Update 8/30/2010: Neuekristallnacht begins.
Though the following has some contemporary relevance, there may be a larger usefulness to it. In what follows, I should say that I am not more than an amateur historian. But I think I’m not wrong and that what I have to say is important.
On the intertubes, there is this thing called “Godwin’s Law” variously characterized and understood. One version is that in any debate, the first person to analogize the opponent to Hitler loses. Sometimes it is understood descriptively: in any discussion, eventually an opponent is analogized to Hitler. Or it could be a rule of thumb: do not make frivolous analogies to Hitler.
There is some sense to this. Though the Third Reich is useful to us as a touchstone of moral understanding, it is so only if we know how to use it. After all, the Nazis wanted an efficient automotive freeway system, and so did we, and this is not the height of human evil. More unnervingly, the Nazis wanted to dress their soldiers in uniforms and march them in uniform ways—but so do we. So does every country on earth that has a military, and even a few that do not. And they wanted to win wars. Well, no one wants to lose wars.
So if we are to use the touchstone effectively, we must exercise judgment, and that means being able to assess matters relevantly and proportionately. This can be difficult, because there is some temptation on both the Left and the Right to descry tyranny and shout “Nazi!” This invites (not “begs”—we are cranky language mavens here when it suits us) the question: what did the Nazis want? Because they did indeed want some very bad things, but things which are relevantly similar to things others have wanted and continue to want.
But first, let me make some controversial and unpleasant claims. The Nazis did not want to conquer the world in any meaningful sense, though presumably they would not have minded if the world fell into their laps by some stroke of incredible luck. To say otherwise is to make things too easy on ourselves: all we need to do is not want to conquer the world and hey-ho, we’re not Nazis. (By the way, should anyone get excited and happy at the discovery that they are not a Nazi? This seems inadequately ambitious in the morality department, as the Nazis set some sort of moral floor, not moral ceiling. We ought to be clear that accusing others of being Nazi-like, and holding out one’s own non-Nazi-hood, isn’t exactly the most amazing moral achievement ever, even if one is right. If one is wrong, well…)
Second, “breeding a master race” was not, it seems to me, an overarching policy goal either. We deceive ourselves about them and ourselves if we become overly fixated on this. Race talk played an important ideological function. Preoccupation with genetics as it relates to public health was something the Nazis, like just about every Western country at the time, was concerned about (recall Justice Holmes comment finding the sterilization of an allegedly mentally retarded person constitutional? “Three generations of imbeciles are enough”? Typical.) But race talk functioned in a rather different way for them than we think, and we will project our own issues on them if we make this the focus.
So here goes. The first thing the Nazis wanted was to wriggle out of the onerous obligations imposed on them by the Treaty of Versailles, and give a black eye to those they thought imposed them, particularly the French. The war in the west could be summarized as “revenge on the French.” This, however, was an old conflict, and the hostile stance toward France that led to its invasion was a policy which had no clear objective that I can see other than to retaliate, humiliate and weaken. This is not nice, of course, but if hostility toward the French is the essence of evil, I will have to re-appraise my otherwise favorable assessment of Talladega Nights. If waging war itself is the problem, then we have all been so up to our eyeballs in evil for so long that prospects for humanity are pretty hopeless. Let’s look elsewhere.
The Nazis wanted a one-to-one correspondence between German-speakers and German government, between nation and state. This is much more problematic, because at the advent of Nazi control of Germany, there were lots of Germans living as a minority in several other countries (and one great big other country, Austria, which also spoke German). From the perspective of hindsight, we of course think of the expansion of Germany into what is now the Czech Republic as an early sign of trouble, and the word “Munich” has become synonymous with “appeasement” of the most suicidal kind. But be fair: how could a world community complain about the implementation of the Wilsonian ideal of national self-determination? Shouldn’t every “people” have its own government? In what way is the peeling off of the Sudetenland in favor of Germany different from the peeling off of Kosovo from Serbia? If, at the end of the day, Albania annexes Kosovo, will we all feel a chill from the wind of moral evil? It was not so much the principle but the scale at the time which unnerved people.
Lastly, the Nazis were concerned with the danger posed by the Soviet Union and communism. This is closer to a third rail of discussion, so I will simply note that there is another country which has had this concern. You are probably living in it. If you think that fighting communism is a righteous task, you would do well to reflect that no one killed more communists in human history than Hitler.
