Another enemy of the Hitler Zombie

Via Ed Brayton, I’ve learned of an interesting commentary by Sasha Abramsky on a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. Well, its’ more like a major pet peeve, one that irritates me so much that two years ago I even created a character who’s made regular, albeit increasingly infrequent, appearances on this blog. I’m talking, of course, about the Hitler Zombie, everybody’s favorite undead Führer whose chomp on a pundit’s brain results in stupid and ridiculously overblown Nazi analogies. Indeed, such analogies irritate me sufficiently that at times my attacks on them have been described by some as “overwrought” or ridiculously “excessive nit-picking.”

I don’t care, and I’m not about to stop when I see an argumentum ad Nazi-ium that strikes me as stupid or inappropriate. Remember, we’re not talking about carefully made rational “compare and contrast” type analogies that don’t overstate their case; no, I reserve the Hitler Zombie (or lesser mockery) for analogies that I consider to be overblown, bad history, or a combination of the two–or just plain ridiculous. Readers may feel free to skip over such posts if they are too “overwrought” for their liking.

But, back to Abramsky. Although there is much to like in his analysis as to why most Hitler or Nazi analogies are inappropriate and used primarily to demonize one’s ideological opponent, he doesn’t quite get the history right: He starts out well enough:

…read CIF comments on articles written about the US, and fairly frequently these days you’ll see statements equating America with Nazi Germany and George Bush with Adolf Hitler.

The “American superpower = Nazism” equation ought to be so laughable as not to need a serious response. Instead, it seems to be gaining significant headway, and not just within the world of anonymous bloggers. Two weeks ago, Vladimir Putin made a speech referencing the Third Reich when talking about contemporary US policies. It was an extraordinary statement from a man who has, himself, so coercively used state power in recent years, so readily played on his countrymen’s sense of historical grievance.

Here’s where he starts to go wrong:

Without minimizing the threat to the open society that Bush’s team represents, let’s look at the comparison in more depth: Nazism was, from the get-go, founded on principles of race hatred and a rhetoric antithetical to democracy. Readers of Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf knew from well before Hitler came to power that the Nazi party was intent on waging war against the Jews, the Gypsies and other supposedly “inferior” races. They knew from the outset that their party believed “democracy” to be a decadent method of governance, and one largely responsible for Germany’s post-first world war travails. They knew that the party would utilize extreme violence against its political opponents – and that it had an enormous cadre of street brawlers, in the form of the brownshirts SA, willing to commit wholesale murder on the orders of its bosses; they knew this because all too many of them were involved in this organization. Later on, after Hitler achieved power, they knew it through the “Night of the Long Knives”, when the nascent SS dispatched many of the leaders of the SA in an internal party power struggle. They also knew it when the few brave souls who handed out leaflets decrying the genocidal actions being carried out against Jews were publicly executed, some hung from meat hooks, others beheaded.

1930s-era Germans also knew that Hitler’s form of government would revolve around a psychopathic form of Fuhrer-worship. Again, they knew because they all-too-willingly swore allegiance to the person of Adolf Hitler and all-too-easily fell into issuing Heil Hitlers as a form of everyday greeting. Anyone who’s seen Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumph of the Will has a visceral sense of the potency of the Nazi crowd and the hysteria around the person of the Fuhrer.

Not quite. Abramsky forgets that the personal oath of allegiances to Hitler, Triumph of the Will, the Heil Hitler greetings, the Night of the Long Knives, all of these things were after Hitler was dictator. (Indeed, Triumph of the Will was released in 1935, two years after the Nazi takeover.) Before Hitler came to power, it’s really hard to say that most Germans knew what they were getting into when Hitler took over.

In fact, in the early 1930s, as the Nazis rose to power, the vast majority of Germans could not “know” all the things Abramsky claims that they “knew.”Before Hitler became dictator, what they heard from him is that he would restore the greatness of Germany by putting people back to work, rearming, that he would reverse the indignities imposed on it by the Treaty of Versailles, that he would put the Communists in their place, and that he would reverse the “decadence” of Weimar Germany. They expected that the “Jewish control” of finance, etc., would be broken but had no way of knowing that it would ultimately involve mass extermination. Remember, Mein Kampf did not promise extermination, only removal of privileges and removal. True, that so many Germans supported such policies was bad enough, and that Germans by and large approved of Nazi anti-Semitism is where Abramsky is not incorrect. I do not mean to downplay this. However, Abramsky forgets that many Germans thought that the demands of government would tame the “wilder” elements of the Nazi Party. They turned out to be horribly wrong, of course.

Much of the reason for this may have been a large measure of wishful thinking or willful blindness. Before Hitler took over, most Germans saw Hitler as a strong man who would set things right; few expected him to become absolute dictator within a year of becoming Chancellor, when the death of President Hindenberg removed the last check on his power. As for the cult of personality prevalent in the Nazi Party itself, few Germans could predict that the entire nation would come under its thrall. Sure, educated Germans had inklings, and many were alarmed at the rise of the Nazi Party, but to claim that Germans knew what they were getting into with Hitler is probably overstating the case.

