Defending the rights of the enemy; The Nazi/Skokie Conflict: A Civil Liberties Battle, by David Hamlin. Boston: Beacon Press. $12.95
For years the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has charged headlong to the defense of freedoms whenever the organization felt those liberties were threatened. And in the process it has had as clients a variety of individuals and groups whose views span the political spectrum.
But seldom has the ACLU's decision to defend the right to express a viewpoint fostered such animosity as its decision on april 27, 1977, to defend the right of self-proclaimed Nazi Frank collin to stage a rally on the steps of the village hall in skokie, Ill. -- a community with a large Jewish population, about 7,000 of whom are survivors of the Holocaust.
Author David Hamlin was executive director of the Illinois chapter of the ACLU during the turbulent year of court actions and national controversy. His book represents an interesting insider's view of the affair.
He begins by analyzing Collin and his organization, such as it was. Hamlin estimates the loose-knit group never counted more than about two dozen among its membership. And in conducting this initial assessment, Hamlin puts into stark focus not only the onerousness of Collin's philosophy, but the illusion of his strength and following that became such an obssession to so many people. He writes:
"The illusion [that the Collin group was strong or important] rests on the symbols of nazism. Without those symbols, Frank Collin would not merit a second glance. With them, however, Collin accomplishes exactly the same result that any good magician attains: misdirection. The audience's attention is misdirected, forced away from reality and toward the illusion, by the symbols of fascism.
"The power of those images is such that the audience begins, almost immediately, to concentrate on them. The concentration grows with each new recollection and each newly awakened fear until, at last, the awesome enormity of nazism becomes the only thing the audience sees at all."
Hamlin adds that Collin's illusion was not aimed at the public at large, but at himself. Collin's real name is Frank Cohn. He is the son of a Jew who survived the Holocaust.