I’ve had Nazis on my mind of late.
I have begun taking online classes through TheGreatCoursesPlus.com. I highly recommend the service, with a caveat: it provides high quality lectures. It doesn’t provide a course. I get more out of it by writing summaries, explaining what I watch to someone, or thinking of pop-quiz questions.
So when I had a question about Nazis, I trusted the interwebs to help me out.
Before taking the course, I jotted down a list of questions, and wrote the answers to the questions as I listened. I suspect they may interest some of you. I’ve written them, below, as a list of questions between an interviewer (the Franklin Junto) and interviewee (Ben Pacini).
FJ: So how much do I get to mock you for signing up for TGCP?
BP: A lot. I think that’s fair. I feel like TGCP is something that waspish, wealthy grandparents buy for their grandkids. So please mock away.
That said, the older I get, the less ashamed I am that I don’t know much, and admitting that I want to learn as much as I can. Besides–if wanting to learn more stuff makes me elitist, then so be it.
FJ: Why the sudden interest in Hitler and the Nazis?
BP: Oh, it isn’t sudden. I’ve been interested for as long as I can remember. I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t seriously study WWII, and the Nazis in particular.
Of course, there are two things to be wary of in the study of evil: coming to admire the evil, and coming to ignore the evil. There is a natural appeal to evil, dread, and horror. It’s why we see horror films, I guess. For what it’s worth, I’m also listening to a lecture series about the Black Death, so maybe I’m just interested in the gruesome parts of history.
But I maintain that it is our duty to learn from history, and the worst parts need our focus most of all. The great tragedy of WWII is that we never thought it could happen. We thought we were more advanced than that.
The lecturer in the course starts and ends the course with a conversation around that topic: why do we study such evil in the first place. It’s a troubling, but essential question. I’d encourage folks to take a listen to his discussion.
For those who worry about studying the Nazis, consider whether you’d rather have Nazi enthusiasts or holocaust deniers? Studying Nazism will give some people the chance to pick an evil path–but ignoring the evil of Nazism ignores the greatest evils perpetrated against the human race. And if I have to choose between learning from history and ignoring it, I’ll pick learning every time.
FJ: So what were you trying to learn this time?
BP: I wanted to learn about communism in particular, and its relationship to the nazis. The easiest way to be virtuous is to be against the Nazis, so of course, everyone from the communists to the capitalists is brandishing their anti-Nazi credentials. I wanted to see how much truth there was to that–were the socialists really the Nazi fighters? Were the communists only different from the Nazis in their tribal affiliations, but in ideology quite similar? Someone once told me that the Nazis and the communists did indeed hate each other–like the siblings, Cain and Abel. I wanted to see how much ideological similarity there was.
FJ: You mentioned spin–everyone wants to be the anti-Nazi. Do you think libertarians do that?
BP: Yes, but I’m not much of a libertarian. I’m more comfortable as a classical liberal, and we definitely paint ourselves as the anti-Nazis.
FJ: Now that you’ve finished the course, do you think that’s fair? Or do you think that’s some convenient virtue signalling?
BP: Let’s start with the premise that everyone does it. You saw this most recently with the frightening trend on social media about punching Nazis–every person has human rights that must be respected, unless they’re Nazis. You can punch those people. There’s a lesson here–we shouldn’t dismiss our values just because our opponents are bad. Robespierre comes to mind: against the death penalty, and guilty of murder on a grand scale.
But to get back to your question, the early classical liberals were observing during the reign of fascism. Maybe an example to help–my grandparents were extremely frugal. They never spent any money unless they needed to, and they took very seriously the idea that you needed to finish every scrap of food on your plate. When I asked my dad about this, he simply remarked that it was how they thought: the economic downturn had made them think differently about wasting things like food, and they’d held on to those lessons.
FJ: You think the same is true of the early libertarians?
BP: Exactly–and none more than F.A. Hayek. His great contribution was to suggest that the whole left-right dichotomy was bunk: the real dichotomy was between powerful states and non-powerful states. Take WWII: you had the totalitarian left (the Soviet communist states) and you had the totalitarian right (the Nazis, the Italian Fascists, and the Spanish) and you even had the centrist totalitarians in the French Vichy government. Everyone was totalitarian, it was only a question of which team you were on–which color jersey.
Hayek first articulated that: that the opposite of nazism wasn’t communism, but limited government. People like to say that every time that communism has been tried, it has failed. That’s true–but so has every experiment that is so centralized. Right-wing totalitarians aren’t any better than left-wing totalitarians.
FJ: How would you classify the Nazis? Are they right wingers? Or are they left-socialists?
