The Ease of Evil – Kate Paulk
This morning I read Marina Fontaine’s review of Downfall (http://marinafontaine.blogspot.com/2017/03/netflix-review-downfall.html), yes, including mention of that scene, the one that’s been recaptioned several gazillion times, some with more humor than others. In the review, she asks why the fascination? What is it with the Nazis and Hitler?
I have a theory. It is purely mine, based on reading a metric crap-ton about all manner of things (and don’t ask me for cites because this stuff has stewed so long in the back of my head I no longer remember where I originally read whatever triggered any particular piece. You can get most of the raw facts off Wikipedia). It is also a very broad generalization. Coming years will determine whether or not it is correct in the big picture. I’m not optimistic (I hope I’ve got this horribly wrong. I fear I haven’t).
The ongoing fascination with Hitler and Nazi Germany.
Simply put, it’s the most well-documented and acknowledged demonstration of the allure of evil and how easy it is for a more or less civilized people to descend into utter brutality. As such, it holds an unclean fascination not helped by uniforms that were designed to look good as well as be practical (or by the simple fact that evil, when done effectively, is sexy. Because it is invariably power, and untrammeled power at that. We’re human. Power attracts and corrupts us. The wiser among us acknowledge this so we can fight the effect).
The various Communist regimes can be dismissed as “not counting” because to the minds of those who do the dismissing, Russia, China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe “weren’t civilized”, and so Communism/Socialism would work just fine implemented by civilized people (they usually point to one of the Nordic nations when they do this). These same people are a big part of why the wrong lesson keeps being drawn from Nazi Germany.
The problem was not nationalism. It was not even the disgusting racial laws. Those laws could never have been passed, much less enforced, without the one big thing Socialism, Communism, and yes, Nazism have in common.
The supremacy of the state.
In the case of Nazi Germany, it started towards the end of the First World War, with the combination of Communist agitation and an Empire tired of a war that was draining the nation dry. The Communist agitation had rather more to do with the Kaiser’s abdication than is generally admitted – and frankly, it was disastrous. Instead of keeping the royal family as a symbol of national unity and reforming the German government into something more like the British model, Germany emerged from Versailles with a weak government run by people who had no idea what they were doing, a crippling war debt, some self-inflicted, and a lot thanks to a vengeful France, and, on the part of the average German, a shit-ton of bitterness over having been betrayed.
Hitler’s “knife in the back” rhetoric was grounded in reality. If it had been purely fabrication, it wouldn’t have resonated nearly as well.
The Weimar regime proved incapable of managing what little economy it had. Between the hyper-inflation and the kind of turnover of leadership that left the government looking like a ping-pong match, the entire situation was a pile of tinder by a cloud of flour dust just waiting for that one spark.
Enter Prussia. Or rather, exit Prussia. Prussia had the most stable of the Weimar-era state government, and was slowly – and painfully – grinding its way back to something resembling stability. During the late 1920s and early 1930s there was a lot of unrest, most of it between the German Communists trying to foment a revolution and bring Germany into the Soviet fold and the Nazi Brownshirts. Both appealed to the average German, who knew very well they’d been sacrificed for someone else’s ideals.
Prussia’s constitution at the time didn’t allow a new state government to form without a majority. The 1932 elections left the ruling coalition without a majority, and the Nazis and Communists forming large enough minorities to effectively block any coalition forming a new government. When one of the clashes between Nazis and Communists left 18 people dead in a shootout, the German Chancellor used the opportunity to claim that Prussia’s government was incapable of maintaining order, and pushed the President (who was senile) into dismissing the Prussian Cabinet and – the main purpose of the exercise – placing the entire Prussian government under direct Federal administration.
With the largest German state under direct federal administration, that state had no way to prevent – or even protest – the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor. The rest, of course, is general knowledge: Hitler creating crises and using them to give himself absolute power, abolishing the German state governments, and of course, bringing everything he could under state control.
That bare listing of facts accounts for the rise of Hitler, but not the continuing notion that the Nazis were conservative (only if you define ‘conservative’ as ‘nationalist’). That one comes from two sources. One was Soviet propaganda aimed at making Communist and Nazi ideologies seem much more distinct than they actually were. The other was Allied propaganda aimed at much the same thing. It wouldn’t do, after all, to have people realize they were allied with a dictator every bit as vile as Hitler.
So in American and British media, the evil of the Nazis was played up, while the evil of the Communists was minimized where it couldn’t be silenced altogether. The Communist plants and fellow-travelers in both nations helped.
They were – and are – almost the same. Both demand an all-powerful state. The state determines who is deserving and provides for the deserving. The state dehumanizes the undeserving prior to eliminating them. The state determines the direction of industry (in the case of the Nazis, by requiring business owners to support the regime where the Communists took over the businesses). The state cares for you – but if you’re no use to the state, your care will be an unmarked grave in a prison camp/work camp/concentration camp/gulag. All hail the state.
And both regimes started by targeting those who were seen as deserving targets – criminals, Gypsies, degenerates, homeless… all while dehumanizing their other targets.
The biggest difference? The Nazis didn’t dehumanize everyone. They may have, if the regime had lasted. The Communists did. People belonged to their group. If it was a good group, they got better choices, better lives. If not, they got orders that their entire harvest was requisitioned and they didn’t eat.
In my view the real lesson to be taken from the rise of the Nazis is that evil is seductive and people will flock to power and happily dehumanize their neighbors if you sell it right. And, as Pratchett put it (via Granny Weatherwax), evil always starts with treating people as things.
Especially treating people as things.