Misreading the Misreadings of History

“A majority of decent well-meaning people said there was no need to confront Hitler…. When people decided to not confront fascism, they were doing the popular thing, they were doing it for good reasons, and they were good people…but they made the wrong decision.”

Tony Blair spoke those words as UK Prime Minister in 2003. And the supposedly Hitler-like figure he alluded to was Saddam Hussein. I ran across this quote in a piece from The Wall Street Journal, The Trouble With Hitler Analogies by Zachary Karabell. I’d instead point out the trouble with those who feel troubled. The critic here, if he was like most in the mainstream media at the time, beat the drums for war in attacking Iraq.

That war, if you can call it that when from a safe distance the most powerful countries in the world bomb a small country to oblivion, was a war of aggression. It was illegal according to both US law and international law, whatever its legal standing may have been in the UK. Besides, the justification for the military attack on Iraq was based on a lie and everyone knew it was a lie, that is to say we have long been in a post-truth age (numerous military conflicts in US history were based on lies, from the Cold War to the Vietnam War).

Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The only reason we could even suggest that he did was because we had sold some to him back in the 1980s. But there was no way those weapons would still work at this point, since those biological weapons had a short lifespan. Worse still, whatever horrible things Saddam did in recent years, it pales against the horrible things he did while he was our ally. He used those US biological weapons against his own people back then and the US military stood by and did nothing, the US government implicitly supporting his authoritarian actions, as has long been the established pattern of US foreign relations. Our authoritarian allies do horrific atrocities all the time, for their own purposes and sometimes on our behalf.

What makes Blair’s statement morally demented is that he was speaking as an authoritarian imperialist flexing his muscles. Hussein, as a petty tyrant, was getting uppity and needed to be put back in his place. It had nothing to do with freedom and democracy, any more than World War II was motivated by such noble ideals. The US and UK went up against the Nazis because Germany (along with Japan) was a competing empire that became a direct threat, nothing less and nothing more. Having won that global conflict, the US then became a fully global empire and the greatest authoritarian power in history. Fascism wasn’t defeated, though, as the US became even more fascist over the following generations. This had to do with political elites such as the Bush family that made its wealth in doing business with Nazis and that later helped Nazi war criminals to evade justice by working for the US government.

Here is the real problem with Hitler analogies. If Hitler were here today and he had a different name, he would either smear his opponents as being like Hitler or he would dismiss those who dared to make such comparisons. Either way, the purpose would be to muddy the water and make impossible any public discussion and moral accounting. It is interesting to note that the author of the WSJ article indirectly defends the authoritarian forces in our society by blaming those who call names:

“Contesting today’s populist strongmen doesn’t require calling them fascists, a label that often deepens the anger and alienation of their followers. The only thing worse than forgetting history is using it badly, responding to echoes of the past with actions that fuel today’s fires rather than douse them.”

Basically, don’t antagonize the authoritarians or they might get mean. Well, they’re already mean. It’s too late for that. It’s another example of someone demanding moderation in a society that has gone mad. As I often wonder, moderate toward what? If we can’t even call authoritarianism for what it is as authoritarians rise to power, then what defense is there against what is taboo to speak of? There is none. That is the point. This is how authoritarianism takes hold in a society.

But to the author, one suspects that is not necessarily a bad thing. Authoritarianism, in this worldview, might be fine as long as it is used wisely and the mob is kept in check. The only problem with the second Iraq War wasn’t that it was authoritarian but that it failed in its own stated authoritarian agenda. What can’t be mentioned is the historical analogy of Hitler also failing in his authoritarian agenda when he turned to wars of aggression in a bid to assert imperial rule. The analogy, of course, ends there for the moment. That is because, unlike Nazi Germany, 21st century America doesn’t quite have the equivalent of an opposing power also aspiring to empire. Not yet. But Russia and China, if and when World War III begins, probably will be willing to play the role.

