Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Eternal Nazi

Over the past few weeks, the press was filled with reports that Prince Harry had shown up at a costume party in a swastika armband and other Nazi regalia. The usual suspects rushed to express their outrage, and Price Charles mused that perhaps the lad would be sent to Auschwitz for some belated consciousness-raising about the Holocaust.

The treck to Auschwitz has become a kind of stock combination of re-education and immunization for those briefly suspected of an overly Teutonic bent, as predictable in its season as the post-Superbowl scoot to Disneyland. When California Governatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzeneggar was accused of being a crypto-Nazi by his opponents, his supporters pointed out that he had contributed generously and sincerely to Holocaust-remembrance causes, and that put the matter largely to rest.

This has become so standard a response that no one seems to have asked why Harry needed to go as far as Poland for his remedial lesson on Nazi viciousness. Why couldn't his father just send him, for example, to Coventry? Wasn't there a museum of the Blitz available somewhere in London? For what reason did Churchill and the British, with American help, heroically withstand Hitler and his Nazi war machine for five long years, when the rest of Europe had rapidly succumbed? Was it because they just couldn't stomach anti-Semites?

It is instructive, I think, to examine the arc described by the mythos of our enemies through the conflicts of the last century. In the Great War, we fought the Germans, variously known as The Boche or The Hun. Kaiser Wilhelm was certainly presented as an evil figure, but in examining the iconography of the period, pride of place was reserved for the slavering, baby-bayonetting hordes themselves. Throughout America, streets and towns with German placenames were hastily renamed or Anglicized. The British royal family, imported from Germany at the beginning of the 18th century, decided that Windsor might be a nice surname under the circumstances. The enemy was not German nationalism or romantic Teutonism: it was Germany.

World War II seems different. The Allied iconography of the period was dominated by Hitler, Tojo, Mussolini; the enemy was the Axis, the Nazis: an ideology, not a people. Certainly there was suspicion of Germans, Japanese, Italians, and internment of the latter two groups, but there seems to have been a consistent attempt to present the enemy as a movement and an ideology rather than a nation or people. The reasons for this change are beyond the scope of this piece, although I suspect a combination of factors, including a desire to harness the ideological enthusiasms of the Left, both domestic and Soviet, to the cause of the West's survival. (Post VE-Day, there was no returning to the ethnic and national hostility of the post World War I period; we could not punish our former enemies without driving them into the arms of our new ones.)

In the opening years of the Cold War, the ideological approach persisted, with the Nazi/Fascist enemy replaced by the Communist one. However, this became increasingly difficult to maintain as the Left mounted a concerted attack against anti-Communism, aided by the excesses of Joseph McCarthy. The West lost track of its ideological enemy, and in the following decades the enemy became either a rather abstract rival superpower or no one at all.

Finally, we come to World War IV: the War on Terror. Many have written of this odd locution, in which no enemy is mentioned but a means of warfighting is instead identified as the foe. It is as if following Pearl Harbor FDR had announced to the nation that America was now engaged in fighting the War on Sneak Attacks, or in September 1939 Churchill had rallied the British to the Battle Against Blitzkrieg. While this is undoubtedly driven by a desire to avoid offending both citizens and putative allies, I wonder whether our political culture has evolved away from the ability to frankly identify either a national or ideological enemy. The Liberty-Tyranny duality offered by President Bush, most notably in his second inaugural, may inspire, but it offers little clarity as to the nature of the our enemies and the ideas that inform their grievances and visions.

Yet, in the midst of this rhetorical white-out, one ideological enemy appears crisply and clearly defined: The Nazi. Indonesian peasants greet our soldiers and aid workers wearing Osama bin Laden T-shirts? No problem. But Prince Harry shows up at a party dressed for a posting to Afrika Corps HQ, and he's off for a photo op at the gas ovens. Want to express your feeling that someone, say George Bush, is a really, really bad guy? Just call him a Nazi, or compare him to Hitler. How is it that in a society that cannot bring itself to name a genuine ideological enemy in a real world war, more people can recognize a swastika than a stop sign?

A few years ago I thought it might be useful to earn an MBA. (Note to prospective students: The jury is still out.) As part of our course work, my study group was sent to a Silicon Valley company that was in the middle of a restart. For those unfamiliar with the term, a "restart" is sometimes undertaken when the management of a company have so thoroughly wrecked its business as to awake its board from their slumbers and force them, if only for a moment, to take seriously their oversight responsibilities. Most of the time the company is shut down and its assets put out by the curb to be taken to the landfill, or sold off at pennies on the dollar, which is much the same sort of exercise. Sometimes, however, the investors are so enamored of the company's products, intellectual property, or business proposition that they decide to replace the management team and try again. This was the case with the company we were sent to study.

