One morning in mid-August, Americans woke up in what felt, to some, like an altered country. The week’s most notable political event had begun with hundreds of Americans carrying torches while chanting “Sieg heil” and “Jews will not replace us.” White supremacist radicals like these had been active and energized throughout the presidential campaign, but much of their energy had been restricted to the internet. The rally in Charlottesville was markedly different. It confronted America with an unlikely question: Was it possible the nation was seeing a burgeoning political faction of … actual Nazis? People we should actually call Nazis?
“Nazi” is a remarkable example of the very different routes a word can take through the world. In this case, that word is the Latin name “Ignatius.” In Spanish, it followed a noble path: It became Ignacio, and then the nickname Nacho, and then — after a Mexican cook named Ignacio Anaya had a moment of inspiration — it became delicious, beloved nachos. In Bavaria, a much darker transformation took place. Ignatius became the common name Ignatz, or in its abbreviated form, Nazi. In the early 20th century, Bavarian peasants were frequent subjects of German mockery, and “Nazi” became the archetypal name for a comic figure: a bumbling, dimwitted yokel. “Just as Irish jokes always involve a man called Paddy,” the etymologist Mark Forsyth writes in his 2011 book “The Etymologicon,” “so Bavarian jokes always involved a peasant called Nazi.” When Adolf Hitler’s party emerged from Bavaria with a philosophy called “Nationalsozialismus,” two of that word’s syllables were quickly repurposed by Hitler’s cosmopolitan opponents. They started calling the new party Nazis — implying, to the Nazis’ great displeasure, that they were all backward rubes.
That original, taunting meaning of “Nazi” is now long gone, replaced forever by the image of history’s most despised regime. This is precisely why the word has resurfaced in American conversation, aimed at the white supremacist arm of the so-called alt-right: It is perhaps the single most potent condemnation in our language, a word that provides instant moral clarity. Not everyone, though, is entirely comfortable with this new usage. The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb finds “Nazi” insufficient as a label for American racists, because when we use it, he writes, “we summon the idea of the United States’ moral victories, and military ones” — references that make little sense when we’re talking about American-made moral failures. Lindsey E. Jones, a Ph.D. student of history in Charlottesville, tweeted that a long history of American racism is “conveniently erased” when figures like the white nationalist Richard Spencer are reduced to “Nazis.”
But if “Nazi” isn’t quite the right word for the fringe groups now attempting a takeover of national politics — if it’s sloppy and inexact and papers over just how widespread some of these bigotries are — then “Nazi” will, in a way, have returned to its roots. It began as a broad, imprecise and patronizing slur. Then it became a precise historical classification. (One that, you might argue, “conveniently erased” widespread anti-Semitism throughout Europe and America.) Now we find ourselves arguing over whether it can serve as a general epithet again — a name for a whole assortment of distasteful ideologies. Nearly 80 years after Kristallnacht, we are not exactly sure what a Nazi is, or should be.