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“That’s how you write about Nazis”? Spare me.

I’ve been unsettled and annoyed by the punch-a-Nazi meme, exasperated by the Antifa movement. But what provoked this essay was a twitter thread from Bess Kalb. She’s a writer for Jimmy Kimmel and has published a fair bit in The New Yorker. I’m informed she is “quick witted and tough skinned”. Here is her thread, de-twittered. Read the dots as emotionally charged pauses between tweets.

I don’t mean to sound intolerant or coarse, but fuck this Nazi and fuck the gentle, inquisitive tone of this Nazi normalizing barf journalism, and fuck the photographer for not just throwing the camera at this Nazi’s head and laughing.

Fuck the Nazi’s house and fuck the Nazi’s name and fuck the Nazi’s faux intellectual books and fuck this editor for not replacing this awful headline with “White Male Inferiority Complex Incarnate Who Advocates for Murderous Racial Cleansing Buys Groceries, Too!”

Get ready to read a fucking sentence. It’s a sentence about a Nazi. Are you ready? Lay the fuck down.

Here goes.

Quick reminder: It’s about a fucking Nazi. A Nazi. Nazi. It’s a sentence about a Nazi.

“In person, his Midwestern manners would please anyone’s mother.”

You know who had nice manners? The Nazi who shaved my uncle Willie’s head before escorting him into a cement chamber where he locked eyes with children as their lungs filled with poison and they suffocated to death in agony.

Too much? Exactly. That’s how you write about Nazis.

Also, @nytimes, the polite Nazis cleaned the chambers as best they could, but they couldn’t scrub the bloody scratches off the walls and ceilings. The ceilings. The bodies of children in mass graves were found clutching each other, their skeletal faces masks of abject terror

And after work, they went home and bought groceries.

Since attacking this sort of thing probably requires (real or bogus) victimhood credentials, I’ll have to say I too have relatives who died at the hands of the Nazis. I guess I could wave them around like some enraged gorilla bent on establishing moral ascendency. But Kalb’s posturing angers and offends me. (Also, I’m not sure how she knows her uncle locked eyes with children in the cement chamber.) The passage is a pure case of the new American Puritanism that mistakes itself for politics. To reverse the saying: don’t hate the game, hate the player.

Kalb’s thread substitutes outrage for brains. For one thing, no, that’s not such a good way to write about Nazis. For another, the pathetic Americans who drift into — as the New York Times article recounts — neo-Nazism are so unlike history’s Nazis, the identification is probably more dangerous than they are.

The more menacing and repugnant the threat, the more you need to understand it. To see the Nazis solely as racist murders is to understand roughly nothing. To see the neo-Nazis as Nazis is to understand even less.

Being horrified isn’t getting in touch with inconvenient but vitally important realities. Americans especially love to wallow in genocide pornography, and the Nazis certainly provided it. But the older term ‘neo-Nazi’ appeared for a reason. If these people are dangerous, grandstanding about their namesakes’ concentration camps is no substitute for analysis. Threat analysis is part of what people do to deal with threats.

The Nazis committed a particularly horrible genocide, but it’s just childish to suppose that’s all that mattered about them. They conquered not only a vibrant democracy, but virtually all of Europe. For all their reputation as philistines, they could boast the allegiance of one of the world’s greatest film directors. The achievements of Nazi scientists lie at the heart of contemporary space programs. They fought until the very end with suicidal skill and bravery. They banned vivisection and, to a great extent, smoking. Even less comfortably, the dark corners of historical research shed light on the Nazis’ environmentalism and their complex relation to feminism. These facts deserve more attention than someone waving their uncle Willie around.* It was not their racism that made the Nazis such a threat. It was their success in overcoming national humiliation, defeat, and crisis.

It took a lot more than racism to accomplish this. The Nazis’ success involved Germany’s core institutions, the ones that, unlike the German government, survived more or less intact after the defeat of 1918. To understand this is to understand that American ‘Nazis’ bear only a cosmetic resemblance to the real thing.

One of these institutions was the army, which played a key role throughout the pre-Hitler era. As Wikipedia will tell you,

In July 1919 [Hitler] was appointed Verbindungsmann (intelligence agent) of an Aufklärungskommando (reconnaissance commando) of the Reichswehr, to influence other soldiers and to infiltrate the German Workers’ Party (DAP).

