It isn’t about a person being racist; it’s about doing something racist

When I was wandering around pro-Trump pages and groups prior to the election, I found a large number of people who said, “I don’t like being called racist, and so I’m voting for Trump.”

While I do believe that all racists voted for Trump, I don’t think all Trump voters were racist. And, really, whether they are racist or not doesn’t matter as much as whether we can talk about racism rather than racists. What’s interesting about that argument is that it isn’t just a pro-Trump argument–not all the people who object to being called racist voted for Trump after all–but why people would vote for someone with an obvious record of very racist statements and actions because they themselves feel unjustly accused of racism.

And, so, really, this is about how to talk about racist statements and actions.

Sure, some of the people who come out regularly to support Trump’s racists statements, are avowedly racist—the neo-Nazis who support Trump wholeheartedly [1].  But I want to talk about supporters who aren’t Nazis, don’t like Nazis, and don’t like being called Nazi (or racist).

Being a racist person in our culture (especially media) is associated with all sorts of horrible things—with being vicious, immoral, evil. If you think in terms of good and evil being absolute binaries—something is either good, or it is entirely evil–and you think of racism as evil, then saying that someone is racist is telling them they are entirely evil. And their response is, quite reasonably, they aren’t entirely evil. In fact, they’re good people because they think racism is evil.

This whole situation is complicated because of how racism is a natural out-growth of three conventional ways of thinking—what sociologists call in-group favoritism, what social psychologists call “faith in group entativity,” and what cognitive psychologists call “confirmation bias.”

In-group favoritism

We tend to think in terms of “people like us” and “people not like us.” And, completely unconsciously, we tend to think that “people like us” (the in-group) is better. So, if an in-group member does the same thing as an out-group member, we’ll explain them differently. The in-group member did it because of being a good person (if it’s a good thing), and an out-group member did it for bad reasons.

If I steal a parking place from you, and I appear to be in-group, you’ll either explain my behavior (she was in a rush, she didn’t see me) or make me not in-group (she looks like an LSU fan). There are all sorts of things that factor into your decision as to whether I’m in- or out-group—what bumper stickers do I have on my car, what kind of car am I driving, how am I dressed, what race/ethnicity am I. Racism is simply the tendency to make race, completely unconsciously, one of those factors. Being racist doesn’t make you evil; it makes you human. [2]

If you’re twitchy about people who appear to you to be transgender, and I am otherwise entirely in-group, you might be slightly more hostile in your interpretation of why I took the place than if I were in-group in terms of your ideas about gender, but still less hostile than if I were out-group in every way (a liberal transgender LSU fan). But you would never think, “Oh, I liked that person till I thought gender was not an issue, and now I don’t.” Biases happen in moments of perception—it’s not easy to see when we’re being biased.

People think of racism as a self-aware pure hostility to every member of every other “race.” If that’s what racism is, then you couldn’t do it without knowing, and you couldn’t be friends with anyone of other races, and you would never do anything kind to any member of any other race. The kind of people who support Trump think that’s what it means to be racist—to hate every member of every other race, and so they think they’re being accused of being like that. And so they’re mad. And, if someone in their in-group (especially a person they see as representing their in-group publicly) says something that might be racist, they’ll find ways of excusing it, largely on the grounds that “He isn’t racist, so he can’t have said something racist.”

But that has never been what racism is—it’s never been pure hostility to every other race. Let’s start with the premise that genocide is racist—all advocates of genocide, or race-based slavery, could think of members of other races for whom they had affection. Adolf Eichmann, who relentlessly pursued the eradication of European Jews, emphasized that he had Jewish friends (and he did). Slaveholders talked about their affection for some slaves, advocates of segregation claimed that their stance came from concern for non-whites (see Bilbo’s introduction to his racist book arguing for getting all African Americans out of America, or David Duke, an actual Nazi, talking about his affection for his African-American maid).

So, simply having kind feelings toward people of other races doesn’t make us not-racist. Racism isn’t about feelings that individuals have for others.

In our culture racism is bad, and we have a hard time thinking of acts as bad without immediately jumping to the actor being equally bad. That was a complicated sentence. Here’s what I mean: I spend a lot of time in the courses where racism comes up (courses on racism, free speech, demagoguery, going to war, Hitler) and I say that “being racist doesn’t mean a person is evil.” And some students hear me saying that racism is okay, and they’re shocked. And that isn’t what I’m saying. Not-evil people say and do racist things. We all do racist things, and we aren’t all evil.

Racism is very bad, but not every act of racism is equally bad, and the worst kinds of racism are the consequence of institutional practices, that don’t necessarily involve anyone being deliberately hostile to someone else.

Think about this in terms of disability. My campus is really bad for anyone with even mild mobility issues—lots of the larger classroom have stairs such that you can’t get to the stage if you are on a scooter or in a wheelchair (and it would be really difficult on crutches), there aren’t enough ramps or curb cuts around campus, elevators are wonky and small (and there aren’t enough), there are buildings with stairs in the middle of hallways and at most entrances, and some ramps are too steep. The people who designed those buildings didn’t do so because they were trying to make it hard for anyone with disabilities to navigate campus—they didn’t say to themselves, “Wow, I sure hate people with disabilities—I’m going to put a stairway here.” Instead, they were designing at a time when the style was to have entrances have a few steps—the idea is that they look more elegant that way. The architects didn’t think of what it would be like to navigate the building or campus with a mobility disability (or any other kinds, really) because that concern was invisible to them. They didn’t think. So, what they did was bad and discriminatory, but it didn’t come from evil intentions; it came from a lack of thought.

So, culturally, we need to talk about the harms caused by actions, policies, and institutions, and not whether the individuals involved are good or evil. The next time Trump says something racist, we need to stop shifting the stasis to whether he’s racist—what matters is that thing was a racist thing to say. As long as we allow the stasis to shift to whether he is racist, then his PR people can point out a single non-racist thing he did, or some relationship he has with a non-white, or condemn the people who quote him, or some non-white says he’s okay, or point out that he didn’t do something even more racist.  What he says matters more than who he is. If someone comes back with a “Well, it was an unfortunate comment,” then we can point out he’s got a lot of comments like that. He says a lot of racist things, and that matters, not because of what it means about his soul, but because what he says matters.

People want to believe that our group is basically good, and we are drawn to someone who tells us that. When people are told that someone they believe represents the in-group (when they identify with that person) then they feel that they have been accused of being racist, and that means they feel accused of being evil.

I think it would help if we imagined people as more like those architects—not evil, but thoughtless.

And yet there is a moment when you can stop calling the architect unintentionally thoughtless. If an architect has a history of designing buildings that are inaccessible, and it’s pointed out, and they keep doing it, then we can condemn their architecture as being discriminatory—it doesn’t matter if they have a friend in a wheelchair, or don’t make jokes about disabled people. We can say they shouldn’t design any more buildings.

We can say that a person with a long history of racist statements shouldn’t be in a position of decision-making in which race might matter. That isn’t attacking a group, and it isn’t attacking the person who likes Trump; it’s criticizing Trump. (Of course, charismatic leadership makes this complicated.)

Group entitativity

Social psychologists talk about “group entativity”—that is, the degree to which someone thinks about groups as Real Things. For some people, groups are just ways of grouping things that could be grouped in other ways—you might take a group of college students and group them by year, astrological sign, writing skills, major, paper topic. The value of that way of grouping would depend on what you were trying to do. If you were trying to put students together for group writing projects and wanted to make sure that each group was balanced in terms of skill, then grouping them by astrological sign wouldn’t make any sense. It would make more sense to group for diversity of writing skill. If you were going to have student groups work with a research librarian, then grouping by paper topic would probably make the most sense. That way of seeing groups is as functional and pragmatic.

That pragmatic way of thinking about groups makes some people nervous, since they want to see social groups as Real—they want to believe that people in this group are Really Different from people in that group. They believe that all you need to know about someone you can know by inferring their group memberships, and they reason deductively from that—if you’re a woman, you must be bad at sports. (If you’re a woman, and good at sports, they’ll often invoke the No True Scotsman rule.)

Some people, in other words, strongly believe in group entativity. Sometimes they’ll work to make the groups absolutely perfectly distinct—such as prohibiting African Americans from learning to read, so that they could maintain their belief that African Americans aren’t intellectual, or prohibiting Japanese or Jews from owning land, and then condemn them for not being grounded.