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

An interesting take on the Nazis and their sympathizers comes from Jorge Luis Borges. What motivates a certain variety of reactionary authoritarianism isn’t straightforward politics. The vision is grander than that, almost a cosmic battle. Issues of who is victorious in war is maybe secondary.

In moments of honest admission, Adolf Hitler explained that the struggle he envisioned went beyond mere national interest. He wouldn’t allow German soldiers in Russia to retreat. Either Germans were superior and would succeed or they were inferior and would lose. His only purpose was to test the German race against foreign races. Let the best people win, that was his attitude. It had apocalyptic implications. Other races had to be destroyed and subjugated. Failing that, the German population must be sacrificed in the attempt. It was total war requiring total commitment.

This is similar to Karen Armstrong’s interpretation of Islamic jihadis. She has pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists seemed to intentionally flout Islamic law, as if they were demanding Allah’s attention and forcing the Divine Hand to intervene. They were trying to call down apocalypse, not unlike American evangelicals hoping to incite violent attack on Israel as they believe must happen prior to the Second Coming. It isn’t mere nihilism.

Some would argue that a similar attitude is held by Trump supporters. Not even those who voted for him, according to polls, thought he would do what he promised. But the one thing that he could accomplish was to destroy a corrupt system. Electing Donald Trump as president was like lobbing a grenade into a bunker. It may be an act of desperation, although it makes perfect sense as an all too human motivation. Studies have shown that individuals are willing to punish perceived wrongdoers even at great costs to themselves. It is what morality becomes when morality has been denied for too long.

In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred Pennyworth describes the Joker in saying, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” But that isn’t quite right. In his own words, the Joker explains himself: “Introduce a little anarchy – upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. And you know the thing about chaos – it’s fair.” Exactly! It’s fair. Death and destruction is the last refuge of fairness, what is necessary to bring on justice, even if it is the justice of a mad man’s chaos. The slate must be wiped clean. Then something new can emerge from the ashes. An apocalypse is a revelation.

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

There is a balance point in this, though. It is the fantasy of violence that matters most, the glorious battle that transcends mundane reality. The other way victory threatens is by making the violence all too immediately real. It was easy for Hitler, safely back in Germany, to play out his ideological visions on distant battlefields. When violence gets too close, it simply becomes terrifying. The Nazi sympathizers Borges described had the advantage of cheering on Hitler from a continent across the ocean. But even for them, the possibility of the Nazis actually winning caused trepidation.

* * *

The metal vultures and the dragon
by Alec Nevala-Lee

In another essay, Borges remembers the man who came to his house to proudly announce that the Germans had taken Paris: “I felt a confusion of sadness, disgust, malaise. Then it occurred to me that his insolent joy did not explain the stentorian voice or the abrupt proclamation. He added that the German troops would soon be in London. Any opposition was useless, nothing could prevent their victory. That was when I knew that he, too, was terrified.” This speaks for itself. But what troubles me the most is Borges’s conclusion:

Nazism suffers from unreality, like Erigena’s hell. It is uninhabitable; men can only die for it, lie for it, wound and kill for it. No one, in the intimate depths of his being, can wish it to triumph. I shall risk this conjecture: Hitler wants to be defeated. Hitler is blindly collaborating with the inevitable armies that will annihilate him, as the metal vultures and the dragon (which must have known that they were monsters) collaborated, mysteriously, with Hercules.

After the war, Borges explored these themes in one of his most haunting stories, “Deutsches Requiem,” in which he attempted to write from the point of view of “the ideal Nazi.” Its narrator, the subdirector of a concentration camp, writes out his confession as he prepares to face the firing squad, and his closing words feel like a glimpse of our own future, regardless of the names of those in power: “Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age, we who are now its victim. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules. If victory and injustice and happiness do not belong to Germany, let them belong to other nations. Let heaven exist, though our place be in hell.”

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

But Then It Was Too Late

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. […]

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

~ Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13)