Jumpin Baby Jeebus on a cracker! A writer over at the National Review, a bi-weekly conservative magazine that’s been around for about 40 years now, got irritated with the President for having the temerity to say that the Holocaust was “senseless”. The writer, Elian Johnson, responded by saying that Nazism wasn’t senseless because so many Germans supported it. Here’s the quote:
Nazism may have been an ideology to which the United States was — and to which the president is — implacably opposed, but it is hardly “senseless.” By the early 1930s, the Nazi party had hundreds of thousands of devoted members and repeatedly attracted a third of the votes in German elections; its political leaders campaigned on a platform comprising 25 non-senseless points, including the “unification of all Germans,” a demand for “land and territory for the sustenance of our people,” and an assertion that “no Jew can be a member of the race.” Suffice it to say, many sensible Germans were persuaded.
Now, ponder that a moment, will ya? There are so many things wrong with this statement. First, it’s anti-semitic. Jews not being admitted to “the race” is sensible? Did he really write that?! Yes, yes, he did. Second, he’s wrong on the numbers in regards to popularity. I think at the height of the Nazi movement, there were about 8 million members (1945) of the Nazi party in a population of over 78 million (1938)–so that’s about 10%. Of those, there were in 1944, 800,000 SS members–the Nazi elite who were responsible for protecting Hitler, controlling the non-Nazi military officers, and conducting the systematic execution of undesirables. So that’s 1% were actively engaged in one of the greatest evils man has ever seen. The others? They were regular people, desperate, naive, tricked and sometimes willfully blind. And then there were the 2/3 of the country that didn’t vote for the Nazis. Which leads the next point.
Third, historically speaking, there was nothing sensible about how the German people chose the Nazi party. One could only think this if they didn’t know much about German history or even very much about the sociological modus operandi of how hate groups rise to power. Pre-WWII Germany was a classic case of a country in turmoil, vulnerable and desperate for help. They had high unemployment and hyperinflation which led to far too many people going hungry. Add to that the loss of pride in country. Germany lost WWI and Europe enacted some pretty strict punishments on the country. It was thought, at the time, that this would deter Germany, who had one of the largest and best military forces in the region, from becoming aggressive again. Instead it had the opposite effect. It demoralized the German people, embittered the German military forces, and made everyone in Germany suffer by worsening the effects of the economic downturn that followed WWI. So you had a country that had within a single generation descended from the pinnacle of European power and culture to a punished and ostracized nation barely able to feed itself. They were angry, very angry, not just at Europe but also at their established leaders that had lost WWI and gotten them into the entire mess in the first place. The one thing Germans didn’t do was blame themselves or really take any responsibility.
So along came the Nazi Party–new blood, new faces. They offered Germans some pretty easy answers. The first thing they did was fill their heads with promises of fixing the economy–it’s easy to fix an economy if you control everything (China is the perfect example of this). Once the Nazi got enough power, they could affect the economy positively because they would remove it from the vagaries of currency fluctuations based on free markets. The other thing they did was tell Germans that the mess the country was in was not their fault. It was the fault of the old regime and the “others”, in this case most often Jews. They told Germans that they were an exceptional people, above all others. Of course, this is exactly what the German people most wanted to hear–wonderful bumper sticker answers to complicated geo-political problems. Besides telling people what they wanted to hear, they also used sheer brute force. For example, they joined with the Socialist Party by convincing them they honestly had good will and common cause with them (hence the addition of the term to their name) and as a result they gained a lot of votes they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Once they had those offices, they then turned around and destroyed the Socialist members from within. Then they leveraged their current position to move to the next level. They did this all the way to the top of the country’s power structure very quickly–too quickly.
Those in business and finance that they couldn’t bribe or convince to join their cause, they threatened and killed. Once they had control of enough of the banking industry, they began to use the banks to persecute their political enemies, along with many other strong-arm tactics. Any party or politician who didn’t join the Nazi party and encourage their supporters to vote for them was threatened, framed for crimes they didn’t commit, beaten or killed, had their bank accounts frozen and their property seized, etc. While they subverted and manipulated the political and financial actors, they were also busy recruiting among the traditional Weirmacht Army officers. Many officers joined the Nazi not because they were bigots or because they wanted to be political in any way (which they had assiduously avoided in the past), they simply wanted Germany returned to its former glory–they appealed to their patriotism and nationalism. And Hitler promised them that would occur. Essentially, the Nazi’s made all the right promises and all the right threats to get to the top but none of it would have been possible had the country not been so vulnerable in the first place. How Johnson thinks that “sensible” decisions were made under such conditions is just either ignorant or a dangerous reinterpretation of history.
