Summary: American discussions tend to end in references to Hitler or NAZIs. That’s usually described as an oddity, when in fact it results from deep structural factors in American society that have roots in 1930s Germany — and that still shape our future. That should be obvious, yet is too disturbing for us to see. Perhaps events in the next four years will remind us of this heritage, and its dangers. (A version of this was posted in 2013.)
“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100%.
— Godwin’s Law, formulated by Mike Godwin in 1990.
Godwin formulated his Law as a description of an oddity of internet discussions. Since then it’s become normative — a behavior to be condemned or mocked. In fact it is a reflection of so many aspects of modern American society with roots in 1930s Germany. That should not surprise us. Germany played a central role in western religion, philosophy, and science. Which adds another disturbing note — its people so quickly fell into evil. If it happened to them, might it happen to us as well?
These matters are too disturbing to contemplate, so we suppress them. But we can do so only imperfectly, so these insights surface anyway. Hence Godwin’s Law.
What are the roots of Nazi Germany in our America? Nazi Germany was the first nation to break through from traditional modes of western society into modernity. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world with a new morality, plus new physical and political technologies. The list of NAZI breakthroughs we have copied is long; here is a sample.
- Eisenhower built our autobahn (interstate highways), for the same reasons the Third Reich did. We drive compact cars derived from Volkswagens, the people’s car ordered by Hitler in 1934.
- Our military uses technology developed by the NAZIs. Some examples are wire-guided missiles (one of which hit the battleship HMS Warspite in 1943), infra-red night vision systems, ballistic and cruise missiles, jets, and rocket-propelled aircraft.
- We use military tactics pioneered by the NAZIs, such as our maneuver war methods (descended from their WWI stormtroopers and WWII blitzkrieg) and strategic bombing of civilians.
- The NAZIs normalized both pre-marital sex (a benefit of Hitler Youth membership) and out-of-wedlock childbirth.
- The NAZI’s ran the first anti-smoking campaign (30 years before the US did), funded research about the effects of smoking, and in 1941 banned smoking in public places.
- Nazi Germany was the first nation to aggressively implement feminism. By 1939 a larger fraction of German’s women worked for pay than in any European nation except France. The Nazi trade union, the Arbeitsfront, was proud of raising women’s wages to those of men in many industries. “Five years of Nazi rule in some ways did more for professional women than a decade of feminist pressure in the Weimar Republic” (from Feminist Movement in Germany).
- Perhaps their greatest long-term influence: the NAZI party introduced modern propaganda techniques, which became the basis for political tools used in WWII, the Cold War — and today.
- We wear Hugo Boss suits, for the same reason as the SS did (the NAZI’s contribution to fashion might be one of their long-term contributions to the world). We wear Adidas footwear, as did the Wehrmacht.
In so many things Hitler was not wrong, just early. Some of these innovations we applaud; some we prefer not to see. Some we see in our future.