IV. “Decide for Peace or War:” How Hitler was normalized

This is the fourth in a series:
Pt. I: "This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:" Popular science, their conspiracies, and agreement is all we need
Pt. II: "A source of unshakeable authority:" Authoritarian rhetoric
Pt. III: Immediate rhetorical background

From a September 3, 1944 tapped conversations of two Nazi Generals who were British POW, discussing when the German military should have refused to follow Hitler’s orders:

Hennecke: It should have been done in 1933 or in 1934 when things started.

Müller-Romer: No, the running of the state was still all right at that time. (From Tapping Hitler’s Generals 98)

The argument goes on for a while. Müller-Romer’s argument is that the political outcomes were just fine in 1933, and they should have waited till the political outcomes were worse. Müller-Romer says that “it wasn’t so bad before the war,” and Hennecke points out it was, that 1933 had the jailing of Hitler’s political opponents. Hennecke’s most important argument was that political processes were set in place in 1933 that virtually guaranteed horrific political outcomes eventually. Hennecke was right.

In 1933, Hitler set in place the criminalization of dissent, a propaganda machine, and a single-party state—those are governmental processes of authoritarianism. Hennecke was trying to argue, once those processes are in place, then, if the policy outcomes are bad, dissent is impossible. People have to protect, even in times when they like the policy outcomes, the processes they will need to be in place when they don’t like the policies.

Basically, anyone who took until after 1933 to realize Hitler was an authoritarian nightmare is someone who supported Hitler when it mattered. Realizing in 1939 that supporting Hitler was a mistake means that you’re thinking in terms of outcome and not process. Realizing in 1944 (as many of his generals did) that they had been backing the wrong horse is craven ambition—obviously, it’s only losing that hurt.

So, let’s assume that Hennecke was right, and 1933-34 was when the military should have tried to lead a revolt against Hitler’s dictatorship. Why didn’t they see that at the time? Whey didn’t most people?

They didn’t because Hitler, in March 1933 (and 1933 generally) was normalized. People who had fought against him now actively supported him, rationalized the violence of his supporters, insisted that he was at least better than the opposition, and believed that he was sincere in his professions of Christian faith (despite all appearances). The only group to vote against the act than enabled his dictatorship was the Social Democrats (democratic socialists; the communists would have voted against it, but they were banned or arrested). A rabidly factionalized press spun the situation as his being in control and decisive and finally doing the things that liberals had been too weak to do–such as cleansing the community of criminal elements. And those talking points were repeated by people who normalized behavior they had been condemning just months before.

People who think they would never have supported Hitler believe that they would never have supported a leader who pounded on the podium, screaming for the extermination of various races and an unwinnable war against every other industrialized country. And that’s what they think he did because, prior to 1933 (one might even argue late 1932) that was what he did. So, one way to think about the rest of this post is whether that test—I would never have supported Hitler because I would never have supported someone who advocated genocide and world war—is a good one for thinking about his March 23, 1933 speech. And the answer is that it isn’t.

The speech was part of the Nazi’s goal of establishment a one-party dictatorship, something that would be achieved in what was called “The Enabling Act.” They needed a 2/3 vote of the Reichstag, and a special election had been called for those purposes. They didn’t get 2/3, so they banned and arrested the communist leaders and declared they only needed 2/3 of the non-communist votes. That was a violation of the constitution. But, by the time Hitler spoke, they had done the math and knew the outcome.

Hitler’s speech was in the context of what Aristotle called deliberative rhetoric. There was a policy on the table, and so it would be expected that Hitler would engage in policy argumentation to support it (short version: he didn’t, and that’s important).

This was the Reichstag—the major deliberative body of Germany—and it was considering a major policy change; thus, in a healthy rhetorical community, Hitler’s speech on March 23, 1933 would have been deliberative rhetoric. He would have had to argue why the “Enabling Act” was an effective and feasible solution to real problems that would not go away on their own, and that the act would not involve solutions worse than the problem. He would have had to make that argument acknowledging the multiple policy options available, and to a community that was familiar with multiple sides and who insisted that he be fair to all those sides.

But Germany wasn’t a healthy rhetorical community. That isn’t what he did. He gave an epideictic speech, with bits of judicial. He didn’t engage in policy argumentation. Hitler’s speech has the overall structure of need/plan, but not in a policy argumentation way—it’s more like a skeezy sales pitch. Skeezy sales pitches have a rough need/plan organization, but the need is that you’re kind of a bad person and the plan part of the argument is that my product/company/election will solve that need thoroughly and completely. That rhetoric always begins by making the consumer slightly uncomfortable (insecure, ashamed, or worried), but with an implicit promise that they could be better. Pickup artists call it “negging” (“You would be pretty if you smiled”). And then the product is offered that will solve the problem; with pickup artists—and Hitler—the solution is the person. He didn’t engage any of the other parts of deliberative argument (consideration of multiple options, solvency, feasibility, unintended consequences).

Overall, Hitler’s argument was: things have been bad in so many ways, and real Germans have been consistently screwed over and ignored in our political system. The major decision-making body has been paralyzed by political infighting by professional politicians who haven’t been paying attention to the kind of people (in terms of race and religion) who are the real heart of this nation. Our relations with other countries have been completely lopsided, and we’ve been giving way more than we’ve been getting. We aren’t a warlike people, and we don’t want war, but we insist on the right to defend our interests. Liberals and communists are basically the same, in that liberalism necessarily ends up in communism. Situations are never actually complex, but people who benefit from pretending they’re complicated will say they are (teachers, experts, governmental employees, lawyers). The correct policies we should be pursuing are absolutely obvious to a person of decisive judgment—being able to figure out the right course of action doesn’t require expert knowledge or listening to people who disagree. The ideal political leader has a history of being decisive. And that person cares about normal people like you who are the real heart of Germany, and it’s easy for someone like you to know whether the leader has good judgment and cares about you—you can just tell. There is one party that supports the obviously correct course of action, and we should try to ensure that party has control of every aspect of government, and that there will be no brakes on what that party decides to do.

So, how does he do that? And why does it work?

He begins the speech with a vague reference to the proposal. It’s a proposal for shifting from a parliamentary system to a dictatorship, but he doesn’t say that. He says it’s “a law for the removal of the distress of the people and the Reich” (15). He grants that the procedure is “extraordinary” (a state of exception, so to speak), and gives “the reasons” for it, and his “reasons” are a purely need/blame argument (more appropriate for a judicial speech) that goes from the beginning till about fifteen paragraphs in (in the English—in the German, it’s about twelve), until he says, “It will be the supreme task of the National Government…”

I mentioned that Hitler’s policy solution was himself, and he sets up that solution by how he describes the problem. His argument is that Germany is undeniably in the most awful situation ever. And we are in the worst imaginable situation possible (hyperbole that makes him seem to be completely on their side—his commitment to the ingroup is extreme) for three reasons: first, the country has been led by Marxist politicians who are incompetent, deluded, just looking out for themselves, and/or actively villainous; second, the moral, political, and economic collapse of Germany “is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate;” third, the “infirmities” of our life means that nothing is getting done because we’re in a deadlock: “the completely irreconcilable views of different individuals with regard to the terms state, society, religion, morals, family and economy give rise to differences that lead to internecine war” (16). Those last two are especially significant, in that they signify what kind of policies Hitler would enact. His argument in those two is that there are “defects” in our national life, especially views “starting from the liberalism of the last century,” that have inevitably led to this “communistic chaos” (16). There are political views, he says, that enable the “mobilization of the most primitive instincts” and end up in actual criminality. He’s equating disagreement and violent political conflict, and blaming all that on the presence in the community of a defect that will necessarily end in Soviet communism.

This whole argument of Hitler’s simultaneously promises stability—an end to disagreement and political paralysis–while ignoring that his own party was one of the major causes of the political paralysis, violence, and criminality of Weimar politics. Thus, this whole part of his argument is projection and scapegoating.

For instance, one of those “reasons” that his dictatorship is necessary is that it was the 1918 Marxist organizations that committed “a breach of the constitution” putting in place a revolution that “protected the guilty parties from the hands of the law.” These Marxists, according to Hitler, tried to justify what they did on the grounds that Germany was guilty of starting WWI.

Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that all of his claims are true (they aren’t).

Why in the world is he even arguing about who is to blame for the loss of WWI? Even if the Weimar democracy was created by evil witches who mistreated bunnies and shoved little old ladies out of the way in crosswalks, that wouldn’t make his dictatorship a good plan. The Weimar dictatorship might have been Marxist (it wasn’t), it might have been disastrous (its major problems were Nazis and Stalinists), it might have lied about WWI (it didn’t), but even were all things true, it still wouldn’t necessarily mean that Hitler’s becoming a dictator was the right solution. It isn’t even clear that the actions of the people who put in place a democracy at the end of WWI were acting in an unconstitutional way. But it was absolutely clear that Hitler was.

He needed 2/3 of the Reichstag vote to get the Enabling Act passed, and he didn’t have that number. So, he had Marxists arrested and prevented from entering the chamber, and he decided on an interpretation of the constitution that said that, because he had prohibited their entry, their numbers didn’t count toward what amounts to quorum. (That isn’t what the constitution said.) So, Hitler’s hissy fit about what “the Marxists” did in 1918 isn’t a very accurate description of what they did, but it’s a perfectly accurate description of what he was, at that moment, doing. That accusation of unconstitutional action was projection.