I’m also watching a series on the French revolution, which is where the term comes from: America needed help, and France chipped in. That’s the story of the birth of America, and ironically, it’s the start of the death of old France: the bankruptcy of the crown was a significant factor (of many) in King Louis XVI calling the Estates General back together–he called them because he needed help finding a way to fund the debt. This was the seed of the revolution, as the estates general quickly became the National Assembly, and eventually a republican legislature.
During the time of the National Assembly, those who supported the monarchy were considered conservative: they wanted to keep things the way they were. They supported the crown, the church, feudalism, the complicated system of legal privilege and nobility, and the old order generally. Those who supported a republic (where the word republican comes from) were considered liberal, or desiring freedom. The liberals were revolutionaries. The conservatives wanted to keep things the way they were.
And so, in the National Assembly, it quickly became that the republican revolutionaries sat to the left of the king, while the conservative aristocracy sat to the right of the king. Hence, left is liberal and right is conservative.
FJ: That seems a bit removed from “favoring tax cuts” or “expanding welfare.”
BP: Or pro- and anti-abortion? That’s right–the left/right dichotomy is nonsensical now. Conservative? What do I want to conserve? If I’m a conservative in Saudi Arabia, that’s pretty different from being a conservative in America. Conservatism is more about psychology than it is about political ideology.
Bill Buckley changed that for a short time in modern America. He defined conservatives perhaps more than anyone (including through National Review), and he did so by tying conservatism to republicanism: the constitution, the founding fathers, the republic, etc.
FJ: I’m sure the French revolutionaries would be confused to hear us talk about conservative republicans today.
BP: Ha, yes. I think the left-right dichotomy should come apart, though I don’t see any signs that it is. Hopefully. I’d do it in a Hayekian way: those who favor government power vs. those who don’t. Anarchy on one side, totalitarianism on the other.
FJ: Aren’t many Communists also anarchists though? Don’t the two extremes blend together at some point?
BP: Yes, and it’s not ideal. Things just aren’t as clear cut as when there’s “Monarchist loyalist” vs. “republican revolutionary.” That said, we already have that problem: the crazy people out there don’t have one team in common–they have one position in common: the radical one. The far left and the far right are all scary.
FJ: You didn’t answer my question about the Nazis.
Well, it depends–are you asking your typical American? Or are you asking Hayek? Or me?
FJ: Each in turn?
Most Americans would consider racism, social conservatism, and patriotism to be right-wing characteristics. I think that wins the day, even if they also supported nationalization of industry, wage insurance, and social welfare programs. The left-right stuff is nonsense, but insofar as we use it, I think we’ve defined Nazis as right-wingers.
Hayek would say that they are totalitarians, and there is little visible difference between the communists and the nazis, and I’d agree with him. They murdered millions, and denied even more people their basic civil rights and freedoms. So if you ask me, I’d say that the scale is wrong. And when you really push me, I’d say that they’re big-government types.
There’s a more important reason I’d say they’re left-wingers too: because what characterized the left–even going back to the French revolution–was the willingness to rebel, to revolt, to throw out the system. The Nazis were socially conservative, but they opposed the Weimar republic, and wanted to see it overturned. Hitler originally tried to overthrow the government in the beer hall putsch–he thought he’d win, end the republic, and create his own little dictatorship.
It was only when he couldn’t that he decided to try democracy, and only until he was able to do away with the Reichstag.
The Nazis were heavily anti-republican, and they were revolutionaries. That’s pretty left-wing.
FJ: So now they’re anti-republican revolutionaries. The French are really confused now.
BP: It’s weird. So much of the political spectrum is just defined by one thing and its opposite: monarchy and rebellion, revolution and conservatism, workers and wealthy, and the list goes on. Even some of my own former attachment to the US Republican party was simple anti-communism. We define everything by its opposite.
But yes, the Nazis were really revolutionaries, and yes, they wanted to end parliamentary politics. They wanted a powerful government. They saw the weakness of democracy, and they wanted no part of it.
That’s a legitimate critique by the way: republican governance will never be as efficient or as fast as autocracy, but I view that as a feature, not a flaw, in at least 95% of cases. And of the other 5%, the bad cases are mostly when people get so frustrated with the system that they overthrow it and put in a dictator. Someone has to let the trains run amok before someone else can make them run on time.
My own belief, and I suspect that this is one of those non-scriptural-but-fairly-universal mormon beliefs, is that an absolute monarchy would be best–if we had a perfect monarch. There’s a lot of royal symbolism in mormonism, both of God, and of man becoming more like God, and we’re raised on the idea that monarchy is great, if there’s a great monarch. But in the mean time, democracy protects us from the troughs in the cycle.
