September 08, 2003

Lesssons from history

Normally, I ignore posts like this one from Aziz at Unmedia, but as I'm reading Robert S. Wistrich's book Hitler and the Holocaust, perhaps he can offer some perspective.

Nazism, (mis)understood as a Nietzschean experiment, seemed to be offering the German people a Faustian pact. In return for destroying traditional Christian moral restraints, they might be granted future hegemony over the earlthy kingdoms that other European powers had already partitioned among themselves.

The demonization of the Jews and Judaism assumed immense symbolic importance in this endeavor. ... The Jews were responsible (or, rather, guilty) in [Hitler's] eyes for having invented the very notion of a moral conscience, in defiance of all healthy natural instincts. They had bequeathed this noxious ideal to Christianity and Communism, with their contending dreams of the brotherhood of man, human equality, and justice. Though outwardly imcompatible, these worldviews were for the Nazis two sides of the same Judaic coin: egalitarian ideals that had caused endless suffering, persecution, and intolerance. Moreover, the Jews were accused of having deliberately encouraged the mixing of races, as well as inventing doctrines of democracy, which could only destroy the foundations of human culture itself. For the Nazis, the world had to be liberated from such "evil" principles so that mankind could return once more to its pristine natural order. Thus the planned, systematic eradication of Judaic values was the necessary prerequisite of the physical annihilation of the Jewish people.

Nazism, for all the rabid horror of its adherents' ravings, was a coherent ideology, some of the results of which can be seen here, and here and here.

I'm not defending the object of Aziz's wrath, but I do care a little bit about history, and I find his comparison tells me more about his limited historical understanding and imagination.

Interestingly, Wistrich had a column in Ha'aretz (I came across it via LGF) worth reading. In his opening paragraph, he writes,

The Islamic terrorists who shattered the Twin Towers in Manhattan on 11th September two years ago laid out a potentially terrifying road-map for the 21st century. They demonstrated that highly motivated radical groups driven by a nihilism, an ideology of Jihad and an insidious death cult which transmutes mass murder into revolutionary virtue, are capable of shaking the pillars of civilization. Perhaps the ultimate blasphemy is that this bloody deed was proclaimed in the name of Allah, his Prophet Muhammad and the Holy Koran. To quote Hamas' weekly, Al-Risa'la, in Gaza, on 13 September, 2001: "Allah has answered our prayers."

(Emphasis added.)

Wistrich goes on to make his own Hitler comparison:

For Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian mastermind of 9/11, it was self-evident that the Jews control the global media, international finance and the politics of the infidel West. In his eyes, they were to blame for the American crusade against Saddam Hussein, the Russian war in Chechnya, the world-wide assault on Islam, permissive morals and decadent "Westernization" in his native Egypt. The dream of Atta and many other Islamists was to create a Muslim theocracy from the Nile to the Euphrates, "liberated" from any Jewish presence. To achieve this goal, the
Al-Qaida fanatics based in Hamburg struck at New York City, the "center of world Jewry" and the "Jewish-controlled" international financial system. In this ideological sense, they showed themselves to be direct heirs of Hitler and his genocidal mind-set. The failure of so many people, including Americans, Jews and Israelis, to grasp this crucial fact about the motivations for 9/11 is a stunning example of how little has been learned from history.

This comparison seems far more apt to me -- far more historically grounded.

Posted by Ideofact at September 8, 2003 10:42 PM

in reading your post, I feel like I am close to but just barely failing to grasp the point being made. I understand the historical context of anti-semitism quite well, but I'm not sounding an alarm to Hitler's re-emergence. I am discussing the same nascent signs of fascism which is a concept that transcends Hitler (though we certainly think of Hitler first). As David Neiwert points out, the KKK was also an early fascist group, as are the Patriot militia movements today (and which have infiltrated the GOP to a large extent since the 2000 eleection).

I think Neiwert's essay is a striong foundation for debate, but we have to both be on teh same page. Would you be willing to read it, and then join me in a cross-blog discussion of the text, chapter-wise? Of course we would include Neiwert himself, and I will also ask Tacitus if he is interested. Interested?