His whole argument about violence and paralysis was also projection, since the violence and refusal to compromise (the cause of the paralysis) came from both the Stalinists and Nazis. Hitler’s argument is the pretty standard argument for people who think they’re totally and always right (that is, authoritarians): our problem is that you are disagreeing with me. The conflict would stop if you just agreed with me.

Hitler’s argument can be summarized in what, following Aristotle, people call an enthymeme. “My dictatorship is necessary because the Marxists are just awful.” Hitler was relying on the tendency a lot of people have to decide that a conclusion must be true if they believe the evidence is true. (It’s how most, maybe all, scams work.)

Hitler’s kind of argument takes it one step further than even skanky associational arguments go. He’s saying that, if the economic disaster of post-war Germany can be associated with Leninist-Marxists in any way, then they caused it, and therefore Hitler’s dictatorship. His argument is “My dictatorship because MARXISM!!!” (Notice the slip between Leninist-Marxism and Marxism.) That isn’t a logical argument, but associational. Even were it true that the “Marxists” were responsible for Germany’s post-war plight (as opposed to the war itself being the problem), then the “solution” isn’t necessarily Nazism. There were lots of other economic and political systems opposed to Marxism.

After all, liberal democracy is opposed to Marxism (liberal democrats are the first people up against the wall, as Marxists so charmingly say), as are democratic socialists (who accept some aspects of Marx’s critiques of capitalism, but oppose—unhappily often with their lives since Soviet Marxists call them liberals—Soviet Marxism and generally any kind of violent revolution), non-Soviet Marxism (Trotskyites, for instance), non-Marxist kinds of communism, the odd monetary model long promoted by the Catholic church, mercantilism, and even various other kinds of volkisch and reactionary groups. Nazism had a lot of opponents; it wasn’t the only choice other than Soviet Marxism.

So, what Hitler did was to scapegoat Marxists for Germany’s post-war situation, and associate every political party opposed to him with Marxists. [1]

Calling the people who instituted the Weimar Constitution “Marxist” is a deliberate smear—it’s just insisting that everyone to his left (and most were) is Marxist (a not unheard of tactic in our own era). It’s an equation he makes later in the speech, and made consistently in his rhetoric—he characterizes all forms of non-authoritarian governments as Marxist.

That’s a kind of argument that appeals to people who can’t manage uncertainty, ambiguity, or nuance and see all members of any outgroup as essentially the same. When we are in fight or flight mode, we are drawn to binaries. Something is good, or it is bad. Something is right, or it is wrong. And, since they think in binaries, people drawn to that way of thinking believe that you either believe everything is right or wrong or you believe it’s all good. [2]

Such people would really like Hitler’s speech, since he presents the situation as absolutely black and white. I said that he presents himself—not a set of policies—as the solution to their problems. He says, it is obvious what needs to be done; it is obvious that our bad situation is the consequence of politicians who were either “intentionally misleading from the start” or subject to “damnable illusions.” They were just looking out for themselves, giving people “a thousand palliatives and excuses.” They just made promises they never kept.

He doesn’t argue that his (vague) policy is the best policy choice; he’s arguing that “Marxists” caused all of Germany’s problems and concludes from that claim that his dictatorship is necessary. That’s a fallacious arguments in many ways. The logical form of Hitler’s argument is, as I mentioned, “My dictatorship is necessary because the Marxists are just awful.” Hitler’s dictatorship is in opposition to Marxism, and Marxism is bad, so his dictatorship is good. If you put that in logical terms, you have “A is necessary because not-A is bad.”

There are a lot of “not-A” out there. Were Hitler’s argument one that appealed to premises consistently, then he would also have to endorse this argument as equally logical: “Making my dog Louis a dictator is necessary because Marxism is bad.” After all, my dog Louis is also not a Marxist—he is not-A. Therefore, he would be just as great a leader as Hitler.

He wouldn’t be a great leader at all. He would mostly eat things, and demand a lot of walks. Whether he would have been a better leader than Hitler is an interesting question—he probably wouldn’t have been worse—but that wouldn’t make him a good leader. Yet, Hitler’s argument would apply as logically to Louis as it did to Hitler: after all, Louis would be a great leader because Marxists are bad doesn’t have any worse a major premise than “Hitler’s policies are good because Marxists are bad.”

And, let’s be clear: Louis is VERY opposed to any kind of Marxism.

And, really, that was Hitler’s argument, and that’s all it was. His argument wasn’t logical—he never put forward a major premise to which he held consistently. His argument was always “What I propose is good because I am good (decisive, caring about you, looking out for real Germans/Americans, not a professional politician, successful), they are bad,” and as long as he could rely on his audience not to think too hard about that major premise (“anyone who is decisive, caring about you, looking out for real Germans/American, not a professional politician, successful is proposing good policies”), then he was fine. And, I’ll point out again that Louis is very decisive, he cares about everyone, he is protective of his pack, he is not a professional politician, and he is very good at his job.

Simply looking to whether a claim has support is cognition, and I’m saying that good deliberation requires meta-cognition, that people will look at how they are arguing. And that people don’t just ask themselves whether an argument seems true to them, but whether they think how it’s being made is one they would consider good regardless of ingroup/outgroup membership.

Metacognition requires stepping back from an argument that justifies what you want to believe (what is called “motivated cognition”) to thinking about whether you would think your way of thinking is wrong if someone else did it. And that is the problem with the “I don’t care if it’s logical, I just know it’s true” line of argument. Do you endorse that kind of argument when other people make it? Only when they get to your conclusions. So, that method of making decisions (Hitler’s, by the way, and most authoritarians) is about ingroup loyalty, and it’s okay if your ingroup is magically always right, but there is always something mildly narcissistic about it, since it assumes your intuitions are perfect.

People who reason that way tend to favor people to whom they feel close, while, the whole time, they think they are being fair. Since they are unwilling to consider whether their method of reasoning is bad, they never notice when they’ve made mistakes. They sincerely believe their method of reasoning is good because it’s always worked for them. The question is: would they know if it was a bad method? Do they have a system for checking if their intuitions and feelings are bad? Yes, their method is to ask their intuitions and feelings whether their method is bad.

Albert Heim reported that Hitler had told him, “I don’t give a damn for intellect[–] intuition, instinct is the thing” (Tapping Hitler’s Generals 165). That fits with what Hitler said throughout his rhetoric—he insisted people trust him because his intuitions were so good that he could reject any expert advice that contradicted him. (Like most authoritarians, he endorsed expert advice that confirmed his views.) I like the term epistemological populism—something that “everyone” believes, even if it’s empirically false, is true because experts are just eggheads (unless they agree with you). You can appeal to the popular notion.

What the people who make that argument don’t notice is that their “common sense” is only “common” to their ingroup. Their “popular” notion (that this group is lazy, that that group is greedy) never includes all the groups who might have an opinion on the issue—when they say “everyone,” they don’t include the outgroup. It’s one of the subtle ways we delegitimate (and even dehumanize) the outgroup. When we do this, we aren’t trying to deletigimate or dehumanize them. It’s just that we take our ingroup associations and universalize them—since I think squirrels are evil, and I only hang out with people who think they are, then it will come to seem to me obviously true that “everyone” agrees that squirrels are evil. If Louis, who CLEARLY thinks squirrels are evil, runs for office, I will feel that he represents “everyone.” I can ignore the squirrels’ opinion on the issue.

If you like Louis (and, really, who doesn’t? he’s adorable) and he makes you feel good about yourself, then you will not hold him to the same standards that you hold other political figures. You will look for reasons to support him, and you will find them, (you are motivated to use your cognitive powers to justify his actions), and, so, you will think your support of him is rational since you can find examples and arguments to support your claims about him and his claims about himself.

But what you can’t find will be major premises that you will consistently endorse. Louis is great because he says he’s nice to you. The other candidate tries to be nice to you, but that’s just cynical manipulation on their part. Louis said something untrue, and so did that candidate. Louis was mistaken, but that candidate was lying.

Hitler played on that tendency brilliantly in this speech. Hitler made a set of claims his audience would like hearing: there is disorder, decay, uncertainty, and weakness. We don’t want to listen to any argument that Germany was to blame for WWI, or that we lost it, or that the Versailles Treaty wasn’t much worse than the treaty imposed on the French after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.

What he said was, “You’re humiliated right now but you could be awesome with me as dictator.” Germans are humiliated right now but will be great once you put all power in me.” (Or, you would be pretty if you smiled.) Marxists are bad, and I am the kind of person who will impose order, end decay, never believe myself uncertainty, and will always be strong.

That claim involves the rhetorical strategy of projection. Whether Germany was at fault for the war is an interesting question (most scholars say yes, but very few say that only Germany was at fault), and whether the installation of the new constitution in 1918 was done in a constitutional way is an interesting question, but there is no doubt that Hitler’s pushing through of the Enabling Act violated the terms of the constitution. That move is called projection because it’s taking something you are doing and projecting it onto someone else—like a movie projector.