FJ: Is that the only reason to support democracy? That doesn’t sound like a ringing defense of one of everyone’s favorite political ideology.
Well, I don’t think democracy deserves its pedestal. I’m a republican (small r) before I’m a democrat (small d). I believe in the separation of powers, and the balance of powers–not the placing of power in the hands of the people. There are lots of problems with democracy: democratically elected candidates are running in popularity contests, and it’s all celebrity all the time. We literally elected a celebrity. And there’s growing evidence that we’re not good at voting, and we have no idea what we’re doing. Another connection to my fascination with the French revolution: the revolutionaries were right that absolute monarchy wasn’t great, but they were wrong about nearly everything else. And a lot of people died because of it.
And “democracy” is always the motto of the populist dictators. When I was a nerdy kid in high school, I was in Model UN, and we had a joke that proved quite useful: if you can’t remember if a country is communist, just look for “the People’s Democratic Republic of…” Michael Moore says the same thing: “I’m only arguing for democracy! Who could be against that?!” He’s right. Democracy, taken to an extreme, is communism. And I’m not interested.
But there is another reason to support democracy that never gets any attention, even from Mormons: Mosiah says that every man wanted to answer for their own sins. That’s a fascinating reason to seek for democracy, and the right one. It wasn’t about taking power, but taking responsibility. I love that verse.
FJ: You mentioned opposites before, and anti-communism. Would you have been a McCarthyite?
BP: Yes, but let me clarify–And I don’t have any interest in defending McCarthy, but it’s worth noting that he probably wasn’t wrong. Alger Hiss and all that. Again, not a historian, but the way I was taught in school was that McCarthy was a raving lunatic who was totally wrong. It turns out that he was a raving lunatic–but was probably right that there were communists who were spying on the US for the Soviet Union, and that they were doing it from inside the US government.
It’s also taken me a while to realize that communism isn’t just one more ideology–it’s intended to be a revolution-in-a-bottle. I always grew up laughing at McCarthy and the anti-communists, because seriously, who jails their political opponents? What are we, 1920s Germany?
But that’s just it: 1920s Germany did have revolutions (or at least, 1919 did) and the communists were key players that wanted to keep things unstable. I don’t mind people arguing that we should create a better or different system–even if I hate the system they’re trying to make. But if people are openly calling for rebellion and taking up arms? I can understand why people consider little things like “rebellion” and “taking up arms” to be treason. They’re, you know, the definition of treason.
FJ: Back to liberalism–did the liberals of the day fight against Hitler?
BP: Maybe? It’s a little tricky. From what I gather, there were the communists, the nationalists, the socialists (who later became communists, if I understood right) and a few centrist parties like the christian democrats, and the conservatives. There just weren’t any real ideological classical liberals that played a major role from what I could tell. Industry supported Hitler, and after that, there weren’t many classical liberals around–at least from what I got from the course.
What I can say is that the classical liberal school around Hayek’s time took as its position that we should do everything we can to limit government power to prevent such atrocities. Even if we can do something good and wise for most people, remember that you’re endangering the country slightly.
FJ: Like social welfare programs?
BP: Social welfare is the best example: both Mussolini and Hitler used social welfare to directly bribe his people, and multiply their charismatic effects. They used them as political tools. There were certainly many who wanted to see people helped, of course, but in the end, these programs were a way to gather support for a more powerful, more centralized government. The USSR did this too, and nearly every case of government mischief has involved this same mechanism. You can see this in Venezuela today.
FJ: Would you call those social welfare programs a good thing?
BP: In hindsight, I don’t think anyone would–if Hitler were well known for taking a shower, we would all second guess our hygiene habits. But somehow, we know that he used social welfare programs extensively, and we aren’t even a little bit cautious about them? I think socialists do an awkward dance around this point–Hitler was bad, but he did some good things. I can agree with that conceptually–even bad people might do good things. But, if we’re talking about social security and I say “well, liberty…” I’ll get laughed at. “What do you think this is, Weimar Germany?!” Turns out that those living during Weimar Germany didn’t realize where they were either. I think it’s fair to make a simple trade: I won’t blame all socialists for Hitler, if socialists will take me seriously when I go on freedom rants, and the fear of tyranny. Even if the government really can do something good, there’s reason to question whether we should allow it.
FJ: Does this apply to Trump today?
BP: Yes, but also to Obama. This isn’t one-sided. I’m deeply discouraged that we so willingly gave away our power to a decent man. The whole point of limited government is to remember that non-decent men will be in power someday. By letting Obama do so much by executive order, we’ve enabled a man like Trump.