Posted by: Aziz at September 9, 2003 10:57 AM

btw, I think the Introduction from Neowert's essay encapsulates my rationale for my own post quite well:

We cannot give up in the face of these difficulties. A real phenomenon exists. Indeed, fascism is the most original political novelty of the twentieth century, no less. If we cannot examine fascism synthetically, we risk being unable to understand this century, or the next. We must have a word, and for lack of a better one, we must employ the word that Mussolini borrowed from the vocabulary of the Italian Left in 1919, before his movement had assumed its mature form. Obliged to use the term fascism, we ought to use it well. The following essay is devoted to that idea. Its purpose is, if nothing else, to
Posted by: Aziz at September 9, 2003 11:59 AM

I'm really not interesting in debating a proposition that is self-evidently untrue. Niewert, apparently, doesn't care for Rush Limbaugh, which is about all I got out of his 80-odd pages. Well, I don't particularly care for him either, but I don't see him as the harbinger of a movement aiming to overthrow the moral conscience and initiate a reign of terror and genocide.

If you're sketchy on the details of what Nazism was, how it came to power, and how it governed, I suggest starting with the excellent Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William L. Shirer. Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler adds interesting information and perspective. The Wistrich book is very handy as well.

Posted by: Bill at September 9, 2003 01:49 PM

I've been thinking about this post (yours, not mine) and I willl hopefully continue our conversation tomorrow - please, have patience with me, though. We are skirting at the edge of our own different political affinities as well as discussing history so I need to be very careful in separating my opinion from what I am asseryting as fact. It requires a touch more rigor on my part than I usually display i my blogging...

Posted by: Aziz at September 9, 2003 10:43 PM

Take your time, but I think it's going to be hard to come up with a response that justifies your comparison. And I don't know if it's so much a question of political affinities -- my comment has little to do with the political figures you attack in your post (I self-consciously avoided mentioning them). I do have a certain amount of affection for the American people, and to suggest that they -- that we, since I am after all one of them -- are about to embark on a fascistic, Hitlerian project is, to put it mildly, a little off-putting.

But the larger issue in my mind is what Nazism was, the utter evil that Hitler--and those who followed him--represented. I think invoking him in what appears to me to be no more than normal American political hardball either diminishes the person making the comparison, or, if the use is effective enough, diminishes the horror of Hitler (who wasn't solely horrible for his anti-semitism, although that alone would have been enough).

Posted by: Bill at September 10, 2003 12:59 AM

By the way, as to the question of modern fringe groups, I'm not persuaded that they're relevant to the discussion, unless we should regard Larouchites as being an important constituency of the Democratic party. In the same way I get bothered when someone suggests that the way to understand al Qaeda is to read the Qur'an, I'm bugged whenver someone points to a fringe group and suggests that their identification with a party is indicative of its true colors.

And yes, there were other fascists besides Hitler (although outside of Mussolini, I don't think any of them came to power without Hitler's help), but in your post, you fairly specifically invoke Hitler.

Posted by: Bill at September 10, 2003 01:05 AM

I updated the original post with some clarifying comments...

Posted by: Aziz at September 10, 2003 06:42 AM

It seems to me to be a distinction without much of a difference. You still suggest that there is a comparison to be made with Hitler, and I suppose there is in the same way that one can compare me to Hitler -- just like him, I am a male homo sapiens who has listened to Wagner. (and, as Bernard Shaw once observed, Wagner's music isn't nearly as bad as it sounds.)

Posted by: Bill at September 11, 2003 12:06 AM

of course there is still some comparison to be made. Are we to completely ignore the lessons of history?

Hitler is te most instructive example of all - the worst-case scenario, the reminder of why slippery-slope arguments have a place.

Arguing that "look, these events parallel those that happenned in 1933" is not saying that Bush intends to lead the country down the path that Hiotler chose. But it does suggest that we need to be careful, because if the machinery that enables fascism is built, then it only takes one individual to seize the reins. Perhaps Hillary Clinton.

I reject that its utterly taboo and verboten to even raise Hitler in conversation as a example from which we can draw guidance and context of current events. And I think youve been quite unfair to Neiwert, as he explicitly makes that point.

Posted by: Aziz at September 11, 2003 07:45 AM

Okay. You've made your position clear. I disagree with you on this, let's leave it at that.

Posted by: Bill at September 11, 2003 11:52 AM