Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Nazis II: Preliminary remarks on comparisons over time, importance of baselines

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Looking back at the Nazis (and, m.m., a great many other groupings) from a modern point of view, there is always a danger of mistaking a more general characteristic of the day for a Nazi characteristic.

As an analogy, Hitler’s toothbrush moustache was not his invention, or historically rare/specific to him, or a Nazi symbol—it was a fashion that Hitler (and Chaplin, and Oliver Hardy, and …) adopted. That it has fallen out of popularity might be mostly a matter of the association with Hitler,* but chances are that it would have disappeared from the scene anyway, just like the 1970s’ horseshoe moustache did. Barring the current association with Hitler, it might even have made a comeback at some point in time—like fashions often do.

*Another possibility is that it is today associated with Hitler, because it fell out of fashion and he might be the most famous carrier from a modern perspective.

Similarly, popular worldviews, opinion corridors, societal standards, whatnot, all change over time and in a fashion-like way; and we cannot say, in a blanket manner, that “the 1932 Nazis thought X and the 2022 Left thinks Y’; ergo, they are incompatible”. Instead, we must consider both historical Leftist opinions and the general baseline of the respective day. In particular, if either of the 1932 and 2022 Lefts though X, it would be sufficient proof of compatibility; however, the opposite would not be proof of incompatibility. Whether Leftist support in 1932 or 2022 would be the stronger argument might be up for discussion, however: If both, say, Nazis and Communists held opinion X in 1932, it would make for a fairer and more direct comparison, but it is also conceivable that both were “fashion victims” of the 1932 baseline (as if Stalin, too, had picked a toothbrush moustache), which would make the comparison less relevant. Of course, to make matters more complicated, if both were fashion victims, it might be unfair to associate either with X.

(However, we must not overstretch the reasoning: An argument like “belief X can be Leftist, after all—witness 1932” weakens the “Nazis are Right-wing” claim further, but it does not automatically imply “the Nazis did not truly think X” or “if the Nazis had survived until today, they would long have abandoned X”. The latter two claims might or might not be true, or they might be true for one issue and not another, but there is no guarantee—and it is irrelevant for my point. What matters is what implications belief in X had at what time and who shared or rejected that belief.)

To detail exactly which opinions/methods/whatnot should be seen as more “historical” than “Nazi”, and/or where they were Nazi but must be partially seen in the light of the baseline, would involve speculation and might require considerable research, but I note that hatred of/prejudice against e.g. Jews and homosexuals was quite common (including on the Left),* that nationalism was much more common than today, and that warfare for the purpose of territorial expansion has been historically unremarkable (no matter how frowned upon it is today)—certainly, the Soviets, too, occupied large areas of land before WWII broke out respectively before the German–Soviet part of the war (including the remains of Poland, parts of Finland, and the Baltic states).** By the end of the war, they had gobbled up half of Europe. Also note that the Nazis learned a lot from the Soviets, including how to perform large scale incarcerations and exterminations.** (Read e.g. “The Black Book of Communism” and see what went on in the Soviet Union before Hitler was even in power.)

*To boot, I have always been a little uncertain to what degree the Nazis’ anti-Semitism was a true core issue, a personal fixation of Hitler’s, respectively, a way to gain popular support and/or have a convenient scape-goat or enemy in propaganda.

**And note how differently both cases have been treated with regard to Nazis and Communists by both the “West”, in general, and the Western Left in particular.

A particularly important case is eugenics: It is true that proponents of eugenics are much more likely to be found among the non-Left than the Left today. However, this has not historically been the case, and the current Leftist aversion is almost certainly caused by the Nazis, be it as an irrational overreaction or as a deliberate attempt to build distance to the Nazis. Eugenic ideas were, in fact, very popular (throughout society and the political spectrum) before the Nazis—including in educated and “progressive” circles. Active users included my native Sweden under Social-Democrat governments. And, no, eugenics and genocide are very, very different things. It just happened that the Nazis chose genocide to achieve a (likely misperceived-as-)eugenic goal. The problem with the Nazis was certainly not the idea of eugenics—but the methods used and the naive target.

Excursion on catastrophic one-off, few-off events on public opinion:
The Nazi impact on eugenics parallels the unfair deterioration of the reputation of nuclear power: The Chernobyl accident* was a once in decades event even at the time it happened. Since then, we have seen close to another four decades come and go without a similar accident. Nevertheless, it has given nuclear power an entirely undeserved reputation and hampered the development of nuclear power ever since. Attitudes seemed to be turning as time passed—and then came the Fukushima** incident. While much smaller, this set attitudes back to the prejudiced scratch. Never mind that Chernobyl and Fukushima together did far less damage and caused far fewer deaths than fossil fuels do every single year.

*Caused by a mixture of (already then) outdated technology, human errors, deliberate non-adherence to security protocols, and a lot of bad luck.

**Caused by an enormous natural disaster, which did far more damage than the nuclear incident. (Use of “incident” is deliberate. The connotations of“accident” are all wrong here.)

In both cases, eugenics and nuclear power, something highly beneficial when used correctly, has been condemned as irredeemably evil, must-be-abolished sins in large swaths of the unthinking or irrational population. On a more individual level, there are, e.g., many who have an irrational fear of flying, stemming from well-publicized major crashes, while the relative probability of death per passenger mile (or a similar metric) between different modes of transport is not considered.

I note a parallel with “not perfect; ergo, useless”, maybe as “went wrong once; ergo, too dangerous”.


Written by michaeleriksson

April 16, 2022 at 6:30 pm

4 Responses

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  1. […] that the house of card collapses as soon as we begin to consider the Nazis Left-wing. (Also note an earlier text in this series on the difference between opinions that are Nazi and that are merely […]

  2. […] what characteristics might be considered more defining and what more coincidental. For instance, in an earlier entry, I raise the (largely unanswered) question of which characteristics associated with the Nazis are […]

  3. […] caution that (cf. Nazis II) similarities might in some cases partially reflect wide-spread older attitudes, e.g. with regard […]

  4. […] Excursion on Fascism, etc.: As is often the case with historical fiction, I am struck by the often totalitarian and arbitrary societies, and how little progress there has been since “yore”. Strongly warfaring societies, as with the British Empire during the Napoleonic Wars (maybe, in general), also seem to have a strong tendency towards the stereotypically Fascist in terms of how society works, imposition of order, etc., which makes the current association of such factors with Fascism even more misleading than through just a negligence of very similar trends in e.g. some Communist countries. Chances are that Fascism or “Fascism” is not the problem, but that strong government, power-hungry politicians, putting the collective over the individual, and similar, are. Among many relevant older texts, note e.g. [1] and [2]. […]

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