Nazifying the Germans

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This talk was delivered at the 1996 Rothbard-Rockwell Report conference in San Mateo, California, and was first published in the January 1997 issue of Chronicles.

Not long ago a German friend remarked to me, jokingly, that he imagined the only things American college students were apt to associate with Germany nowadays were beer, Lederhosen, and the Nazis. I replied that, basically, there was only one thing that Americans, whether college students or not, associated with Germany. When the Germans are mentioned, it is Nazism that first springs to mind; whatever else may occur to one later will be colored and contaminated by thoughts of the Nazis. When Molly Ivins (described by Justin Raimondo, in his book, Colin Powell and the Power Elite, as a u201Cliberal columnist and known plagiaristu201D) remarked, of Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican convention, u201Cit sounded better in the original German,u201D everyone instantly knew what she meant. The casual slander was picked up by William Safire and others, and made the rounds. A constant din from Hollywood and the major media has helped instruct us on what u201CGermanu201D really stands for.

And yet, as some Germans plaintively insist, there are a thousand years of history u201Con the other sideu201D of the Third Reich. In cultural terms, it is a not unimpressive record (in which the Austrians must be counted; at least until 1866, Austria was as much a part of the German lands as Bavaria or Saxony). From printing to the automobile to the jet engine to the creation of whole branches of science, the German contribution to European civilization has been, one might say, rather significant. Albertus Magnus, Luther, Leibniz, Kant, Goethe, Humboldt, Ranke, Nietzsche, Carl Menger, Max Weber-these are not negligible figures in the history of thought. And then, of course, there’s the music.

The German role over centuries in transmitting advanced culture to the peoples to the east and south was critical at certain stages of their development. The Hungarian liberal, Gaspar M. Tamas, speaking for his own people, the Czechs, and others, wrote of the Germans who had lived among them and were driven out in 1945, that their u201Cancestors built our cathedrals, monasteries, universities, and railway stations.u201D As for our country, the highly laudatory chapter that Thomas Sowell devotes to the German immigrants in Ethnic America is one of the best in a fascinating book. More than five million Germans came to the United States in the nineteenth century alone (according to recent census figures, around fifty-seven million Americans now claim to be of German heritage). Together with the descendants of the immigrants from the British Isles, the Germans form the basic American stock. They were highly valued as neighbors, and their ways were woven into the fabric of American life — the Christmas tree and u201CSilent Night,u201D for instance, and the family-centered Sunday, with its u201Cjovial yet orderly activities,u201D as an admiring contemporary put it. Is there any doubt that when Germans composed the leading population in hundreds of American cities and towns, these were happier places to live in than many of them are today?

Yet the air is filled with incessant harping on an interval of twelve years in the annals of this ancient European race. In the normal course of things, one would expect a countervailing defense to emanate from Germany itself. But it is precisely there, among the left intelligentsia, that many of the prime German-haters are to be found. The reasons for this are fairly clear.

Over the last decades, these intellectuals have grown increasingly frustrated at their own people, who remain firmly bourgeois and order-loving, with little interest in neo-Marxist transformations of their way of life. Increasingly, too, that frustration has been vented in hatred and contempt for everything German. Most of all, the Germans were condemned for their hopelessly misguided past and bourgeois social structure, which supposedly produced Nazism. Anguished complaints like that from the conservative historian Michael Stuermer, that u201Cwe cannot live while continually pulverizing ourselves and our own history into nothing, while we make that history into a permanent source of infinite feelings of guilt,u201D were merely further evidence that the Germans stood in dire need of radical reeducation. A large segment of the left intelligentsia made no bones of its sympathy for the u201CGerman Democratic Republic,u201D which at least did not enslave its subjects to consumerism and the u201Celbow societyu201D prevalent in the west. Naturally, there were certain excesses, but these could be explained by the pressures issuing from Bonn and Washington. For these intellectuals, the GDR dictatorship — kept in existence by Soviet tanks and forced to resort to building a wall to keep its subjects in — was a u201Cnormal stateu201D; they denounced any attempts to u201Cdestabilizeu201D it, even by the forthright expression of anti-Communist opinion (u201Cprimitive anti-Communism,u201D it was called). They spoke warmly of Communism’s u201Chumanistic valuesu201D and u201Cpositive core,u201D which sharply distinguished it from National Socialism. In this way, they exhibited a characteristic failing of intellectuals: preferring to look to theory rather than reality.

The German left’s u201Cmarch through the institutionsu201D after 1968 was spectacularly successful in the media, schools and universities, churches, and more and more in politics. Its control of the cultural infrastructure produced a situation where the public declaration of any pro-German attitude was viewed as evidence of Rechtsradikalismus. Some thirty years ago, when Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, at a dinner in Jerusalem, expressed to Konrad Adenauer his confidence that u201Cunder your leadership the German people will return to the community of civilized peoples,u201D the old Chancellor retorted: u201CMr. Prime Minister, what you think is of no concern to me…I represent the German people. You have insulted them, and so tomorrow morning I shall depart.u201D It is impossible to imagine any recent German leader, in particular, the lickspittle former Federal President Richard von Weizsaecker, responding with such unabashed patriotism, especially to an Israeli.

