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.
17 thoughts on “Godwin’s Law should force us to remember & fear our shared heritage with Nazi Germany”
I don’t see mention of eugenics. In my opinion, eugenics is the best documented shared heritage among the US, UK and the Nazi regime.
I had that on the list, but the clock ran out before I could check it. I’m looking that up now.
You comment about eugenics shows that “shared heritage” is what I said, but not exactly what I meant. My list were breakthroughs by Nazi Germany that we adopted. Eugenics is a true shared heritage, which the Nazis embraced and so spoiled for the rest of us. Like the swastika.
I don’t know if there is a better way to express this that works as a title. Any ideas?
Interesting. I just wrote this last week. “Percent Hitler.”
Thanks for posting the link. That’s an interesting perspective on this difficult issue.
Can you even imagine:
“Perhaps most discussions about America should include an analogy to the Third Reich.
It’s knowledge we need to encourage and accept.”
Will somebody link this again at NC? A fascinating post and took sometime to go back and re read the NC comments etc. only 3-4 years and my oh my.
Please take current happenings and rewrite, reassess or summarize what the heck you see now!
“We still haven’t beaten them, the Germans I mean.”
I am impressed with the proprietors of websites that print my material despite it driving many of their flocks into hysteria. Especially Anthony Watts at WUWT and Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism. It shows a broad vision and large spirit — both of which we need more of.
Approximately 50 million U.S. citizens are estimated to be of German heritage (a higher number than African Americans) v. 80 million citizens of Germany, some portion of which are not Germanic. The majority of German Americans live in the inland U. S. rather than on the coasts.
(1) I wonder about those numbers. Many people in the the US who say they are of German descent are actually Austrian (e.g., my family). Also, how many people of German descent live outside the borders of present-day Germany? Lots, I imagine — given how the borders have expanded and shrunk during the past 200 years. Also, given the intermixing in Europe and US, what does the concept of “German descent” even mean? I have a German-sounding name, but am only 1/4 German. The rest is English, Irish, and Cuban (itself a term which could have many meanings).
(2) Whatever the numbers, what is their significance vs. this post?
Per your response below, my instinct is that present politics and society in the U.S. are more inextricably connected with our country’s role as an extension of European civilization into a new world than we realize. We certainly see that with regard to our English heritage and the tight connections to the UK and the Commonwealth, but we are in fact a melting pot of a variety of Eurocentric civilizations, including a large number of Americans of Hispanic, Italian, Polish (and other central and eastern European) and Scandinavian descent. From a political perspective by far the most dramatic example is our Celtic heritage, with far more Americans claiming Irish heritage than the current population of Ireland around 5 million and more Americans claiming Scottish heritage than the current population of Scotland, also around 5 million. Collectively the U.S. and Europe make up around 10% of the world’s population and we are each experiencing immigration pressures from nationalities and races that the bulk of our Eurocentric populations consider to be alien. I’m not trying to draw conclusions and certainly not suggesting that, if 15% of our population is German American, that must explain why some in the political spectrum seem drawn to fascism. I am suggesting that this lens forces one to think about the issue of global migration and the nationalistic tendencies throughout the Eurocentric world in a different light than one might otherwise consider.
Here’s a helpful link: “The Largest Ancestry Groups In The United States“.
Note that the article claims more than 7 times as many Americans of Irish descent as current residents of Ireland.
That’s an interesting article! It’s based on self-identification, when almost everybody in American and Europe is of mixed national/ethnic ancestry. Which is fun, but simple grouping of people by national origin tells us little.
Genetic testing is slowly telling us about ancestry. Such as in “Genetic study reveals surprising ancestry of many Americans” by Lizzie Wade in Science, 18 December 2014. Excerpt:
Not sure that self-identification isn’t the most important factor for political debate and social affinity. I am increasingly tempted by the Ancestry.com ads. I’m pretty sure Scottish (McLoud and Ferguson) and English (perhaps with some French through the Normans) will predominate perhaps with some Irish and native American, but I’ll go for the science on day soon. It will be interesting to see if that changes self-perception. Maybe I’ll find some Viking ancestry as well and that could explain a lot.
That’s an interesting point! Self-identification by race is (unfortunately) a big deal in US society, esp in the South — where white people ignore their fraction of African ancestry.
But does it matter how many people self-identify as, for example, of polish or german ancestry? It did in the past — having a large effects on (for example) mating (don’t marry outside our group) and US foreign policy. Does it have political or social effects today?
That’s the question of the day. I long ago decided that I wanted to live as a citizen of the world. I physically reside in the center of a predominately African American city, where I have watched people of a variety of races learn to get along pretty well at a personal level and not always so well at a political level.
My firm belief that the economic success of the U.S. since the 1970’s has been driven in significant part by immigration, by relatively open exchange of human capital (one aspect of freer trade) and by the geometrical exposure of the world’s population to information and knowledge that was limited to a privileged few even 50 years ago (Encyclopedia Gallactica is a reality today through Google, Wikipedia and thousands of other discrete efforts). Since the U.S. developed the technologies that made that possible and drove the process, we have benefitted disproportionally in the aggregate, even as the rest of the world has enjoyed historically unprecedented rates of economic growth.
These trends are scary and have unleashed forces that are pushing back. Some call it nationalism, some call it racism, some call it fear. Perception of national/cultural identity provides a place of refuge in a time of tremendous change. Bottom line we are in the midst of a major transformation, the outcome of which is uncertain. Layer on the impact of the onrushing digitization of the physical world and we’re in for some significant turbulence as the journey moves forward. I doubt we have heard the last of identity politics, but in the real commerce of ideas the interwebs have enabled global affinities that tie people together in ways that will have profound effects beyond the control of parochial politics.
All of that said, we live in a physical world that is undergoing one of history’s greatest periods of migration. I would doubt that the Western democracies will ultimately accept completely open, unfettered physical immigration if for no reason other than resource constraints. That likely means more conflict to come on that front.
My answer is, as always, that we can see the future only dimly, as through a dark glass. The biggest risk is believing we can predict or control all the outcomes. Better to remain adaptable. Species that cannot end up in museum cases being studied by those that did.
The whole discussion of nationalities is incomplete without an understanding of the evolutionary background. We are all part of single species, Homo Sapiens, which appears to have evolved in Africa between 400,000 BC and 250,000. The current predominant thought is that earlier species of Genus Homo either evolved in Africa or perhaps evolved separately on multiple continents. What does appear certain from the genetic record is that Homo Sapiens spread out globally and ultimately replaced all other species of the Genus Homo through a combination of interbreeding, successful genetic adaptation, violent conquest, development of superior technologies (agriculture, urbanization, etc.) to become the sole survivor in Genus Homo as our genomes globally are very homogenous. Differences in Genus Homo that define current divisions such as race and nationality are relatively minor variations based adaptations to local climates, geography, etc. and perhaps to some extent with differences in the rate of interbreeding with other species such as Neanderthals and Devonians. Bottom line we all have a genetic code that predominately evolved in Africa and we are all far more alike than different as biological creatures. Perhaps that helps answer your question about the importance of national identity constructs. Essentially that’s all they are, constructs, but very important constructs that have defined how we interact as a species.
For more background.
Yes, that’s the key insight to remember in these discussions. Also important — or even more important — is evidence of a “population bottleneck” about 80k years ago, perhaps due to the explosion of the Toba supervolanco, which almost exterminated our species. That would explain the extraordinary low amount of genetic variation in homo sapiens — we are all descended from the small number of survivors. We are all one family.