While there are certainly a number of important historical comparisons between Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa (of which I will explore in a future post), it is also interesting to examine the influence that Nazi Germany had with the rise of Afrikaner Nationalism in South Africa. To understand the pillars of apartheid ideology and Afrikaner Nationalism, what influenced the thinking of the men who would lead one of the most oppressive regimes of the 20th century, one must look to the links of these men to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ’40s.
The desire for an independent Afrikaner nation started long before Hitler was even born, and their views of racial superiority stemmed from their arrival in Cape Town in the 17th century, but the Nazis provided the Afrikaner nationalists with a certain model in fascism that greatly intrigued and influenced many leading Afrikaner officials.
With the ascent of the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933, many Afrikaner nationalists saw a parallel in what they wanted to achieve in South Africa. But it was not just a one-way relationship, and Nazi Germany also saw South Africa as a key potential ally.
During the 1930s, a number of Afrikaner nationalists went to Europe to study abroad. Hans van Rensburg, the future Ossewa Brandwag leader, “was an open admirer of Hitler during his student days in Germany. As head of the German-Afrikaans Cultural Union, he was received in Berlin by Hermann Goring, Joseph Goebbels, and Hitler himself,” according to Sasha Polakow-Suransky in The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa. Piet Meyer, who would later become head of the Broederbond and eventually head of the SABC, led a 1934 Afrikaner National Student Union trip to Europe during which he even went skiing with Rudolf Hess in the Alps. Dr. Nico Diederichs, eventual state president in the 1970s, also studied abroad in Germany during this time, and according to Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom in The Super-Afrikaners, even took part in the Nazi’s Anti-Komintern training school.
In addition to meeting top Nazi leaders, the Afrikaner students also took in ideas from European philosophers of the nineteenth century while absorbing the newer fascist ideas emanating from German universities. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “The young students carried these concepts back to South Africa in the 1930s, where they proved particularly attractive to the men of the Broederbond, as did anti-Semitism.”
Polakow-Suransky continued: “Although racism towards blacks was an integral part of Afrikaner nationalist thought, explicit hostility toward Jews had never been part of the Christian Nationalist worldview. Exposure to fascist ideas in Europe during the 1930s changed that. Nazism provided the Broederbond with precisely the sort of scapegoat it needed to rally poor, unemployed Afrikaners, who resented the ballooning Jewish population…”
“The Broederbond began to argue that Jews were the group that ‘stands in the way of the Afrikaner’s economic prosperity,’” Polakow-Suransky points out.
As Jews fled Nazi Germany, the Broederbond’s leaders actively protested the influx of refugees. In October 1936, when a ship carrying German Jewish refugees arrived in Cape Town’s harbor, Hendrik Verwoerd, the future prime minister, joined the Nazi-aligned Greyshirt movement in protest at the docks.
During World War II, South Africa allied itself with Britain and the Allies against Nazi Germany. Partly due to the Afrikaner memories of British brutality in the Anglo-Boer War forty years earlier, some Afrikaners refused to supported and aid the British, and therefore chose to support Germany. Afrikaner culture, including ancestral and linguistic lineage, were closely aligned with Germany, and Germany had actually supported the Afrikaners in the Anglo-Boer War. But it was more than just siding with Germany due to historical connections, many Afrikaner Nationalists openly supported Hitler’s ideologies and worldview.
It was hoped that with a German victory South Africa would free itself from the British yoke that still powerfully lingered in their minds from the Anglo-Boer War, and at least achieve an independent Afrikaner republic, excluding the British and the Jews. Through a powerful broadcasting station in Germany – Radio Zeesen – pro-German propaganda in Afrikaans was pouring into South Africa over the radio, led by Erik Holm, an Afrikaner who was living in Germany at the time.
BJ Schoeman, a South African MP, summed up the feelings of Afrikaner nationalists at the time when he said the following at a National Party Congress: “The whole future of Afrikanerdom is dependent upon a German victory…”
As South Africans forces fought the Nazis in North Africa and Europe during the 1940s, extremist factions in South Africa were growing more popular. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “Louis Weichardt, an unrepentant anti-Semite, led the Christian National Socialist group known as the Greyshirts; Oswald Pirow, a former defense minister, endorsed Nazi principles and launched a New Order movement; and Hitler admirer Hans van Rensburg led the most popular of these splinter movements: the Ossew Brandwag.”