People who believe in Real groups often believe that the fundamental Real distinction is between Good and Bad people. So, when you say that someone in their group is racist, they hear you saying that their group is made up of Bad People. And they know that isn’t true, because they know they do good things.

It’s the same problem with hearing someone say that white people have an advantage—some (white) people hear that as saying that they didn’t work at all, or work for anything. They hear that as a claim that white people are lazy. And that means their group is bad.

They hear it that way because, if groups are Really totally different from one another, then either a group earned what it has achieved through good things or it didn’t.

The notion of white privilege also threatens the Just World Hypothesis, which is central to the Prosperity Gospel. So, saying that the playing field isn’t even, and not everyone who succeeds worked harder than anyone who didn’t, threatens some people’s sense of their group, themselves, and their sense of the very world. That’s why they get so mad.

Confirmation Bias

I’ve written about this a lot, but it’s central. People who believe that groups are Real, and that only Bad People are racist are also likely to believe that you can just look and see if someone is good or not. In other words, they don’t recognize that we are all subject to confirmation bias.

But, if they think in black or white terms, then the notion of confirmation bias is really threatening. If things are either completely good or entirely bad, and research suggests that our perception is flawed, that must be saying that we can never tell whether someone or something is good or bad. It must mean we have no judgment at all, and they can point to lots of times they had good judgment, so their judgment is good, so confirmation bias is wrong.

A sweet case of confirmation bias.

Demagoguery and the “That thing you said was racist” problem

When you have people who reason from identity (people in this group are good, and people in that group are bad), it’s really hard to get them to see that their in-group information sources are giving them bad information. They will believe things that come to them from the in-group because the in-group is good.

If you’re in an echo chamber, as it’s called, it doesn’t look that way because you’re very aware of all sorts of in-group disagreements. You can see disagreement, so you think you’re in a world of dissent. And, if you equate in-group membership and reliability, then you also believe what your in-group information sources tell you that the out-group is saying about you.

Right now, our media world reminds me of the world described by Queen Bees and Wannabes, in which manipulative people create solidarity by repeating nasty things other people (are supposed to have) said about you.

The most damaging aspect of demagogic media, and this is just as true of Fox as it is of OccupyDemocrats, is that it normalizes demagoguery—that is, making every issue an us vs. them issue.

Whether someone said something racist isn’t an us vs. them issue. It’s a what did they say issue.

So, telling someone that they said something racist, or that someone they like said something racist, involves keeping a clear eye on the stasis—it isn’t about which group is better. It’s about what they said. Keep the stasis there.


[1] It doesn’t bother Trump supporters that neo-Nazis like Trump; they think revolutionary Marxists liked Obama, and they think that evens things out. Of course, revolutionary Marxists hated Obama, as they hate all third-way neoliberals.

[2] I’m not saying that all forms of in-group favoritism or out-group aversion are the same, equally bad, or anything along those lines. They are wildly different in impact depending on things like social structures, history, power.

[3] It’s important to be careful about how class is factoring in to this—so, if it’s a poor Lithuanian family, don’t ask whether you would judge a rich Moravian (because you’re Moravian) family the same way. Ask whether you would tell the same story about a poor Moravian family.

Excerpts from William Shirer’s This is Berlin (1999)

William Shirer was a correspondent in Germany in 1939 and 1940. Below are some excerpts from his broadcasts.

9/19/38. “Isn’t it wonderful,” I’ve been told a hundred times today by scores of people who did not hide their sense of relief. “Isn’t it wonderful. There’s to be no war. We’re going to have peace.”

[….] Not only National Socialist Party members, but others. They all felt that Chancellor Hitler had brought them undoubtedly the greatest victory of his career. “And mind you,” a German newspaperman said to me tonight. “It’s a bloodless victory.”

[….] “Like the occupation of the Rhine. Like the Anschluss with Austria. Done peacefully, without war.” I’ve heard these phrases a dozen times today. (15)

4/23/39.  [His perception of what the majority of Germans believe]

First, that Great Britain, backed by Daladier, Stalin and Roosevelt, is forging an encirclement of German designed to crush the Reich.

Secondly, that Hitler is right if, profiting by the lessons of 1914, he desires to break that encirclement before it is successfully completed.

Thirdly, that eastern and south-eastern Europe is a natural part of Germany’s Lebensraum—or space necessary for its existence—and that neither Britain nor anyone else, including America, has any right to interfere with Germany’s action there.

Fourthly, that Hitler, whether they like him or not, will get what he wants in eastern Europe, and get it—as he got Czechoslovakia at Munich—without a war.

Fifthly, that there will therefore be no war, and that they—the German people at any rate—do not want war. And that war can only come if the “encirclement powers”, jealous of Germany’s success, attack the Reich, in which case they will gladly fight, and this time, they say, Germany will win.

And sixthly, the mass of the German people, whatever they thought of Hitler before, or even though they still do not like many aspects of the regime, do feel that he has outsmarted the “foreign tyrants”, as they call them, who were trying to keep Germany down, and that he has restored it to its proper place in the world. And that without a single shot being fired, nor the life of one German soldier sacrificed. (42)

10/6/39. At a press conference in the Wilhelmstrasse tonight, one skeptical newspaperman asked how the Western Powers would be assured that Herr Hitler had no further demands, since that had been said before. The answer was that only now are the real foundations for a lasting peace in the interests of all there. (107)

10/8/39. Germany waits—and I must say waits hopefully—for the answer of Paris and London to what the Nazis consider was a very generous peace offer from Herr Hitler. (108)

11/19/39. [T]he papers keep repeating what Great Britain would do to Germany and Germans in case of victory. In a front-page editorial this morning the Volkischer Beobachter, official Nazi organ, tells its readers that England’s aim is not only the destruction of Germany, but the enslavement of the German people. (139)

12/30/39. Herr Hitler tells people in this New Year’s proclamation that what he terms “the Jewish international capitalism in league with the reactionaries” is really responsible for this war. Says he, and I quote, “The German people did not want this war. I tried up to the last minute to keep peace with England…But the Jewish and reactionary warmongers waited for this minute to carry out their plans to destroy Germany. These war-gentlemen wanted the war, and now they’ll get it.” (173)

1/9/40. Dr. Robert Ley, one of the most important members of the Nazi regime, states it clearly in the Angriff tonight. Says he: “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany. How low must the English people have fallen to have had as war ministers a parasitical and profiteering Jew of the worst kind… England is spiritually, politically and economically at one with the Jews…For us, England and the Jews remain the common foe…Germany has won the first battle. Hore-Belisha has fallen.” (181-2)

2/25-26/40. The Montag, for instance, headlines the speech GERMANY WILL BREAK THE TERROR OF THE WORLD PLUTOCRACY. A struggle of Germany to free itself from the terror of Britain and France. A struggle against world-plutocracy and the world-Jews for freedom. That’s the way this war is being presented to the people of Germany. (204)

4/9/40. The German government, to use the term of an official proclamation issued in Berlin, has “taken over the protection and Denmark and Norway for the duration of the war.” (237) [The official propaganda was that England was about to invade them.]

The German occupation of Norway and Denmark, which the German newspapers tell us was done to safeguard their freedom and security…(239)

4/10/40. To give you an idea of the state of mind in Berlin today, let me cite the German press. Its front-pages glorify today’s achievements of the German army and tell the readers that Germany today, as the Nachtausgabe says, has merely taken steps “to safeguard the freedom and security of Norway and Denmark”. The same paper blames England and France for what happened. The Borsen Zeitung says, “England goes cold-bloodedly over the dead bodies of the small peoples. Germany protects the weak states from the English highway robbers.” And the same paper concludes, “Norway ought to see the righteousness of Germany’s action which was taken to ensure the freedom of the Norwegian people.” (241)

5/6/40. The German press continues to devote most of its headlines to warning that the British are about to spread war by aggressive action in the Mediterranean, in the Balkans, even in Spain. Observers here still wonder what is back of this press campaign, remembering that we had a very similar one in regard to Scandinavia six weeks ago. (263)

5/10/40. At a hastily convoked press conference at the Foreign Office at 8 a.m., Herr von Ribbentrop read to us the memorandum in which Germany explains why she marched into the two Low Countries. The argument, summed up, is that Britain and France were about to attack Germany through the two little countries, and that Germany therefore deems it necessary to send in its own troops to safeguard the neutrality of Belgium and Holland. The memorandum also blames the two countries for not having maintained a really neutral attitude. Belgium, for instance, is blamed for having built its fortifications against Germany, not against France, though it would seem that the Belgians this morning should be glad they did. (268)