And it tends to work because it’s a particularly effective instance of the large category of fallacies involving a stasis shift (generally called fallacies of relevance). In a perfect world, we make arguments for or against policies on the basis of good reasons that can be defended in a rational-critical way (not unemotional—it’s a fallacy to think emotions are inappropriate in argumentation). But, sometimes our argument is so bad it can’t stand the exposure of argumentation, in that we can’t put forward an internally consistent argument. Saying that Louis would be a great President because squirrels are evil is a stasis shift—trying to get people to stop thinking about Louis and just focus on their hatred for squirrels.

Arguments have a stasis, a hinge point. Sometimes they have several. But it’s pretty much common knowledge in various fields that the first step in getting a conflict to be productive (marital, political, business, legal) is to make sure that the stasis (or stases) is correctly identified and people are on it. If we’re housemates, and I haven’t cleaned the litterboxes, and we have an agreement I will, then you might want the stasis to be: my violating our agreement about the litterboxes.

Let’s imagine I don’t want to clean out the litterboxes, but, really, it’s just because I don’t want to. I have made an agreement that I would, and when I made the agreement I knew it was fair and reasonable. So, even I know that I can’t put forward an argument about how tasks are divided, or who wanted a third cat and promised to clean litterboxes in order to get that cat. Were this a deliberative situation, I would be open to your arguments about the litterboxes, but let’s say I’m determined to get out of doing what I said I would do. I don’t want deliberative rhetoric. I want compliance-gaining—I just want you to comply with my end point (I don’t have to clean the litterboxes).

I will never get you to comply as long as we are on the stasis of my violating an agreement I made about the litterboxes, since that’s pretty much slam dunk for you, so I have to change the stasis.

The easiest one (and this is way too much of current political discourse) is to shift it to the stasis of which of us is a better human. If you say, “Hey, you said if we got a third cat, you’d clean the litterboxes, and we got a third cat, and you aren’t cleaning them,” I might say, “Well, you voted for Clinton in the primaries and that’s why Trump got elected,” and now we aren’t arguing about my failure to clean the litterboxes—we’re engaged in a complicated argument about the Dem primaries. I can’t win the litterbox argument, but I might win that one, and, even if I don’t, I might confuse you enough that will stop nagging me about the litterboxes.

[I might also train you to believe that talking about the litterboxes will get me on an unproductive rant about something else, and so you just don’t even raise the issue. That’s a different post, about how Hitler deliberated with his generals.]

Or, I might acknowledge that I don’t clean the litterboxes, but put the blame for my failure on you because your support of Clinton is so bad that I just can’t think about the litterboxes—that’s another way of shifting the stasis off of my weak point and onto an argument I might win.

Hitler’s argument shifts the stasis off of his weak points (whether he has pragmatic plans and just what they are) to ones he thinks he can win—that Marxists are bad, and that “real Germans” (the “volk”) are beleaguered victims of a political system that reward professional politicians for their dithering.

All that people know about Hitler’s policy is that he is abandoning democracy in favor of a single-party state that explicitly favors his party over others—the judicial system, educational system, arts, parliament, churches, science, and military will all be purified of anyone who isn’t fanatically committed to his political party.

Hitler is working on the basis of what Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca called “philosophical paired terms.” People who think in binaries also tend to assume that the binaries are necessarily logically chained to each other (which is why Laclau called them equivalential chains). So, for Hitler, there is a binary between “order” and “disorder” and that pair is necessarily connected to “his dictatorship” and “democracy.” Think of these terms as like the logic sections of some standardized tests that have questions like: “Tabby is to cat as pinto is to [what].” The answer is supposed to be “horse.”

Hitler’s argument is:

That chain of paired terms is what enables Hitler to get to what is actually an amazing argument for a purportedly Christian nation: that valuing fairness across groups is suicide, and part of a plot to weaken Germany.

And there’s a really interesting characteristic about this kind of argument. It’s normal for people to assume that an authoritarian state provides more order than a democratic one, and that it therefore is peaceful, but that’s an associational argument [strong father model], not an empirical or logical one. Authoritarian states take the conflict, violence, and chaos, and put them out of sight of “normal” people (which tends to get defined in increasingly small ways as time goes on). Empirically, and this was especially true in Hitler’s regime, authoritarian single-party governments have extraordinarily disorderly policies (they follow the whim of the person or people in charge), completely arbitrary applications of coercion, and they are systemically violence (think about how segregation operated in the Southern US).

But Hitler tries to equate his part with order, when the Nazis were the source of much (most?) of the disorder. The Freikorps engaged in random violence against Jews and lefties of various stripes. The Stalinist communists also engaged in violence, but there is no indication that democratic socialists, let alone liberals, relied on violence. So, the notion that Hitler’s party was opposed to violence just didn’t fit the situation, but his supporters appear to have followed it.

And they did it, I’d suggest, to the extent that they followed his associational chain. He chained various things together through association—order, authority, control, honor, true German identity, purification, peace, trust in him. He also throws in there victim/villain.

Logically, Nazis are not pure victims of violence. They were, in fact, murderers, thugs, and extortionists, but they were tolerated because the police and judges generally liked them (since their violence was against Jews and liberals). They got caught out in sheer murder (of Konrad Piezuch), and Hitler’s stance was that Nazi violence was always already self-defense. And Hitler’s chain of connections enabled him to connect Nazis to victims of violence. A reasonable description of the situation would have made Nazis mostly villains but also victims. Once you have a culture (or argument) that is only going to reason through paired terms, then Nazis are either victims or villains (in that world, you can’t be both). Since Nazis are connected to order, and order is opposed to violence (assertions Hitler made elsewhere in his argument) then, by the time he gets to Nazi murderers, it would seem “logical” to see them as opposed to villains (communists) so they MUST be villains.

And Hitler did sound more reasonable than he had in his beerhall speeches. He never said the word “Jew,” and only mentioned race twice. He didn’t say anything about Aryans, and talked a lot about the “volk.” For many people, the term simply meant “the people,” but for people steeped in the long and racist “volkish” literature, it meant the racial group that constituted true Germans. So, it was a dog whistle, unheard by many, but whistling up racism in others. Hitler used other racist dog whistles–he talked about decay, infirmities, the need to detoxify our public life, the “moral purging of the body corporate.” He called for greater spiritual unanimity, and ensuring that all art and culture would “regard our great past with thankful admiration” (19, emphasis added), so “blood and race will once more become the source of artistic intuition.” Someone who wanted to see him as a person who had changed (or who had never meant the racism) could point to the apparent absence of racism; someone who wanted to see him as the beerhall demagogue who would purify Germany of unwanted races could see him as someone who hadn’t changed.

But, or perhaps and, Hitler’s speech made a lot of promises that a lot of people who really wanted an end to the uncertainty of Weimar Germany politics would like to hear. The bulk of Hitler’s speech (where the plan should be laid out) is a series of vague assurances regarding the churches, the judiciary, economics (including his policies toward agriculture, the unemployed, and the middle classes, self-sufficiency), and foreign policy.

Those promises are:

  • Church. He calls for a “really profound revival of religious life,” implies he will not compromise with “atheistic organizations” and suggests that he believes religion is the basis of “general moral basic values.” He says his government “regard[s] the two Christian confessions [Catholic and Lutheran] as the weightiest factors for the maintenance of our nationality” and promises “their rights are not to be infringed” (20). He says the government will had “an attitude of objective justice” toward other religions, something Catholics and Lutherans would like hearing—that he connects the nation and their religion and doesn’t intend to put “other religions” on an equal footing with them (his audience would probably think immediately of Judaism, and possibly Jehovah’s Witnesses). Since Hitler was not himself a particularly religious person, and his organization had a lot of people in it openly hostile to Christianity, this alliance of his party with the two most powerful religious organizations would be reassuring, and it did seem to be persuasive (the Catholic political group voted for the Enabling Act).
  • Judiciary. Hitler was clear that he wanted a factionalized judiciary that didn’t respect the rights of all individuals equally (an Enlightenment value). The judicial system should, he said, make “not the individual but the nation as a whole alone the centre.” For him, the nation is the “volk” (discussed below), and judges should always put the concerns of the volk first—not abstract principles of due process.
  • Economics. Here Hitler was especially vague (which is saying something, considering how vague the whole speech is). He said he the government will protect the economic interests of “the German people” by “an economic bureaucracy to be organized by the state, but by the utmost furtherance of private initiative and by the recognition of the rights of property.” This was a clever apparent disavowal of the socialism that was central to Nazism in its beginnings, but one that wouldn’t alienate those people in the party who thought Hitler was still socialist (he would later have them killed).

He insisted on the importance of German agriculture, promised to use the unemployed to help production, told the middle classes that “I feel myself allied with them” (classic scam artist claim since he was actually a millionaire who didn’t pay taxes, and his policies wouldn’t help the middles class—it’s one of only two times he used the first person in the speech, which is rhetorically interesting), admitted that pure self-sufficiency was not possible, and then slowly moved into the more bellicose aspect of his speech.

When talking about the debt, he presented his stance as reasonable, in that he was simply insisting on fairness, a theme he drew into discussions of foreign policy. In the English translation, this section and the next (pages 22-23) have italicized text, in which he takes a strong stand toward other countries claiming that Germany’s policies were forced on them by the unreasonable behavior of other countries. And that theme leads him to what appears to be an absolutely clear statement of his policy.