This is similar to what happened with the men before Hitler, by the way, decent men who were trying to cope with the great depression. There’s Franz Von Papen–I’m not talking about him, who to my mind is a rat if I understand the history correctly–and then there’s Bruning. Bruning was Captain Austerity: he knew that the state had to cut back, and he was a centrist (though everyone was a little socialist, he certainly was too). He was trying to do what was needed to preserve the republic and fix the problems of the great depression. In order to do this, he asked for emergency powers, and began to rule by decree, ignoring the legislature. Historians seem to agree that he was a decent man, though his policies made him unpopular–but many call him the undertaker of the republic. He used those emergency powers in a way that gave Hitler easy power.
FJ: How afraid of Trump are you? Do you think he is a real threat on the level of Hitler or Il Duce?
BP: Not even close–he’s not competent enough. But it is frightening that the country was willing to go so far down that path. Our constitutional checks and balances only work inasmuch as we defend them. I’ve been telling people lately, however, that Trump isn’t who you need to worry about. After all, he is *unpopular.* Worry when you really like someone, and they’re doing all the things that you like. That’s when you need to be worried and on edge. Remember: Hitler was popular. Insanely popular.
FJ: Back to Hitler, how did he appeal to people? Ideology?
BP: One of the first things I noticed is that Hitler’s personal ideology was highly malleable. He was 100% sure of everything, and totally passionate–until he changed his mind. And he never seemed to call it changing his mind; he simply evolved to a new point of view, and everyone knew he’d thought that way all along.
That makes ideology tricky. He didn’t have much.
FJ: To the extent that he did, then, what was his ideology?
BP: The best document I have is the 25 points of the Nazi party. If you read through it, it’s all nationalistic: aggressive, patriotic, foreign policy-focused, etc. There’s a lot of explicit racism too: we are better than anyone, and then come foreigners, and then come the awful people (the jews and others). I want to be clear: it was the main driver in Hitler’s political thinking. I came away from the course with this crystallized. Hitler and that Nazis weren’t subtle about this aspect.
There was socialism in there too: wages, work-for-all, and nationalization of industries. Social welfare too. But that all feels secondary. The defining characteristic was the fascism and the nationalism. I’d actually say that Nazism is closer to fascism than it ever was to socialism.
FJ: Some have theorized that Hitler was traumatized by the Great War, and he was looking for someone to blame.
BP: I always worry when historians begin to speculate, but all the pieces fit. He went around trying to find someone to blame for the loss of the war. This was one of the most interesting parts of the lecture series: the german propaganda machine was so good during WWI that the people thought they were winning right up until they lost. The popular opinion was victory had been close, and had been lost by bumbling politicians, and weak generals.
This is another place where my original questions just didn’t match up: I originally wanted to know where political ideologies fit into Germany of the 20s and 30s, like communism, socialism, liberalism, etc. The clearest thing I can tell is that it’s a different world. The main question wasn’t “how much government” but “who’s fault was WWI?” While Hitler blamed the jews, it was a question of who to blame, not whether. Every political party blamed someone, and just tried to make their case to the public.
We tend to anthropomorphize things–we think of their parties as similar to ours. How would the Nazis have taken on Climate Change? Social Security? Medicare? We Americanize it, and we also move it to our time frame. It doesn’t make any sense. The salient issues of the day just aren’t the same. People cared about national pride, and they cared about the Treaty of Versailles.
To go back to today, though, Trump uses scapegoating, and so does every other strong man, or wannabe dictator. Be wary of the popular politician, who tells you what you want to hear. But more deeply, worry about democracy. Hitler won because he was able to convince people that it was all the jews fault.
FJ: Would you say that Germany was as antisemitic as he was?
BP: I was surprised throughout the lectures with how many people tried to stand up to what he was doing. He consolidated power with lightening speed, and people had no way to react quickly. When they did, they were crushed, but that isn’t to say that they just gave up. There are many stories of heroes. It’s also worth noting that the worst of the persecution happened in private. The regime did everything it could to hide the exterminations and the work camps. That said, the Nazis were an astoundingly popular party.
FJ: Let’s go back to Weimar then–how did Hitler appeal to people? What was his ideology? Can you call it socialist?
BP: Again, his ideology was primarily about blaming people for WWI, and then quickly became about blaming people for financial trouble, the great depression, or anything else that he could. This was powerful–it deeply resonated with people. I would call that the first tier of his ideology.
The second tier was simply authoritarian power: The goal was for him to become as powerful as possible. That was his platform.
The third tier was simple nationalism: Germany was great, and patriotism was expected of everyone.