5/15/40. Dr. Ley, one of Herr Hitler’s chief lieutenants, writes in the Angriff tonight: “Hitler brought Germany to reason and made us happy. We’re convinced we will now bring Europe to reason and make it happy. That’s his God-given mission.” (277)

6/1/40. Press attacks on France continue. Said a German radio commentator: “There can be no peace in Europe until the Negro-ized and Jew-ized people of the plutocrat Reynaud are taught with a sharp sword that no crime goes unpunished.” (306)

6/2/40. As to the invasion of Holland and Belgium, most Germans you meet believe the justification given by the government and the army—namely, that the Allies would have attacked if the Germans hadn’t beaten them to it. Thus the German move is always referred to in the press as the “counter-thrust”. Exactly the same explanation was given for the Norwegian campaign and, I think, accepted by the great majority of people. One must remember that when Germany went into Poland last September, the official communiques described it as a “counter-attack”. (309)

7/19/40. In other words, Hitler offers peace to Britain. On what terms, he does not say. But one thing is evident. The German people will now follow him as never before, for they will say: He offered England peace and no strings attached to it. He said he saw no reason for going on with the war. If the war goes on, it’s England’s fault. That’s what the German people will say. (355)

8/1/40. Nearly every day now one or the other of the German newspapers gives us a glimpse into the New Europe which the Third Reich is now planning for this continent as soon as the war is over. Today Dr. Ernst Timm, writing in the Borsen Zeitung, gives us a further glimpse.

The last result of nationalism in Europe, he says, was the union of all Germans in one nation. The next phase in Europe will be known by what he terms “European Responsibility”, a responsibility, he adds, which has been taken over by Germany. He finds three points in his new conception of Europe.

  1. Only a nation in Europe which is conscious of its European responsibility has a right to take part in the new reconstruction. A people like the French, which he says has become mixed with Negroes and Jews, has no right to European leadership.
  2. Only peoples who through their greatness and their life-force are capable of European contributions have the right to self-responsible action.
  3. The European leader-peoples, as he puts it, carry the responsibility not only for their own national fate, but also for that of the smaller peoples who are placed in their Lebensraum—or living space. (367)




Hitler and Rhetoric

As Nicholas O’Shaughnessy says, anyone looking at the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust is likely to wonder: “How was it possible for a nation as sophisticated as Germany to regress in the way that it did, for Hitler and the Nazis to enlist an entire people, willingly or otherwise, into a crusade of extermination that would kill anonymous millions?” (1) The conventional answer is to attribute tremendous rhetorical power to Adolf Hitler. Kenneth Burke calls Hitler “a man who swung a great deal of people into his wake” (“Rhetoric” 191). William Shirer, who was an American correspondent in Germany in the 30s, describes that, listening to a speech he knew was nonsense, “was again fascinated by [Hitler’s] oratory, and how by his use of it he was able to impose his outlandish ideas on his audience” (131). Shirer says Hitler “appeared able to swing his German hearers into any mood he wished” (128). Shirer is clear that Hitler owed his power to his rhetoric: “his eloquence, his astonishing ability to move a German audience by speech, that more than anything else had swept him from oblivion to power as dictator and seemed likely to keep him there” (127).

Scholars don’t necessarily agree, however. Ian Kershaw says, “Hitler alone, however important his role, is not enough to explain the extraordinary lurch of a society, relatively non-violent before 1914, into ever more radical brutality and such a frenzy of destruction” (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution 347). While Hitler’s personal views were important, and neither the Holocaust nor war would have happened without his personal fanaticism and charisma, they weren’t all that was necessary: “Concentrating on Hitler’s personal worldview, no matter how fanatically he was inspired and motivated by it, cannot readily serve to explain why a society, which hardly shared the Arcanum of Hitler’s “philosophy,” gave him such growing support from 1929 on—in proportions that rose with astonishing rapidity. Nor can it explain why, from 1933 on, the non-Nationalist Socialist élites were prepared to play more and more into his hands in the process of “cumulative radicalization.”” (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution 57)

In other words, Hitler’s followers were  not passive automatons controlled by Hitler’s rhetorical magic. So, how powerful was that rhetoric?

The answer to that question is more complicated than conventional wisdom suggests for several reasons. First, while Hitler was quick to use new technologies, including ones of travel, most of the Nazi rhetoric consumed by converts wasn’t by Hitler. People like Adolf Eichmann talk about being persuaded by other speakers, pamphlets, even books.

Second, no one claims that Hitler was a creative or inventive ideologue: “Hitler was not an originator but a serial plagiarist” (O’Shaughnessy 24). Joachim Fest said Hitler’s beliefs were the “sum of the clichés current in Vienna at the turn of the century” (qtd. in Gregor, 2), and Gregor says, “Neither can one claim that Hitler was an original thinker. There is little in his writings or speeches that we cannot find in the penny pamphlets of pre-1914 Vienna where he began to form his political views. His racial anti-Semitism rehearses the familiar slogans of many on the pre-war right. His visions of German expansion echo the ideas of the more extreme wing of the radical-nationalist Pan German movement [….] And, in essence, his anti-democratic, anti-Socialist sentiments similarly reproduce the conventional thinking of broad sectors of the German right from both before and after the First World War.” (2)

If Hitler wasn’t saying anything new, to what extent can we say he persuaded people? What did he persuade them of?

A closely related problem is that large numbers of Germans supported Hitler politically but rejected the central aspects of his ideology—such as his eliminationist racism and his desire for another war. Although he’d long been absolutely clear that those were central to his views, when he began to downplay them (especially in 1932 and 33), many people believed those were trivial aspects that could be ignored. Many people supported him strategically, especially the Catholic and Lutheran churches, both of which were outraged by the Social Democrats’ (democratic socialists) liberal social policies (e.g., legalizing homosexuality, supporting feminism, and, especially, breaking the religious monopoly on primary schools). Since Hitler and the Nazis were socially conservative, and Hitler promised to allow the churches more power than the Social Democrats would allow, many Protestants voted for Nazis, and the official Catholic Party (the Centre Party) Reichstag members voted unanimously for Hitler taking on dictatorial power (for more on this background, see Evans; Spicer).

Some scholars refer to “the propaganda of success,” by which they mean that Hitler gained the support of people not because he put forward good arguments, or even because of anything he said, but because they liked his locking up Marxists and Socialists, industrialists liked his support of big business, people liked the increased amount of order, they liked the improved economy, they liked his conservative social policies, a lot of Germans liked his persecution of immigrants, and a lot of people either liked or didn’t mind the legitimating and legalizing of discrimination against Jews (even the churches only objected to discrimination against converted Jews). And large numbers of Germans didn’t particularly like the idea of democracy—the premise of democracy is that political situations are complicated, and that there aren’t obvious solutions. Or, more accurately, there are solutions that appear to be obviously right from one perspective, but are obviously wrong from another perspective. Democratic processes assume that the various perspectives need to be taken into consideration, and so the best policy for the community as a whole will not be perfect for anyone and will take a lot of time to determine—many people would rather that a powerful leader make all the decisions and leave them out of it. After Hitler had been in power a year, many people felt that their lives were better, and that’s all they really cared about—that they were headed down a road that would make their lives much worse didn’t concern them because they didn’t think about it.

Finally, many people came to support Nazis because they liked that Hitler made them feel proud of being German again. He didn’t make them feel proud of being German by changing their minds about anything, but by insisting publicly and endlessly that they were victims—that nothing about their situation was the consequence of bad decisions they had made. He wasn’t saying anything that was new, but it was new for a political leader—he was simply the first major German political figure in a long time to say, unequivocally, Germany was for Germans, and Germans were entitled to run Europe (if not the world).

All these characteristics of Hitler’s relationship with his supporters—his lack of originality, strategic acquiescence, hostility to democracy, narrow self-interest on the part of many Germans, and the propaganda of success—mean that it’s actually an open question as to whether Hitler’s rhetoric was unique, let alone how much power we should ascribe to it. And so this course will consider the questions: what were Hitler’s rhetorical strategies? how unique or unusual was (is) it? what kind of impact does it have? to what extent (and under what circumstances) does it work?


Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. “Rhetoric of Hitler’s ‘Battle.'” Philosophy of Literary Form. U of California P, 1974.

Evans, Richard. The Coming of the Third Reich. Penguin, 2005.

Gregor, Neil. How to Read Hitler. Norton, 2005.

Kershaw, Ian.  Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. Yale U P, 2009.

O’Shaughnessy, Nicholas. Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand. Oxford UP, 2016.

Shirer, William. The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Spicer, Kevin, ed. Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust. Indiana UP, 2007.

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, as history would show, the “milder” ones could be morphed into exterminationist.) 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 must be true if it’s repeated in their informational world a lot, if it’s repeated by people they respect, unanimously supported by their in-group, and especially if it’s contested by one of their out-groups. This process is sometimes called “social knowing” (you know something because it’s taken as a given in your social group). Basically, this whole long discussion of Hitler could be compressed in my saying that approaching decisions purely through social knowing 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 almost all of the Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda equated being Jewish and being Bolshevik. Thus, and this is important to remember, the Nazis presented their policies of exclusion and disenfranchisement (and, eventually, extermination) as politically necessary–this wasn’t religious bigotry, but a necessary response to the terrorism that necessarily came about if Jews were part of the community.

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 out-group. Since we have a tendency to assume the out-group 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. But 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 out-group membership (especially by race or religion) then we decide there is a causal correlation. Since Jews were marked as out-group, 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 out-group. 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 for instance, 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 out-group 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 in-group.

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 in-group 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 out-group 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:]

“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

How not to make a Hitler analogy

Americans love the Hitler analogy, the claim that their political leader is just like Hitler. And it’s almost always very badly done—their leader (let’s call him Chester) is just like Hitler because…. and then you get trivial characteristics, such as characteristics that don’t distinguish either Hitler or Chester from most political leaders (they were both charismatic, they used Executive Orders), or that flatten the characteristics that made Hitler extraordinary (Hitler was conservative). That process all starts with deciding that Chester is evil, and Hitler is evil, and then looking for any ways that Chester is like Hitler. So, for instance, in the Obama is Hitler analogy, the argument was that Obama was charismatic, he had followers who loved him, he was clearly evil (to the person making the comparison–I’ll come back to that), and he maneuvered to get his way.

Bush was Hitler because he was charismatic, he had followers who loved him, he was clearly evil (to the people making the comparison), and he used his political powers to get his way. And, in fact, every effective political figure fits those criteria in that someone thought they were clearly evil: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR, Reagan, Bush, and Trump, for instance.

He was clearly evil. In the case of Hitler it means he killed six million Jews; in the case of Obama it means he tried to reduce abortions in a way that some people didn’t like (he didn’t support simply outlawing them), in the case of Bush it was that he invaded Iraq, for Lincoln it was that he tried to end slavery, and so on. In other words, in the case of Hitler, every reasonable person agrees that the policies he adopted six or seven years into his time as Chancellor were evil. But not everyone who wants to reduce abortions to the medically necessary agrees that Obama’s policies were evil, and not everyone who wants peace in the middle East agrees that Bush was evil.

So, what does it mean to decide a political leader is evil?

For instance, people who condemned Obama as evil often did so on grounds that would make Eisenhower and Nixon evil (support for the EPA, heavy funding for infrastructure, high corporate taxes, a social safety net that included some version of Medicare, secular public education), and many of which would make Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, and the first Bush evil (faith in social mobility, protection of public lands, promoting accurate science education, support for the arts, an independent judiciary, funding for infrastructure, good relations with other countries, the virtues of compromise). So, were the people condemning Obama as evil doing so on grounds that would cause them to condemn GOP figures as evil? No—their standards didn’t apply to figures they liked. It just a way of saying he wasn’t GOP.

Every political figure has some group of people who sincerely believe that leader is obviously evil. And every political figure who gets to be President has mastered the arts of being charismatic (not every one gets power from charismatic leadership, but that’s a different post), compromising, manipulating, engaging followers. So, is every political leader just like Hitler?

Unhappily, we’re in a situation in which people make the Hitler analogy to everyone else in their informational cave, and the people in that cave think it’s obviously a great analogy. Since we’re in a culture of demagoguery in which every disagreement is a question of good (our political party) or evil (their political party), any effective political figure of theirs is Hitler.

We’re in a culture in which a lot of media says, relentlessly, that all political choices are between a policy agenda that is obviously good and a policy agenda that is obviously evil, and, therefore, nothing other than the complete triumph of our political agenda is good. That’s demagoguery.

The claim that He was clearly evil is important because it raises the question of how we decide whether something is true or not. And that is the question in a democracy. The basic principle of a democracy is that there is a kind of common sense, that most people make decisions about politics in a reasonable manner, and that we all benefit because we get policies that are the result of the input of different points of view. Democracy is a politics of disagreement. But, if some people are supporting a profoundly anti-democratic leader, who will use the power of government to silence and oppress, then we need to be very worried. So the question of whether we are democratically electing someone who will, in fact, make our government an authoritarian one-party state is important. But, how do you know that your perception that this leader is just like Hitler is reasonable? What is your “truth test” for that claim?


  1. Truth tests, certainty, and knowledge as a binary

Talking about better and worse Hitler analogies requires a long digression into truth tests and certainty for two reasons. First, the tendency to perceive their effective political leaders as evil because their policies are completely evil is based on and reinforces the tendency to think of political questions as between obvious good and obvious evil, and that perception is reinforced by and reinforces what I’ll explain as the two-part simple truth test (does this fit with what I already believe, and do reliable authorities say this claim is true). Second, believing that all beliefs and claims can be divided into obvious binaries (you are certain or clueless, something is right or wrong, a claim is true or false, there is order or chaos) correlates strongly to authoritarianism, and one of the most important qualities of Hitler was that he was authoritarian (and that’s where a lot of these analogies fail—neither Obama nor Bush were authoritarians).

And so, ultimately, as the ancient Greeks realized, any discussion about democracy quickly gets to the question of how common people make decisions as to whether various claims are true or false. Democracies fail or thrive on the single point of how people assess truth. If people believe that only their political faction has the truth and every other political faction is evil, then democracies collapse and we have an authoritarian leader. Hitlers arise when people abandon democratic deliberation.

That’s the most important point about Hitler: leaders like Hitler come about because we decide that diversity of opinion weakens our country and is unnecessary.

The notion that authoritarian governments arise from assumptions about how people argue might seem counterintuitive, since that seems like some kind of pedantic question only interesting to eggheads (not what you believe but how you believe beliefs work) and therefore off the point. But, actually, it is the point—democracies turn into authoritarian systems under some circumstances and thrive under others, and it all depends on what is seen as the most sensible way to assess whether a claim is true or not. The difference between democracy and authoritarianism is that practice of testing claims—truth tests.

For instance, some sources say that Chester is just like Hitler, and other sources say that Hubert it just like Hitler. How do you decide which claim is true?

One truth test is simple, and it has two parts: does perceiving Chester as just like Hitler fit with what you already believe? do sources you think are authorities tell you that Chester is just like Hitler? Let’s call this the simple two-part truth test, and the people who use it are simple truth-testers.

Sometimes it looks as though is a third (but it’s really just the first reworded): can I find evidence to show that Chester is just like Hitler?

For many people, if they can confirm a claim through those three tests (does it fit what I believe, do authorities I trust say that, can I find confirming evidence), then they believe the claim is rational.

(Spoiler alert: it isn’t.)

That third question is really just the same as the first two. If you believe something—anything, in fact—then you can always find evidence to support it. If you are really interested in knowing whether your beliefs are valid, then you shouldn’t look to see whether there is evidence to support what you believe; you should look to see whether there is evidence that you’re wrong. If you believe that someone is mad at you, you can find a lot of evidence to support that belief—if they’re being nice, they’re being too nice; if they’re quiet, they’re thinking about how angry they are with you. You need to think about what evidence you would believe to persuade you they aren’t mad. (If there is none, then it isn’t a rational belief.) So, those three questions are two: does a claim (or political figure) confirm what I believe; do the authorities I trust confirm this claim (or political figure)?

Behind those two questions is a background issue of what decisions look like. Imagine that you’re getting your hair cut, and the stylist says you have to choose between shaving your head or not cutting your hair at all—how do you decide whether that person is giving you good advice?