For the Overcoming of the Economic Catastrophe

three things are necessary:–

  1. absolutely authoritative leadership in internal affairs, in order to create confidence in the stability of conditions;

  2. the securing of peace by the great nations for a long time to come, with a view to restoring the confidence of the nations in each other;

  3. the final victory of the principles of commonsense in the organization and conduct of business, and also a general release from reparations and impossible liabilities for debts and interest. (24)

People often mistake a set of assertions presented in what rhetors call “the plain style” with “a clear argument.” They aren’t the same thing at all, or even necessarily connected. A statement of Hitler’s policies would explain how authoritative leadership will create confidence—he’s got an associational argument, not logical one. An incompetent authoritative leadership (one that starts a war, for instance, or engages in kleptocracy) won’t necessarily stabilize conditions, and stable conditions won’t solve the worldwide depression. That’s a clear statement of a vague policy.

The second is simply a lie, but a comforting one, since Hitler’s previous rhetoric had been so war-mongering—that clear statement of a vague policy would make gullible people feel that Hitler’s previous rhetoric had just been to mobilize his base, or perhaps the responsibilities of leadership had sobered him. And, even did he actually mean it (he didn’t), Germany’s economic situation wasn’t the consequence of concern about war.

People love to hear that leaders will now act on common sense. We like to believe that our views are shared by all reasonable people, that the solutions to our problems are obvious, and that experts and eggheads should just be ignored in favor of what regular people believe. Appealing to his audience’s “common sense” also enables Hitler to sneak past the rhetorical obligation of saying what policies exactly he’ll pursue—a sympathetic person will believe he has, since they will now offer their own notions of common sense in the place of the policies he hasn’t mentioned.

Hitler promises he can achieve all these things, but not if “doubt were to arise among the people as to the stability of the new regime”—one of the ways he tugs on that set of chained terms. Stability and peace are linked, and in opposition to democratic deliberation. So, he says, he will continue to respect the Reichstag, but they won’t meet.

There is a jaw-dropping instance of strategic misnaming in his penultimate paragraph. He says (and it’s italics in the English): “Hardly ever has a revolution on such a large scale been carried out in so disciplined and bloodless a fashion as the renaissance of the German people in the last few weeks” (26). In fact, the violence of the previous weeks was unparalleled. As Richard Evans says, after January 30, when the Interior Ministry ordered that police no longer provide protection for opposition meetings, “Nazi stormtroopers could now beat up and murder Communists and Social Democrats with impunity” (320). As Evans says, in January, the Nazis “unleashed a campaign of political violence and terror that dwarfed anything seen so far” (317). Hitler is simply insisting on his version of truth—that his audience would know it to be inaccurate wouldn’t change their perception of it as “true” (that is, truly loyal to the group—what is called a “blue lie“), and it would make them see him as strong. And then we get the second time he uses the first person—having just uttered a blazing lie, he says, “It is my will and firm intention to see to it that this peaceful development continues in future” (26).

That sentence is so rhetorically brilliant that it is chilling. He is simultaneously threatening violence, renaming violence “peaceful,” and, because he’s claimed there wasn’t violence, giving himself plausible deniability. The dogs all perk up their ears at that very loud whistle, and the ministers of the Reichstag know that he is telling them either support the Enabling Act, or there will be civil war.

And he ends his speech with saying, “It is for you, Gentlemen, now to decide for peace or war.” And they did. They decided for war—one that would claim to be a war bringing world peace by exterminating difference.

In 1933, Hitler gained enough legitimacy to put in place authoritarian processes because 1) he managed to look enough less demagogic when arguing for the Enabling Act than he had during the previous years to make people think he had changed (or the demagoguery was all an act); 2) in the speech defending the act he promised a political agenda a lot of conservatives and reactionaries supported (ending the chaos of Weimar Germany, getting better deals in terms of treaties and agreements than the weak previous governments had gotten, protecting Catholicism and Lutheranism, protecting normal people, preserving peace, building the German economy, and just generally his being decisive, he also promised—in dog whistles—to purify Germany of immigrants and Jews); 3) appearing to be a better choice than Soviet communism (since all liberalism is communism); 4) the Catholics and Lutherans decided their political agenda was more likely to get enacted with him, and he promised to support them, although he’d never been a particularly good Christian prior to his election; 5) the political situation seemed to be simultaneously chaotic and paralyzed, and many people said it was because people like them had made bad choices, but Hitler said people like them were awesome and had never made bad choices and it was just evil politicians, and he wasn’t one, so they should trust him. (This point ignored that Hitler and his party had been crucial in making sure that democracy didn’t work.)

The whole “this person isn’t Hitler because I’d know Hitler” assumes that the Hitler of 1933 was a strikingly abnormal rhetor, and, certainly, Hitler’s rhetoric could be abnormal. When my students read Mein Kampf, they complain that he manages to be boring, enraging, and incoherent at the same time, and it’s an odd achievement for a text to do all three simultaneously—you’d think something enraging would at least manage not to be boring. Once we were using an online version that had skipped a page, and it took us a while to notice because the page jump made his argument only slightly more disconnected than usual. As mentioned earlier, the basic themes in Hitler’s rhetoric weren’t unique to him, and many Germans would have been consuming the same racist and militaristic rhetoric (even the lebensraum notion), but it was at least somewhat abnormal for a rhetor with major political ambitions to be so explicit and frothing at the mouth about them. But he was only that open until he was Chancellor.

So, the question of “Is this person just like Hitler?” generally appeals to a cartoon understanding of who “Hitler” was. It’s the wrong question. The question is whether they would have supported a leader who said: things have been bad in so many ways, and real Americans have been consistently screwed over and ignored in our political system. The major decision-making body has been paralyzed by political infighting by professional politicians who haven’t been paying attention to the kind of people (in terms of race and religion) who are the real heart of this nation. Our relations with other countries have been completely lopsided, and we’ve been giving way more than we’ve been getting. We aren’t a warlike people, and we don’t want war, but we insist on the right to defend our interests. Liberals and communists are basically the same, in that liberalism necessarily ends up in communism. Situations are never actually complex, but people who benefit from pretending they’re complicated will say they are (teachers, experts, governmental employees, lawyers). The correct policies we should be pursuing are absolutely obvious to a person of decisive judgment—being able to figure out the right course of action doesn’t require expert knowledge or listening to people who disagree. The ideal political leader has a history of being decisive. And that person cares about normal people like you who are the real heart of America, and it’s easy for someone like you to know whether the leader has good judgment and cares about you—you can just tell. There is one party that supports the obviously correct course of action, and we should try to ensure that party has control of every aspect of government, and that there will be no brakes on what that party decides to do.

If you would support someone making that argument, then Congratulations! You just endorsed Hitler’s argument in his March 23, 1933 speech!


[1] Again, not unheard of in our own time, and it’s done by people who get their panties in a bunch if anyone connects reactionary politics with other instances of reactionary politics—such as pointing out a possible connection between the SBC stance on gay marriage and its stance on segregation, or, perhaps, its formation and the connection to proslavery rhetoric. And, no, I’m not saying that everyone who now supports the SBC supports slavery. What I am saying is that the SBC has consistently gotten it wrong in regard to issues of race, and so maybe their exegetical method is flawed. If they keep getting an outcome that they later regret, maybe there is a process problem.

[2]They don’t live their lives that way, a point pursued elsewhere at greater length, but here I’ll just say that they will say something like “murder is wrong” and then have all sorts of exceptions and complicated cases. They manage to get dressed for work without being certain what the weather will be, and to pick a new show to watch without being certain they will like it (often, they just refuse to acknowledge the uncertainty).

III. Immediate rhetorical background

In the 1932 election, nobody received enough votes for anything other than a coalition government. The far left refused to compromise with the moderate left, and Hindenburg and Papen were persuaded to bring Hitler in with an understanding that Hitler’s radicalism (and economic ignorance) would be moderated by conservatives. Papen was, according to Richard Evans, confident that Hitler “would surely be easy enough to control” (308). Hitler’s ascent to power was enabled by conservative elite, but not because they wholeheartedly agreed with his ideology: “The anxiety to destroy democracy rather than the keenness to bring the Nazis to power was what triggered the complex developments that led to Hitler’s Chancellorship” (Kershaw, Hubris, 424-5).

A large number of people had given up on Enlightenment models of democratic liberalism–public discourse based in reason, fairness, and compassion, that benefits from inclusion and diversity, and which presumes universal human rights, and which assumes that policy deliberation means a world in which no one ever completely wins or completely loses. They were hoping that a more authoritarian government would solve their various economic and cultural problems quickly and decisively, and Hitler certainly came across as decisive. Hitler promised “that he would subordinate class conflict and capitalist ‘laws’ to the common good of the nation–just as he would submit foreign powers and their domestic lackeys to resurgent German power” (Mann, Fascists 205).

The German government was in an extended crisis from July 1932 on, with Nazi violence against Jews and political opponents commonplace. It exploded in January of 1933, with what Ian Kershaw referred to as “this first orgy of state violence,” saying “the violence unleashed by Nazi terror bands against their opponents and against Jewish victims was uncontrolled” (Hitler 455).  Many people believed that the explicit antisemitism of his beerhall rhetoric was tacky, although not because they were thoroughly opposed to antisemitism. A depressingly large number of Germans (Europeans, really) believed that Jews were icky and weird, but they didn’t want them killed, or their businesses destroyed; they just wanted to ensure that Jews had a marginal role in government, and maintained a kind of second-class citizenship. When Hindenburg and Papen brought Hitler in to a coalition government, many conservatives were unhappy, but they thought it was a necessary compromise and perhaps Hitler would mature with responsibilities. The hope seems to have been that, although Hitler had long been advocating an extreme antisemitism and militarism, perhaps that rhetoric was just feeding red meat to the base, and he didn’t really mean it, or he could be persuaded to become more moderate if given power. And, besides, they said, he was a better alternative than Bolshevism.