The future prime minister, BJ Vorster, as well as his intelligence chief, Hendrik van den Bergh, served as generals in van Rensburg’s Ossew Brandwag (OB – Ox-wagon Sentinels).
The OB had been established in 1939 by Afrikaners participating in the commemoration of the Great Trek. They aimed at inculcating a “love for fatherland” and at instituting, by armed force if necessary, an Afrikaner-controlled republic in South Africa. By 1940, during World War II, while the South African army could only muster 137,000 volunteers, “the Ossewa Brandwag claimed twice that number, and at one stage, had close to 400,000 members,” according to David Harrison in The White Tribe of Africa.
Vorster, who led South Africa from 1966-1979, was unapologetic and proudly compared his nation to Nazi Germany. He declared in 1942, “We stand for Christian Nationalism which is an ally of National Socialism… In Italy it is called Fascism, in Germany National Socialism and in South Africa Christian Nationalism.”
Vorster’s brother, Reverend Koot Vorster, a Dutch Reformed Church minister, was also an OB member. He summed up the feelings of the pro-Hitler group during an address to a student group on September 15, 1940:
“Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shows the way to greatness – the path of South Africa. Hitler gave the Germans a calling. He gave them a fanaticism which causes them to stand back for no one. We must follow this example because only by such holy fanaticism can the Afrikaner nation achieve its calling.”
In Harrison’s The White Tribe of Africa, Kowie Marais, an OB member, recalls the admiration he and his friends held for Hitler: “We thought he might rejuvenate western civilization…against the communist-socialist trends that were creeping in from the east. We thought it was the dawn of a new era.”
Harry Schwarz, who arrived in South Africa from Nazi Germany in 1934 and who eventually became South Africa’s ambassador to the United States, said, “If you read some of the stuff that somebody like Eric Louw [future Foreign Minister] said in Parliament, you can’t differentiate between that and what the Nazis said in Germany.”
According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky , in 1940, OB-chief Hans van Rensburg formally offered to provide the Third Reich with 170,000 OB members to help overthrow the South African government if Germany provided them arms. The coup never materialized, but by 1942 the Stormjaers (Stormtroopers), the military wing of the OB, had started a campaign of violence, which included blowing up pylons, power lines, post offices, shops and banks as well as beating up Jews and soldiers.
As a result of their pro-Nazi activities, Vorster and van den Bergh were declared enemies of the state and in 1942 were detained in a government internment camp during the war, a fate that over 700 OB members shared during the war.
The Germans had even hatched their own plans for a putsch in South Africa. In 1934, Hitler sent Graf von Durckheim Montmartin, a representative of Nazi Germany, to South Africa with the official intention of attending a conference on education, but it was later revealed that Hitler had sent Montmartin with the purpose of determining what support South Africa might provide to Germany in the new world order that Hitler envisioned. Montmartin met secretly with top Broederbond leaders during his trip to discuss how the Broederbond might be of service to this end.
Later, in 1941, a former South African Olympic boxer and Nazi sympathizer, Robey Leibbrandt, was transported on a German yacht to a remote area off the Atlantic coast and dispatched to assassinate Prime Minister Smuts and stage a coup.
Leibbrandt’s plan was foiled, yet even after his capture, Afrikaner nationalists continued to enthusiastically support the Nazi war effort. But this waned as the war turned and Germany was eventually defeated.
In South Africa, to get elected, DF Malan knew that he needed every white vote he could get, and thus he slowly began to distance himself from the anti-Semitism of the OB and began broadening his vision of the National Party to include all whites. But not all Afrikaner Nationalists supported this move, and many, including Vorster, van den Bergh, Meyer, and Verwoerd, went on to lead the apartheid government over the next forty years of its existence.
The influence of Nazism remained as it had provided a foundation upon which many of the Nationalist Party leaders built their political beliefs and policies. Even when Nazism collapsed, the seed of its ideology remained buried in the ideology of the Nationalist Party.
While the National Party’s victory in 1948 did signal some clear distinctions from Hitler’s National Socialism — most notably the fact that South Africa’s Jews were granted privileges of whiteness under apartheid, left unaffected by the apartheid legislation that formalized the separation of races — apartheid as state policy from 1948 onwards continued to resemble Nazism in its laws, views of racial superiority, and repression of dissent.
Brian Bunting’s 1964 book, The Rise of the South African Reich