And behind that is the question of whether it’s a binary decision—how many choices to you have? Is the stylist open to other options? Do you have other options? Once the stylist has persuaded you that you either do nothing to your hair or shave it, then all he has to do is explain what’s wrong with doing nothing. And you’re trapped by a logical fallacy, because leaving your hair alone might be a mistake, but that doesn’t actually mean that shaving your head is a good choice. People who can’t argue for their policy like the fallacy of the false division (the either/or fallacy) because it hides the fact that they can’t persuade you of the virtues of their policy.

The more that you believe every choice is between two absolutely different extremes, the more likely it is that you’ll be drawn to political leaders, parties, and media outlets that divide everything into absolutely good and absolutely bad.

It’s no coincidence that people who believe that the simple truth test is all you need also insist (sometimes in all caps) that anyone who says otherwise is a hippy dippy postmodernist. For many people, there is an absolute binary in everything, including how to look at the world—you can look and make a judgment easily and clearly or else you’re saying that any kind of knowledge at all is impossible. And what you see is true, obviously, so anyone who says that judgment is vexed, flawed, and complicated is a dithering weeny. They say that, for a person of clear judgment, the right course of action in all cases is obvious and clear. It’s always black (bad) or white (good, and what they see). Truth tests are simple, they say.

In fact, even the people who insist that the truth is always obvious and it’s all black or white go through their day in shades of grey. Imagine that you’re a simple truth tester. You’re sitting at your computer and you want an ‘e’ to appear on your screen, so you hit the ‘e’ key. And the ‘e’ doesn’t appear. Since you believe in certainty, and you did not get the certain answer you predicted, are you now a hippy-dippy relativist postmodernist (had I worlds enough and time I’d explain why that term is incredibly sloppy and just plain wrong) who is clueless? Are you paralyzed by indecision? Do you now believe that all keys can do whatever they want and there is no right or wrong when it comes to keys?

No, you decide you didn’t really hit the ‘e’ or your key is gummed up or autocorrect did something weird. When you hit the ‘e’ key, you can’t be absolutely and perfectly certain that the ‘e’ will appear, but that’s probably what will happen, and if it doesn’t you aren’t in some swamp of postmodern relativism and lack of judgment.

Your experience typing shows that the binary promoted by a lot of media between absolutely certainty and hippy dippy relativism is a sloppy social construct. They want you to believe it, but your experience of typing, or making any other decision, shows it’s a false binary. You hit ‘e’ key, and you’re pretty near certain that an ‘e’ will appear. But you also know it might not, and you won’t collapse into some pile of cold sweat of clueless relativism if it doesn’t. You’ll clean your keyboard.

It’s the same situation with voting for someone, marrying someone, buying a new car, making dinner, painting a room. You can feel certain in the moment that you’re making the right decision, but any honest person has to admit that there are lots of times we felt totally and absolutely certain and turned out to have been mistaken. Feeling certain and being right aren’t the same thing.

That isn’t to say that the hippy-dippy relativists are right and all views are equally valid and there is no right or wrong—it’s to say that the binary between “the right answer is always obviously clear” and hippy-dippy relativism is wrong. For instance, in terms of the assertion that many people make that the distinction between right and wrong is absolutely obvious: is killing someone else right or wrong? Everyone answers that it depends. So, does that mean we’re all people with no moral compass? No, it means the moral compass is complicated, and takes thought, but it isn’t hopeless.

Our world is not divided into being absolutely certain and being lost in clueless hippy dippy relativism. But, and this is important, that is the black and white world described by a lot of media—if you don’t accept their truth, then you’re advocating clueless postmodern relativism. What those media say is that what you already believe is absolutely true, and, they say, if it turns out to be false, you never believed it, and they never said it. (The number of pundits who advocated the Iraq invasion and then claimed they were opposed to it all along is stunning. Trump’s claiming he never supported the invasion fits perfectly what with Philip Tetlock says about people who believe in their own expertise.)

And that you have been and always be right is a lovely, comforting, pleasurable message to consume. It is the delicate whipped cream of citizenship—that you, and people like you, are always right, and never wrong and you can just rely on your gut judgment. Of course, the same media that says it’s all clear has insisted that something is absolutely true that turned out not to be (Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction, voting for Reagan will lead to the people’s revolution, Trump will jail Clinton, Brad Pitt is getting back together with Angelina Jolie, studies show that vaccines cause autism, the world will end in 1987). The paradox is that people continue to consume and believe media who have been wrong over and over, and yet are accepted as trusted authorities because they have sometimes been right, or, more often, because, even if wrong, what they say is comforting and assuring.

But, what happens when media say that Trump has a plan to end ISIS and then it turns out his plan is to tell the Pentagon to come up with a plan? What happens when the study that people cite to say autism is caused by vaccines turns out to be fake? Or, as Leon Festinger famously studied, what happens when a religion says the world will end, and it doesn’t? What happens when something you believe that fits with everything else you believe and is endorsed by authorities you believe turns out to be false? You could decide that maybe things aren’t simple choices between obviously true and obviously false, but that isn’t generally what people do. Instead, we recommit to the media because now we don’t want to look stupid.

Maybe it would be better if we all just decided that complicated issues are complicated, and that’s okay.

There are famous examples that show the simple truth test—you can just trust your perception—is wrong.

For instance, there is this example.


If you’re looking at paint swatches, and you want a darker color, you can look at two colors and decide which is darker. You might be wrong. Here’s a famous example of our tendency to interpret color by context.

Those examples look like special cases, and they (sort of) are: if you know that you have a dark grey car, and there is a grey and dark grey car in the parking lot, you don’t stand in the parking lot paralyzed by not knowing which car is yours because you saw something on the internet that showed your perception of darkness might be wrong. That experiment shows you might be entirely wrong, but you will not go on in your life worrying about it.

But you have been wrong about colors. And we’ve all tried to get into the wrong car, but in those cases we get instant feedback that we were wrong. With politics it’s more complicated, since media that promoted what turns out to have been a disastrous decision can insist they never promoted it (when Y2K turned out not to be a thing, various radio stations that had been fear mongering about it just never mentioned it again), claim it was the right decision, or blame it on someone else. They can continue to insist that their “truth” is always the absolutely obvious decision and that there is binary between being certain and being clueless. But, in fact, our operative truth test in the normal daily decisions we make is one that involves skepticism and probability. Sensible people don’t go through life with a yes/no binary. We operate on the basis of a yes/various degrees of maybe/no continuum.

What’s important about optical illusions is that they show that the notion central to a lot of argutainment—that our truth tests for politics should involve being absolutely certain that our group is right or else you’re in the muck of relativistic postmodernism—isn’t how we get through our days. And that’s important. Any medium, any pundit, any program, that says that decisions are always between us and them is lying to us. We know, from decisions about where to park, what stylist to use, what to make for dinner, how to get home, that it isn’t about us vs. them: it’s about making the best guesses we can. And we’re always wrong eventually, and that’s okay.

We tend to rely on what social psychologists call heuristics—meaning mental short cuts—because you can’t thoroughly and completely think through every decision. For instance, if you need a haircut, you can’t possibly thoroughly investigate every single option you have. You’re likely to have method for reducing the uncertainty of the decision—you rely on reviews, you go where a friend goes, you just pick the closest place. If a stylist says you have to shave your head or do nothing, you’ll walk away.

You might tend to have the same thing for breakfast, or generally take the same route to work, campus, the gym. Your route will not be the best choice some percentage of the time because traffic, accidents, or some random event will make your normal route slower than others from time to time (if you live in Austin, it will be wrong a lot). Even though you know that you can’t be certain you’re taking the best route to your destination, you don’t stand in your apartment doorway paralyzed by indecision. You aren’t clueless about your choices—you have a lot of information about what tends to work, and what conditions (weather, a football game, time of day, local music festivals, roadwork) are likely to introduce variables in your understanding of what is the best route. You are neither certain nor clueless.

And there are dozens of other decisions we make every day that are in that realm of neither clueless nor certain: whether you’ll like this movie, if the next episode of a TV program/date/game version/book in a series/cd by an artist/meal at a restaurant will be as good as the last, whether your boss/teacher will like this paper/presentation as much as the previous, if you’ll enjoy this trip, if this shirt will work out, if this chainsaw will really be that much better, if this mechanic will do a good job on your car, if this landlord will not be a jerk, if this class/job will be a good one.

We all spend all of our time in a world in which we must manage uncertainty and ambiguity, but some people get anxious when presented with ambiguity and uncertainty, and so they talk (and think) as so there is an absolute binary between certain and clueless, and every single decision falls into one or the other.

