Before they die, before they disappear into the opaque mist of history, the last Americans to fight Nazi Germany have to face one more blast of something they thought they’d eliminated in the bloodiest war of all time.
Every day we lose an average of 362 World War II veterans – the boys from the Bronx, the farmers from Nebraska, the kids yanked from late-adolescent languor to fight a monster.
I asked one of them, Caesar Civitella, Nazi-killer and son of an Italian immigrant, how it felt to see Hitler’s flags paraded over our soil last weekend.
And make no mistake, those were the flags of a genocidal force in the Charlottesville, Virginia, rally, the one in which some “very fine people,” in President Donald Trump’s infamous words, participated.
The polo-shirt fascists were brandishing Othala rune and Black Sun symbols – both used by the SS, the paramilitary muscle behind the slaughter of 6 million Jews.
“These neo-Nazis, whatever you call them – I thought we’d ended all that,” Civitella said, sounding both mournful and feisty. “These people have nothing to do with American values.”
I found this soldier of World War II at his home in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he is a local hero for a life that deserves a movie. He will be 94 on Monday, the day of the total solar eclipse – “Jesus Christ’s way of saying happy birthday,” he said.
Within a generation’s time, nearly all of the 16 million American veterans who served in World War II will be gone.
“Because I’m old, now 94, I recognize these omens of doom,” wrote Harry Leslie Smith, a Royal Air Force veteran, in an essay this week in the Guardian. “Chilling signs are everywhere, perhaps the biggest being that the U.S. allows itself to be led by Donald Trump, a man deficient in honor, wisdom and just simple human kindness.”
To those grave deficiencies, you can add one more: historical illiteracy. In his grievance-burst of a news conference this week, Trump had this to say about those who showed up to protest the neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates: “You are changing history, you’re changing culture.”
In truth, it was the raising of statues in the early 20th century – when the Lost Cause whitewash of the confederacy of slaveholders was in full swing – that tried to change both culture and history.
George Washington will be next, Trump said, using a line that neo-Nazis throw around at their hate fests.
The founders, flawed but brilliant men, put their lives at risk to create a nation built on principles that took a long time to realize. Robert E. Lee was a traitor, the best general of a war that killed more Americans than any other. His statue no more belongs on a pedestal than does that of Hitler’s most proficient military man.
History and culture are what Civitella embodies, for his story is the American story. His father died when Caesar was young. With the call of war, Civitella volunteered for jump school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Then the Office of Strategic Services selected him for especially dangerous duty. Civitella jumped into occupied France. Working with the French Resistance, he killed his share of Nazis, he said, and helped capture 4,000 of them.
Next up was a mission to go after Mussolini. But as the son of an Italian immigrant, his loyalty was challenged. “I was asked if I would hesitate to kill an Italian who worked with the Nazis. I said, nope.”
His generation includes George H.W. Bush, another war hero, the exact age as Civitella. This week Bush, with his son George W., released a simple, decent statement on the toxicity of racial hatred.
No such message came from the empty shell of Trump. Warming the hearts of the little Hitlers this week, he claimed to have looked carefully at the hatemongers in Charlottesville and found many good citizens.
He must have missed the chants of “Jews will not replace us!” and “blood and soil,” a favorite of Hitler’s murderous legions. Or he must have overlooked the thugs brandishing semi-automatic rifles and chanting “sieg heil” outside the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Charlottesville.
It doesn’t take much to find the sources of the best American culture and history. You won’t find them in the “beautiful statues and monuments” – Trump’s words this week – of slaveholders and traitors.
Look instead to those like Civitella, who are not yet cast in bronze but deserve to be – the living memory.
Timothy Egan is a New York Times columnist based in Seattle.