Close-Up of an American Nazi

Newly unearthed photos from the 1960s document hatred and banality on display in Northern Virginia.

Newly unearthed photos from the 1960s document hatred and banality on display in Northern Virginia.

By Charles S. Clark / Photos by Jack Hiller

George Lincoln Rockwell
George Lincoln Rockwell

In the spring of 1960, a mere 15 years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, an American version of the Nazi Party was operating openly in middle-class suburban Arlington.

The Nazis’ hypnotic commander, etched into public consciousness by his full name of George Lincoln Rockwell, set up headquarters in a ramshackle home at 928 N. Randolph St. (today the site of the Richmond Square high-rise apartments in Ballston). The façade of the wood-frame house bore a large sign reading: “White Man … Fight! Smash the Black Revolution Now.”

In spreading his message of hate against blacks and Jews, Rockwell used a variety of publicity-generating tactics—self-staged speeches, picket lines in front of the White House, and distribution of inflammatory fliers protesting the “lie” that 6 million Jews died in the Holocaust.

It was this craving for notoriety that prompted Rockwell to allow Zander Hollander, an up-and-coming reporter for the local Northern Virginia Sun, and part-time photographer Jack Hiller access to his lair while the commander and his “storm troopers” prepared to head off for a rally on the National Mall.

Though the modest-size-circulation Sun would go on to play a crusading role in helping expose the Arlington-based Nazis’ misdeeds, these two young journalists were hoping to go national and sell their scoop to Life magazine. It was not to be. Instead, Hollander rocketed off to wire service stardom and Hiller became a high school history teacher in Fairfax, now retired.

Hiller’s photos of the American Nazis’ inner sanctum are being published here for the first time.

Rockwell, left, putting on a swastika
Rockwell, left, putting on a swastika

Why Arlington?
Rockwell, born in Bloomington, Ill., in 1918, grew up with performing skills as the son of vaudeville comedians. His upper-crust status would afford him prep school in Maine and philosophy studies at Brown University in Rhode Island. Later he attended the Pratt Institute of Art in Brooklyn, where he developed the drawing talents he would use in the advertising field and later to create Nazi fliers. He served as a Navy pilot during World War II.

When the Korean War broke out, Rockwell left his first wife and three children and was assigned to a U.S. naval air facility in Iceland. There he read Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” and became obsessed with Aryanism. He married an Icelandic woman and honeymooned in Germany (in Hitler’s retreat town of Berchtesgaden.)

In the mid-1950s, in a move that would estrange him from his wives and family, Rockwell returned to the United States and conceived the American Nazi Party. In 1958, he moved to the suburbs of the nation’s capital, where it would be easier to win publicity and funding in a primarily white jurisdiction.

Rockwell set up his first Arlington headquarters in a brick rambler owned by a political backer, at 6512 Williamsburg Blvd. Through the window, neighbors could see his lit-up swastika on a red flag.

The Nazis quickly made news with a bomb threat against the Arlington Unitarian Church, where many Jewish congregants gathered. Law enforcement took notice.

On the evening of April 21, 1959, Arlington police and Commonwealth’s Attorney William Hassan, armed with a search warrant, raided Rockwell’s home, finding a pistol, a revolver, rifles and 10,000 anti-Jewish pamphlets. Some 100 neighbors looked on as Nazis marched in and out of the home giving the “Sieg Heil” salute. Police charged various Nazis with disorderly conduct and maintaining a public nuisance.

The following year, the group moved to the Randolph Street house, which was owned by a backer named Floyd Fleming, of Southeast Washington. To make the monthly payments, the top floor was rented to the Virginia Mental Health Association and the local bus drivers union. The presence of Nazis, however, prompted insurance companies to refuse to insure the house. Consequently the health group and the bus drivers moved out, and real estate broker Rose Hall, feeling deceived by the surprise Nazi tenants, announced to reporters her plan to foreclose on the deed and auction the home. But within a week, the Nazis raised the money to buy the property outright, negating the need for insurance.

For local youth, the Nazi house was an object of fascination. There were incidents of rock-throwing and insults shouted at the headquarters. In July 1961, 13-year-old Ricky Farber and some friends walked by after a dance at Washington-Lee High School. Farber was grabbed and forced into the Nazi house, where he was handcuffed and subjected to interrogation by gun-toting men. Two Nazis were later sentenced to a year in prison for assaulting the boy.