Evans quotes the French ambassador to Germany, Andre Francois-Poncet, that conservatives expected (correctly) that Hitler would “agree to their program of ‘the crushing of the left, the purging of the bureaucracy, the assimilation of Prussia and the Reich, the reorganization of the army, the re-establishment of military service.” They believed that they could all those policies out of him and discredit him (315).

To quote Kershaw again:

“The working class was cowed and broken by Depression, its organizations enfeebled and powerless. But the ruling groups did not have the mass support to maximize their ascendancy and destroy once and for all the power of organized labour. Hitler was brought in to do the job for them. That he might do more than this, that he might outlast all predictions and expand his own power immensely and at their own expense, either did not occur to them, or was regarded as an exceedingly unlikely outcome. The underestimation of Hitler and his movement by the power-brokers remains a leitmotiv of the intrigues that placed him in the Chancellor’s office.” (Hubris 425-6)

Mann says “highly committed militants, widespread voter sympathy, and elite ambivalence and weakness […] allowed the Nazi leaders to seize power with a mixture of coercion, electoral contest, and constitution manipulation” (Fascists 206). Then a crazed Dutchman set fire to the Reichstag, and the Nazis could put in place things they’d been planning for years. They framed the arsonist as a Jewish Bolshevist (he was neither), and used his actions to justify ending Germany’s experiment with democracy, and beginning its experiment with fascism.

On March 5, the Nazis were given a majority of the Reichstag in an election, and Hitler was able, on March 23, to propose an “Enabling Act“that would give him tremendous power and greatly reduce the power of the Reichstag. Since the Communist deputies were either detained or in hiding, Hitler could count on his proposal winning. The speech he gave was not necessary for getting the act passed, but it was necessary for legitimating his actions and, more important, legitimating him and delegitimating his oppositions and critics.

As with many political speeches, this one had what scholars of rhetoric call a “composite” audience. There were first, the conservative elites, who wanted assurance that he was not the beerhall demagogue who had roused his base to violence, and second, that base, who wanted more of the red meat he’d been feeding them for years, third, leaders of other countries who wanted to know what sort of person he was going to be (hopefully, a rational one), and, fourth, large numbers of people who may or may not have voted for him, but who wanted more stability, and who might have been somewhat worried about whether he was going to provide it.

He also had an international audience for this speech (it was reported in German and published in an official English translation). They were concerned that he was an irrational, self-aggrandizing, and impractical toxic populist, that he really meant to exterminate Jews, that he intended to default on German war debts. Given the violence unleashed by his being named Chancellor, and his insistence that Nazis be allowed to murder with impunity, the attacks on Jews, and the war-mongering of Mein Kampf, the international audience wanted reassurance that Hitler would calm the fraught and paralyzingly factional political situation of Germany, not go Bolshevik, be a responsible leader, and not actually act on the foaming-at-the-mouth antisemitism of Mein Kampf.

He had an autobiography in which he bragged about manipulating others, and that his major goals were to achieve world domination and a Europe (Germany) free of liberals, people who disagreed with him, and genetically-inferior beings (which included entire peoples, such as Jews, Romas, Sintis, and Poles, as well as categories of people whose behavior showed that they were genetically criminal, such as leftists, homosexuals, union activists). He needed to persuade his base that he hadn’t abandoned any of those values or goals, and he needed to persuade “moderate” conservatives that he hadn’t meant the things he’d said to his base in his autobiography or numerous speeches. He had to appear not as a beerhall demagogue, a Jew-baiter, and a man who had probably had an affair with his niece, but a responsible political figure, while not losing the persona of the Jew-baiting beerhall demagogue his base had come to love. He had to look as though he was open to reason, and as though nothing would move him. He had to espouse his irresponsible protectionist policies and appear not to.

His previous forays into extremism meant that the bar was pretty low for him to look responsible–he really just had to look as though he was less demagogic than he had been. And, in his first speech in the position afforded him by post-Reichstag fire political contingencies, he needed to square the circle of being passionately antisemitic, determined on world domination, and reasonably committed to peace and the status quo, but needing extraordinary measures of power. And he did it. He looked like a reasonable fascist.



II. A source of unshakeable authority

“We are determined to constitute a government which, instead of constantly wavering from side to side, shall be firm and purposeful, and restore to our people a source of unshakeable authority

When people believe that they would have rejected Hitler, it’s because they believe that since Hitler’s evil is now obvious to them, it would have been just as obvious then. That’s probably not true. People in the era were persuaded, especially after he took office, that he would just promote Germany, and they didn’t think there would be genocide or world war (for more on that point, see Backing Hitler and Letters to Hitler). As Michael Mann says, “Hitler would not have reached 5 percent of the votes if he had promised either a second world war or the murder of millions of Jews and Slavs” (Fascist 185).

In Mein Kampf (1925) Hitler had explained his goal of a lebensraum (living space) for the Aryan race. Germany would control all of Europe and the US, all lesser races in those regions would be expelled, exterminated, or enslaved, and all the land would be redistributed to Aryans in a kind of plantation system (much like Rhodesia). As Ian Kershaw points out, the basic concept “had been a prominent strand of German imperialist ideology since the 1890s” (Hitler 248). So, much like his racialist theories, this way of thinking about Germany’s “need” would have resonated with a lot of common rhetoric of the time.

Obviously, that plan involved world war and genocide, but people supported him who, at least initially, wanted neither. How did that happen? How were large numbers of people persuaded to ignore what Hitler had promised when he was campaigning? How did people who didn’t like Nazis for their extremism and eliminationist rhetoric decide supporting their candidate would be okay?

Hitler presented himself as a person who cared about regular people, who appealed to the dominant sense that democratic deliberation was inefficient and dominated by special interests. He presented himself as someone who could cut through the Gordian knot of government bullshit and get every real German what s/he deserved. He employed a rhetoric of brave victimhood (you are being brave despite being victimized by them), and incoherent vaguely religious scapegoating (that sort of racial, sort of religious group is in a vast conspiracy to exterminate you),that enabled aggressive action (expel or kill them all) as some kind of self-defense (with various rumors, myths, and misrepresentations of violence against the ingroup). And he had large number of media who would not only perfectly replicate the talking points created about him, but who would inoculate (in the sense it’s used in rhetoric) their consumers against opposition points of view.

Rhetorical inoculation is crucial to understanding how authoritarianism works. Just as giving someone cowpox (a weak version of smallpox) will enable them to resist smallpox if they encounter it, so presenting a person with a weak version of an ideology can enable their cognitive system to reject any argument of that ideology, even much stronger versions. While that might be useful for immunology, it is profoundly anti-democratic in that the whole point of it is to persuade citizens not to listen to anyone who disagrees. It says that you already know what they’re going to say, and it’s stupid. When it works, citizens don’t know any points of view other than their own, but they think they do, and so they’re making uninformed decisions while thinking they’re as informed as they need to be.

Inoculation ensures that we have a citizenry that is simultaneously un- and mis-informed about their policy options.

Authoritarianism works by saying there are two choices: our good set of policies (our ingroup) and everything else, and those two choices are obviously between what is good (rational, moral, clear) and what is bad (irrational, immoral, relativist). Authoritarianism works when it persuades people to make decisions on the basis of group identity. Authoritarianism also always says that the situation of the ingroup is so disastrous that we don’t have time for deliberation. In Robert Paxton‘s words, we are in an “overwhelming crisis beyond the reach of traditional solutions.” And Hitler could count on large parts of his audience believing that to be true—the German government really had had a hard time getting much done or solving its problems; it didn’t seem to be working. Its dysfunctional slough wasn’t the consequence of the depression alone. Mann says, “Germany was not in chaos; its depression was no worse than the American depression” (205). The German democracy wasn’t working because major political groups didn’t want it to work. The elites, Mann says, “still felt they had an authoritarian option” (205). Both the Fascists and Stalinists believed they were better served either the Fascists nor the Stalinists wanted it to work. They set fire to democracy and then insisted that democracy was unworkable because it caught on fire.

He could also count on the support of a lot of wealthy reactionaries and authoritarians, even ones who looked down on Hitler, because they were opposed to the higher tax obligations and restrictions on the rich that they thought social democrats would impose (who wanted a progressive tax to support a strong social safety net), and they felt threatened by the Bolsheviks. They were worried about losing their privileges (Mann). They thought that Hitler, who had a passionate (albeit profoundly irrational) base didn’t really mean what he said and wasn’t that extreme, would be matured by being in a position of power, or could be controlled. They just needed someone “to sign this stuff. We don’t need someone to think it up or design it.”