Then came 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and signs that the Germans might still harbor some sense of national pride. The conservative historian and publicist Rainer Zitelmann writes that u201Cthe left experienced the reunification [of Germany] and the collapse of socialism as a defeat,u201D a grave setback that had to be made good, lest a u201Cturnu201D occur and the left lose its power to control political debate. The perfect opportunity presented itself when a few half-wits started firebombing the homes and asylums of foreign residents. (These incidents were strategically exploited in the same way as the Oklahoma City bombing has been exploited in the United States.) Now came an all-out campaign against allegedly deep-seated German u201Cracismu201D and u201Chostility to foreigners,u201D accompanied, naturally, by hysterical warnings of a u201CNazi resurgenceu201D and endless allusions to the affinities between Nazism and bourgeois Germany. Thus, the normal human desire to live in one’s own country among one’s own kind was equated with the will to annihilate other peoples manifested by Hitler and his butchers.

The latest spasm of German abuse and German self-hatred occurred with the publication of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust. Launched with a remarkable publicity barrage by Knopf, absurdly acclaimed by the author’s Harvard friends, it was touted by Abe Rosenthal in the New York Times for packing the emotional equivalent of a first visit to Auschwitz. The thesis of this work, which won an award from the American Political Science Association, is that the Judeocide is easily explained: for centuries the Germans had been u201Celiminationist anti-Semites, and under the Nazis, they became openly and enthusiastically u201Cexterminationist.u201D Suffice it to say that in public debates recognized Holocaust scholars demolished the crooked methodology and preposterous claims of this academic hustler.

The best review appeared in the Frankfurter Allgemeine and the excellent German conservative magazine Criticon, by Alfred de Zayas, an American historian and jurist and respected authority on international law.

Whenever anti-Semitic attitudes or acts are mentioned, de Zayas observes, Goldhagen speaks of u201Cthe Germansu201D — not u201Cthe Nazis,u201D or even u201Cmany Germansu201D — offering no justification at all; it is simply a polemical trick. He neglects to mention well-known facts, e.g., that everyone connected with the killing of the Jews was bound by Fhrer Order No. 1, as well as by special orders from Himmler, mandating the strictest silence, under penalty of death. So it should not be surprising that, for example, the former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, during the war a Luftwaffe officer, testified that he had never heard or known anything of the annihilation of the Jews; or that Countess Doenhoff, publisher of the liberal paper, Die Zeit, should state that, despite her connections to many key people during the war, she knew nothing of the mass-killings in the camps, and that u201CI heard the name u2018Auschwitz’ for the first time after the war.u201D Goldhagen simply disregards major standard works that contradict his thesis. He claims, for example, that the German people approved of and joined in the Kristallnacht in a kind of nationwide Volksfest. Yet Sarah Gordon, in her authoritative Hitler, Germans, and the u201CJewish Questionu201D wrote: u201Cthere was a torrent of reports indicating public disapproval of Kristallnacht … [whatever the motivation] what is not in doubt, however, is the fact that the majority did disapprove … after Kristallnacht, the Nazis deliberately tried to conceal their measures against the Jews.u201D

None of the scholarly critics made much of an impression on audiences that witnessed the debates in the United States or during Goldhagen’s tour of Germany late last summer, and certainly not on sales of the book. In any case, most of them, except for de Zayas, overlooked the function performed by a work such as Goldhagen’s. While he indicts the Germans as uniquely, pathologically anti-Semitic and while some of his critics retort that, no, all of Christendom, indeed, Christianity itself, is implicated in the Jewish genocide, attention is kept fixed on the supposed single great crime of the recent past, if not of all of human history to the virtual exclusion of all others. In particular, the misdeeds of Communist regimes are unduly neglected.

A decade ago, Ernst Nolte, then of the Free University of Berlin, ignited the Historikerstreit, or dispute of historians, and became the target of a campaign of defamation led by Juergen Habermas, by asking: u201CDidn’t the u2018Gulag Archipelago’ come before Auschwitz? Wasn’t the u2018class murder’ of the Bolsheviks the logical and factual resupposition of the u2018race murder’ of the National Socialists?u201D These are still good questions. In fact, Stalinist — and Maoist — offenses, while acknowledged, are generally downplayed and have achieved nothing remotely approaching the publicity of the Nazi massacre of the Jews. In the United States, it is likely that a person who keeps abreast of the news media will encounter references to the Holocaust literally every day of his life. Yet who has heard of Kolyma, where more people were done to death than the present official count for Auschwitz? The figures for the victims of Maoist rule that are starting to come out of China suggest a total in the range of 30 or 40 million, or more. Do these facts even make a dent in public consciousness?

