As neo-Nazism, in its euphemistically rebranded "alt-right" form, has risen across the globe in the past few years, so too has the question of how best to combat this dangerous threat to freedom and humanity. This question literally came to a head when American white nationalist leader (and outspoken eugenics supporter) Richard Spencer was punched in Washington during an interview following President Trump's inauguration on Friday.
In addition to a wave of memes, the news and video of the alt-right leader receiving an alt-kiss also prompted a number of blogs, flowcharts, and articles about the ethics of punching Nazis (for the record, Spencer does not call himself a Nazi, because that it is "a historical term" that "is not going to resonate today" which is a concern of different branding, not divergent ethos). It also reawakened discussion of the longstanding cultural and historical tradition of Nazi-punching.
Nazi-punching is far too broad and deep a topic for one simple article—for as long as people have been throwing Sieg Heils, there have been freedom fighters ready and willing to throw a counterstrike—but we can offer you this introduction to the symbolic and practical history of the subject:
Nazi-punching is a common moment of catharsis in all sorts of period pieces and World War II films. An impassioned strike against an SS officer was part of Anna Magnani's breakthrough role in Roberto Rossellini's neorealist classic, Rome, Open City (which was shot in a war-ravaged Rome in 1945). More recently, punching was among the kinder things done to Nazis in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. There's also a 2004 short film that made the festival rounds in 2004 called Punching Hitler.
Perhaps the most iconic—and most meme-d in the wake of what happened to Spencer—act of single-handed Nazi resistance in cinematic history, though, is the one that Indiana Jones threw while fighting on a Hatay tank in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
"We were fighting Hitler before our government was fighting Hitler," Marvel Comics visionary Stan Lee proclaimed on the History Channel's 2003 documentary, Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked. And that's not an exaggeration. Comics have a rich tradition of anti-fascist activism that continues to this day with recent works like Captain Marvel Vol. 1: In Pursuit of Flight, Hellboy, and many more.
But before Nazi-punching became a truly popular theme stateside, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon took a bold stance with Captain America Comics #1 and its cover, which featured its titular character cold-cocking Hitler a full year before the U.S. entered the war, at a time when there was still a fair amount of pro-German sentiment in the country. According to CBR's Brian Cronin, Kirby and Spencer were attacked with a huge amount of anti-Semitic hate mail and phone calls following the publication of the issue, but they did have one important ally on their side who promised to keep them safe: New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia.
When the National Front, an extreme right-wing neo-Nazi party that rose to popularity in '70s and '80s England, started coopting anti-establishment punk music and actively recruiting at punk shows, musicians fought back with their art, producing a series of punk and reggae shows called Rock Against Racism. Prominent artists like the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten also publicly denounced them ("I despise them. No one should have the right to tell anyone they can't live here because of the color of their skin or the size of their nose," he's quoted as—and mocked for—saying in a 1977 edition of the National Front News). And when music wasn't enough, punks were also willing to fight for freedom on their dance floors.
As American punks and hardcore fans began to experience a similar infiltration in the '80s, they began to embrace the 1981 Dead Kennedys "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" as their anthem. As singer Jello Biafra explained to the Los Angeles Times in 2012, he was originally using Nazi punks in more metaphorical terms. The band's shows were being overrun by violent older people that he suspected might be undercover cops. But it soon made the band willing enemies of the real thing.
"People started asking me, 'Are you down with this? Thing are changing, the audience is younger, hard core is coming up and it's a more extreme form of punk,' and I liked that kind of music, but I thought if we're gonna play this music, we need to distance ourselves from that side of the scene. The initial premise of the song was 'You violent people at shows are acting like a bunch of Nazis,' and that was as far as it went. Then the real ideological Nazis began coming out of the closet," he told the LA Times.
"They attacked Dead Kennedys shows after that. One time, a more hard-core version of (Britain's) National Front showed up in tandem with the road crew of a band, and that connection always creeped me out. Punk is such an extreme form of music, the most extreme form of rock and roll ever invented, and it's always attracted different kinds of extremes. So 'Nazi Punks...' evolved in people's minds into an anti-fascist, anti-Nazi anthem. I've noticed that the more that my current band, Jello Biafra & the Guantanamo School of Medicine, plays in countries where people have tangible memories of suffering under dictators—South America, the Balkans, Eastern Europe—the more people want to hear that song because it means something deeper to them than telling people not to start fights at punk shows."
Nazis continue to attend punk shows to this day. And punks, like Dropkick Murphys singer Ken Casey (who punched a Nazi at one of the band's shows in 2013) continue to fight back.
In Real Life
Beyond war-sanctioned anti-Nazi efforts, there are a number of civilians, both unsung and famous, who have also led their fists to the cause. Like Ed Cherry, the Jewish student who punched American Nazi Party leader George Lincoln Rockwell when he appeared at San Diego State College in 1962. And Morris Schwartz, who punched a Nazi at a movie theater in 1938. And the purse-wielding old lady who attacked a neo-Nazi during a march in Sweden in 1985 and became a meme last year.
And then there was Joe Greenstein, aka The Mighty Atom, a Polish-born American strongman and one-man Nazi wrecking crew. In 1939, Bad Ass of the Week reports, "The Mighty Atom was walking past the headquarters of the American Nazi Party and took offense at the 'No Jews Allowed' sign they'd hung out front. Atom, with his trademarked balls of iron, walked right up to the front door, pulled down the sign, and ripped it in half with his bare hands. An angry mob of roughly twenty hardcore skinhead Nazi sympathizers charged out to beat this guy's ass into a bloody pulp. The Mighty Atom was not impressed.
"When Joe Greenstein was brought to court to defend himself against charges of Aggravated Assault, Grievous Bodily Harm, and Mass Mayhem (awesome) a few weeks later, the Judge was surprised to see one small man sitting in the defendant's chair, and 18 bandaged, bloodied, and beat-up skinheads on the plaintiff's side. When the Judge asked why there were more plaintiffs listed on the complaint than there were in court, the skinheads said that a few of their people were still in the hospital.
"The Judge looked at Greenstein, and asked him about the fight.
"Greenstein said, 'It wasn't a fight, your honor. It was a pleasure!'"
The Mighty Atom continued his fight during the war by performing to raise funds for War Bonds.