The first three were all tied together. Then, in a distant fourth, there were ideologies like “everyone will have the right to a job.” And yes, the party platform really was based in nationalistic socialism. The first ten points are all about German supremacy and nationalism and Lebensraum (“breathing room,” an important conceptual word that meant “we get to invade other countries in order to expand our empire.”) You get down to the last 10 or 15 points, and you see a lot of social welfare policies, and yes, they are socialist in nature.
FJ: Some say that socialists are the great enemies of the Nazis, since they fought against them. Others claim that Nazis were socialists, since it was even in the title. Where did you land on that?
BP: Again, you can’t compare those to today’s socialism. But let me add a couple of wrinkles: first, the lecturer presented the socialists of the day as deeply tied to the Soviet Union. The socialists started out as democratic socialists, and at some point became Marxist-Leninists. There’s also a lot of intrigue: the USSR began to support overthrowing other countries’ governments and staging revolutions.
If I understand right, the only difference between communists and democratic socialists is that one group wanted to achieve the communist utopia via democracy. Communists wanted to get there via revolution.
So yes, the communists opposed the Nazis, and the democratic socialists did too. But the communists also caused some of the underlying problems that led to the vacuum of power in the first place.
FJ: Let’s go to indirect and proximate causes, then.
BP: I’m always amazed at the number of economic mis-steps that lead to conflict. The French Revolution was partially due to the French crown spending a bunch of money on supporting a group of English rebels in the American colonies. The crown went broke, the King called in the estates general, and the revolution was in motion. In Germany, the Reichsmark was rendered valueless because of inflation. In fact, I’d argue that gross incompetence led to *the* textbook example of hyperinflation, and peoples’ savings became worthless. That kind of economic instability led to political instability, and the opportunist who was able to fill the void was a man named Adolf. I can’t emphasize this enough: corrupt or ineffective governments always lead to stronger, more centralized governments. It takes someone letting the trains run amok before someone can make them run on time. The vacuum of power was a huge deal. People were sick of weak democracy and endless ineffective debate. The revolutionaries (either communists or nazis) promised real change. And they both delivered.
It’s also important to stress how much the Treaty of Versailles was hated. The Germans had lost, but many weren’t willing to admit defeat. Like I said earlier, many think that Hitler was just looking for a way to make sense of losing in the great war.
There are other things too, and the lectures did great on this point. Bismarck engineered scapegoating in a particularly vicious way: pick an enemy of the state, and make sure everyone knows that the enemy is responsible for all the evils of the day. Bismarck was the first to use it, and Hitler took it up too.
Another parallel to the French revolution: Hitler used rumor and fear like they were political weapons, and he brandished them like an artisan.
FJ: So where did you land on the communists? Were they the great enemies of the Nazis?
BP: Yes, but not really. Yes, he hated them and banned them, but no, I think that’s mostly a rosy story that they tell themselves today. Two things to keep in mind: First, remember that the communists were anti-democratic. When an absolute majority of parliament is anti-parliamentary, it causes problems. This actually happened: a majority of the parliament was against the institution of the parliament, and the power of the parliament fell. It was a terrible union of communists and Nazis that led to totalitarianism. You can claim that the communists hated the Nazis, but they allied with them at a critical juncture.
Hitler hated the communists, and he imprisoned them and banned the party. But that was because they were a threat to his power, and also because communists were “Jewish Bolsheviks.” He hated the jews tribally (which was everything to him) and not ideologically. To the contrary, they shared their revolutionary nature, and their anti-republicanism.
Second, remember that Stalin was a friend before he was a foe. Hitler hated him all the while, and his primary concern was always finding a way to wipe him out–but Stalin allied himself with the Nazis first.
FJ: And the socialists?
BP: The socialists really did oppose Hitler, just as the communists did–and they should be proud of that. The center and moderate-right seem to have lost their spine right when they were most needed, and caved to the Nazis. They voted yes, for example, on the infamous enabling acts, out of fear that something worse might have come to pass. The socialists voted no.
But again, most of this argument is about rewarding modern socialists with virtue points for punching nazis, which is nonsense. And if you wanted to make the true anti-Nazi state, you wouldn’t do it with socialism of any kind.
FJ: What would the true anti-Nazi state look like?
BP: Well, it’s hard to separate my bias, but it’d look pretty classically liberal. Strong constitutional protections, a focus on the rights of the individual, and strong limitations on government. It’d also be more globalist, and less nationalist–so more free trade, and less mercantilism. Fewer taxes, less spending, and a strong emphasis on tolerance and freedom.
FJ: Classical liberals are generally lumped in to the right of American politics, and yet you’re saying that they’re the opposite of far right Nazis. Is that really fair?