Moreover, there is an aspect of Stalinist atrocities that is very pertinent to the u201CGoldhagen Debate.u201D In their history of the Soviet Union, Utopia in Power, Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich touch on the issue of whether the German people had full knowledge of the Nazi crimes. They state no opinion. But regarding the Soviets’ murderous war on the peasantry, including the Ukrainian terror-famine, they write:

There is no question that the Soviet city people knew about the massacre in the countryside. In fact, no one tried to conceal it. At the railroad stations, city dwellers could see the thousands of women and children who had fled from the villages and were dying of hunger. Kulaks, u201Cdekulakized persons,u201D and u201Ckulak henchmenu201D died alike. They were not considered human.

There has been no outcry for the Russian people to seek atonement and no one speaks of their u201Ceternal guilt.u201D It goes without saying that the misdeeds of Communism, in Russia, China, or elsewhere, are never debited to internationalism and egalitarianism as those of Nazism are to nationalism and racism.

Pointing to Communist crimes is not meant to u201Ctrivializeu201D the destruction of European Jewry, nor can it do so. The massacre of the Jews was one of the worst things that ever happened. But even supposing that it was the worst thing that ever happened, couldn’t some arrangement be worked out whereby Communist mass-murders are mentioned once for every ten times (or hundred times?) the Holocaust is brought up? Perhaps also, if we must have publicly-financed museums commemorating the foreign victims of foreign regimes, some memorial to the victims of Communism might be considered, not on the Mall itself, of course, but maybe in a low-rent area of Washington?

If the crimes of Communism go relatively unmentioned, what are we to say of crimes committed against Germans? One of the most pernicious legacies of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao is that any political leader responsible for less than, say, three or four million deaths is let off the hook. This hardly seems right, and it was not always so. In fact — the reader may find this incredible — there was a time when American conservatives took the lead in publicizing Allied, and especially American, atrocities against Germans. High-level journalists like William Henry Chamberlin, in America’s Second Crusade, and Freda Utley, in The High Cost of Vengeance, pilloried those who had committed what Utley called u201Cour crimes against humanityu201D — the men who directed the terror-bombing of the German cities, conspired in the expulsion of some fifteen million Germans from their ancestral lands in the east (in the course of which about two million died — see de Zayas’s Nemesis at Potsdam), and plotted the u201Cfinal solution of the German questionu201D through the Morgenthau plan. Utley even exposed the sham u201CDachau trialsu201D of German soldiers and civilians in the first years of the Allied occupation, detailing the use of methods u201Cworthy of the GPU, the Gestapo, and the SSu201D to extort confessions. She insisted that the same ethical standards had to be applied to victors and vanquished alike. If not, then we were declaring that u201CHitler was justified in his belief that u2018might makes right.’u201D Both books were brought out by the late Henry Regnery, the last of the Old Right greats, whose house was the bastion of post—World War II revisionism, publishing works like Charles Callan Tansill’s classic, Back Door to War.

Keeping the Nazi period constantly before our eyes serves the ideological interests of a number of influential groups. That it benefits the Zionist cause, at least as many Zionists see it, is obvious. It is highly useful also to the advocates of a globalist America. Hitler and the crying need for the great crusade to destroy him are the chief exhibits in their case against any form of American u201Cisolationism,u201D past or present. Any suggestion that our Soviet ally in that crusade was guilty of even greater offenses than Nazi Germany, that the United States government itself was incriminated in barbarous acts during and in the aftermath of that war, must be downplayed or suppressed, lest the historical picture grow too complex.

The obsession with the never-ending guilt of the Germans also advances the ends of those who look forward to the extinction of the nation-state and national identity, at least for the West. As the philosopher Robert Maurer argues, it inculcates in the Germans u201Ca permanent bad conscience, and keeps them from developing any normal national self-awareness.u201D In this way, it functions u201Cas a model for the cosmopolitan supersession of every nationalism,u201D which many today are striving towards. Ernst Nolte has recently suggested another strategy at work, aiming at the same goal. Nothing is clearer than that we are in the midst of a vast campaign to delegitimize western civilization. In this campaign, Nolte writes, radical feminism joins with Third World anti-Occidentalism and multiculturalism within the western nations u201Cto instrumentalize to the highest degree the u2018murder of six millions Jews by the Germans,’ and to place it in the larger context of the genocides by the predatory and conquering West, so that u2018homo hitlerensis’ ultimately appears as merely a special case of u2018homo occidentalis.’u201D The purpose is to strike at u201Cthe cultural and linguistic homogeneity of the national states, achieved over centuries, and open the gates to a massive immigration,u201D so that in the end the nations of the West should cease to exist.

There seem to be cultural dynamics operating that will intensify rather than abate the present fixation. Michael Wolffsohn, an Israeli-born Jew who teaches modern history in Germany, has warned that Judaism is being emptied of its religious content and linked solely to the tribulations of the Jews through history, above all, the Holocaust. More than one commentator has noted that as the West loses any sense of morality rooted in reason, tradition, or faith, yet still feels the need for some secure moral direction, it increasingly finds it in the one acknowledged u201Cabsolute evil,u201D the Holocaust. If these claims are true, then the growing secularization of Judaism and moral disarray of our culture will continue to make victims of the Germans and all the peoples of the West.

Ralph Raico [send him mail] is a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. You can study the history of liberty under his guidance here: MP3-CD and Audio Tape.

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