And here things get complicated. The people who don’t like uncertainty and ambiguity (they are, as social psychologists say, “drawn to closure”) will insist that everything is this or that, black or white even though, in fact, they continually manage shades of grey. They get in the car or walk to the bus feeling certain that they have made the right choice, when their choice is just habit, or the best guess, or somewhere on that range of more or less ambiguous.

So, there is a confusion between certainty as a feeling (you feel certain that you are right) and certainty as a reasonable assessment of the evidence (all of the relevant evidence has been assessed and alternative explanations disproven)—as a statement about the process of decision-making. Most people use it in the former way, but think they’re using it in the latter, as though the feeling of certainty is correlated to the quality of evidence. In fact, how certain people feel is largely a consequence of their personality type (On Being Certain has a great explanation of that, but Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is also useful). There’s also good evidence that the people who know the most about a subject tend to express themselves with less certainty than people who are un- or misinformed (the “Dunning-Kruger effect”).

What all that means is that people who get anxious in the face of ambiguity and uncertainty resolve that anxiety by feeling certain, and using a rigid truth test. So, the world isn’t rigidly black or white, but their truth test is. For instance, it might have been ambiguous whether they actually took the best route to work, but they will insist that they did, and that they obviously did. They managed uncertainty and ambiguity by denying it exists. This sort of person will get actively angry if you try to show them the situation is complicated.

They manage the actual uncertainty of situations by, retroactively, saying that the right answer was absolutely clear.[1] That sort of person will say that “truth test” is just simply asking yourself if something is true or not. Let’s call that the simple truth test, and the people who use it simple truth testers.

The simple truth test has two parts: first, does this claim fit with what I already believe? and, second, do authorities I consider reliable promote this claim?

People who rely on this simple truth test say it works because, they believe, the true course of action is always absolutely clear, and, therefore, it should be obvious to them, and it should be obvious to people they consider good. (It shouldn’t be surprising that they deny having made mistakes in the past, simply refashioning their own history of decisions—try to find someone who supported the Iraq invasion or was panicked about Y2K.)

The simple truth test is comfortable. Each new claim is assessed in terms of whether it makes us feel good about things we already believe. Every time we reject or accept a claim on the basis of whether it confirms our previous beliefs it confirms our sense of ourselves as people who easily and immediately perceive the truth. Thus, this truth test isn’t just about whether the new claim is true, but about whether they and people like them are certainly right.

The more certain we feel about a claim, the less likely we are to doublecheck whether we were right, and the more likely we are to find ways to make ourselves have been right. Once we get to work, or the gym, or campus, we don’t generally try to figure out whether we really did take the fastest route unless we have reason to believe we might have been mistaken and we’re the sort of person will to consider that we might have been mistaken.

There’s a circle here, in other words: the sort of person who believes that there is a binary between being certain and being clueless, and who is certain about all of her beliefs, is less likely to do the kind of work that would cause her to reconsider her sense of self and her truth tests. Her sense of herself as always right appears to be confirmed because she can’t think of any time she has been wrong. Because she never looked for such a time.

Here I need to make an important clarification: I’m not claiming there is a binary between people who believe you’re either certain or clueless and people who believe that mistakes in perception happen frequently. It’s more of a continuum, but a pretty messy one. We’re all drawn to black or white thinking when we’re stressed, frightened, threatened, or trying to make decisions with inadequate information. Most people have some realms or sets of claims they think are certain (this world is not a dream, evolution is a fact, gravity happens). Some people need to feel certain about everything, and some people don’t need to feel certain much at all, and a lot of people feel certain about many things but not everything.

Someone who believes that her truth tests enable certainty on all or most things will be at one end of the continuum, and someone who managed to live in a constant state of uncertainty would be at the other. Let’s call the person at the “it’s easy to be certain about almost everything important” authoritarian (I’ll explain the connection better later).

Authoritarians have trouble with the concept of probabilities. For instance, if the weather report says there will be rain, that’s a yes/no. And it’s proven wrong if the weather report says yes and there is no rain. But if the weather report says there is a 90% chance of rain and it doesn’t rain, the report has not been proven wrong.

Authoritarians believe that saying there is a 90% chance is just a skeezy way to avoid making a decision—that the world really is divided into yes or no, and some people just don’t want to commit. And they consume media that says exactly that.

This is another really important point: many people spend their consuming media that says that every decision is divided into two categories: the obviously right decision, and the obviously wrong one. And that media says that anyone who says that the right decision might be ambiguous, unclear, or a compromise is promoting relativism or postmodernism. So, as those media say, you’re either absolutely clear or you’re deep in the muck of clueless relativism. Authoritarians who consume that media are like the example above of the woman who believes that her certainty is always justified because she never checks to see whether she was wrong. They live in a world in which their “us” is always right, has always been right, and will always be right, and the people who disagree are wrong-headed ditherers who pretend that it’s complicated because they aren’t man enough to just take a damn stand.

(And, before I go on, I should say that, yes, authoritarianism isn’t limited to one political position—there are authoritarians all over the map. But, that isn’t to say that “both sides are just as bad” or authoritarianism is equally distributed. The distribution of authoritarianism is neither a binary nor a constant; it isn’t all on one side, but it isn’t evenly distributed.)

I want to emphasize that the authoritarian view—that you’re certain or clueless—is often connected to a claim that people are either authoritarians or relativists (or postmodernists or hippies) because there are two odd things about that insistence. First, a point I can’t pursue here, authoritarians rarely stick to principles across situations and end up fitting their own definition of relativist/postmodern. (Briefly, what I mean is that authoritarians put their group first, and say their group is always right, so they condemn behavior in them that they praise or justify in us. In other words, whether an act is good or bad is relative to whether it’s done by us or them—that’s moral relativism. So, oddly enough, you end up with moral relativism attacked by people who engage in it.) Second, even authoritarians actually make decisions in a world of uncertainty and ambiguity, and don’t use the same truth test for all situations. When their us turns out to be wrong, then they will claim the situation was ambiguous, there was bad information, everyone makes mistakes, and go on to insist that all decisions are unambiguous.

So, authoritarians say that all decisions are clear, except when they aren’t, and that we are always right, except when we aren’t. But those unclear situations and mistakes should never be taken as reasons to be more skeptical in the future.


  1. Back to Hitler

Okay, so how do most people decide whether their leader is like Hitler? (And notice that it is never about whether our leader is like Hitler.) If you believe in the simple two-part truth test, then you ask yourself whether their leader seems to you to be like Hitler, and whether authorities you trust say he is. And you’re done.

But what does it mean to be like Hitler? What was Hitler like?

There is the historical Hitler who was, I think, evil, but didn’t appear so to many people, and who had tremendous support from a lot of authoritarians, and there is the cartoon Hitler. Hitler was evil because he tried to exterminate entire peoples (and he started an unnecessary war, but that’s often left out). The cartoon version assumes that his ultimate goals were obvious to everyone from the beginning—that he came on the scene saying “Let’s try to conquer the entire world and exterminate icky people” and always stuck to that message, so that everyone who supported him knew they were supporting someone who would start a world war and engage in genocide.

But that isn’t how Hitler looked to people at the time. Hitler didn’t come across as evil, even to his opponents (except to the international socialists), until the Holocaust was well under way. Had he come across as evil he would never have gotten into power. While Mein Kampf and his “beerhall” speeches were clearly eliminationist and warmongering, once he took power his recorded and broadcasted speeches never mentioned extermination and were about peace. (According to Letters to Hitler, his supporters were unhappy when he started the war.) Hitler had a lot of support, of various kinds, and his actions between 1933 and 1939 actually won over a lot of people, especially conservatives and various kinds of nationalists, who had been skeptical or even hostile to him before 1933. His supporters ranged from the fans (the true believers), through conservative nationalists who wanted to stop Bolshevism and reinstate what they saw as “traditional” values, conservative Christians who objected to some of his policies but also liked a lot of them (such as his promotion of traditional roles for women, his opposition to abortion and birth control, his demonizing of homosexuality), and people of various political ideologies who liked that (they thought) he was making Germany respected again, had improved the economy, had ended the bickering and instability they associated with democratic deliberation, and was undoing a lot of the shame associated with the Versailles Treaty.

