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.

Nazi Germans Knew

How could Germans not know with concentration camps and slave labor being spread all across Germany? They saw what happened to their neighbors in being shot, taken away, and much else. Large numbers of Germans even worked in and around those camps and factories. But it wasn’t something Germans thought too much about. And surely it didn’t often come up in conversation. There was a tacit agreement in the silence.

It’s the same with Americans and the American Empire. Americans know and don’t know all kinds of things, from knowing about a racist system that has put more blacks in prison than were during slavery to knowing about a war machine that has a murder rate of innocents right up there with the most horrific authoritarian regimes.

It’s impossible not to know and yet everything continues as if no one knows what is really happening. Future generations won’t remember us Americans with any more sympathetic understanding and forgiveness than we offer to the Germans of the Nazi era. But sadly, knowing the past doesn’t stop it from repeating. And so those future generations very well might have their own unacknowledged horrors, as they judge us for ours.

It’s not as if the Jews who colonized the Palestinians learned anything from their own experience under the Nazis. Well, other than how to be highly effective and violent oppressors. No doubt, most Israelis know in great detail the horror of it all and yet they don’t know, can’t allow themselves to fully know and comprehend. A splitting of the mind and dissociation of consciousness is a powerful thing. The greatest silencing is what we do to ourselves.

* * *

Germans knew of Holocaust horror about death camps
by John Ezard

The mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler’s Holocaust, according to a new research study. They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand.

They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them. They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters according to the study, which is due to be published simultaneously in Britain and the US early next month and which was described as ground-breaking by Oxford University Press yesterday and already hailed by other historians. […]

Its results, Professor Gellately says, destroy the claim – generally made by Germans after Berlin fell in 1945 and accepted by most historians – that they did not know about camp atrocities. He concludes by indicating that the only thing many Germans may not have known about was the use of industrial-scale gas chambers because, unusually, no media reports were allowed of this “final solution”. However, by the end of the war camps were all over the country and many Germans worked in them.

Backing Hitler. Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany
reviewed by Conan Fischer

The National Socialist regime, he asserts, was a plebiscitary dictatorship that set out to build a social consensus around its programme, and by and large succeeded in this aim. The prospects for Hitler’s project, the author argues, were greatly improved by the failure of the Weimar Republic to achieve its declared aims, either at home or with regard to foreign policy. Diplomatic humiliation, domestic poverty, an alleged crisis of morality, the perception that criminality was rife, and a fractured political landscape prior to 1933 allowed the Nazis to present themselves as a restorative, stabilising force. The conquest of unemployment and success in raising living standards combined with a series of dynamic but often coercive initiatives, which were directed at alleged enemies of the German people, such as the Communists, and especially the Jews. These outsiders, the Nazis asserted, had gnawed away at the moral substance of the German ethnic community, and their removal from society would redeem and safeguard this community.

Gellately has combed through local, regional and national newspapers to establish how, precisely, the authorities presented both their populist initiatives and the campaign of terror that swept away any actual or potential dissent. It emerges that even the terroristic side of the new regime was reported in great detail, to the point where photographs and discussion of the early concentration camps were everyday fare in the press. However these camps were presented as corrective institutions in which political renegades, habitual criminals and wayward Jews, among others, were given a taste of firm discipline and hard work out of doors, in the hope that they would come around and serve as useful members of society. Killings, if reported at all, were reportedly in self-defence, or to prevent dangerous criminals from escaping the camps and once again terrorising society. In other words, repression was painted in an essentially positive light. If Weimar had been soft on crime, then the decent German populace would be now be spared any further criminality and licentiousness.

The author employs oral testimony from survivors of that age to telling effect. Many claim not to have been Nazis as such, but admit nonetheless that at the time they regarded the new regime as a turn for the better. However, there is a tendency in Backing Hitler to accept at face value this depiction of Weimar as a failed society, without pausing to reflect that many millions of German voters supported republican or Christian parties to the end, right through an unprecedented economic crisis. These voters saw their personal lives savaged by the Great Depression as much as the virulently anti-republican majority that emerged during 1932, but presumably the republicans remained attracted by the founding values of Weimar, values the Republic had struggled to put into effect until the eve of the Great Depression.

That said, even these die-hard moderates (to mix metaphors somewhat) often came to support, or at least tolerate, the Third Reich. Some, it is claimed, traded off their erstwhile freedom for greater material security, but there were also elements of ideological continuity from Weimar into the Third Reich, which eased such conversions from patriotic republican to Nazi. Much has been written on such continuities, for example by Gunther Mai, or more darkly by Detlev Peukert, but ideology and material security became interrelated, not least within the parameters of the welfare state, and as a consequence these linkages helped to shape popular opinion. Thus the ability of the Nazi state to deliver on certain material commitments, which had been enshrined in the Weimar constitution as moral imperatives (such as the right to a job or to satisfactory levels of social security), arguably did as much to engender consent in Nazi society as did the popularisation of repressive police measures.