‘Kay. I’m not seriously asking. Anyway, there was this thing over at this blog here about something I’ve previously complained about, about this way people have of treating Hitler as some kind of alien, inexplicable ‘ultimate evil’, and I answered.

(… oh, and geez, but I’m sick, right now, by the way. Don’t even ask. Why am I writing this stuff, you ask? Because I’m stupid, that’s why. Anyway… My answer, slightly cleaned up, edited, below…)

I think I’ve had roughly the same thought.

My phrasing of it would be: there’s a tendency to treat Hitler like some kind of alien, essential evil, a dark force from beyond somehow apart from the human species, like that cloud of evil in the old Star Trek series that the script claimed was somehow responsible for (or was) Jack the Ripper… free floating, a thing apart, came from nowhere…

And nothing could be further from the truth.

First, antisemitism had a long history prior to National Socialism’s use of the Jews as a scapegoat. Google ‘marranos’ and ‘inquisition’, if it’s even necessary, for previous, well-documented examples, and just the beginnings of a glimpse at the whole, long tapestry. The Nazis are properly understood in context as a continuation of this same phenomenon. They did not come from nowhere, not at all.

Second, the general themes the Nazis used, fusing nationalism and notions of racial purity and superiority and ruling the world as a divinely-ordained/fatalistically inevitable necessity that must be brought to fruition, these, too, existed before and after. The general concept of making nationalism itself a sort of cult and/or welding it to a sort of romantic religious sentiment, again, is probably almost as old as are nation states themselves. Go back to ancient Egypt, one of the first, even, and you find the pharaohs wrapping themselves in a similar mystique. And countless empires have insisted it’s their right, their obligation, their duty to rule their racial ‘lessers’ in the hinterland.

Third, charismatic demagogues are likewise a dime a dozen over the long stretches of history, and their finding their way to positions of power, finding a scapegoat with which to drive their popularity, is nothing new, nor is the general phenomena at all retired, as yet.

Fourth: the general sociological and psychological means by which the Nazis rose to power and acquired assistants in the bloodletting they performed are likewise not unprecedented, not some unique vulnerability of the Germans of the 30s and 40s. We know the ‘just following orders’ effect is replicable, and there are torturers working for governments around the world, today.

Note also that: WWII is, in numerical terms, generally taken to be the largest bloodletting in human history, but this is in part probably due to the combination of the relative density of the populations among which it occurred being larger, and the technological means of warfare and mass murder within the civilian population reaching the point where it became possible. There are other conflicts that do start to give some competition, when you take them as a proportion of the population, at least.

… that last is really just a ‘by the way’, however. The real danger in treating Hitler as some kind of alien outlier is in forgetting these essential facts above it, those numbered one through four (among others).

And we forget them at our peril, because, yes, all of this can happen again. Understanding in real, human terms how it did, recognizing in ourselves the same tendencies is vital, for this reason. It doesn’t necessarily prevent it. But it gives us the best shot at doing so we have.


ETA: Eamon notes in the comments he’s had much the same thought.