Until 1939, to his fans, Hitler came across as a truth-teller, willing to say politically incorrect things (that “everyone” knew were true), cut through all the bullshit, and be decisive. He would bring honor back to Germany and make it the military powerhouse it had been in recent memory; he would sideline the feckless and dithering liberals, crush the communists, and deal with the internal terrorism of the large number of immigrants in Germany who were stealing jobs, living off the state, and trying to destroy Germany from within; he would clean out the government of corrupt industrialists and financiers who were benefitting from the too-long deliberations and innumerable regulations. He would be a strong leader who would take action and not just argue and compromise like everyone else. He didn’t begin by imprisoning Jews; he began by making Germany a one-party state, and that involved jailing his political opponents.

Even to many people willing to work with him, Hitler came across as crude, as someone pandering to popular racism and xenophobia, a rabble-rouser who made absurd claims, and who didn’t always make sense, whose understanding of the complexities of politics appeared minimal. But conservatives thought he would enable them to put together a coalition that would dominate the Reichstag (the German Congress, essentially) and they could thereby get through their policy agenda. They thought they could handle him. While they granted that he had some pretty racist and extreme things (especially his hostility to immigrants and non-Christians, although his own record on Christian behavior wasn’t exactly great), they thought that was rabble-rousing he didn’t mean, a rhetoric he could continue to use to mobilize his base for their purposes, or that he could be their pitbull whom they could keep on a short chain. He instantly imposed a politically conservative social agenda that made a lot of conservative Christians very happy—he was relentless in his support for the notion that men earn money and women work in the home, homosexuality and abortion are evil [2], sexual immorality weakens the state, and his rhetoric was always framed in “Christian terms” (as Kenneth Burke famously argued—his rhetoric was a bastardization of Christian rhetoric, but it still relied on Christian tropes).

Conservative Christians (Christians in general, to be blunt) had a complicated reaction to him. Most Christian churches of the era were anti-Semitic, and that took various forms. There were the extreme forms—the passion plays that showed Jews as Christ-killers, who killed Christians for their blood at Passover, even religious festivals about how Jews stabbed consecrated hosts (some of which only ended in the 1960s).

There were also the “I’m not racist but” versions of Christian anti-Semitism promoted by Catholic and Protestant organizations (all of this is elegantly described in Antisemitism, Christian Ambivalence, and the Holocaust). Mainstream Catholic and Lutheran thought promoted the notion that Jews were, at best, failed Christians, and that the only reason not to exterminate them was so that they could be converted. There was, in that world, no explicit repudiation of the sometimes pornographic fantasies of greedy Jews involved in worldwide conspiracies, stabbing the host, drinking the blood of Christian boys at Passover, and plotting the downfall of Germany. And there was certainly no sense that Christians should tolerate Jews in the sense of treating them as we would want to be treated; it simply meant that they shouldn’t be killed. As Ian Kershaw has shown, a lot of German Christians didn’t bother themselves about oppression (even killing) of Jews, as long at it happened out of their ken; they weren’t in favor of killing Jews, but, as long as they could ignore it was happening, they weren’t going to do much to protest (Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution).

Many of his skeptics (even international ones) were won over by his rhetoric. His broadcast speeches emphasized his desire for peace and prosperity; they liked that he talked tough about Germany’s relations to other countries (but didn’t think he’d lead them into war), they loved that he spent so much of his own money doing good things for the country (in fact, he got far more money out of Germany than he put into it, and he didn’t pay taxes—for more on this, see Hitler at Home), and they loved that he had the common touch, and didn’t seem to be some inaccessible snob or aristocrat, but a person who really understood them (Letters to Hitler is fascinating for showing his support). They believed that he would take a strong stance, be decisive, look out for regular people, clear the government of corrupt relationships with financiers, silence the kind of people who were trying to drag the nation down, and cleanse the nation of that religious/racial group that was essentially ideologically committed to destroying Germany.

There were a lot of people who thought Hitler could be controlled and used by conservative forces (Van Papen) or was a joke. In middle school, I had a teacher who had been in the Berlin intelligentsia before and during the war, and when asked why people like her didn’t do more about Hitler, she said, “We thought he was a fool.” Many of his opponents thought he would never get elected, never be given a position of power.

But still, some students say, you can see in his early rhetoric that there was a logic of extermination. And, yes, I think that’s true, but, and this is important, what makes you think you would see it? Smart people at the time didn’t see it, especially since, once he got a certain level of attention he only engaged in dog whistle racism. Look, for instance, at Triumph of the Will—the brilliant film of the 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremburg—in which anti-Semitism appears absent. The award-winning movie convinced many that Hitler wasn’t really as anti-Semitic as Mein Kampf might have suggested. But, by 1934, true believers had learned their whistles—everything about bathing, cleansing, purity, and health was a long blow on the dog whistle of “Jews are a disease on the body politic.” Hitler’s first speech on the dissolution of the Reichstag (March 1933) never uses the word Jew, and looked reasonable (he couldn’t control himself, however, and went back to his non-dog whistle demagoguery in what amounted to the question and answer period—Kershaw’s Hubris describes the whole event).

We focus on Hitler’s policy of extermination, but we don’t always focus enough on his foreign policy, especially between 1933 and 1939. Just as we think of Hitler as a raging antisemite (because of his actions), so we think of him as a warmonger, and he was both at heart and eventually, but he managed not to look that way for years. That’s really, really important to remember. He took power in 1933, and didn’t show his warmongering card till 1939. He didn’t show his exterminationist card till even later.

Hitler’s foreign policy was initially tremendously popular because he insisted that Germany was being ill-treated by other nations, was carrying a disproportionate burden, and was entitled to things it was being denied. Hitler said that Germany needed to be strong, more nationalist, more dominating, more manly in its relations with other nations. Germany didn’t want war, but it would, he said, insist upon respect.

Prior to being handed power, Hitler talked like an irresponsible war-monger and raging antisemite (especially in Mein Kampf), but his speeches right up until the invasion of Poland were about peace, stability, and domestic issues about helping the common working man. Even in 1933-4, the Nazi Party could release a pamphlet with his speeches and the title Germany Desires Work and Peace.

What that means is that from 1933 to 1939 Hitler managed a neat rhetorical trick, and he did it by dog whistles: he persuaded his extremist supporters that he was still the warmongering raging antisemite they had loved in the beerhalls and for whom Streicher was a reliable spokesman, and he persuaded the people frightened by his extremism that he wasn’t that guy, he would enable them to get through their policy agenda. (His March 1933 speech is a perfect example of this nasty strategy, and some day I intend to write a long close analysis of it.)

And even many of the conservatives who were initially deeply opposed to him came around because he really did seem to be effective at getting real results. He got those results by mortgaging the German economy, and setting up both a foreign policy and economic policy that couldn’t possibly be maintained without massive conquest; it had short-term benefits, but was not sustainable.

Hitler benefitted by the culture of demagoguery of Weimar Germany. After Germany lost WWI, the monarchy was ended, and a democracy was imposed. Imposing democracy is always vexed, and it doesn’t always work because democracy depends on certain cultural values (a different post). One of those values is seeing pluralism—that is, diversity of perspective, experience, and identity—as a good thing. If you value pluralism, then you’ll tend to value compromise. If you believe that a strong community has people with different legitimate interests, points of view, and beliefs, then you will see compromise as a success. If, however, you’re an authoritarian, and you believe that you and only you have the obvious truth and everyone else is either a knave or a fool, then you will see refusing to compromise as a virtue.

And then democracy stalls. It doesn’t stall because it’s a flawed system; it stalls when people reject the basic premises of democracy, when, despite how they make decisions about how to get to work in the morning, or whether to take an umbrella, they insist that all decisions are binaries between what is obviously right (us) and what is obviously wrong (them).

And, in the era after WWI, Germany was a country with a democratic constitution but a rabidly factionalized set of informational caves. People could (and did) spend all their time getting information from media that said that all political questions are questions of good (us) and evil (them). Those media promoted conspiracy theories—the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for instance—insisted on the factuality of non-events, framed all issues as apocalyptic, and demonized compromise and deliberating. They said it’s a binary. The International Socialists said the same thing, that anything other than a workers’ revolution now was fascism, that the collapse of democracy was great because it would enable the revolution. Monarchists wanted the collapse of the democracy because they hoped to get a monarchy back, and a non-trivial number of industrialists wanted democracy to collapse because they were afraid people would vote for a social safety net that would raise their taxes.