Hitler said: We are not in a bad situation because of having made bad decisions in the past. WWI didn’t start because of Germany having decided to support Austria in a stupid bluff, and our invading Belgium was the fault of England, and it had nothing to do with nationalism and racism about the French and a political system that put too much power in the hands of an individual who might have poor judgment. We’re the real victims here. The Versailles Treaty is evil (and let’s not talk about the conditions imposed on France after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870), and we only lost WWI because of Jews (who are all Bolshevists, especially the capitalists, and who are sort of a race and sort of a religion, and don’t ask too much about that or the whole capitalist/communist thing).

For much of Hitler’s audience, that was tl;dr.

What he said was: you’re in a bad situation; it can’t be your fault. You’re a German, so it can’t be Germany’s fault. IT’S THE LIBERALS. Who are Jews. And Bolsheviks. And international financiers. ALL TRUE GERMANS AGREE. Our government sucks because it isn’t giving you the things you know you deserve, and it isn’t dominating every other country, and GOD WANTS US TO BE THE BEST, and democracy involves letting other people argue and they’re all wrong and so it’s a waste of time because the true course of action is obvious to every reasonable person and so ELECT SOMEONE WHO CARES ABOUT PEOPLE LIKE YOU. And who will insist that GERMANY IS THE BEST. A strong man who will just walk into every international negotiation and dominate everyone and insist that they do what is best for Germany. As far as domestic policies, we need someone who gets people like us, who cares about us. Politicians who say it’s complicated are just trying to line their own pockets. Democratic deliberation is a waste of time–just hand over all the power to a guy who can get things done. And that’s me.

The fact is that that kind of political rhetoric never ends well, but it always looks as though it will. And it looks as though it will work out okay because it appeals to the sense that people like us are good, and so things that people like us support must be good.

I’m trying to make two points here: first, no one supports genocide or world war at the beginning, but we support policies that (unbeknownst to us) tend toward genocide and so authoritarians who think their authoritarian isn’t Hitler because s/he isn’t explicitly supporting genocide are thoroughly missing the historical lesson; second, Hitler’s success came about because he depoliticized politics–he said it wasn’t about political issues, but about whether he was the kind of person people could trust, and therefore they should hand all decisions over to him.

So, the fantasy that a lot of people have now–that they would recognize a Hitler were he to arise because they would never support someone who would advocate genocide and an obviously unnecessary war–is false in that it assumes that they would know what they know now about Hitler. Anytime an individual, institution, community, or culture comes to a disastrously bad decision (such as Germany supporting Hitler), the interesting question is not about the content of their decision (they supported Hitler) but about the process–what made supporting Hitler seem like a good decision?

We all would like to imagine that we would have been running slaves to freedom, hiding Jews, in a cell next to King in Birmingham, standing firm on the bridge in Selma, and that imagined version of ourselves is premised on our knowing what we know about how those actions turned out. Now, we know that slavery was wrong. But how do we know that? If we know that because we consume a lot of media that says slavery was wrong and the people involved in the underground railroad were good, then our method of deciding what is right and wrong is one–what our dominant media says is right or wrong–is a method that would have made us outraged if we had been raised in a proslavery culture.

So, if our method of deciding if something is right or wrong is just asking ourselves if the thing seems right or wrong then we would have supported slavery if we’d been raised in a proslavery environment. In other words, just asking ourselves whether something is right or wrong is a shitty way to determine if something is right or wrong.

Hitler persuaded people he could be trusted—if not trusted to do the right thing, at least trusted not to do the wrong thing, and the March 23, 1933 speech exemplifies how authoritarians do that.


I. “This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:” Popular Science, Their Conspiracies, and Agreement is All We Need

[The introduction to this argument is here.]

Many people look back at Hitler and believe someone like him could never sucker them because, they believe, he pounded on a podium shouting for the extermination of Jews on the basis of what everyone could recognize as rabid and irrational racism. They recognize that Hitler relied on charismatic leadership, but they think they’re immune to it.

Hitler didn’t begin by arguing for extermination of the Jews. He told his audience that Germany, which should be great, was in a state of political, economic, and moral collapse because it was weakened by the presence of those people. He said we’re weakened by disagreement, and the disagreement is purely the consequence of them. He said the solutions to the major problems of the era were simple, and he could (and would) enact them immediately. Germany was trapped by procedural quibbling, “parliamentarianism” (by which he meant that everything had to be argued in the equivalent of Congress), liberals who just want to slow everything down, experts who try to tell people like you and me that our beliefs are wrong, Marxists who want to destroy what we have, and Jews who are all terrorists.

Weimar Germany was (like most of Europe) profoundly antisemitic, ranging from “they’re okay as neighbors, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one” through “it sure would be nice if they all went away” to “we should kill them all.” That last group wasn’t especially large, but the other versions were widespread. (And, really, the “milder” ones could be morphed into exterminationist easily.) The Jewish stereotype (in literature, film cartoons, even songs) was that Jews were clubby, greedy, crude, and damned to Hell. Sometimes that stereotype was presented as though it were positive (G.K. Chesterton’s antisemitism fits into this category, and Wyndham Lewis’ Are Jews Human is another apt example).

Many people decide that a claim is true if it’s repeated in their informational world a lot, and if it’s repeated by people they respect. If a claim is unanimously supported by their ingroup and contested by one of their outgroups, many people will decide it must be true (a version of social knowing). Basically, this whole long discussion of Hitler could be compressed in my saying that that way of approaching decisions is what enabled Hitler (and Stalin), and so anyone who approaches decisions that way doesn’t get to pretend s/he would have recognized Hitler or Stalin as evil. Nope. Congratulations: if you reason that way about politics, here is your death’s head symbol!

Karl Marx was Jewish, and many of the people in Lenin’s close circle were Jewish, and a lot of anti-Semitic propaganda equated being Jewish and being Bolshevik. Of course, most Jews weren’t Bolshevik, and not all Bolsheviks were Jews, but people engage in very sloppy reasoning when it comes to an outgroup. Since we have a tendency to assume the outgroup is essentially evil, then the bad behavior of some of them seems to typify all of them. By the early twentieth century most of the major financiers were not Jewish, but the Rothschild family came to be the symbol of international finance.

Thus, a large number of people were willing to blame Jews for Bolshevism, capitalism, the loss of WWI, entry into WWI, and anything else that needed a scapegoat. Sometimes that stereotype was presented by an author as though it wasn’t unreasonable—a hero or narrator might grant that not all Jews were involved in a worldwide conspiracy, but assert that all conspiracies were Jewish (an assumption so widespread that it amounted to a cliche in thrillers).  A fair number of people also blamed Jews for draining blood from Christian boys, killing Jesus (a particularly pernicious claim), stealing consecrated hosts. Many people, especially those who had made it through the near Soviet-style revolts in some German cities, were deeply opposed to Soviet-style communism (a not unreasonable concern) but a lot of anti-communist propaganda equated Bolshevism (as it was called) and Jews. It’s important to understand that connection, otherwise it’s easy to miss why Nazism was so successful.

Jews were thoroughly marginalized in Czarist Russia, and, so, compared to the number of Jews in the general population, it could be argued that there was a disproportionate number of Jews in Lenin’s immediate circle. He also had a disproportionate number of close advisors from Georgia, and no one wonders about the disproportionate number of New Yorkers in the official and unofficial cabinet of a New York President. We expect that people will rely heavily and work with people in their social circle; it’s only if that circle is marked by ougroup membership (especially by race or religion) then we decide there is a causal correlation. Since Jews were marked as outgroup, then the Jewishness of any participant in Lenin’s revolution or cabinet was marked and assumed to have some kind of causal relationship to Bolshevism. (That most supporters of Lenin were not Jewish is ignored.)

Here’s one way to think about that. If a person wearing a t-shirt showing they support a politician, religion, or sports team you loathe treats you badly in line at the grocery store, you’ll attribute their being a jerk to their being in your outgroup. They did that jerky thing because they’re Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, and we all know how they are. That incident will confirm your sense that Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are inherently evil. If someone behaved exactly the same way but had a t-short that showed they shared some kind of identity important to you, if you are Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, then you would attribute their behavior to something else (they’re wearing someone else’s shirt, they’re having a bad day). Unhappily, therefore, a depressing number of people who self-identified as Christian equated “Jewish” with “atheist Bolshevism” (the same way that many people now equate “Muslim” with “politically motivated terrorists”).

Thus, in Weimar Germany, many people were willing to believe that Bolshevism was Jewish, and while people were willing to grant that not all Jews were Bolshevists, they believed that enough of them were that the entire “race” (and keep in mind, Judaism isn’t a race) should be removed from Germany. It was the peanut analogy—if you know that some peanuts are poison, you would throw out the whole bowl, or at least keep more from entering.

Let’s be clear: the attempt to “cleanse” Europe of all sorts of identities (Jews, Romas, Sintis, Poles, intellectuals, Marxists, union leaders, liberals, homosexuals) began as an argument that was framed as “it’s best for all of us if they go elsewhere.”

Hitler’s policies regarding stigmatized groups could be framed as reasonable throughout his career because he would appear to have been just on the edge of acceptable racist discourse. He would have appeared crude to a lot of people, but also a lot of of his followers would have found his “honesty” on “what they all knew” to be refreshing. And he didn’t immediately call for extermination; he called for refusing to allow more immigrants. Initially, his claim was that Germany needed to protect itself against parasites (takers), immigrants, peoples not capable of being really German, groups that were inherently criminal, his political opponents, and that meant more purity in the culture, more rigid actions on the part of police, less concern about due process and fairness, and a more open equation of German-ness and a particular political group.