BP: Yes, because again, the left/right dichotomy is 80% bogus. Why were the Nazis on the right wing? They believed in massive social welfare programs, they believed in powerful unrestricted government, and they believed in the state being supreme over the individual. Liberals take the opposite views on every point. Nazis are really only “right-wing” on a few of issues: racism, nationalism, and social conservatism.
Old-liberals take the view that every person has inalienable rights. The Nazis hated this idea. The focus of the communists was on the class, the conservatives on the institutions (church, etc.), and the fascists was on the state. Only the liberals cared about the individual. So we’re anti-nazi on that point.
As it comes to nationalism, most libertarians are really skeptical of all the flag waving, and classical liberals too. Patriotism can be good, but it’s something to be very wary of. We are generally skeptical of intervention, and there’s a strong core of pacifists among our ranks.
We classical liberals are the opponents of racism and xenophobia. We encourage all kinds of immigration, for example, and free trade fosters international ties. In fact, I’d suggest that open-borders should be the right-wing position.
So on every issue, down the line, when you take nazis, and you take their opposites, you end up sounding a lot like Milton Friedman or Frederic Bastiat.
FJ: What about social conservatism?
BP: This is where we break from both libertarians and conservatives, I guess. I always say that Libertarians don’t by necessity have to be libertines. Conservatives are the opposite–everyone’s soul is my business. I think there are good and moral ways to live, and I hope you choose the moral life–but if you don’t, it’s not my business so long as it doesn’t affect me. Live your life. Live it morally. And if you don’t, we’ll leave that between you and God, so long as it doesn’t affect me. Nazis wanted to make sure you led a moral life, libertarians don’t think that morality matters. I think morality matters, and I’ll leave it between you and you conscience what that morality looks like.
FJ: What about capitalism?
BP: Well, that’s pretty easy to see with the communists. They were basically defined by their anti-capitalism. But so were the nazis–they hated the rich. Now, this is something that I have a hard time with: I do not have warm feelings toward those who hate the rich, or bankers, or what have you. Those feelings have been around a long time, except that in the 40s it wasn’t “I hate those rich fat cats” it was “I hate those rich jews!”
In fact, I lurk in several seedy communist meme factories online, and recently saw a meme that had a nazi and a communist arguing jovially about how much they hate different groups. (If such things are triggers, you may want to skip to the next paragraph, as it’s unpleasant to read.) The nazi says “I hate f***ing Israel!” The communist says “I hate f***ing Israel!” The nazi says “I hate it because it’s filled with Jews!” The communist responds “I hate it because it’s filled with capitalists!”
It’s horrific to me, and yet no one seems to get the irony: it isn’t acceptable to hate a group of people! You’re just choosing a new target for your dehumanizing! And besides–you can’t compare hatred of jews with hatred of capitalists unless you compare nazis and communists. That’s another area where I’d say they have more in common than either would like to admit: the ideology of both Nazism and Communism is about blame and resentment; Nazis blame jews, and communists blame capitalists, but it’s always about finding someone to blame.
Nazis even went so far as to break capitalism into two kinds: speculative, and productive. Productive capitalism is when you make something. Speculative is when you charge interest, or run a bank. Jews were bankers, and they were wealthy, so they were enemies on both counts.
The Nazis were as anti-capitalist as they come.
FJ: The standard reply is “but industry did just fine under Nazis–Hitler used them for his war machine.”
BP: Yes, but as every libertarian you’ll ever meet will tell you, there’s a huge difference between being pro-market and pro-business. Hitler liked businesses because they were a tool he could use. He didn’t like markets or competition. He nationalized every industry he could, and brought them under state control. He wanted autarky, the opposite of free trade. He wasn’t a free marketer.
FJ: You mentioned blame: does everyone use it? Don’t conservatives (like you) blame the poor?
BP: That’s some fairness in that critique, but I think it ultimately misses the mark. First, I’d suggest that conservatives do more poor-hating than classical liberals. Second, there are poor-haters out there, just as there are immigrant-haters and capitalist-haters, and every other kind. But there’s a difference between blaming the poor and asking people to take responsibility. There’s one group that is untouchable, that can do no wrong, that politicians will never insult: the voter. They’ll never say “you’re idiots” or “it was your own fault.” No one was willing to admit that Germany’s problem in WW1 was Germany’s fault, much less say it to the masses.
Liberals believe that we are responsible for our lives and for our government. That makes it hard to be very popular, even if we are sometimes right. Is every poor person poor because of their own choices? Of course not. In fact, we believe pretty deeply in the importance of good policy–but is it racist or hateful to ask if the person is making good choices? More to the point, is it hateful to ask whether the government program encourages good behavior or incentivizes bad?
