Summary: People often cite Godwin’s Law because it is true. But few ask why it works so well. The answer is simple, disturbing, and cautionary. It points to truths we don’t want to see. (Originally posted in 2013, too far ahead of the pack. This is an updated version, now getting heavy traffic.)
“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. A law for our time.
Evil lives inside each of us, waiting for the opportunity to emerge.
Germany was in many ways the brightest flower of western civilization, often playing a central role in western religion, philosophy, and science. Its fullest blooming was under the Nazis. During their two decade-long-reign, Germany was the first nation to break through the traditional limits of western society into the modern era. During and after WW2 the West followed Germany into a world not just new physical and political technology, but new morals.
We prefer not to remember how quickly the Germans fell into evil – or the ways we have followed their lead – or that we too could fall into evil. These things are too disturbing to contemplate, so we use “Nazi” as a casual insult and ignore the deeper issues.
The Nazis did it first. We followed.
In so many things the Nazis was early. Sometimes by years. Sometimes by decades. We should be terrified that the West’s most intense burst of creativity since fifth-century Athens was the 13 years of Nazi Germany. Some of these innovations we applaud. Some we prefer not to see. Some we pretend are unique to the Nazis, but are horrifyingly not (e.g., the Holocaust).
The list of Nazi breakthroughs is long. Here is a sampler.
Hitler invented Keynesian economics before Keynes published The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in 1936 (further developed as “helicopters dropping money” by conservative economist and Nobel-laureate Milton Friedman in his 1969 book The Optimum Quantity of Money). Adolf Hitler. When came to power in 1933, he ordered a massive stimulus to the economy. Nobody was going to say “no” and lecture him about monetary constraints and balancing the budget. Everybody saluted and said, “Yes, Fuhrer.” He injected money broadly across Germany. You were running an Arts Council in a small town and the local NAZI Gauleiter comes and says “Spend money.” You staged concerts, opera, and exhibitions of paintings. The Nazis funded massive public infrastructure projects and expanded the military. Germany was stronger than Britain and France because Germany had smart economic policies in the 1930s and they had dumb ones.
The Berlin Automobile Show opened on 11 February 1933, 12 days after Hitler became Chancellor. At it he said “We need to build automobiles for the new age …as well as autobahns to provide freedom of travel for people.” This became the “people’s car,” the Volkswagen. In the 1950s, Eisenhower built autobahns for America, the Interstate Highway System. In the 1960s, Japan built compact and then subcompact cars, higher-quality successors to the “Beetle.”
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, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, jets, the first flying wing jet aircraft, and rocket-propelled aircraft. Our military uses tactics pioneered by the Nazis, such as maneuver war (blitzkrieg) and the strategic bombing of civilians.
Nazi Germany was the first nation to aggressively implement feminism. By 1939 a larger fraction of Germany’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). 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 they expand the excellent health care system they inherited to include retirees (details here).
On a trivial level, the Nazi’s contribution to fashion might be one of their two long-term contributions to the world. The uniforms of the SS and Wehrmacht set the style for brutal authoritarians that will outlast their memory.
The Nazi’s contribution to politics
Perhaps their greatest long-term influence: the Nazi party introduced modern propaganda techniques. The insights of Hitler and Goebbels (Reich Minister of Propaganda) have been repackaged as marketing advice for generations of MBAs and political consultants. These methods became the basis for western politics during WW2 and the Cold War politics – and today.
Hitler brought the ancient tactics of identity politics to a new level of sophistication. Stoking hatreds to fragment a people is a fast track to power used throughout history. The Roman’s divide and rule built and held an empire. The South’s Jim Crow laws helped keep the white vote unified for a century. When the Democratic Party broke with its racist past, the Republicans broke with theirs and picked up that dark torch.
Today’s Leftists build upon these methods, encouraging a thousand hatreds to flourish. This is well-documented by now, obvious to any who look. See Steve Sailer’s semi-humorous analysis. Or Damon Linker’s criticism of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which makes slavery and racism the lens through which they see everything about America.
Separating us from them
To manage the cognitive dissonance this creates we draw an imaginary line between those things which the Nazis forever stained – such as the Swastika (ripped away from its long history), antisemitism, 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 a pretense of pure motives, and the other 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 examples, 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. Instead both Left and Right accurately point out similarities of their foes to the Nazis (both are blind to their own).
On to Weimar!
This is no longer a purely theoretical threat. America is in many ways following the path of Weimar Germany. Degeneracy rampant, political polarization between two mad violent extremes (fascism and communism), and widespread disorientation due to the rapid decay of social norms – to name just a few. We know where that led Weimar. Let’s not follow them to a similar dark ending.
Perhaps most discussions about America should touch upon an analogy to the Third Reich.
It’s a dark awareness we need to accept with an awareness of its danger.
Some advice from the past
The Nazis didn’t emerge from a crack in the Earth. Hitler’s mad genius created the Nazi’s values and ideology. But he drew these from the springs of modern western philosophy, as Allan Bloom explains in The 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.”
We have the infection from two sources. 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 & Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (1886).
Interesting comments posted at Naked Capitalism
A version of this post went up in 2013 and was listed on the daily links at Naked Capitalism. The comments from the liberals and leftists there were (as usual) fascinating. This post hit a sensitive spot, with vehement and ritualistic denunciations. Few specific objections and many reading fails (i.e., rebuttals to things I did not say). Many commenters had obviously not read the post.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Needless to say, there are many great works about the Nazi infection. Here are a few.
- “The Question of Nazi Modernity” by Alexander Mosca (Florida State University), presented at the 2007 Florida Conference of Historians (this PDF has a better copy; start at p102). It has excellent references for more information.
- How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich by various scholars (2005) – the answer: very, until the war.
- Three New Deals by the great historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch – about the similar aspects of the “new deals” in Mussolini’s Italy, Hitler’s Germany, and FDR’s America.
Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
Please like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and post your comments. Also see all posts about the Nazis, about Hitler, about the far-Left, the alt-Right, and violence, about reforming America: steps to new politics, and especially these …
- Gallup warns us to prepare for fascism!
- 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.
- 2016 revealed the true nature of America’s left & right. It’s bad news.
- About a cause of America’s rising tide of hatred. We can still stop it.
- Left and Right use race as a way to divide America.
- DEFCON 2: both Left and Right have turned against us.
- The middle in American politics has died. Now extremists rule.
- The Left helps bring us Weimerica, a prelude to big changes.
- The Left crushes the Right. The counter-revolution will be ugly.
See how it happened the first time
By Martin van Creveld, retired professor of history at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Hitler in Hell is the extreme version of an unauthorized autobiography. Let’s learn from “Hitler’s” insights as interpreted by one of the foremost historians of our time. From the publisher …
“After his death in the Berlin bunker, Adolf Hitler finds himself in Hell. To his surprise, he finds it to be a place of more tedium than torment, although he is depressed to learn that he will never see his beloved German Shepherd Blondi again because all dogs go to Heaven.
“With nothing better to do than to pass the time, Hitler reflects upon his life in light of the post-World War II world. He is boastful, unrepentant, and absolutely determined to tell his side of the story, set the record straight, and get even with his enemies – both his contemporaries and those who abused his legend since his demise. In Hell, Adolf Hitler is finally free to tell the true story of the Nazi Party, World War II, and the final solution that eventually came to be known as the Holocaust.
“Dr. Martin van Creveld is a military historian who is a major contributor to the literature of war. Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Dr. van Creveld is one of the world’s leading writers on military history and strategy, with a special interest in the future of war. He is fluent in Hebrew, German, Dutch, and English, and has authored more than twenty books.”