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What makes a Nazi salute the deepest betrayal of America

Updated 9:48 AM ET, Fri August 23, 2019

Editor's Note: David Vigilante is Executive Vice President and General Counsel for CNN and Warner Media News and Sports. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) - Many people of all political persuasions and backgrounds were rightly horrified at the videos that appeared to show high school students in an affluent Los Angeles suburb singing Nazi songs and making the Nazi salute. Sadly, this was just the latest incident of young Americans evoking this nightmarish past.

But those of us who are appalled by these acts sometimes fail to see the full scope of the awfulness we are witnessing. Acts of racism and anti-Semitism are directed at particular groups, to be sure. Jews, immigrants and people of color have powerful reasons to fear white-supremacist, Nazi-sympathizing hatred and violence.

But the danger doesn't stop there. We must remind ourselves that this deplorable behavior harms all of us.

We fail one another when we Americans forget our history. And we do violence to the memory of those who sacrificed for us. The 1944 massacre at Malmedy during World War II is but one example.

By the end of that year, it was apparent to all but the most deluded Germans that the war was lost. Desperate to delay defeat, Adolf Hitler ordered what has become known as "the Battle of the Bulge," a last-ditch offensive that was meant not only to split Allied lines, but also to strike terror in the hearts of soldiers and civilians alike.

One assault in this campaign was led by an SS Panzer Division commander named Joachim Peiper. On Dec. 17, 1944, less than six months until the end of the war, Peiper's column came across an American convoy near Malmedy, in Belgium.

The tanks quickly disabled the lightly armed convoy, and the Americans surrendered. Peiper's column continued on its way, leaving a few troops behind.

The Nazis forced the captured Americans into a field, where, suddenly and without provocation, they opened fire with their machine guns.

Some tried to flee, and others played dead in the hopes of surviving.

But the Nazis were not done.

They went among the felled soldiers and shot, stabbed or bludgeoned each one to ensure they were dead. They had English-speaking Germans offer medical advice to survivors to trick them into identifying themselves. Some had their skulls crushed. Others were lined up and shot or were shot in the head at point-blank range.

But that still wasn't enough for the Nazis.

One small group had escaped to a nearby house. The Nazis found them, trapped them inside and burned them alive.

More than 80 massacred Americans remained there, frozen in the winter fields, until other American troops liberated the area in early 1945.

The world recognized the horrors committed by Peiper and his men. He and 42 others under his leadership were convicted of war crimes and sentenced to hang.

This is who the Nazis were.

Books have been written exposing efforts to hide this history and cover up these atrocities in order to cement our relationship with our emerging ally in the 1950s, West Germany. For our own sake, we must reclaim this history and remind ourselves of the sacrifices of our forebears.

We all must remember, and every generation must learn, the simple fact that the Nazi regime is responsible for more American war deaths than any other foreign adversary in American history. It was a brutal regime in every respect. They committed the most heinous acts of systemized murder in human history. And they killed and tortured Americans with a savagery that resulted in massive war crimes convictions.

Our children must know that making that salute, singing those songs and glorifying that monstrous regime are grievous acts of betrayal by any American. In addition to being horribly racist, it mocks the sacrifices of the more than 200,000 Americans who died freeing Europe from the Nazis and who saved democracy.

They must learn that there are no good people among those who venerate Nazis or who ape their gestures and rituals with admiration. People who do that have made a choice. They have chosen the path of betrayal and disloyalty. Their whiteness will not save them. Indeed, their willingness to associate with a culture that had hate and murder at its core excludes them from the community of loyal Americans who so vastly outnumber them.

To admire Nazism is to be a racist. To admire Nazism is to betray your country. And to admire Nazism is to torture the souls of those Americans who paid the ultimate price to save our democracy from the Nazis. That is how we all must see anyone who venerates Nazis.

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