Observers who glimpsed at the interior of Rockwell’s headquarters were impressed by its utter banality. New York City Police investigator Tony Ulasewicz (later famous from the Watergate scandal) visited Rockwell in late 1961 and recalled in his memoirs: “What greeted me was a grubby haunted house. … Clearly, this was no showpiece that would attract membership into Rockwell’s party. … As I looked around, I noticed that bullet holes punctured all the walls of the house. … I also saw a pack of unpaid bills high on a table. Rockwell’s electricity had been turned off, and he used kerosene lamps to light the place.”

Journalistic Bravery
When Jack Hiller arrived in April 1960 to photograph preparations for a rally, he noticed guns on the wall and a noose hanging from the ceiling. He also witnessed the way Rockwell insisted that guests wipe their feet on a Jewish prayer rug—actually an ark curtain pilfered from a synagogue.

“Rockwell noticed my horn-rim glasses,” Hiller recalls, and said, ‘You look like a Jew. Prove you’re not by standing on the prayer rug and saying that you hate Jews.’ I replied that ‘I wouldn’t mean it if I said it.’ And Rockwell said, ‘You’re right.’ ”

Hiller was not intimidated by the Nazis. He had been asked not to photograph one of Rockwell’s backers, Baltimore scion and white supremacist Harold Noel Arrowsmith Jr., but he took shots anyway, on Hollander’s instructions.

The journalists pulled off another coup by befriending one eager member of the Nazis, a little man from Texas whom Rockwell belittled and assigned the duty of taking out the trash. Hollander paid him to fish out the envelopes that bore return addresses from donors. The journalist then forwarded the addresses to the Jewish community service organization B’nai B’rith, which was tracking anti-Semitic groups.

The two men were also involved in some Rockwell drama. Zander was approached by Rockwell’s distraught ex-wife, who wanted help getting Rockwell some mental health counseling. Observers had speculated that Rockwell was a borderline paranoid personality, and Hiller was actually a spectator in the courtroom in 1960 when a judge ordered Rockwell to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in the District. He was found to be of sound mind.

With his flashing eyes and imposing, six-foot-four frame, Rockwell connected with some, but not most, in the general public. At his rallies on the Mall, hundreds of tourists sometimes looked on from Independence Avenue.

Typically, according to William H Schmidt’s biography “Hate: George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party,” Rockwell would begin his speech with “My fellow Americans,” then there would be jeers from hecklers saying, “Rockwell, you’re sick.” A frustrated Rockwell would call the hecklers “filthy, vile Jews.”

For those who fell under Rockwell’s spell, says Hiller, the key motivator was “fear of changes in civil rights.”

Rockwell’s band of marginalized agitators would eventually form chapters in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Dallas. Their financing was murky. According to historian Frederick J. Simonelli, Rockwell depended on his mother for income all of his life. Once famous, he made money from campus speaking fees. And he had some wealthy benefactors among far-right Christian groups. It also was rumored he received money from Arab governments angered by the creation of Israel.

The funding was enough to maintain the party over two decades. In the early 1960s, the Nazis marched at nightclubs that booked black entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. (whose wife was white), and they trailed and harassed the civil rights Freedom Fighters marching in the South with Martin Luther King Jr. The Nazis picketed a visit to the District by Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, and they demonstrated at theaters showing the movie “Exodus” (earning him a mention in a lyric by Bob Dylan).

Locally the Nazis picketed Mario’s Pizza House on Wilson Boulevard for refusing them service. (The Nazi signs castigated “Mario the Jew,” a reference to Howard Levine and family, longtime Arlingtonians who still own the pizzeria today.)

Rockwell’s grinning followers wearing swastika armbands became familiar faces at Arlington school board meetings, where they protested newly enacted school integration laws—one flier read, “You can beat the federal race mixers.” In 1965, Rockwell ran for governor of Virginia and garnered 6,366 votes.

In December 1965, the Internal Revenue Service locked the American Nazi Party out of the Randolph Street house for nonpayment of taxes totaling approximately $7,000. After the IRS confiscated their printing equipment, the Nazis moved their headquarters and printing operations to a plant just outside Fredericksburg. Rockwell himself relocated to the party’s “barracks” on Wilson Boulevard, where he would spend his final days before his assassination.

Next month: PART TWO: The Death of an Arlington Nazi

(November 2010)