Now, let’s be clear: we don’t live in a classical liberal paradise. There are people who do all the right things, and still don’t live the American dream. The difference is that while Republicans blame democrats, communists blame capitalists, and Nazis blame the jews, and they all claim that they’d build a utopia without any suffering, that liberals will point a finger squarely at you and say “if we lived in a utopia, there’d be suffering, but it’d be your fault.” We dare to suggest that some of human suffering is the cause of humans, and that really gets peoples’ goat. We’re equal opportunity in our blame, and that really ticks off the tribalists.
FJ: Russia and the communists caused problems everywhere–including in Germany. This seems to echo what America did later in Latin America and the Middle East. What lessons did you take away from all of the subterfuge?
BP: Well let’s be clear that Germany also created the Soviet Union. An ironic twist, right? The Germans ship Lenin off to Russia, fund him, and tell him to get Russia out of WWI. He overthrows the Czar, the Soviet Union is born, and Germany still loses the war.
This is something that I never understood about WWII growing up, and I studied it a fair amount: the entire era was one of intrigue. It was the heyday of communist insurrections, and everyone was a fair target. Today, we think of the Spanish civil war as a fight between fascists and good guys. In reality, it was really a communist revolution countered by a right-wing counter-revolution. That stuff was happening everywhere, and it gave rise to a lot of nationalistic evil.
There’s a scripture in mormon cannon that talks about the devil holding a chain around the whole earth and laughing. I don’t think it was intended to apply to one specific timeframe, but I think the early 20th century is a good candidate. The amount of death and suffering is incomprehensible. And if I were a devil, I’d manufacture wars of opposing evils, so that no matter who wins, they all lose. Totalitarian left or totalitarian right, there will be a lot of suffering and not a lot of freedom.
Anyway, let me just touch on American intervention. The greatest weapon that America (and democratic countries generally) have against propaganda is to be honest about our mistakes. We should not cover them, and we should openly admit to them. I can remember learning about American CIA involvement in Latin America in college, and being upset. It certainly made me far more skeptical of foreign intervention.
But I’ve also learned that the Soviet Union was doing the same thing–the meddling had some reason behind it. The Soviet Union funded the Castro regime in Cuba, and many other places. That doesn’t make it right, but let’s frame it as counter-meddling so that we’re clear about just what was going on. Russia is still doing that today, mind you. It’s sickening to see entire nations used as pawns the way that Syria is being used by Russia.
I don’t think that excuses American intervention without very good reason–but for all that I hear about how evil we are, the others that are just as guilty never seem to get knocked. It’s ironic given that most of the anti-American talk is probably propaganda anyhow. America’s done things wrong, but so has Russia, the USSR, and most of all, global communism.
I’ll add: to the extent that communism contributed to the instability of the time, it also contributed to nazism and fascism. I’m sure that won’t sit well, but I don’t see a way around it. When countries are scared, they do bad things, and elect bad people. And if everyone thinks that revolution is coming, then they’ll be scared.
Irony is when Germany creates the Soviet Union using socialism and communism, and then communism and socialism undermine German national integrity, leading to revolution. This is the real reason Hitler hated the communists, from what I can tell: because they were enemies of his God, the state of Germany, the reich. The stab-in-the-back legend was prominent here: the Germans were going to win, until those communist revolutionaries attacked the German army. It’s all nonsense, but many Germans believed it. WWII was a war about race, hatred, and deep resentment. Hitler resented the communists, because it was their fault that Germany had lost The Great War.
And yet, the Communists allied with Nazis when it came to democracy. They held a “negative majority” since they’d never ally, and neither believed in having a parliament. The KPD (communists in Weimar Germany) were revolutionaries who did not believe in republicanism. The SPD (social democrats) wanted the same thing in the end, but wanted to get there by democratic means. And yet, some of the fiercest fighting was between KPD and SPD–sibling rivalries, if you will.
FJ: You don’t much care for communism, do you?
BP: Heh, no. But it’s worth being ecumenical for a moment: I know good people who are (self-described) communists. I don’t think they actually want to revolt against the government (in fact, they’d scold me if I decided not to pay my taxes, I think) so I’m not sure they’re really communists, but I’ll let them define themselves.
And they’re good people. They see the materialism and the selfishness of the world, or they see the corruption of crony capitalism, or they see selfishness and they want to see something done about these things. I embrace all of those feelings. And I think, too, that they always see the way that policy treats the marginalized.
The difference is that I think that liberalism treats each person as a full person. That’s the answer. The answer isn’t a more powerful state, or better benefits. It’s legal recognition of the rights of the individual, and the chance to make a try of life. That’s all any of us ever get.
