Summary: American discussions often end in references to Hitler or Nazis. That’s usually seen as an oddity or fun fact, when in fact it warns us of deep aspects of American society that have roots in 1930s Germany — and that still shape our future. We prefer amnesia to confronting this. 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? They were the first nation to break through from traditional modes of western society into modernity, which produced an amazing number of innovations. 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. Correction: Hugo Boss did not design the SS uniforms. As medium-sized company, he manufactured uniforms for the SS, the “brownshirts, and the Wehrmacht — like many other businesses in Nazi Germany, using forced labor during WWII (details here).
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.
“The world revolves around the inventors of new values; it revolves silently.”
— Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1885).
To manage the cognitive dissonance this creates we draw an imaginary line between those things which Hitler forever stained — the swastika (ripped away from its long history), eugenics, conquest for Lebensraum, etc. — and those things which remain unsullied. Such as vegetarianism, highly structured youth groups, the conservation of nature, conquest of others under the 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. It masks our uneasy awareness of the chaotic void that lurks beneath our civilization, powered by the darkness in our souls. We pretend that Hitler and the Third Reich were sui generis instead of a pathological growth of deeply rooted evils in western society (to state two obvious example, antisemitism and racism). That this infection appeared in Germany, the center of Europe’s culture and science, showed that we are all vulnerable to it.
It should not surprise us that after 60 years we’ve not come to terms with the lessons of the Nazi 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. Vigilance, not amnesia, is the best defense.
Perhaps most discussions about America should include an analogy to the Third Reich.
It’s knowledge we need to encourage and accept.
Our common origins
The Nazis didn’t emerge from a crack in the Earth. They evolved from the main current of western philosophy. From Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind…
“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.”
Not only does America draw from the same stream of western philosophy as did Germany. And we grappled with Germany at the height of its sickness — a cultural contagion 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).
Interesting comments about this at Naked Capitalism
The first version of this post was listed in the daily links at Naked Capitalism. The comments are fascinating. Interpreting such things is highly subjective. That said, the comments suggest that this post hit a sensitive spot. Rather than rebuttal to specifics given here, there are ritualistic denunciations and reading FAILS (i.e., rebuttals to things I did not say).
Conversation between Colonel Stok (Soviet secret police) and Vaclav (Czechoslovakian secret police) in Len Deighton’s great cold war spy novel, Funeral in Berlin (1964).
Stok: “These Germans, sometimes I wonder how we managed to beat them.”
Vaclav: “The Nazis?”
Stok: “Oh, we still haven’t beaten them. The Germans, I mean.”
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:
- What will replace the Constitution in Americans’ hearts? Let’s check for Fascism.
- National decay starts at the heart, and spreads like cancer.
- The secret, simple tool that persuades Americans and molds our opinions — We learned much from the Nazis.
- Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism! (2014).
- We love the Constitution yet hate our government. The past tells us why. — We’ve adopted many bad habits that were found in Nazi Germany.
- Why they lose: the Left tells us that Trump is like Hitler.
- Edward Luttwak: Why Fascism is the Wave of the Future.
- The Left calls Trump a “fascist”, ignoring the many experts who disagree.
- America is mainlining fascism. It won’t end well for us.
Good books about fascism.