Summary: We need to dig in order to understand what’s happening with America. Today look back to a critical moment in western history, a moment that’s shaped what we are today and will be for uncounted years to come. Tomorrow we look at how Nazi innovations in political mechanics have become mainstream in America.
“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 this as a description of the world, like the law of gravity. Since then it’s become normative — a bad behavior. That’s unfortunate; it’s an expression of our amnesia about one of the Third Reich’s worst horrors. Germany had a central role in western religion, philosophy, and science. We prefer not to remember that its people fell so quickly into evil. That we might fall so quickly into evil is too disturbing to contemplate.
Why do discussions about US society and politics so often end with analogies to the Nazis? Perhaps because 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 technology. Although we recoil from direct comparison to Nazis, we feel no ill conscience from this evolution. For good reason. The list of Nazi breakthroughs we have copied is long; here is a sampler:
- Eisenhower built our autobahn (interstate highways), for the same reasons the Third Reich did. We drive Volkswagens, the people’s car, and its successors.
- Our military uses much technology developed by the Nazis. Some examples are wire-guided missiles (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 strategic bombing of civilians.
- The Nazis normalized both pre-marital sex (it was 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), funded research about the effects of smoking, and in 1941 banned smoking in public places. They also ran campaigns against excessive consumption of alcohol. More details here.
- The Nazi’s created the first Medicare-like programs, in 1941 expanding the excellent health care system they inherited to include retirees (details here).
- On a trivial level — We wear Hugo Boss suits, for the same reason as the SS did (the Nazi’s contribution to fashion might be one of their two long-term contributions to the world). We wear Adidas footwear, as did the Wehrmacht.
- Perhaps their greatest long-term influence: the Nazi party introduced modern propaganda techniques, which became the basis for WW2 and Cold War politics — and beyond.
In so many things Hitler was not wrong, just early. Some of these innovations we applaud; some we prefer not to see. And then there’s the holocaust.
To manage the cognitive dissonance this creates we draw an imaginary line between those things which he forever stained — the Swastika (ripped away from its Native American history), eugenics, conquest for Lebensraum, etc — and those things which remain unsullied. Such as vegetarianism, highly structured youth groups, the conservation and appreciation of nature, conquest with pretense of pure motives, and the useful things listed above.
This imaginary division into clean and unclean legacies gives us a sense of order and control over the world, as it does for people following strict dietary regimes. This masks our uneasy awareness of the chaotic void that lurks beneath our civilization, the dark side within our souls.
We pretend that Hitler and the Third Reich were sui generis instead of a pathological growth of deeply rooted themes in western society (to state two obvious example, antisemitism and eugenics). This infection appeared in Germany, in many ways the center of Europe’s culture and science. If it appeared there, we are all vulnerable.
It should not surprise us that after 60 years we’ve not come to terms with the lessons of the Nazi’s madness, just as after 150 years the South has not come to terms with its embrace of slavery and rebellion.
We have not had our shots, and carry the infection. Let’s hope we do not come down with a similar dark illness of the soul.
Perhaps most discussions about America should touch upon an analogy to the Third Reich. It’s an awareness we need to accept.
Some advice from the past
“The world revolves around the inventors of new values; it revolves silently.”
— Nietzsche’s Thus spake Zarathustra , #12 (1885). See the full excerpt here.
The Nazis didn’t emerge from a crack in the Earth; they evolved from the main current of western philosophy. From Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom:
But when one ventures out into the vast spaces opened up by Nietzsche, it is hard to set limits. Measure and moderation are the real aliens there. Weber was just one of many serious persons who were affected by Nietzsche and popularized him without believing in the extremism that Nietzsche himself asserted is the result of positioning oneself beyond good and evil. The open-ended future contains many surprises, and all these followers of Nietzsche prepared the way by helping to jettison good and evil along with reason, without assurance of what the alternatives might be.
… Hitler did not cause a rethinking of politics here or in Europe. All to the contrary. .. After Hitler, everybody scurried back under the protective cover of morality, but practically no one turned to serious thought about good and evil.
We have the infection from two source. America draws from the same stream of western civilization as did Germany. And we grappled with Germany at the height of its sickness — an illness spread by contact.
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
— Aphorism 146 in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (1886).
Update: interesting comments posted at Naked Capitalism
This post was listed on the daily links at at Naked Capitalism. The comments are fascinating. Interpreting such things is highly subjective. That said, these look to me as if this post hit a sensitive spot. Rather than rebuttal to specifics, there are ritualistic denunciations and reading FAILS (rebuttals to things I did not say).
For More Information
See “The Question of Nazi Modernity“, Alexander Mosca (Florida State University), 2007 Florida Conference of Historians — with excellent references.
Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments — because we value your participation. For more information see all posts about the Nazis and about Hitler. And these posts about the evil within:
- Bloodlust – a natural by-product of a long war?
- Another note from our past, helping us see our future.
- No longer a danger, but a reality: bloodlust in our minds, an inevitable side-effect of a long war.
- What will replace the Constitution in Americans’ hearts? Let’s check for Fascism.
- Bleak news, but vital for us to understand: American Morlocks: Another Civilian Massacre and the Savagery of Our Soldiers.
- National decay starts at the heart, and spreads like cancer.
- Voices from the past describe the coming New America.
In the 21st century even our abyss will be digital
This is “Abyss” by Naxmus Saquib, from his website. Click to see how this was generated, and what it represents.