Hitler persuaded a large number of people that he was them, that he cared about them, and they needed to throw all their faith onto him, and he persuaded others (who were appalled at the liberalism of Weimar Germany) that he was their only choice to undo the liberal policies of Weimar politics. Many people voted for him for those reasons, even ones really uncomfortable with his tendency to engage in bigoted claims about various races and religions. They believed that democracy was dead, as was shown by the inability of the Weimar democracy to make the situation better (it actually had done a pretty good job, but the main problem was that compromise and deliberation were demonized, but that’s a tangent I’ll avoid).

My point is that Hitler’s genocidal policies wouldn’t have seemed to his audience as purely racial; it would have seemed to his audience as though the groups he was targeting really were political and economic threats. A lot of people really did believe that Jews were intent on imposing communism everywhere and they could name acts of terrorism and revolution in which Jews participated, and they could point to all sorts of media, common discourse, and “walking down the street” experience to say that some groups are just useless takers—Polack jokes, getting “gypped” by someone.

There were terrorists who were Jewish; there were criminals who were Sintis. Therefore, “normal” people could “know” that a group of Jews or Romas would include terrorists and criminals, and so they defined the essence of Jews and Romas as terrorist and criminal. Germany had a lot of terroristic violence, with a lot of it (most?) committed by Nazis and other volkisch groups. But many people wrote off that violence as either justified (as self-defense against the Jews) or inessential. The US, right now, has a lot of terrorism, most of it committed by white males who self-identify as Christian. Yet, how many people worried about terrorism are worried about white male Christians? They engage in the no true Scotsman defense, and only worry about outgroup violence, and, as too many people in Weimar Germany did, they are willing to generalize about the essence of another religion, while engaging in considerable cognitive work to keep from admitting that most terrorism is ingroup.

I’m not saying that the Jews of the 1917-1933 are just like Muslims of 1996-now. I’m not making a claim about facts; I’m making a claim about how people in a moment understand things. And how they understand things largely depend on the media they consume. In Weimar Germany, a time of highly factionalized media, people were really worried because of events that had actually happened (the communist uprisings), but also ones that hadn’t (desecrations of the host, Jews having killed Jesus, but they decided those events were the consequence of identity (Jews) and not policy (the German commitment to winning WWI) or process (that there was no way for the country as a whole to get good information about the war or influence decision-making). Weimar Germany media was, all at the same time, rabidly factionalized (if you read this newspaper, you only heard about terrible things they did and never about terrible things your group did), agreed that the mistakes of WWI wouldn’t be usefully debated (but just factionalized), and agreed that significant dissent is unpatriotic.

Hitler accepted a narrative about civilization and race that was popular in some circles and also accepted among many experts (especially the new science of genetics). The idea was that evolution is progressive, so that a “more evolved” species is better in every way than a less evolved one (Gould’s Mismeasure of Man remains a really good introduction to all that discourse, even with some disagreements as to his argument on brain size measurements). In this view, “immorality” is more common among “lower” species, so that higher animals (like humans) behave in a more moral way than lower animals (like apes). In addition, dominant genetics said that there were sometimes “throwbacks” in evolution (called atavism), so that humans are sometimes born with characteristics genetically connected to earlier (and lower) stages in our evolution, such as babies born with tails. Races, many of these people argued, functioned as species, and so there are races that are closer to animals, and they are more inherently criminal, and essentially incapable of autonomy. This version of genetics was simultaneously deeply flawed and very popular. And it’s important to understand both parts to understand Hitler’s popularity.

Since morality is just as much genetic as a tail, this argument ran, and the more genetically advanced are more moral, then immorality is also an evolutionary throwback. Groups that are more immoral are more like animals in every way, and it’s because of their genetics.

The last bad idea in this cornucopia of bad ideas is that we should think about human genetics the way we think about breeding racehorses, bunnies, or chickens. Notice that throughout this discussion I haven’t defined “morality,” nor terms like “higher” or “better.” Here I’m following how geneticists wrote–they began their research by assuming that there was perfect agreement on those terms, and thereby enabled themselves not to see the circularity in their arguments. Most people charged with crimes were recent immigrants or criminalized ethnicities, and, since crime is immoral, they concluded that those ethnicities were genetically criminal. (We still make this mistake, by assuming that rates of arrest are perfect representations of rates of commission of crime.)

So, what they didn’t notice in their own research was that their own standards of “better” were actually pretty odd. They tended to equate, without noticing, market value with better. A racehorse is “better” than a drafthorse insofar as you pay more for the former than the latter, but a racehorse is a terrible draft horse. To get the fastest horse, breeding two fast horses is a good choice, but a fast horse is not always the better horse. The research on chickens and bunnies is unintentionally hilarious (with horror about the monstrosity of a bunny with one ear upright and the other floppy). It’s also contradictory, since, as mentioned above, market value was often taken as a pure measure of goodness, and market value is often enhanced by genetic oddities. Or, in other words, purebred, and inbred are pretty similar, as shown in the Hapsburg Jaw. I love Great Danes, and even I will admit that a purebred Great Dane is not a better dog than a mutt–it’s much more likely to have terrible problems. But early twentieth-century genetics assumed that purity is always better, except when it didn’t.

What’s odd to a rhetorician about the genetics rhetoric is that it was so obviously wrong, even in its era. Anthropologists, linguists, and even a lot of biologists took issue with geneticists’ arguments in the first decade of the 20th century (that’s why geneticists had to form their own organizations–they couldn’t stand the critiques). Anyone familiar with the Habsburgs knew purity wasn’t good, and genetics simultaneously assumed that purity was better AND condemned inbreeds like the Jukes family.

Early twentieth century genetics was just a muck of contradictory assumptions. For instance, it was a convention to say that a cross between a higher and lower was halfway between the two, but, of course, even royal families had their “lower” babies–epileptics, hemophiliacs, homosexuals. And anyone even a little familiar with breeding dogs or horses knew that not only did you often get a dud from two great individuals, but that there were always surprises from less than stellar lines. That it was muddled is an important point, because when a particular sustained conversation (that is, a bunch of people who have created a kind of argumentative ingroup—a subreddit, Fox News, DailyKos, analytic philosophers, native plant gardeners—sometimes called a “discourse community”) have an argument that doesn’t have internally consistent arguments, then you know you’ve got an ideologically-driven discourse community.

That point might seem a little pedantic, and it’s important for understanding when the Hitler analogy is and isn’t relevant, so I should explain it a little more. In rhetoric, it’s common to talk about enclaves, which are little safe spaces in which like-minded people can huddle together and do nothing but agree how awesome they all are.

Enclaves are great, and we all need them, and so every life should have at least one. Enclaves are places where we all agree, and we go to feel that we are part of a group that is entirely right, and entirely good, and entirely powerful.

Enclaves are useful for motivation, and, really, it’s just lovely to be in an enclave. Everything is clear, and everything is comfortable and no one will tell you that you might have fucked up.

Enclaves can be politically important. Lefty women relegated to making coffee and working the mimeograph literally got together and discovered they all shared similar experiences. Our Bodies, Our Selves came out of an enclave. The Tea Party is an enclave-based movement, as was Earth First. Within your enclave, deciding that loyalty to that group is important makes perfect sense. The institutional goal of an enclave is to make people feel safe within a group. Enclaves are also good for motivation—before putting on a show, or playing a competitive sport, and in those circumstances it wouldn’t be helpful for someone to say, “Well, maybe the other team is better, and really should win.”

But all the research on decision-making is clear that it isn’t good for a large institution or community to make decisions from within an enclave, largely because of that enclave emphasis on loyalty to the group being such a high value. Good decisions require good disagreement, and criticism of the ingroup is generally perceived as disloyalty. And, so, while it’s common for political agenda to be brainstormed within an enclave, and it’s healthy for all of us to retreat to one from time to time, political agenda should be subject to criticism, worst-case scenario thinking, assessment of weaknesses and challenges, and honest assessments of previous failures. So, at some point, that political agenda needs to be shared outside of an enclave.

Determining processes and policies within an enclave is challenging, because of the value on loyalty, and so it’s common for enclaves either to splinter into sub-communities on which everyone agrees, or to begin threatening dissenters with violence and exclusion. Unhappily, the more that an enclave values loyalty, the more likely it is to devolve into smaller communities, or become a community in which people can’t disagree.

Genetics ended up being an enclave expert discourse. Instead of respond to the serious objections and criticism of eugenics made by contemporaries, they created their own journals and departments (and as in the case of Franz Boas, tried to get really threatening critics fired). And what eugenics had to say could be defended with complicated charts and statistics (which was a relatively new field at that point), and it confirmed everyday and very popular racism. But it was popular, and it was powerful–even college textbooks endorsed it. That science was used to rationalize the US forced sterilization of 60k people, the extraordinarily restrictive 1924 Immigration Act, Japanese internment, anti-Asian immigration/naturalization rules and statutes, antimiscegenation laws, and segregation in the US. Every claim of that kind of genetics was rejected by methodologically sound research in anthropology, linguistics, and biology, but my point is that it was easy for racists to find apparently expert support for their racist policies (see Science for Segregation).

