Hitler has made a comeback. Maybe you’ve noticed. The execrable tea baggers have made a habit of equating Obama with Hitler and the Holocaust. Their deranged pied piper Glenn Beck has indulged in this inflammatory rhetoric repeatedly, and more than a few Republican politicians have played the Nazi card as well. On the other side, anti-Bush protesters were not always above the occasional Bush = Hitler sign, and Naomi Wolf was only one of the more popular figures on the left warning against the coming of fascism, and using parallels with Germany to make their points. Dick Durbin compared torture at Gitmo to similar practices by the Nazis and others, which I thought was fair, but being a liberal Democrat he was forced to apologize soon after. You won’t hear Newt Gingrich or Michele Bachmann apologizing for their loose metaphors. Not in this lifetime.
The standard objection to all this is that it trivializes Hitler, Nazis, the Holocaust, World War II, and all the people who died during that terrible time. It’s a valid objection. Making such glib comparisons exposes you as an ignoramus, or at best a dilettante of history. It also arouses violent emotions without illuminating present issues and conditions. In most instances, it’s simply a way for a demagogue to manipulate a mob, and that is never a good thing.
However, I think it is important to examine why Hitler and the Nazis are such emotionally charged subjects, and why they would gain currency as rhetorical weapons at this point in our history.
In politics, historical events are always in danger of being turned into abstractions. Ideologues are adept at viewing human beings as objects of an impersonal process, but the rest of us are not immune from this distancing effect. History can become a series of markers or cues triggering a limited set of images and responses. Think “Holocaust” and you might picture a pile of dead bodies, or photos of emaciated prisoners in striped uniforms. Without connecting to the reality of historical events, we end up regarding them as symbols.
Yet the reality still affects us at a level well beneath our conscious mental strategies. One description of this reality as it affects us, for instance, might be that in living memory, in a modern world of cars and airplanes and movies, in a supposedly civilized world, a government of a modern country rounded people up by the millions and methodically slaughtered them like animals. The Holocaust taught us that a movement, gaining power as a state, could commit crimes of greater savagery and extent than was thought possible. Since then, of course, we have learned of mass murder in the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, but the Nazis were our first awakening to the horror of what totalitarianism can do.
A common denial mechanism has been to focus on Germany as a special case, as if there were something peculiar to that country that made it capable of such enormous crimes. There were of course social and cultural factors special to Germany that have to be taken into account, but there were enthusiastic Nazis in other countries, including France and England, and even a few in the United States. In any case, an authoritarian ideology won’t necessarily look exactly like Nazism in a different country, but it might have very similar effects. Many Americans seem to think that there’s something magical about being American that will prevent us from succumbing to a dictatorship. This is pure childishness.
This terrible historical event, then, this trauma that occurred a mere sixty to seventy years ago, has cast a shadow over us ever since. To read about what happened to the victims of Nazism is to try to imagine, however inadequately, what it would feel like to have your own loved ones, your own family, and the very world you grew up in, be at the mercy of an overpowering and merciless evil. It happened to them. The fear, perhaps unspoken, is: could it happen to us?
The Cold War did little to allay such fears, but at least they were generally projected onto the other, the enemy. But after the Cold War, the United States has been the one preeminent military power. Since the invention of nuclear weapons, the state has means of destruction at its disposal that Hitler could only dream of. What, then, if a similar evil came to power in America? What could the world do to stop it?
The ever-increasing police powers of the modern state raise justifiable fears as well. Governments continue to push for more surveillance, wider abilities to tap into communications, more cameras, less privacy. After the September 11 attacks, the White House used the threat of terrorism in order to gain untrammeled powers for the executive, including imprisonment without trial, kidnapping, torture, and assassination. Antiwar and other protest movements saw themselves identified with terrorism so that the government could shut them down. The militarization of police forces is another ominous sign of authoritarian ideology suppressing dissent and other civil liberties.
Hitler comparisons are coming out into the open because of fear. As we see with the Tea Party, fear is easily exploited by reactionary political figures for their own ends. But as irrational as much of the fear that is expressed publicly can be, it has roots in reality. People feel insecure and powerless in the face of huge economic, political, and military interests that obviously have much more control of what happens than they do. And since the Nazis showed us that we cannot trust in a supposed inherent goodness of human nature to prevent the worst and most unimaginable crimes from occurring, they end up representing our insecurity and fear and powerlessness today.
“Godwin’s Law” is a humorous acknowledgment of an inevitable cliché: Nazism will be used to characterize something we don’t agree with. But the experience of Hitler, the Holocaust, and the war are still so central to the political dilemmas of modern history that we can’t simply rule it out of order. It is necessary to learn what we can from the history of the Nazis. We can make comparisons and contrasts between the actual political conditions of pre-war Europe and today. From this we can draw general conclusions about authoritarian ideology, racism, the mass psychology of crowds, the use of scapegoating as a political tool, militarism, the dangers of executive power, and many other things. These philosophical insights, and not superficial comparisons using imagery and symbolism, can help us avoid falling into barbarism again.