The fourth and final point I wanted to make was that even IF the entire Nazi Party knew of the underlying evil agenda (they didn’t)….even IF they all participated in the evil things they did to rise to power (they didn’t)…even IF two-thirds of German voters voted for the Nazi Party (they didn’t, only one-third did)….it doesn’t make their actions sensible. No, a sensible reaction from Germany would have been to pause after WWI and acknowledge how they played a role in it. When the Nazi’s started to advocate for radical change they would have looked at all the options and found a solution that didn’t require destroying an entire race of people. When they first read Mein Kampf and realized the ultimate consequences of Hitler’s hatred, they would have found a way to stop him before he became too powerful. But they didn’t. It was too easy to sit back and hope that those evil thoughts on paper would never actually come to be in reality. The German people simply wanted to be rescued and Hitler offered them that with an added helping of guilt-free scapegoating*. I think this is why the German people carry to this day a tremendous amount of guilt about the Holocaust. Just because only a small portion of the Nazi’s and the country actively participated in the Holocaust, the entire country still made it possible through voting for the Nazis or acquiescing in the face of obvious fascism. Ultimately, just enough Germans supported their crazy ideas to the point that it was okay to take the Jew’s business. But they didn’t realize the Nazis weren’t just confiscating his factory, they were also killing him and his entire family. They could envision the first but not the rest. But now they recognize that they SHOULD HAVE known that any idea that focuses on the persecution of a single group of people will ALWAYS lead to even worse actions and that eventually leads to evil. There is no bottom to this slippery slope. Therein lies their great national shame.
Johnson not only doesn’t understand that Germany feels such shame, he doesn’t see that what they did was all that wrong. Johnson’s logic is that if a movement is popularly supported by a generally sensible people**, then their platform must be sensible as well. Fortunately, our country has a balance of powers where neither the Tyranny of One*** nor the Tyranny of the Majority is possible or at least, they cannot rise quickly to power in our system. As such our governmental system is supposed to counter and slow the spread of the kind of destructive reasoning that Johnson uses in his execrable article. That doesn’t mean he isn’t having an effect. He is reinforcing hatred in the minds of our own Neo-Nazi groups and probably influencing the naive, desperate, ignorant or paranoid among conservatives, of which we have no shortage lately. I can’t read stuff like this and sit silent. No good person should. For evil to triumph, the good only have to do nothing. The Germans understand this, but do we?
*Sounds similar to “illegal immigrants are hurting the U.S. economy” doesn’t it?
**Germany enjoyed and to a certain extent still enjoys a reputation for excellence in a variety of areas including engineering and manufacturing mainly due to a national characteristic of being very slow, methodical, and meticulous. The other side of this coin is that once they start down a course, they don’t change direction very easily. That slowness to change was considered very sensible in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, when slow action and thoughtfulness was considered the height of virtue. However, their meticulous nature was the source of quite a bit of irony after WWII. Historians point to the precise and detailed lists of Holocaust victims kept at various concentration camps–the Nazis knew what they were doing was wrong but they just couldn’t help themselves–records had to be kept otherwise how could they keep track of the amount of gold recovered from their victims teeth, the clothes that were taken and sent back to the major cities to be given to poor Germans, the possessions confiscated including works of art, silverware, money, etc. Indeed, a very sensible people are the Germans. As horrible as the concentration camp records were, they have been crucial to identifying the millions who were killed, to convicting the Nazi criminals who ran the camps, and to helping survivors figure out what happened to their family members.
***In spite of conservative nuts who think the President is a dictator, they’re just out of touch with reality and wouldn’t know a dictator if they slapped them in the face…which makes me think….How much fun would it be to have actors who look like dictators (Chavez, Castro, or Jung Il) show up to right wing demonstrations and join in their protest? I would be very interested to see what they do.