The most problematic claims of eugenics were that “race” is a biological category (the history of debates over “whiteness” show that isn’t true); that races exist on a hierarchy of civilization (some races are essentially more gifted with intelligence, morality, strength, and all the virtues that merit higher status and pay–other races are given the virtues, such as being good with children, that are connected to lower status and pay); that the “mixing” of races results in children who are closer to the “lower” than the “higher” race; and that the “white” race (sometimes Nordic, sometimes Aryan) is responsible for all the great civilizations in the history of humanity, and those civilizations fail when the white/Nordic/Aryan race stops being pure. Race-mixing, these people say, weaken civilizations. Hitler used this narrative to argue that “lesser” races had to be exterminated, and that punishing ‘race-mixing’ with death was justified. Even after the war, supporters of segregation cited the same shitty “science” that justified Hitler’s genocide–that line of argument figured into the lower courts’ rulings on Loving v. Virginia in the 60s.

So, while we look back at Hitler’s racism and see it as insane, and while the most methodologically sound scholarship of the era had long since shown it to be ideologically driven, people who wanted to believe that some racial groups were inherently more dangerous, more criminal, more prone to terrorism, more genetically driven to be poor could find experts who would tell them that they were right. Hell, they could find entire departments at some universities who would tell them that.

What made Hitler’s “science” bad wasn’t that it now looks bad to us, nor that it was a fringe science, nor that it didn’t have supporting evidence—it did. What made it bad was the logic of their arguments—their failure to define terms, to put forward internally consistent arguments, and to define the conditions that would falsify their claims. For instance, eugenicists never came up with a definition of “race” that they used consistently—sometimes they meant nationality, sometimes language group, sometimes, as in the case of “the Jews,” they talked about a religion as though it were a race (the same thing is happening now with people who refer to the “Muslim race” or who assume that “Muslim” and “Arabic” are the same).

In Germany, the “science” was slightly different, as was the religious rhetoric. In the US, there was a lot of support for “science” that said that African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, and Asians deserved their economic, political, and cultural situation because it was the natural situation. In Germany, there wasn’t as much political need to rationalize the oppression of African Americans, Latinx, Native Americans, or Asians, but Jews, Sintis, Romas, various central and eastern European groups filled that same role, and there was the same rhetorical need to naturalize their oppression. Hitler’s long-term plan was to establish the same kind of plantation system in eastern Europe that England had in places like Rhodesia (Kershaw’s biographies of Hitler are especially good on this).

Although he called himself national socialist (meaning not the international socialists–that is, Marxist socialism), what he meant was European colonialism. In his era “socialism” meant redistribution of wealth, and he imagined a racial redistribution of wealth. Central and eastern Europe would become the Rhodesia of Germany. So, once Europe was Jew-free, then the other lesser races would behave in the ways British colonialism used Africans. Poles, for instance, would act as workers, perhaps even managers, for the large estates run by Aryans.

Hitler’s plans were more extreme that most of the dominant rhetoric of the era (which was still pretty racist), and so he was clever about keeping it out of the larger public sphere. But he meant it, as is shown by his deliberations with his generals (a different post entirely). Briefly, his military decisions were grounded in his understandings of races, and since his understandings of race were wrong, they were bad decisions. Again, that’s a different post (involving the Hitler Myth).

For this post, what matters is that German (European, to be blunt) cultural rhetoric provided a lot of support for essentializing the evil of those groups (lefties, homosexuals, Sintis anbd Romas, union leaders, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, “mentally retarded”) because that rhetoric assumed that there was a clear distinction between “them” and “us” and that the differences were biological (that is, grounded in genes and incapable of genuine change).

But, as in the US, while people would support the lynching here and there of outgroup members, disproportionate incarceration rates, polite racism (social exclusion, racist employment practices, shunning people in intergroup marriages), the same people who believed that that group is essentially evil balked at government-sponsored violence in front of their eyes (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution is elegant on this). Prior to the war, most Germans didn’t want all the Jews in Europe to be killed, and they probably wouldn’t have supported Hitler in 1933 had he said that was what he would do. But he didn’t say it, and they supported his putting in place the systems, policies, and processes (especially one-party government, an openly politicized and authoritarian police force, and personal loyalty to him being the central value—more on all those below), because they were okay with the kind of expulsions and restrictions they thought Hitler had in mind for those kind of scary Others.

I’ve given so much background on eugenics/genetics because I think that one mistake that people make when they think they would recognize Hitler and resist (or believe that comparing their beloved authoritarian to Hitler is a ridiculous analogy) is that they think Hitler started off by calling for genocide based on wacky science. He didn’t initially explicitly call for genocide (or, at least, people didn’t hear him saying that, and he gave himself a lot of plausible deniability), and most of his intended audience wouldn’t have seen the science as wacky.

So, when we’re worried about whether this leader is like Hitler in troubling ways, we shouldn’t be looking for someone who will use early-twentieth century genetics to argue for exterminating Jews. We also shouldn’t be looking for someone who will cite obviously whackjob “science” or fringe experts to support the bizarre notions of some marginalized group. We should worry more about a leader who is citing experts whose “science” can’t withstand the rigors of academic argument, who have had to form their own journals and organizations, but whose claims are attractive both to authoritarian leaders and to most people because they confirm common beliefs. The most important failure of those experts (and the propaganda supporting and promoting them) is that neither they nor their supporters can make arguments that are both internally consistent and apply the same rhetorical/logical standards across groups.


[image from wikimedia commons: http://wikivisually.com/wiki/Ludwig_Cr%C3%BCwell]

“I cannot explain why it does not affect me:” How to make a Hitler comparison (Introduction)

Godwin’s Law is a reasonably good statement about internet arguments–that the argument is over when someone accuses the other side of being just like Hitler–because “Hitler” is what rhetoricians call an “ultimate term;” that is, all connotation and no denotation. It’s a word that powerfully evokes a set of closely associated ideas, the precise connection of which is surprisingly vague (“freedom,” “terrorist,” “political correctness”). People think they’re making a clear reference, but they aren’t (as you can tell if you ask them to define the term precisely-they just get mad). Since the invocation of Hitler is simultaneously powerful, apparently clear, but actually unclear, comparing an opponent to Hitler ends a conversation because there appears to be no useful way to refute or support the comparison.

So, what would it mean to try to have a reasonable conversation about Hitler, who he was, what he did, and how he got a fairly normal country to hand over all power to him and support him in a policy of ethnic cleansing that involved “cleansing” Europe of every member of lots of religions, ethnicities, and behaviors AND take on almost every other European power and every other major industrialized nation.

If we want to know whether a leader is like a current Hitler in some significant way, then we need to look at how Hitler looked in the moment, and not just through the lens of what we know was revealed about him later. Knowing how things played out, and what we now know, is useful, but it’s just as useful to understand why people didn’t predict those things, or didn’t know what we know. And I think a good place to start for thinking about why people didn’t worry as much about him as we think they should have is his March 23, 1933 speech to the Reichstag. Talking about that speech requires some background on Hitler and his context, and talking about comparing a current leader to Hitler requires at least a little bit of an explanation about Hitler analogies.

Everyone is like Hitler in some way–they have a two-syllable name, they’re charismatic, they like dogs, they eat pasta. An argument about a historical comparison needs to be about whether the analogy is apt, if the similarities are causally important to the outcome we want to avoid (Hitler didn’t destroy Germany because he liked dogs).

After all, Hitler did a lot of things–he was vegetarian, a dog lover, a shitty painter, a racist, a lame architect, an authoritarian who was cozy with the industrial class, a poseur art critic, a millionaire who dodged his taxes, a traditionalist when it came to gender roles, a charismatic leader. We worry about whether a current leader is just like Hitler because we’re worried about whether that leader will drag a country into authoritarian government, unnecessary war, an ultimately disastrous economic policy, the jailing of all political opponents, and genocide.

And so we need to figure out which of his characteristics are causally related to those outcomes. Being a dog owner wasn’t one of them. Being authoritarian, racist, and a charismatic leader (not a leader who is charismatic) was causally related to those outcomes, but they aren’t necessarily related (in the logical sense–not all racists engage in genocide, so the two aren’t necessarily related). Genocide is always racist, but not all racism ends in genocide.

So, how did he do it? Hitler didn’t take a nation of tolerant and peaceful supporters of democracy and wave a word wand that magically transformed them into racist warmongerers. He did four things. First, he rode various very powerful cultural and political waves in Weimar German culture to power. Second, when in power, he transformed Germany into a one-party state. Third, between 1933 and 1939 (by which time it was incredibly dangerous to oppose him), he made things better for a lot of Germans. Granted, he did so in ways that would only work for the short term, but people tend not to ask about the long term. Fourth, and the one I want to talk about here, he made his authoritarianism look like not authoritarianism by reframing it as decisiveness, a stance that was helped by his carefully controlling his public image and public rhetoric, looking more reasonable than anyone expected–he had set a low bar–and saying that he just wanted peace and prosperity. He had a rhetoric that made people feel they could trust him.

And so what was that rhetoric?

Pt. I: “This collapse is due to internal infirmities in our national body corporate:” Popular science, their conspiracies, and agreement is all we Need

Pt. II: “A source of unshakeable authority:” Authoritarian rhetoric

Pt. III: Immediate rhetorical background

Pt. IV: “Decide for Peace or War:” Hitler’s March 23, 1933 speech before the Reichstag