74° And Sunny: Inside Hitler's LA Bunker

Esquire's US correspondent Sanjiv Bhattacharya has a brush with California's neo-Nazis

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A documentary came out on Monday, called The Hacker Wars, and I’m in it, just for a brief moment. I’m standing on a rooftop in New Jersey with an internet troll called Weev who became a cause celebre for standing up to AT&T in a case that struck a blow for internet freedom. Heroic stuff, to be fair. But in this one scene, he’s explaining to me how the Jews in Weimar Germany essentially had it coming – that OK, the holocaust was a bit much, but they deserved some kind of payback.

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Everyone else on the rooftop stepped away from Weev at that point, well aware of the camera. But I was oblivious as usual, and just a little engrossed in such open anti-semitism in what was otherwise quite a liberal milieu of media and activists.

I’d heard Weev’s rants before. He loves to bang on about “Jew York” and Zionist bankers, preferably in public at high volume. He’s a troll, it’s what he does. And at the time – this was early 2013 – I thought that he probably meant every word, but that we’d never know for sure, because he could always say he was just trolling.

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[Above: Sanjiv and Weev in a screenshot from The Hacker Wars]

Well, now there’s no doubt. The day after that rooftop scene, Weev went to prison for a year, spending much of it in “the SHU”, the Special Housing Units – solitary confinement, essentially. And when he got out in April 2013, he had a large and ornate swastika tattooed on his chest. On 1 October, he appeared with said swastika on the neo-Nazi website, the Daily Stormer, alongside an article he wrote in which he rails against “Judaism, black culture, immigration to Western nations, and the media’s constant stream of anti-white propaganda.”

Is he trolling? I doubt it. And anyway, at a certain point, there’s no difference between someone who’s trolling as a neo-Nazi and an actual neo-Nazi. I couldn’t say exactly where that point lies, but a big swastika tattoo means you’re way past it.

And yet, Weev remains, as he always was, a figure of notoriety, amusement and admiration among his hacktivist peers. He’s not a media darling exactly, but he’s not a pariah either. He still knocks about with professors, attorneys, journalists and tech types who mostly give him a pass on his Nazi views. Oh that’s just Weev being Weev! Trolls will be trolls!

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It’ll be interesting to see how that pans out, how far Weev can go before his Nazi beliefs begin to cost him his relationships. Perhaps he’ll find a niche as an acceptable Nazi, the kind you can invite over for dinner. Because anti-semitism is on the rise, especially in Europe. America likes to see itself as better than that, a more staunch friend of the Jews, and yet the truth is muddier. It’s why Philip Roth’s book – The Plot Against America – is so chilling. He imagines an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, a Nazi sympathizer, became President in 1940, and formed an accord with Hitler. It’s not so far fetched. Nazis have always found sympathetic quarter in America.

I was reminded of all this, the other week, when I went hiking in the Pacific Palisades. That’s the wealthy west-side suburb between Beverly Hills and Malibu where Spielberg lives and JJ Abrams, Chuck Lorre and many other Jewish millionaires. It’s also where residents are accustomed to cars pulling up and asking, “excuse me, which way to the Hitler Ranch?”

In the '30s, a couple named Winona and Norman Stephens, the heirs to a thumbtack fortune, turned this 50 acre ranch into a refuge for Hitler after the war. The idea was that if Der Fuhrer wanted, he could decamp to California and hide out in the canyons. He had friends here. The Stephens were part of a group called the Silver Shirts, an American Nazi organization that had its largest chapters here on the west coast. And they meant business – the ranch had stables, a bomb shelter, a power plant. They had plans to put in a pool apparently. Well, it is LA.

Today, it’s a tip. The buildings are gutted, and the walls are scrawled with graffiti and tags. For decades people have come here to camp and get high, and their trash is everywhere – cups, beer bottles, blankets, hundreds of empty spray cans.

On the morning that I showed up, I found a bunch of other tourists poking around the wreckage, taking pictures. We’d all trekked up the hill and then down a steep staircase of several hundred narrow steps – not that practical for Hitler, one would have thought, not in those boots. And the few people I spoke to there all felt the same – that this was just as it should be, a thoroughly desecrated relic of American fascism. There’s been talk of bulldozing the place and it will happen one day, no doubt. But for now, it serves well enough as a reminder – like Weev – of just how near at hand, the ugliest ideas in history actually are.

As I left to climb the stairs back up to the street, I saw a guy stand on a heap of trash and take a piss all over the front of the property. That’s the spirit.


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