A few did, however, realize just how violent and nasty the Nazis would be, as documented very well in Ron Rosenbaum’s Explaining Hitler, in which he described a group of Munich journalists working for the Munich Post and their work exposing the Nazis for what they were in the years leading up to Hitler’s becoming Chancellor. So much did these reporters tweak the Nazis with their exposés that Hitler reserved a special hatred for them, so much so that he had a special name for Munich Post: The Poison Kitchen. The reports of political murders, blackmail, and various other thuggish tactics were quite clear and prescient of what would happen after Hitler assumed power, but these journalists were largely a lone voice in the wilderness. As Rosenbaum put it:

The Munich Post journalists were the first to focus sustained critical attention on Hitler, from the very first moment this strange specter emerged from the beer-hall back rooms to take to the streets of Munich in the early 1920s. They were the first to tangle with him, the first to ridicule him, the first to investigate him, the first to expose the seamy underside of his party, the murderous criminal behavior masked by its pretensions to being a political movement. They were the first to attempt to alert the world to the nature of the rough beast slouching toward Berlin.

Unfortunately, few listened, even though the Post continued to attack Hitler and his Nazi Party after Hitler became Chancellor, continuing for over a month. It was not very long after Hitler’s consolidation of power that SA thugs broke into the offices of the Munich Post in March 1933, destroyed its typewriters and presses, and arrested many of its reporters.

One of the more fascinating findings about the Poison Kitchen was that they had found evidence of what the Nazis really intended, but no other reporter considered it worth investigating:

More than a year before Hitler came to power, the Post reported that it had uncovered a “secret plan” from an inside source in Hitler’s SA. A secret plan in which the Hitler Party had”worked out special orders for the solution of the Jewish question when they take power, instructions that are top secret. They have forbidden discussion of these in public for fear of its foreign policy effects.”

What followed was an extremely detailed list of a score of anti-Jewish measures that foretold with astonishing precision all the successive stages of restrictions and persecutions the Nazi Party was to take against the Jews in the period between 1933 and 1939. And then the Post hinted at more: It spoke of a further “final solution.”

All of this simply goes to show that the Nazis tried very hard to hide their seamier side. Indeed, at the opening of the new Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House on March 21, 1933 (after the Reichstag Fire in February) Hitler staged an elaborate ceremony, in which Hindenburg played the lead. The ceremony was intended to mark the continuity between the Prussian-German tradition and the new Nazi state and went a long way towards reassuring many Germans that life would be go on as before under the new regime. Given that, although Germans may have had inklings, and some Germans such as the Poison Kitchen may have had a much better idea, of what was in store from the Nazis, the German public tended to see mostly strength and Hitler’s promises.

Even by the time of the outbreak of World War II, aside from enthusiastic Party members, most Germans still did not buy fully into Hitler’s dreams of conquest. Consider, for instance, this account by historian Richard J. Evans in The Third Reich in Power:

Going for broke was not something that appealed immediately to the mass of the Germany people. By 29 August 1939, they were becoming seriously alarmed. The mood in the rural Bavarian district of Ebermannstadt, reported an official, was “considerably depressed…Although signs of fear of war are nowhere to be found…there can be no question of enthusiasm for war either. The memory of the world war and its consequences is still much too fresh to allow space for a jingoistic mood.. The outbreak of war, added another report filed a few weeks later, caused a general “despondency” among the population. Social Democratic observers concurred: there was “no enthusiasm for war.” Standing on the Wilhelmplatz around noon on 3 September, William L. Shirer joined a crowd of about 250 people who heard the loudspeakers announce the British declaration of war. “When it was finished,” he reported, “there was not a murmur.” He decided to sample the mood a little further: “I walked in the streets, ” he went on. “On the faces of the people astonishment, depression…In 1914, I believe, the excitement in Berlin on the first day of the World War was tremendous. Today, no excitement, no hurrahs, no cheering, no throwing of flowers, no war fever, no war hysteria…The propaganda war to fill Germans with hate for their new enemies had failed.

To me, this sounds as though the illusion had finally been revealed, and Germans were finally starting to realize just what Hitler really was about and what it would mean for them.

But by then it was too late. The die was cast.

So, although I like Abramsky’s sentiments and he is correct to some extent that the evil that the Nazis represented was there to be seen by those who were actually willing to look for it, his understanding of the history of Germany in the early 1930’s is a bit off base, and he overplays his hand in a way that decreases the force of his argument in a manner that disappointed me. Still, I heartily endorse his conclusion:

So, let’s end the cheap shot analogies. Bush isn’t Hitler; America isn’t the Third Reich. That doesn’t mean the Bushies are good guys. But they’re not in the same psychopathic, criminally insane league as were the Nazi elite.