Thursday, August 27, 2009

A thought for the day in the early 21st Century: Everybody is somebody else's Hitler...

.... except that nobody really is.

I saw the same phenomenon with the passing of Reagan, Falwell, Novack, Helms, and now Kennedy. In the older days (say the 1970s and 1980s) the media controlled the narrative when somebody famous or larger-than-life passed. The new media, however, gives everybody a voice, and if you know how to do it just right, everybody has an audience as well.

There is always somebody willing to point out that the deceased was scumbag in some portion of his or her life, despite anything else that individual might have accomplished.

And there are all too many sanctimonious blowholes for whom that individual's greatest accomplishment represented the establishment of tyranny and injustice on Earth.

Everybody is always Hitler. Dubya was Hitler. Obama is a brownshirt, or is it the teabaggers who are brownshirt Nazis? I forgot.

In fact, I don't forget: I don't give a shit. Really.

As a World War Two historian who specializes in the German-Soviet conflict I have spent more hours with the words, images, and documents of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi cohorts than any two dozen of the rest of you. I've read the transcripts of his sessions with his generals, with other politicians, and with his drinking buddies late in the evenings. I've been through the records and reports of the Einsatzgruppen [the special extermination squads that followed the German Army into Poland and the Soviet Union]. I've examined the photographic evidence from the camps, and I have stood on the ground at Auschwitz, Dachau, Birkenau, and Sachsenhausen.

Saddam Hussein wasn't Hitler; he wasn't even a potential Hitler. A potential Hitler requires not only an industrial state but a population so disaffected that it is ready to idolize a man who comes to power openly touting race war and future genocide as part of his political program.

George W. Bush wasn't Hitler; he never even made it to the status of a dictator, no matter how much he abused the US Constitution. Wars of aggression don't make you Hitler: wars of extermination may bring you close.

Joseph Stalin wasn't even Hitler. As Holocaust historian Raoul Hillberg once pointed out, there was a fundamental difference between the millions slaughtered in Stalin's Russia and the millions slaughtered in Hitler's Germany. In the Soviet Union the killings were the means to an end: forced industrialization and world socialist revolution. The prison camps were factories. In the Third Reich, the death camps became the end in themselves: factories whose end product was death. There was no rational even if horrifically immoral plan behind the genocide that took place primarily between 1941-1944. Genocide was not only the plan, the means, but it was the end.

Nor could you have an Adolf Hitler without a German people who, in the wake of losing a world war, undergoing a depression, and displaying a long history of virulent anti-Semitism and anti-Slavic prejudices, were ready to turn over all their prerogatives to the man on the pedastal.

Cheap comparisons to Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, and the Brownshirts abound today, and 99.9999% of them are made by people ignorant of the imbecility of the historical comparison they think they are making. Yes, that means you.

When you compare other American citizens to Nazis, or when you feel compelled to dishonor the dead of any party or persuasion because of your own need to get a few licks in, what you do is not only prove your own ignorance, but display a profound disrespect for the fundamental concepts of the American republic, as well as trivialize one of the greatest horrors of modern history.

Somebody [I think it was DD] pointed out that we are going to have to go through this again and again when Jimmy Carter, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton, or Dubya keel over, but it's not inevitable.

Here's two simple rules to avoid the problem, both taught to me by my Dad when I was not yet a teenager:

1) Never speak ill of the dead until grass has grown again on the grave.

And if you can't follow rule 1, then there's

2) STFU and don't say anything.

spits, walks away shaking head

Rant complete for now.


Anonymous said...

Was Adolf Hitler even Hitler?

Anonymous said...

I think it is fine to speak ill of dead public figures, whether they are warm or cold.

I think it is idiotic for people to complain about it on either side.

I agree with Clarence Darrow who said:

"I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."


Anonymous said...

I think there was a kid named Adolf Hitler living in New Jersey.


PlanetaryJim said...

Stalin killed many millions - some say nine or eleven million - in Ukraine through starvation. I'm not confident that your claim that the 75 million or so slaughtered in the USSR were a means to any end but death.

Yes, Hitler was exceptionally evil. But if we are to avoid his excesses, we must continue to be free to use his name. Telling us to STFU doesn't really advance the cause of liberty.

Steve Newton said...

Since I have no power to force my opinion of civilized conduct on anyone--and obviously no success if look at the media--then I find it ironic that you take exception to my stating it.

Liberty is about the ability to state unpopular opinions freely, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

Actually, Stalin was worse than Hitler. Stalin intentionally starved to death more Ukrainians, for no other reason than that he hated Ukrainians, than all the Jews killed during WW2. As an historian of Russia, you should certainly be aware of that.

And to say that the murder of millions of Russians in the labor camps is somehow mitigated because they were working for socialism is the worst sort of rationalization. You don't really believe the people running those camps were trying to keep those people alive do you? They were purposely worked to death.
And one less live Russian was one less man that needed to be fed. Being a means to an end that results in death is an end itself.

Hilberg was wrong about one big thing. The Holocaust was not a unique event. RJ Rummel of the University of Hawaii estimates that in the 20th Century alone, governments killed over 100 million OF THEIR OWN CITIZENS. Why as recently as in Rwanda, nearly a million Tutsis were killed in less than three months at the behest of government leaders.

You might be correct that the use of the Hitler name calling is ridiculous, but your belief that the Holocaust was such a uniquely horrific event is just plain bad history.

Steve Newton said...

Gee Anon, where do I state the Holocaust was a unique event? Other than citing Hillberg's comment on the difference in motivation for genocide between Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany, which is actually a way of examining the difference between Stalin and Hitler as individuals, where do I suggest that Russia's actions (killing millions is killing millions) as a country are any different?

The point of the post was the use of Hitler, not the prevalence of genocide.

Oh, and go back and look at your Soviet history: there are a lot more dynamics involved in the Ukrainian famine-genocide than Stalin's hatred for Ukrainians, but to acknowledge that would be actually be to acknowledge that history is ... complicated, huh?

Anonymous said...

You use Hilberg's arguments to argue that Stalin wasn't as bad as Hitler. It's right there for everyone to read. You can't exactly parse it away.

And of course the Ukrainian situated was complicated, but if Stalin hadn't taken such glee in the suffering of the Ukrainians merely because they WERE Ukrainians, then it would never have happened the way it did.

You are intellectually dishonest. If you were anything else, you would be able to accept the criticism of your piece without implying that your readers are less than perspicacious and actually address the argument made.

If you want people to focus on the ridiculousnesss of calling people Hitler, remove the bad history from the post. It will make it easier for people like me, who actually DO understand the history of what happened in Ukraine to focus on the point and not your detritus.

Anonymous said...

This is all already covered by Godwin's law:'s_law