As we interviewed the senior managers and staff, a recurring theme stood out: In its previous incarnation, the company had been run off the rails by the Hill People. These Hill People were dilletantish egghead hippie computer geniuses who lived in the Santa Cruz Mountains (the Hills), and ventured into the Valley below to earn a living doing obscure computer things. While the Hill People had been very smart, and had contributed useful intellectual property to the company, they had no interest in actually making it a going concern, and this had led to the restart. What was more, the Hill People continued to be a malign influence, thwarting the efforts of the well-dressed MBA restart team to turn the company into a money maker.

One evening, my study group was huddled around a conference table formulating our conclusions, which revolved around the destructive effects of letting hippie eggheads run amok in your software company. Somehow, though, we just couldn't make any progress. Suddenly, I pushed my chair back from the table, stood up, and asked, "Did anyone here actually see a Hill Person at the company?" As we thought back to our visits, we realized that, in fact, none of these people had survived the layoffs at the beginning of the restart. The most interesting feature of the company's culture was that everyone talked about -- and blamed for their ongoing problems and failures -- a group of employees that simply no longer existed, and had not done so for some time.

"OK," the reader is undoubtedly saying, "Not only are bloggers poorly dressed, but their analogies lack subtlety. Your point is that there are no Nazis anymore, but that everyone acts as though there are." Well, yes, but there was something more subtle and interesting going on here. We all know that groups seek scapegoats for a variety of purposes, and that shared hostility to the Other can be an important source of group cohesion. However, my fellow students and I were not part of the group, and yet we were completely swept up in the Hill People fantasy. (I might add that when we finally figured it out, we had to tear up a large part of our report and work through the night writing its replacement.) There is something about the informational shortcuts human beings use to construct reality, that can cause them to accept these phantoms even when they have no other reason to do so.

Once, real Nazis bestrode the earth. They caused untold death and suffering, and the damage they did is irreparable and eternal. But they don't exist anymore. Tyrants, genocides, expansionists, thugs, even Fascists of one stripe or another existed before them and are still with us now. The Nazis were all these things, but they were also something particular, and that thing is gone. Putting on a swastika armband and goose stepping in jackboots no more makes someone a Nazi than marching around with fasces made Mussolini's crew a Roman Legion.

I submit that the Nazi obsession is no exception to our culture's inability to name ideological enemies. The Eternal Nazi is utterly without specific ideological content. He is, when he possesses any content at all, an archetype. To most folks he is like the Hill People were to my study group: someone whose existence you accept because everyone around you talks about him as if he were real. They're not really invested in the myth; it's just in the air.

But for those who are invested, what are they really invested in? The answer varies, I think. For those groups who suffered most at their hands, and the Jews in particular, the Nazi must be kept alive as a cautionary tale, a reminder that genocide is possible in any time and place; and as a way of remembering the millions of people, and the most brilliant heart of their cultural and religious life, that were extinguished forever. The Nazi is and must be a concrete, historical figure to them. But who is the Nazi to Prince Charles, or to an American liberal? As I pointed out early in this essay, he is most decidedly not the Luftwaffe pilot who pulverized Coventry, or the Wehrmacht officer who drove British soldiers to the boats at Dunkirk, or pounded Allied soldiers at the Bulge. Those were just Germans, and soldiers, and we forgave them long ago for all that. And as for the Jews they slaughtered in the millions, to so many on the Left and in Europe those Jews are as abstract and bloodless as their long dead murderers.

I suspect that the Eternal Nazi is a scapegoat, in the purest Biblical sense. He is a figure onto whom those who cannot accept evil as a perpetual presence and potentiality in each human being, must project that evil, so that they can avoid acknowledging its presence in themselves and those they love and admire. He is the Rousseauan Other, a desperate solution to the ideological contradiction at the heart of the liberal project. (I will write more on this presently.) Because he originates in this contradiction, his lack of dimensionality, his aridity and poverty of content, are essential -- as the Marxists would say, they are no accident.

In one sense the Nazi is perfect for this role because when he lived he was a German, a member of a distinguished nation, inheritor of a high culture, with centuries of achievements in the arts and sciences. For those of us who believe that the potential for evil is inherent in our natures, the fact that such a nation could descend into barbarism disappoints, even horrifies, but does not in the end surprise. But for those whose conceit is that their nature is pure, and is made more so by education and the ornaments of high culture, the coexistence of barbarism with these trappings generates an intolerable clashing of the cognitive gears; it shakes the foundations of their identity as human beings. By stripping the Nazi of his concrete, specific, historical existence, of his Germanness, the Rousseauan ritually restores balance to his universe. For this purpose, it is essential that the Nazi have once been German, or a member of some other civilized race.

And now I can further suggest what it is that so distresses the makers of opinion when they see junior Royals partying in Nuremberg couture: It is forbidden to incarnate the Eternal Nazi, to give him flesh and substance. That reverses the magic that keeps the universe in balance, centers evil once more, if only potentially, within the human being. And the cure for this is to send the offender to visit a dead place, populated only by ghosts: the victims and their tormentors graying photographs, the ovens in ruins, where the barracks once stood only rectangles in the grass.

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