Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fascism - Then and Now

I'm hard on the books I read. I don't/won't/can't spend much of my time reading, I carry whatever books I finally decide to read around with me for months finding a few minutes here or there for a chance to read a few pages now or then.

I cram books in my computer bag. I crush, crumple and bend them. I spill things on them, mostly coffee. Books probably hate me. The ones I pick definitely are not new when I finish with them. Do not loan me a book whose condition you value.

Our current U.S. administration has gotten a bad rap - deservedly so, in my opinion. George W. Bush may be the worst president ever. Critics of America's lurch to the right have occasionally compared George II to Hitler. (Here's a listing.)

I was very concerned whether there was any truth to this comparison. How much should I worry.? I decided to read a book to find out.

I choose a 3-volume history of the Nazis by Richard J. Evans. The first book, The Coming of the Third Reich, is about the Weimar Republic and how the Nazis managed to get into power in the first place (they never won a fair election but they did beat a lot of people up).

Richard J Evans - The Third Reich in Power cover
I just finished the second book, The Third Reich in Power, which covers the "peacetime" years of Nazi control, 1933 to 1939. It deals with the consolidation of the dictatorship and the intentional redirection of an entire nation towards inevitable war under a single political party.

Just over 700 pages of text is not very much when you're describing all the ebbs and flows of an entire country in the throes of turbulent change, but Evans' style is easy to read and he organizes his material clearly.

The third book by Evans (about World War II) hasn't been announced yet. I wonder how the story will turn out.

The Germany described in these books was more bizarre and more malevolent than any possible future United States. There are a lot of jaw-dropping moments in The Third Reich in Power. You could never make stuff like this up and expect anyone to believe you. Far from showing me how the U.S. and Nazi Germany were alike, these books reveal the extent of the differences.

My suggestion to a person making a comparison of the US and the Nazis would be "Go read a book." Evans' books would be a good choice, but any book would probably suffice. Then remind that person that the U.S., unlike Germany in the 30s, has had a functional, albeit imperfect, democracy for an awfully long time.

For example, we can all be pretty sure that, come the evening of January 20, 2009, George II Bush will no longer be POTUS. The selection of his successor, although it will have been infused with outright lies, insidious half-truths, unreasoning emotion, blind faith and sky-scraping mountain ranges of big money both foreign and domestic, will not have involved widespread bloodshed or mass imprisonment. Maybe a little computer fraud and some intimidation of potential voters who don't speak the English so good. The US is a long way from perfect.

George W Bush praying with the spirits of Washington and Lincoln
Still, while reading The Third Reich in Power I was aware of one troubling similarity with contemporary America: Faith.

The intense irrational faith of the Nazis (that their race was superior and destined to rule the world) seems to parallel the intense irrational faith prevalent in the U.S. today (that our country has been chosen by God to lead the world.) Hitler said he was chosen by "Providence". We just use the word "God" instead. If America's faith in ourselves, aided and abetted by a bit of frenzy whipped up by the corporate media, somehow gets US into marching in lockstep then anything could happen. We could even go to war half way around the world for no good reason. (Saddam was not harboring Al Queda.)

Oh right. I was talking about faith. Here's a quote (in this post) by an "Ex-Southern Conservative" Christian who was discussing the 2004 Presidential election:
If I were still a conservative Christian I can tell you exactly how this election would look to me right now. Kerry is an immoral man of the World, and I thank God that Bush, a man of clear moral integrity who is out to defeat Satan regardless of the forces that stand in his way, has been blessed with victory. He didn't win the election--God chose him as the leader of this nation.
Sinclair Lewis said
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
I'm not suggesting anything is inevitable - we have a long way to go before "it", meaning something as bad as Nazism, can happen here in the United States. I think it would be a good idea if we made sure that "it" doesn't ever happen here. The best way of making sure is not to deny the possibility.

Tennessee replica of Statue of Liberty holding a cross
Beyond the issue of faith, I found the Nazi treatment of the arts, especially music, particularly interesting in The Third Reich in Power.

Among the interesting bits Evans tells how Hitler once gave Nazi officials one thousand free tickets to Der Meistersinger. Hardly any of them showed up and the Leader was furious. So the next year he made attendance mandatory. The officers showed up and fell asleep. Apparently lower echelon Nazis didn't care much for the music of Richard Wagner. After that Hitler had the tickets sold to the opera-going public (pp.200-201).

The subject I found most disturbing, for obvious personal reasons, was Nazi policy toward Jews. Never more than 1% of German population, Jews were cast by Nazi propaganda as the cause of every problem. By 1939 Germany was largely free of Jews thanks to draconian legal discrimination and carefully orchestrated violence. But in early 1939 Hitler made his first public reference to what would happen later, saying that a world war would result in "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe." (pp.603-604)

Looking back from the United States of 2007, a Golden Age for Jews who have achieved more wealth, influence and equality than in any other society ever, it is really essential for all Americans to remember how evil another country could become.

A nation of well-meaning people were led to do bad things in the name of Providence and Fatherland. Let's make sure nothing similar happens here in the name of God and Homeland Security.

Other Mixed Meters posts referring to Hitler or Nazis:

The story about the Statue of Liberty replica with a cross is here.
The praying George II counseled by the spirits of George Washington and Abe Lincoln comes from the Presidential Prayer Team.
A fascinating article about Israeli Nazi-themed pornographic novels is here.

Nazi Tags: . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


Peter (the other) said...

A deep subject. David, I am not sure that it would be accurate to use the Nazi model of what fascism, or to be more dramatic, evil, is. I sometimes think that we have are interest in the Nazis supplied, for it always gives us the out "well, at least I ain't no Nazi Schmazi"! While books, films and television shows redepicted the second world war, "we", went about killing over three million Vietnamese, for reasons that people either can't remember or sound so dumb that they dare not be mentioned. In my definition of evil, the distinction between killing over three million and over six million is not differentiated, and this doesn't include all the other peoples killed around the world, either by the USA directly or indirectly, in the name of stopping communism. Long before the Nazis would have come for me (for my Jewish father) I hope they would have come for me for my communistic tendencies and troublemaking ways. We must judge ourselves by our own actions compared to our morals, not in comparison to someone else.

George Santayana's quip about remembering the past is just that, a quip, it sounds sensible to the average mind but has no empirical basis. I might suggest that those who stay fixated on the past may be apt to miss much of today, or as someone said, "if you keep one foot in the past, and the other in the future, you are peeing on today" :-)

David Ocker said...

Peter, you're absolutely right. Points taken. Thank you.

I think what I was trying to say was that reading about the Nazis convinced me that the level of evil was so far beyond what I expected (not knowing anything about history beyond what's in our media) that we should avoid easy comparisons with them.

On the other hand, the US has far from clean hands in many ways and we have done our own evil things, I'm suggesting, with the same rationale as the Nazis: we BELIEVE we're in the right. Intense faith is a dangerous thing.

I don't think we're as evil as the Nazis now, and if we ever become so, watch out because no amount of knowing history will prepare the world for what we might do.

When I was young the country swung in a direction I approved of. Now, watching US swing the other way, I realize I might not get to see a return to the more liberal condition.

So, as part of my own irrational faith, I've got to trust that our democracy will eventually balance the current swing. If I didn't have that faith I'd have to wonder why I don't just leave the US. After reading Evans I better understand why a lot of Germans didn't leave. And I respect those who left on their own even more.

P.S. I just found this quote here:

In early 1945, German Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels declared ominously and somewhat cryptically "God has given up the defense of the people; Satan has taken command." That sounds far too familiar.