dismiss neo-Nazis on American soil as addled halfwits with little sense of history, let alone irony or the scientific knowledge and technical know-how needed to make deadly explosive devices. As New American Nazis points out, when homegrown military-trained terrorists talk about bombing “Power lines, nuclear reactors, synagogues,” with the emphasis on “nuclear weapons” (“They want to build the Fourth Reich,” a whistleblower explains in the program. “I’m telling you stuff that the FBI should be hearing”), it’s time to sit up and pay attention.

New American Nazis opens with the Oct. 27 mass murder at the Tree of Life synagogue. If that opening seems a little sensationalist — the TV equivalent of a headline grabber — just moments later, the program asks the key questions: Where does this hate come from? Could it have been prevented?

If New American Nazis was just another one of those alarmist “Henny-Penny: The Sky is Falling!” programs masquerading as hard news, it would be worrying enough.

What's doubly worrying is that, in the decades-old tradition of Frontline (created in 1983) and ProPublica, New American Nazis tackles the more disturbing issues, and asks why the movement didn’t fade away but rather grew after the Charlottesville riots (right). The group’s ranks swelled after Charlottesville. It’s almost as though the events of that terrible day gave tacit approval to far-right groups that embrace violence as a way to further their twisted, addled ideal of social engineering — not helped, of course, by the febrile political turmoil of the times, when the nation’s de facto leader can prattle on about “some very fine people on both sides” just days after the events in Charlottesville. (Never forget the name Heather Heyer.)

It’s disturbing enough to think where the neo-Nazi movement could go from here if left unchallenged, but New American Nazis paints a truly worrying picture. When militant ignorance and a warped view of history wash up against a surfeit of testosterone, stupidity, and access to high-grade military weapons, we’re straying close to End-of-Days territory.

“I kind of welcome the chaos,” Atomwaffen’s so-called “intellectual leader,” James Mason — bearded, bespectacled and gray-haired, i.e. old enough to know better — tells Frontline correspondent and veteran ProPublica investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, late in the program. “The white race is in danger, and it’s not by accident. It’s driven. It’s planned.”

“Who’s planning it?” Thompson asks him.

“The Jews. It’s the Jews. We know that.”

It’s not long before the conversation turns to the currently serving U.S. president and his MAGA slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

“In order to make America great again,” Mason continues, warming to his subject, “you have to make America white again.”

In testimonial after testimonial about Kristallnacht (left), one theme emerges — the by-now familiar refrain, attributed to the 18th century Irish philosopher-statesman Edmund Burke but which actually has its roots in the Talmud, that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

On one level, New American Nazis is a clear-headed, sharp-eyed examination of the rise of neo-Nazism in present-day America.

On a deeper, more meaningful level, it’s a warning to all those who care about a civil society to wake up. The enemy within can be the most dangerous enemy of all.

No one needs Frontline or ProPublica to remind us that hate exists, of course. What’s important to know is not so much that these groups exist — that part is obvious — but that they’re metastasizing. And when the roots of poison reach inside the U.S. military, that should give anyone pause.

“To save one life is to save the entire world,” the Talmud says. “And therefore to do nothing in the aid of your neighbor is to bring on destruction."

Food for thought, in these worrying times.

Documenting Hate: New American Nazis premieres Tuesday on PBS's Frontline, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings). A repeat of the 2017 Frontline-ProPublica program Documenting Hate: Charlottesville follows at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings).

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