From the DAP Hitler formed the Nazi party, the NSDAP. He did so as an intelligence operative of the German army.

But the Nazis’ appeal went far beyond Hitler and his preoccupations. Over time but before their seizure of power, the Nazis attracted the support of German industry: this can’t possibly be explained by antisemitism. They also won substantial backing from Catholics, Protestants, the middle classes and the working class. They had a political and social infrastructure that contemporary Western political movements never attain. They prevailed in a political arena where most significant political parties, not just communists and Nazis but also the social democrats and the centrist German Democratic Party, had their militias and street fighters. Indeed before the Nazis existed, German workers had to contend with the Freikorps, a paramilitary organization comprising about 500,000 armed men. They were “embittered, angry military outcasts” ** dedicated to crushing the Reds — which they did.

These forces operated in a catastrophe, in no small part brought on by a little-noted blockade of Germany during the First World War. Official British sources note, without dissent, its effect:

Official statistics attributed nearly 763,000 wartime deaths in Germany to starvation caused by the Allied blockade. This figure excluded the further 150,000 German victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which inevitably caused disproportionate suffering among those already weakened by malnutrition and related diseases.

Although the blockade made an important contribution to the Allied victory, many of its devastating side effects cast a long shadow over post-war German society.

The Nazis’ response to these circumstances, far more than their hatred of Jews, had a lot to do with their popularity.

In other words, neither the conditions under which the Nazis came to power, nor the Nazis themselves, were anything like the pathetic neo-Nazis of contemporary America. Must one mention that, had the Nazis not come to power, their genocide would not have happened? So perhaps if you don’t like genocide, you might ask how movements like the Nazis take over a democracy, and how they can be prevented, not so much from doing that, but from acquiring the power to do that. Probably not by punching a guy in the face now and then — a meme built on the ahistorical presumption that the Nazis aren’t going to punch back and win.

Beating up neo-Nazis is no better a response to the forces that produce them than cops beating up young men in poor neighborhoods as a response to street crime. It is an indulgence, a fun reaction that studiously ignores the fact that neo-Nazism, like Nazism, has causes, and these go beyond ‘hatred’ or ‘racism’ — to toss these words around is to restate the phenomenon, not to understand it.

Neo-nazism is not at all like Nazism. These are fanboys isolated from the big money, from military power, marginal types whose militias are laughable compared to the forces on the streets in the pre-Nazi Germany. Could they grow into something much more dangerous? Sure. Anything can happen. But if they do, it will have to be because hundreds of thousands more go over to their side, people who are not now neo-Nazis, any more than the guy in the Times profile was a few years ago. And if that happens, it will have causes. To understand them, you’d have to look at what’s going on in American society.

Of course many people already do this. But the whole bogus anti-Nazi movement is deeply committed to ignorance, to denying the need to look at causes. To look at causes, in their eyes, is weak, immoral, deficient in self-righteousness. It’s being nice to Nazis; it’s making excuses; it’s weak; it’s lame, disgraceful bullshit: understanding is just going to dilute the moralistic rage that fuels your punching.

The irony should escape no one: these passionate pseudo-anti-pseudo-Nazis stand tall for ignorance, for just the sort of stubborn anti-intellectualism that draws daily mockery on Trump and his ilk, indeed just the sort that nurtures racism and white supremacism. And the result is even more distressing. Are there homeless on the streets as winter arrives? Are a large proportion of black youths rotting in jail? Is the education system a wreck and the health care system an international disgrace? Are decent jobs and the unions protecting them well on their way to becoming a memory? Has the war on terror blundered into Orwellian surveillance at home, immigration officials run wild, with generals lying about the thousands of civilians they know they have killed throughout the Muslim world?

Hey, fuck that. We don’t know how to deal with that and we don’t want to know. Punch a Nazi, because refusing to look at America’s problems is the best way to fight them.

— — — — — — — — — —

*Is this insensitive? Trust me, the death in the camps of some relative you never knew isn’t nearly so traumatic as, apparently, we’re supposed to believe.

** James M. Diehl, Paramilitary Politics in Weimar Germany, Bloomington (Indiana) 1977, p.52.

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