Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The meaning behind ‘Nazi’

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman/TNS

When Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, was punched in the face over inaugural weekend, it launched a discussion of whether it was okay to punch a Nazi.

For the record, Spencer has denounced attributing Nazism to himself, preferring terms like white nationalist or white supremacist. In light of this event, regardless of whether or not one thinks it is justified, it is worth discussing what the term “Nazi” actually it means.

The historical definition of Nazi holds its origins as the party of the Third Reich, the fascist dictatorship that reined in Germany from 1933-1945. The etymology of the word Nazi can be found in Germany during a time far proceeding World War II. “Nazi” can be understood as the abbreviated version for “Nationalsozialist,” the German translation of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party.

Today, the word Nazi is once again being applied. We live in an age where politics have become increasingly polarizing. This contrast of political ideologies has continued into the second decade of the millennium and has arguably never been more present than during the 2016 election. Millions of Americans, along with mainstream newspapers, have commented on the emergence of the “alt-right” in this country.

This brings us back to Spencer, a leader at the forefront of this movement. Following the assault on Spencer, the New York Times ran an article addressing the question, “Is it O.K. to punch a Nazi?” The debate ignited on Twitter following the immediate aftermath of the punch and the Times is correct in acknowledging that people who take their opinion to Twitter are often hell-bent on not changing it.

Whether it is said with a punching fist or punctual language, the term Nazi accurately applies to Spencer. On Nov. 19, the NPI hosted its annual gathering held at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C. It was there that Spencer spoke of pledging allegiance to then candidate Donald Trump shouting, “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” In addition to this Spencer chose to deliberately refer to the media with the German term, “Lügenpresse” which in English means “lying press.”

There are dangerous side-affects of using such words. As put in the Washington Post, “The consequences of that rhetoric—of which the term “Lügenpresse” was an important component under propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels—were horrifying. Millions of people were killed in concentration camps by the Nazis, including Jews, political opponents and homosexuals.” The late November meeting was adjourned by some members raising and extending their right arms, mirroring that of a Nazi salute.

The term Nazi is also linked to prescriptivism, the belief that grammar should not change and should be rigidly enforced. “Grammar Nazi” is how it’s used, if people are trying to be overtly difficult, purposely dictatorial in their personality or presentation. All of this is not to be confused with the term neo-Nazi. These are self-described Nazis that emerged after World War II. As far as the United States is concerned, the emergence of neo-Nazism began in 1958 with the founding of the National States’ Rights Party and then the American Nazi Party just one year later. The meaning and use of the word Nazi in their eyes was directly in line with that of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich.

There are a few reasons why understanding such history, both of a particular political system and of language, is important. First, it doesn’t make sense to use a word unless you know where it comes from. Often, when politics are talked about at the college level, terms like Nazi and fascist are thrown around rather casually as if to marginalize the opposing view. Fascism and Nazism are two very different things, just like fascism and national socialism are different.

The emergence of the “alt-right” is not the rise of Nazism nor is it fair to say or even suggest that the “alt-right” paved the way for Trump to be president. If that were the case then the majority of white women would be part of the “alt-right,” along with hundreds of thousands in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin. It is important to take to heart that the blue-red divide is as powerful now as it has ever been. But let’s be careful how we refer to these emerging political views. Failure to do so makes punching Spencer seem like nothing at all.

Isaac Simon is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected].

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