It was a culture of demagoguery.

But, in the moment, large numbers of people didn’t see it that way because, if you were in a factional cave, and you used the two-step test, everything you heard in your cave would seem to be true. Everything you heard about Hitler would fit with what you already believed, and it was being repeated by people you trusted.

Maybe what you heard confirmed that he would save Germany, that he was a no-bullshit decisive leader who really cared about people like you and was going to get shit done, or maybe what you heard was that he was a tool of the capitalists and liberals and that you should refuse to compromise with them to keep him out of power. Whether what you heard was that Hitler was awesome or that he was completely wrong, what you heard was that he was obviously one or the other, and that anyone who disagreed with you was evil. What you heard was the disagreement itself was proof that evil was present. And heard democracy was a failure.

And that helped Hitler, even the attacks on him . As long as everyone agreed that the truth is obvious, that disagreement is a sign of weakness, the compromise is evil, then an authoritarian like Hitler would come along and win.

There were a lot of people who more or less supported the aims he said he had—getting Germany to have a more prosperous economy, fighting Bolshevism, supporting the German church, avoiding war, renegotiating the Versailles Treaty, purifying Germany of anti-German elements, making German politics more efficient and stable—but who thought Hitler was a loose cannon and a demagogue. Many of those were conservatives and centrists.

And, once Hitler was in power they watched him carefully. And, really, all his public speeches, especially any ones that might get international coverage, weren’t that bad. They weren’t as bad as his earlier rhetoric. There wasn’t as much explicit anti-Semitism, for instance, and, unlike in Mein Kampf, he didn’t advocate aggressive war. He said, over and over, he wanted peace. He immediately took over the press, but, still and all, every reader of his propaganda could believe that Hitler was a tremendously effective leader, and, really, by any standard he was: he effected change.

There wasn’t, however, much deliberation as to whether the changes he effected were good. He took a more aggressive stance toward other countries (a welcome change from the loser stance adopted from the end of WWI, which, technically, Germany did lose), he openly violated the deliberately shaming aspects of the Versailles Treaty, he appeared to reject the new terms of the capitalism of the era (he met with major industrial leaders and claimed to have reached agreements that would help workers), he reduced disagreement, he imprisoned people who seemed to many people to be dangerous, he enacted laws that promoted the cultural “us” and disenfranchised “them.” And he said all the right things. At the end of his first year, Germany published a pamphlet of his speeches, with the title “The New Germany Desires Work and Peace.” So, by the simple two-art truth test (do the claims support what you already believe? do authorities you trust confirm these claims?) Hitler’s rhetoric would look good to a normal person in the 30s. Granted, his rhetoric was always authoritarian—disagreement is bad, pluralism is bad, the right course of action is always obvious to a person of good judgment, you should just trust Hitler—but it would have looked pretty good through the 30s. A person using that third test—can I find evidence to support these claims—would have felt that Hitler was pretty good.


III. So, would you recognize Hitler if you liked what he was saying?

What I’m trying to say is that asking the question of “Is their political leader just like Hitler” is just about as wrong as it can get as long as you’re relying on simple truth tests.

If you get all your information from sources you trust, and you trust them because what they say fits in with your other beliefs, then you’re living in a world of propaganda.

If you think that you could tell if you were following a Hitler because you’d know he was evil, and you are in an informational cave that says all the issues are simple, good and evil are binaries and easy to tell one from another, there is either certainty or dithering, disagreement and deliberation are what weak people do, compromise is weakening the good, and the truth in any situation is obvious, then, congratulations, you’d support Hitler! Would you support the guy who turned out to start a disastrous war, bankrupt his nation, commit genocide? Maybe—it would just be random chance. Maybe you would have supported Stalin instead. But you would definitely have supported one or the other.

Democracy isn’t about what you believe; it’s about how you believe. Democracy thrives when people believe that they might be wrong, that the world is complicated, that the best policies are compromises, that disagreement can be passionate, nasty, vehement, and compassionate–that the best deliberation comes when people learn to perspective shift. Democracy requires that we lose gracefully, and it requires, above all else, that we don’t assess policies purely on whether they benefit people like us, but that we think about fairness across groups. It requires that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we pass no policy that we would consider unfair if we were in all the possible subject positions of the policy. Democracy requires imagining that we are wrong.




[1] That sort of person often ascribes to the “just world model” or “just world hypothesis” which is the assumption that we are all rewarded in this world for our efforts. If something bad happens to you, you deserved it. People who claim that is Scriptural will cherry-pick quotes from Proverbs, ignoring what Jesus said about rewards in this world, as well as various other important parts of Scripture (Ecclesiastes, Job, Paul).


[2] There is a meme circulating that Hitler was pro-abortion. His public stance was opposition to abortion at least through the thirties. Once the genocides were in full swing, Nazism supported abortion for “lesser races.”

King Lear and charismatic leadership

Recently, various highly factionalized media worked their audience into a froth by reporting that New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” had Julius Caesar represented as Trump. That these media were successful shows people are willing to get outraged on the basis of no or mis-information. Shakespeare’s Caesar is neither a villain nor a tyrant.

And it’s the wrong Shakespeare anyway for a Trump comparison. Shakespeare was deeply ambivalent about what we would now consider democratic discourse (look at how quickly Marc Antony turns the crowd, or Coriolanus’ inability to maintain popularity). But he wasn’t ambivalent about leaders who insist on hyperbolic displays of personal loyalty. They are the source of tragedy.

The truly Shakespearean moment recently was Trump’s cabinet meeting, which he seemed to think would gain him popularity with his base, since it was his entire cabinet expressing perfect loyalty to him. And anyone even a little familiar with Shakespeare immediately thought of the scene in King Lear when Lear demands professions of loyalty. Trump isn’t Caesar; he’s Lear.

Lear’s insistence on loyalty meant that he rejected the person who was speaking the truth to him, and the consequence was tragedy. It isn’t exactly news, at least among people familiar with the history of persuasion and leadership, that leaders who surround themselves with people who make the leader feel great (or who worship the leader) make bad decisions. Ian Kershaw’s elegant Fatal Choices makes the point vividly, showing how leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, or Hirohito skidded into increasingly bad decisions because they treated dissent as disloyalty.

In business schools, this kind of leadership is called “charismatic,” and it is often presented as an unequivocal good—something that is surely making Max Weber (who initially described it in 1916) turn in his grave. Weber identified three sources of power for leaders: tradition, legal, and charismatic, and Hannah Arendt (the scholar of totalitarianism) added a fourth: someone whose authority comes from having demonstrated context-specific knowledge. Weber argued that charismatic leadership is the most volatile.

In business schools, charismatic leadership is praised because it motivates followers to go above and beyond; followers who believe in the leader are less likely to resist. And, while that might seem like an unequivocal good, it’s only good if the leader is leading the institution in a good direction. If the direction is bad, then disaster just happens faster.

Charismatic leadership is a relationship that requires complete acquiescence and submission on the part of the followers. It assumes that there is a limited amount of power available (thus, the more power that others have, the less there is for the leader to have). And so the charismatic leader is threatened by others taking leadership roles, pointing out her errors, or having expertise to which she should submit. It is a relationship of pure hierarchy, simultaneously robust and fragile, because it can withstand an extraordinary amount of disconfirming evidence (that the leader is not actually all that good, does not have the requisite traits, is out of her depth, is making bad decisions) by simply rejecting them; it is fragile, however, insofar as the admission of a serious flaw on the part of the leader destroys the relationship entirely. A leader who relies on legitimacy isn’t weakened by disagreement (and might even be strengthened by it), but a charismatic leader is.

Hence, leaders who rely on legitimacy encourage disagreement and dissent because that leader’s authority is strengthened by the expertise, contributions, and criticism of others, but charismatic leaders insist on loyalty.

Charismatic leadership is praised in many areas because it leads to blind loyalty, and blind loyalty certainly does make an organization that has people working feverishly toward the leaders’ ends. But what if those ends aren’t good?

Whether charismatic leadership is the best model for business is more disputed than best sellers on leadership might lead one to believe. There is no dispute, however, that it’s a model of leadership profoundly at odds with a democratic society. It is deeply authoritarian, since the authority of the leader is the basis of decision-making, and dissent is disloyalty.

Lear demanded oaths of blind loyalty, and, as often happens under those circumstances, the person who was committed to the truth wouldn’t take such an oath. And that person was the hero.