Oct 6, 2005

on hitler, nazis and the denial of history.

Godwin's law - As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazism or Hitler approaches 1.

We've all been there. Whether in reality in a bar or a classroom or a coffee house, or more likely on this electronic soup of political nut jobs and awful debaters we call the World Wide Web. An argument is preceeding along nicely, you're not exactly Gore Vidal but you're certainly not George Bush either and you can hold your own. Until that is, the twerp on the other end likens you (or your ideas/policies) to Hitler or Nazism.

And its all over.

None of this is new. What i am interested in is why.

In my opinion there is more to blame here than the last stand of a desperate rhetorician (or a complete goon who's debating tactics run a little too close to american foreign policy - i.e. if we can't win properly just blow everything to hell). It has to do with the cultural manipulation of Nazism.

Nazism has become Objectively Evil. This is no longer a period faschist government in Germany in the early part of the 20th century caused by financial weakness, the political turmoil of post-war Europe and the harsh treatment of Germany at Versailles. No, this is when Devil Ruled Central Europe.

At this juncture in my argument I'm going to take a moment for the likes of Owen Barder and say I am in no way condoning the horror of Nazi Government, Hitler's policies or the indescribably awful extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other such 'undesirable' groups.Got that? No really... got it? Good.

As an example I defy anyone to open a school text book, or even a library book, on Hitler or Nazism, and find a picture of Hitler as a baby that has not been touched-up to include a little 'Hitler-moustache' covering the infants top lip. Now this, you may argue may just be the harmless japes of bored schoolchildren. But I believe it goes deeper. People cannot except Hitler as a person. In that moustache is burried an adult life drowned in racism, bigotry and horror. That moustache is horns and a tail. To imagine a Hitler without that, a Hitler who had not committed these acts. A Hitler, if you like, who is one of us, at the very least very disquietting and at the worst nie on impossible.

However, when this period is classified as objectively evil, as satanic beyond argument, it has two effects; one mildly annoying, the other incredibly dangerous. The first is that it gives useless morons in debating forums and newspapers an instant gettout clause because the moment you liken someone's policies or ideas to nazism they become intrinsically evil beyond argument and any defence of said policies is therefore a defence of the indefensable. This is annoying.

Secondly, however, it has the effect of isolating this period in history. Whereas other horrors come and go, rising and falling like so many waves against the beach of humanity, Nazism protrudes like a rock, immovable, somehow different.

But Nazism is not different. It is merely worse. It is bigotry, racism, faschism, brutality on a grander scale. In a more efficient mould. But it is still the same cruelties, prejudices and horrors underneath. Aime Cesaire has argued that Hitler is the logical culmination of Western brutality. That Hitler took the years of prejudice, horror and ethnic cleansing that made up the larger part of the colonial experience and turned them on the colonisers. Hitler is the west getting a taste of its own medicine. And although this is dramatically flawed (was it purely jews, gypsies and homosexuals raping the horn of africa and cleansing the carribean of its people? no. of course it wasn't.) the point stands that to set Nazism apart (for its barbarism, for its prejudice) is to deny the course of Western history.

And then of course, we come on to The Holocaust itself. Europe's most horrifying skeleton. And yet why The Holocaust? Where is the talk of the Caribbean Holocaust? We label it the discovery. By calling the extermination in Germany the Holocaust we assume it status as a one off, something that can only happen once. And in that respect i think we give ourselves too much credit.

Here is the crux. By Fetishizing Hitler and Nazism. By setting it to one side, as evil like no other, we devoid ourselves of responsibility for it. It was just a period in which Hell reigned on earth and there's not a lot anyone could have done about that, apart from be thankful that its over. By imagining that it is something that happened once, we soothe ourselves to the potential for cruelty we carry. We deny the possibility of it happening again.

When Stanley Millgram conducted post-WW II experiments to prove the German psyche was more susceptible to authority, he was shocked at the lengths of barbarism to which the ordinary American would sink, when asked to by a man in a lab coat. If we constantly deny the presence of the brutality of Nazism within western history, if we constantly set it apart, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of the return of such systematic horror.

The world does not go away when you close your eyes.


laputain said...

interesting post, eloquently written

Devil's Kitchen said...

Good post, although I think that you could go a lot further.

Why is it that Hitler, who killed far fewer Jews, homosexuals, etc. than Stalin, is so demonised, and yet Stalin and Lenin are still acceptable. As is, of course, the child-killer Che Guavara.

If you doubt that they are acceptable, how many times have you seen posters and T-shirts with these murderers "iconic" images on? Do those who wear them know what these people stood for? And would they deem it acceptable for you to wear a Hitler T-shirt (for the answer, look at the MSM's reaction to Prince Harry's fancy-dress Nazi uniform)?

Why is it that we deem Nazi fascism (Holocaust death toll, roughly 6-7 million) so much more unaccaptable than the Communism of Stalin (estimated death toll: 20 million) or Mao Tse Tung (death toll varies between 30 and 70 million)?

Why is it that the last resort of the argument is more often to call someone a fascist rather than communist?


MatGB said...

DK- because both Stalin and Mao are corrupted communists, and there are other types of communism that don't involve centralist authoritarianisms? OK, none of them have ever been implemented succesfully, but still.

Besides, I'm personally of the opinion that using "Fascist!" as an insult is wrong, the Nazis were a corruption of fascism, and the Il Duce/Franco versions weren't as bad; Mussolinin only really started slaughtering people after the Nazis took over.

Mr Judas sir? If the rest of your writing is like that, I look forward to reading your guesting on DK's normal drivel, in the meantime I'm off to read the rest of your archive, very well said.

Owen Barder said...

Interesting post. I think many societies have a psychological need for some personification of evil - and as belief in the devil has waned, we have used Hitler and Nazi Germany instead.

Perhaps the elevation of Nazi Germany in this way is related to the British (perhaps only an English?) phenomenon of reliving the war as our finest moment (see the red-top papers every time we play Germany in sport, for example).

By the way, I am alarmed to see myself cast as finger-pointer-General. Though I did once accuse Samizdata of racism, I also leapt to the defence of Ken Livingstone against accusations of anti-semitism.