By now, you may begin to think that I have drifted off toward the boundaries of moral greyness and beyond. But let me stress my purpose. The Nazis were evil. If you don’t want your country to be evil too, you are well advised to know why.
So here’s my “positive” account. First, the Nazis, like all large European nations, wanted to be a colonial power. This involves seizing large chunks of land already occupied and reducing the indigenous population to serfdom, squeezing their labor and exploiting the natural resources under their feet, while lording it over them in a spirit of despicable condescension. Most European countries had the good sense to keep this ugliness far from home, in Africa, say. But the Nazis saw no reason not to do this in Europe itself. They invaded Poland to make it into a colony. For a time, they seriously attempted to relocate Germans on newly constructed colonial farms in Poland after conquering it, but this was unsuccessful: not enough Germans wanted to go, and, bottom line, there were way too many non-German people already there. The seeds of the Final Solution were planted when it began to become clear that there was nowhere else to send them. The Polish Colony Plan would have to rely on a massive reduction of the population of Eastern Europe. Though there were a few Poles and other Eastern Europeans who were complicit in the Holocaust, we do the peoples of Eastern Europe a great disservice if we forget that Hitler wanted to create a demographic vacuum in Eastern Europe for this reason, was not particular about what non-Germans would have to go, and that untold millions of Gentiles also died as a result. Many of the most hideous features of Nazism are best understood as colonial practices taken to a nightmarish extreme, way too close to home.
The second “policy goal” was ideological and in retrospect rather difficult to explain, but terribly important for us to understand. In terms of the distinction between Left and Right there was something weirdly schizophrenic about how the Nazis viewed political reality, but because both their Leftish perspective and their Rightish perspective converged on the same result, in a sense they never had to decide what they were.
When the Nazis looked at the world from one perspective, they saw a globalized capitalist system, not under control of any one nation-state or even any concert of nation-states, but rather, under the control of financial institutions. These institutions, as they saw it, and the people who controlled them, being beyond any meaningful political control, were exploiting labor and had delivered the world into the penury of the Great Depression. The Nazis wanted a revolution, both social and political, against this ruling class. They called that ruling class, “the Jews.” But suppose they called it something else. Would that matter? If there were enough people that they could single out and identify as this exploitative class, and they were serious about their revolution, what would the human costs look like? For this reason alone, we should be as cautious and troubled in the face of anti-globalization rhetoric and agitation as we are about race-talk. A few years back, a lot of windows got broken in Seattle while the WTO tried to hold its meetings. When you see mobs breaking windows to protest the international bankers’ conspiracy, just remember that we’ve seen this sort of thing before.
But the Nazis had their Rightish side as well. They looked beyond their horizon and saw a totalitarian regime with appalling conduct, expansionist designs and a seductive ideology. This frightened them. They associated all this with an ethnic group within which one could sometimes find sympathy for all this (it is good to remember that many eastern European Jews looked to the Russian Revolution hopefully, and it was only later that the Soviet Union reverted to anti-Semitic type). An ethnic group defined by, of all things, a non-Christian monotheistic religious belief system and associated practices. And this ethnic group which they thought presumptively sympathetic toward this totalitarian adversary was within their very borders, building non-Christian places of worship and talking about, and planning, who knew what.
You see where I’m going with this.
This is why I wrote what some might’ve regarded as a silly yet inflammatory post about/to Bryan Fischer, who characterized Islam as a criminal conspiracy entitled to no First Amendment protections. He will protest that he has no desire to round up Muslims, let alone exterminate them. He only wants to exterminate their culture. And this despite the fact that American Muslims, the overwhelming majority of the over one million of them have done nothing but be raised into a religion which is the majority religion in some nations with horrible human rights records, a religion shared by a handful of people who attacked this country, spectacularly, nine years ago.
Seriously? The Nazis were evil because they characterized the Jews as a race, but if we treat a one million strong ethnic community defined by a monotheistic religion as a dangerous totalitarian criminal conspiracy, that is completely different because the word “race” is never used? Is that what you are saying? If so, you are deceiving yourself. Because what you want is exactly what the Nazis wanted. And when that place of worship gets built anyway because its builders have every legal, constitutional and moral right to build it, and you go there and do this to it, just be aware: this is how it begins.