And frankly, I’m as idealistic and utopian as any of them. I want to see paradise too, and I think we will someday. I just don’t think that the hammer and sickle will be waving over the rampart when I get there.
FJ: Maybe the Gadsden flag, then
BP: Not likely. The real answer when it comes to governance–either the governed or the governors–is that if men were angles we would need no government. And if government were composed of the angels, they would succeed even with the worst of men. The answer is better people, not better governments. If there is a flag, God will design it.
FJ: That is pretty idealistic. You think we need more compassion and kindness?
Not just, but yes. But one thing I’m convinced of is that we can’t let our zeal outstrip our knowledge. There’s a fun talk by Hugh Nibley on that, and it’s really good for mormons. The point is simple: don’t let your excitement outstrip your smarts. Compassion is great, but compassion has been used as a mask to perpetrate great evils. We need more of all the virtues, including kindness and compassion, but also justice, wisdom, and judgment.
FJ: You started doing some investigation into other areas, including communism, Russia, the Jacobin club, and the French Revolution.
BP: Yes, and let me just say that it’s hard to write anything down about a lecture series, because things are so interconnected. Both communists and American liberals claim the French revolution as their ideological birthplace. The threads go everywhere. The French revolution ties into everything, and the black death ties into the French revolution. I’m increasingly convinced that capitalism created the conditions of wealth that led to the enlightenment too. I’m sure that’s popular. The Black Death series is maudlin, but riveting.
I’m glad I learned about the Jacobin club. That’s the name of a prominent Marxist magazine that I follow, and now I have the context. I wouldn’t have named a magazine that, but then I guess most people think the revolution was a good thing. I probably would have been a moderate republican, in favor of a constitutional monarchy. I’m really quite tied to tradition. The Jacobins became murderers. Worse than that, really. They legitimized murder, by allowing the state to do it. It’s horrid.
FJ: There is a scene in the lion king that was about Hitler and the nazis. Having finished the lecture series, what parallels does it draw? Are the same lessons true for other socialist groups?
BP: Well let me premise this by saying that I don’t really think of the NSDAP as a socialist party. Yes, they believed in big government, and yes, they believed in being a “folk” party (peoples’ party) and I’ll even admit that their ideology shares a family tree with Marxism. But Nazism is defined more by deep hatred of the out-group (jews and non-aryans) and by centralized power by the Fuhrer than anything. The word “socialist” may be in the title, but it’s far more fascist than anything else. I’d also argue that Italy, Germany, and the USSR during the 30s and 40s are all examples of populism. It’s part of the reason I am deeply skeptical of populism, and am a proud elitist: I want unpopular technocrats running government. They’ll probably be a bit more effective at the margin, but also, you’ve never seen an accountant start a nuclear war.
So yes, I think the “Scar scene” is a good one, but it isn’t talking about democratic socialism. It’s talking about charisma, the danger of the celebrity politician, and populism.
FJ: Last question: how do you feel about punching nazis?
BP: I’ll let others handle that, and for a variety of reasons. First, too many communists argue that we should punch Nazis, not because they want to beat the Nazis, but because they want to relive the glory days of commies and Nazis duking it out in the streets. They aren’t doing it to stop evil, but because they enjoy doing the punching.
Second, and this is why I argue that you don’t get to hate Trump, the Nazis played this game, and it ended poorly. Here’s some irony: the Nazis claimed that they would finally solve the bickering and unify people under one common banner. They claimed that Nazism would bring peace and stability. Everyone would be protected, and would have rights–except a few groups.
Don’t dehumanize anyone. Don’t dehumanize Trump, don’t even dehumanize Hitler. That’s perhaps the greatest lesson from all of this.
I’ll end with something I’ve said before: in my church, we have the quaint tradition of calling everyone “brother so-and-so” or “sister so-and-so.” It’s a fun thing, it makes us a little different, and it emphasizes that we’re all children of God.
As I’ve gotten older, and appreciated history a little better, it’s become less and less quaint.
If we’re serious about anti-Nazism, the core of it is that everyone has worth and value. Everyone. Enemy, slave, foreigner, immigrant, republican, everyone. Everyone deserves kindness and fairness, and human dignity.
And that’s what it means to be a liberal in the true sense: to believe that we are all (or better, we are each) children (a child) of God, and that we will have to answer to Him for our treatment of each child. No one gets excepted. The state doesn’t matter to God, and neither does the institution or the class. What matters is the individual. The individual commits crimes, and the individual engages in acts of selflessness. If we care most about the treatment of each individual, that makes us the right kind of liberal.