Are there Nazis in Chicago?

Are there Nazis in Chicago? May 4, 2020; Pimke / CC BY-SA (

On twitter over the weekend, following a Chicago “re-open Illinois” protest, a photo circulated with the hashtag #IllinoisNazis:

The third and fourth of these photographs are patently not a matter of a Nazi celebrating Nazi-ness with a swastika, but are using the swastika to accuse their opponent of being fascist.

Now, I dislike accusing opponents of fascism, “being literally Hitler,” or perpetrating genocides, whether that’s through rhetoric or protest signs with swastikas or the classic of drawing a toothbrush mustache on the hated politician of the day.  And if calling out one’s opponent for doing so can ultimately, eventually, cause that flash of insight that it’s just as wrong when you do so, then that’s, well, at least not merely hypocrisy — but accusing your opponent of actually being a Nazi when they do so, well, I’m not sure whether it’s stupid or a deliberate mischaracterization.

The first protest photo, though — well, that’s not as simple.

Initial reports were that it was photoshopped — and, in fact, there was a tweet with a doctored image coming out of a Pittsburgh protest, in which a sign that originally said, “Free small business!” was doctored to read “work set you free.”  But the original photographer of the Chicago rally photograph (as linked to at Mediaite)insisted that this was authentic:

and found, in addition, YouTube footage and shared his own video as well, in further tweets.  Rich Miller of Capitol Fax also notes that the odd shape of the two B’s in her sign match the Auschwitz sign.

It’s hard to know what to make of this.

Yes, it is possible that this woman is a Nazi.  Perhaps she identifies with the ideology of antisemetism, of a Master Race, the whole bit.  She wants Pritzker to be put in a death camp, and, what’s more, has intentionally chosen this sign in light of the fact that Pritzker is Jewish, to all the more direct racist hatred at him.

But that seems unlikely, doesn’t it?

This was not a “Nazi pride” protest.  The objective of the protest was to call upon the governor to relent on his lockdown, and to allow people to go back to work.

Yes, I know that the phrase “Arbeit macht frei” was an evil joke by the Nazis.  It is most famously found at Auschwitz where (according to Wikipedia) the upside-down Bs have been interpreted as an act of defiance by the prisoner-laborers, but was first used at the Dachau concentration camp where political prisoners were held from the start of the Nazi regime.  Interestingly, according, again, to Wikipedia:

In The Kingdom of AuschwitzOtto Friedrich wrote about Rudolf Höss, regarding his decision to display the motto so prominently at the Auschwitz entrance:

He seems not to have intended it as a mockery, nor even to have intended it literally, as a false promise that those who worked to exhaustion would eventually be released, but rather as a kind of mystical declaration that self-sacrifice in the form of endless labor does in itself bring a kind of spiritual freedom.[16]

The signs are prominently displayed, and were seen by all prisoners and staff— all of whom knew, suspected, or quickly learned that prisoners confined there would likely only be freed by death. The signs’ psychological impact was tremendous.

But however much we might assume it to be reasonable that American adults should know some basic facts about the Holocaust — that it happened, that 6 million Jews were killed, that concentration camps such as Auschwitz served as centers of mass killing — I don’t think we can assume that the general population universally knows that “Arbeit macht frei” was a concentration camp sign.  It seems to me, at any rate, far more likely that this woman had heard the phrase, knew its literal translation, and thought this would be a good way to communicate her “let us work!” demand, than for her to attempt to use that sign to say, “go to a concentration camp to be murdered, JB!”

And, again, Kouth says that the sign-holder “said that she was not a Nazi” — so she clearly isn’t holding up the sign to assert an identity as such.  (A report on The Hill quotes him:  “I asked, ‘Do you know what that stands for? Are you a Nazi?’” but gives no answer as to whether she acknowledged to have had any clue about it.  Presumably she answered the second question but not the first, and Kouth recounts being too appalled to engage her further.)

But none of this still seems right.  Was she a troll, an infiltrator?  Was this an attempt to discredit the protestors?  If she were younger and male, I’d imagine she was a 4chan denizen thinking it was a grand joke, as with the supposed “white power” sign.  Perhaps this still was the case, and she herself didn’t make the sign but was given it as a prank.

And it’s possible that she really meant to communicate something just as nefarious as the manner in which it’s being interpreted.

UPDATE:  someone on Facebook provided yet another theory.  What if her objective was actually to call Pritzker a Nazi and/or to claim that the lockdown was tantamount to being imprisoned in a concentration camp?  Clearly, in such a case, this was incompetently done, but the incompetence thus on display doesn’t disprove that intention.  I also reached out to the organizers on their Facebook page to ask if they knew anything, but don’t particularly expect to hear back.

Yes, I am going back and forth on this.  It just doesn’t make sense for a person to be this stupid.

Finally, the Chicago Tribune (since corrected, and at best a sign that they need more editorial oversight) treated it as a given in an unrelated report about Farmers’ Markets, that there had been, in fact, a protest of Illinois Nazis:

“Illinois Nazis”: print edition of Chicago Tribune, May 4, 2020

(Thanks to T.J. Brown on twitter for pointing me to the phrasing that I myself hadn’t even noticed; they’ve since corrected the story online to referencing merely “protestors.”)

What it boils down to is this: we, all of us, have to dial back the accusations that our opponents are Nazis.  And, yes, it would also help if we, yes, all of us, learned a bit more history, too.

Browse Our Archives