I often find myself telling people that we demonize Hitler and his followers, and therefore we can’t learn from their example. But even I am unhappy about the NYTimes article about a neo-Nazi because it doesn’t make a Nazi more understandable—it actually makes him less understandable while making him more empathetic.
What’s clear from scholars of the Holocaust is that Nazism was normalized, largely through identification with Hitler (people saw him as the person they would be if the leader), and also through normalizing him and other Nazis. Hitler at Home does a thorough job of showing just how that normalizing worked—careful control of his public image, including the design of his private spaces. And Hitlerland shows how many people were suckered by Hitler and Nazis, to think that their concerns were legitimate (when outside of in audience spaces, Hitler didn’t talk much about Jews, and talked mostly about the Versailles Treaty and reparations), that Nazis were persuaded to become Nazis because of desperation about their economic situation, and that the antisemitism was just rhetoric, so to speak.
That isn’t how it actually worked then, nor is it how it works now. Nazis were anti-Semitic, and the antisemitism was central to their identity—more important, they were deeply committed to doing anything necessary to destroy democracy. Neo-Nazis and KKK and alt-righters aren’t people moved to that position because of some single action or a single book or concerns about their economic situation—they are racist, and they are deeply and violently committed to ending democracy. They were generally racist from the beginning (although they will often insist they aren’t racist, and then cite “science” that they say shows non-white races are inferior). They aren’t very bright, as is demonstrated by how often they respond to argumentation with violence or threats of violence—they can’t put forward a logically persuasive argument to save their lives.
And they don’t care about argument, just as they don’t like democracy. They want an authoritarian government.
I think it’s important to understand that people like that don’t necessarily walk around with swastikas on their foreheads, and they aren’t always screaming, and they can be the people next door, or someone at work. They can be very normal in appearance, but their politics are not normal. And emphasizing one and not the other raises the spectre of just what happened in the Weimar, when Hitler and Nazis persuaded people to support them on the grounds that, despite their politics, they seemed like good people.
The NYTimes article didn’t mention any of that. It didn’t ask the Nazi about democracy, or race. It just made him seem like a normal person, which he sort of is.
And that’s dangerous in a world in which people believe that they can make all political decisions on the basis of whether advocates/critics seem to be in their in-group.
The underlying assumption is that good people support good policies and bad people support bad policies, and that bad and good are in a binary relationship—something/someone is either entirely good or entirely bad. Thus, if you show that, say, a Nazi is a good person in some way (someone with whom you identify) then some number of people are likely to conclude that Nazism isn’t all that bad.
For instance, notice that it’s common for someone accused of saying or doing something racist to be defended by other people saying “They aren’t a bad person.” As Kenneth Burke said (an author of probably the single most apt analysis of Hitler’s Mein Kampf in its era), Hitler’s rhetoric depended on readers identifying with him. If his readers accepted that there is an us/them dichotomy, then the more he looked like “us” the more they would accept his “us” as normal and his “them” as dangerous.
Nazis want to end democracy. They might be nice, they might claim to be worried about the same things we are, but they blame democracy on the Jews, and they want to exterminate the Jews (and lots of other groups). And any mention of Nazis should keep front and center that they respond to any criticism with violence, they want a violent response, and they want genocide.
And the NYTimes article didn’t do that. It didn’t explain what a Nazi believed; it just made him seem like a nice guy.