Tuesday, May 03, 2005
Yesterday and Today: Nazis and the Righteous Right
by Donna Glee Williams
History is tapping us on the shoulder and pointing. The sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz followed so closely by the popification of an ex-member of the Hitler Youth combine to force our attention back to the Nazi catastrophe. We study World War II and the Holocaust and ask ourselves “How could it happen? How could civilized people let it come to this? How could they consent to let their flag become the registered trademark for collective evil and let their country walk into history with the blood of millions on its conscience?” We shake our heads and turn away from the questions because our historical gaze is dazzled by the enormity of what happened in the 1940’s. “Never again!” we say with tears in our eyes.
But if we truly want some calamity to happen Never Again, we won’t just study that calamity. We’ll study what went before. We’ll study its precursors. What allowed, invited, or caused it to happen? Who were catastrophe’s midwives? If we learn to recognize them, there is hope that we can turn them away when they again show up, smiley-faced, at our door. Before World War II and the Holocaust, there was Germany of the 1920’s and ‘30’s. That’s where we need to focus our cross-generational telescopes.
If we take a look at pre-WWII Germany, we notice it has some things in common with the United States now. Start with the concept of exceptionality. Nazi ideology grew out of Germans’ belief that their country was uniquely privileged because it was uniquely valuable. This made them an exception to rules and norms. The average “Proud to Be an American” bumper-sticker-buyer believes the same thing. (I’m still waiting for some churchgoing patriot to notice that being born American is a gift of grace and to begin marketing “Humble to be an American” decals.) A belief in your country’s exceptionality takes you way out beyond the warm self-appreciation of patriotism; in naming your heritage “exceptional,” you cut your ties to the family of nations and set yourself above the rules. Our belief in our own exceptionality erodes the walls that hold back human greed, fear of otherness, and violence. Exceptionality makes the unthinkable possible, even reasonable.
Before the Nazi rise to power, German society bloomed with cultural, artistic, and social openness, as did the United States in the last third of the twentieth century. The dominant culture enriched itself by cross-pollinating with other groups. Creativity, innovation, and freedom held sway in art, music, drama, and dance. In lifestyle choices, openness and experimentation were possible.
A part of this bubbling cultural ferment was caused by physics. We think of physics as an esoteric branch of science that is of interest only to the The Few, The Proud, The Geeks whose quirky neuroanatomy makes them able to emote in equations. But where physics goes, culture follows. The big metaphors in all areas are based on the physics of our time. And both Nazi Germany and the American Whatever-the-Hell-You-Call-What-We-Are-Becoming were preceded by advances in physics that announced reality to be much different from what we’d always assumed it to be. In the early part of the twentieth century, Einstein’s and Heisenberg’s physics of relativity and uncertainty—largely centered in German universities—proclaimed that some of our most fundamental understandings about the universe were Wrong, Wrong, Wrong. As quantum mechanics and the new cosmology developed in the later part of the twentieth century—largely centered in U.S. universities—their outrageous paradoxical observations once again taught the lesson that common sense isn’t always right. Things aren’t always—or ever—the way they seem.
In physics as in lifestyle and the arts, Germany and the United States both saw a great questioning of old values, limits, and presuppositions of all kinds—followed by an iron backswing of the pendulum rushing to shut down all the openness, answer all the questions, replace uncertainty with certainty, and relativism with absolutes. Does our anxiety in the face of uncertainty and relativity drive us to cook up fake certainties, like which language is better, who is going to Hell, who must live, and who should die? Did Germany, and will the United States, overcompensate for being uncertain like Napoleon did for being short?
Another family resemblance between Germany of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s and the Righteous Right of today is the feeling that somebody done us wrong. For Germany, the sense of being aggrieved was related to the famously vindictive Treaty of Versailles that settled the overt hostilities of World War I but left Germans with smoldering bitterness against what they saw as injustice and injury. The core resentment that energizes the swing toward right-wing “Christian” totalitarianism is the confusing, painful panic at seeing The Way and The Truth become one of many ways and many truths. As one pulpiteer expressed it, “having our culture become a subculture” is felt as a wound, an assault. On September 11th, the cultural assault on our inner landscape then manifested as a physical attack on our outer landscape, echoing the unsolved burning of the Reichstag building in 1933. Then, as now, terrorism coupled with an effective propaganda machine helped those in power to bring the country together while separating it from its civil rights. Once we feel ourselves to be under attack, are there any limits to what we will permit in the name of “self-defense?”
The backlash against openness and uncertainty, together with perceived national victimization, led Germany to begin to pick off voices of dissent in its own house. Some of these were political. Some were religious. German Christian churches were systematically nazified. The governing boards of seminaries were taken over seat by seat. Seminary faculties were pruned of opposition, guaranteeing that the pulpits of Germany would spout preaching that supported the Nazi agenda. The prophetic voice of the church was silenced. The systematic right-wing takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, board by board, professor by professor, pulpit by pulpit, is so eerily similar that it could be an echo of the same shout.
And then there were the Jews. For historical reasons, the Nazi party had, ready to hand, a tiny subgroup of people that they could call “evil” and have that name stick. Once the “evil” was identified, people projected onto the Jews every disowned trait they hated in themselves. Enormous energy was mobilized to oppress, exile, and destroy the theoretically contagious corruption of Jewishness. The righteousness of the cause was “proved” by the visceral disgust the oppressors felt towards the oppressed. Hatred kept the dominant group bonded, energized, focused, and easy to manipulate. Today, similar rhetoric is mobilizing hatred for another tiny minority, homosexuals, who are similarly represented as undermining the entire fabric of American life and values. In the same way, appeals to disgust as a moral arbiter “prove” the validity of the argument. Incidents of violence against gays remind us of the spotty street violence against Jews that came before the systematic, state-sponsored violence of the Holocaust.
They say that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat trite sayings. But when history lands a big one-two punch like “Happy Birthday, Auschwitz Survivors, Now Guess Who’s Pope?” the teacher gets our attention. And what we notice are a lot of parallels between the Nazi rise to power 80 years ago and the “Christian” right-wing rise to power today. Do we keep our wide-eyed mystification—“How could they have done those things?”—or do we do what Germans failed to do, what we revile them for not doing: Do we recognize the road we’re on, wrestle the steering wheel away from the mad bus-driver, and stop the bus before we get to the last stop, the town of Ultimate Consequences, Pop. 11 Million?
Published on Monday, May 2, 2005 by CommonDreams.org