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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Springtime For Hitler

There was a television miniseries about the early years of Adolf Hitler on recently. I didn’t watch any of it, usually having better things to do than watch prime time TV. But I understand that some CBS affiliates, particularly in Texas, refused to show it.

Some likely looked askance what must be seen at one level as a sensationalistic use of a controversial subject like Hitler to grab ratings. Some may have objected to the supposed “humanization” of Hitler. Others seem to have simply felt uncomfortable with even the very mention of a name now synonymous with hatred, genocide, and evil.

I was also reminded of Godwin’s Law, which is shorthand for an accepted rule of dialogue online that says two things:
1. The longer a discussion thread goes on, the more likely someone is going to mention Hitler or the Nazis.
2. Once this occurs, there will be no rational discussion on any topic in the thread.

My general experience with cyber conversations suggests to me Godwin’s Law generally holds true (though it gets more complicated in history-related discussions in which Nazis are a germane topic.)

The implication is that nothing good can come from discussing Hitler or Nazis.

There is at least one good reason for this line of thought – namely, that some people are far too quick to throw the term “Nazi” around. If repeated too often, the term begins to lose its meaning and its power. It would be a shame if “Nazism” joined “Fascism” and “McCarthyism” as terms that have lost some of their impact through excessive hyperbolic use. Calling someone a “Nazi” is usually a good way to damage one’s own credibility, and not without some reason.

In particular I fear that Americans have no idea what “fascism” was, or is. If they had this perspective, they might not be so quick to trade hard-won liberties and freedoms now taken for granted for a security that they are unlikely to receive in return. They are in one sense so used to hearing protestors and malcontents hurl “fascist” at opponents that they think it just means “one whose beliefs are abhorrent, according to the speaker.” Would the American public recognize fascistic governance, whether practiced or advocated, if they were to see it? I can’t be sure.

Nonetheless, I think the whole Godwin’s Law paradigm is detrimental to our understanding of the horror that was the Nazi regime.

When we place this entire incident of human history off limits - when we enclose Hitler, the Nazis, and the Holocaust in a hermetically sealed box, which we open only periodically to gaze upon like some primitive talisman of evil - we risk losing sight of the big picture. Adolf Hitler and company were not demons from some other realm dropped from the sky. They were born and raised as human beings, primarily in the 20th century, in what was arguably the most “civilized” nation on earth at the time.

Some who romanticize the “noble savage” would argue the exact opposite – that the “civilization” of the Germans was exactly what enabled them to such heights of evil. Though I will concede that those whose technology is more limited cannot kill with the chilling efficiency of the Final Solution, atrocities aplenty have been committed in less “advanced” societies, past and present.

How do we know that the Holocaust was not an anomaly, an isolated incident? The Nazis may have perpetrated the most horrific genocide in human history, but it was not even the largest one; Stalin’s purges were likely even more deadly, and the deaths from the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution may also have outnumbered the Nazi dead. Nor was it the first mass persecution of the Jewish people – there have been several of those, dating back to the Middle Ages straight through into the last century. Since the Nazi regime fell in 1945, there were the killing fields of Cambodia, and several different genocidal bloodbaths in Africa.

Can it happen here? We’d certainly like to think it could never happen here. Among other things, we have multiple museums dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust, which happened an ocean away. Every year there is a new film or book that aims to shed more light on the evil that the Nazis and their allies perpetrated.

I suggest everyone read up on the Milgram Experiment, or the Stanford Prison Experiment.

I think when we attack efforts to “humanize” Hitler, we miss the lessons to be learned from the atrocities of the Third Reich. To humanize Hitler is not necessarily to rehabilitate him. To recognize that Hitler and the rest of the Nazi leadership were human beings is a recognition that a dark beast lurks inside much (perhaps all) of humanity. To understand that human beings are capable of great evil is the first step towards controlling a propensity to commit great acts of evil. The world does not work like melodrama where the villains consciously wear the black hat or some other insignia of evil, and cackle wickedly at the audience. History will teach us that the worst evils are usually perpetrated by those who believe themselves incapable of evil, and that the good they see themselves doing is so good or so potentially good that the ends can always justify the means.

Update: OK, so I'm looking around the web, and I find out that someone at National Review Online wrote this, which pretty much proves my point about how people search for villains cackling wickedly at the audience. Granted, it's about Muppets and not Nazis, but you're not going to find evil in this world is that's the way you look for it.

Not even Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot is going to face a television screen and declare "I AM THE VILLAIN! I AM EVIL! HA HA HA HA!!"

Not having travelled outside America much in my life, I wonder if this sort of mentality is a uniquely American defect that comes from watching too much badly made, lowest-common denominator entertainment product, or if it's simply a failure of humanity in general to be unable to think in terms less simplistic than these.


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