Monday, December 13, 2010

Crazy Skeptical: Hitler

For the next in what I can only assume will be a continuingly long series of failed concepts for themed posts on SE… I present to you, “Crazy Skeptical.” The idea is, I want to bring a little skepticism to our view of the simple things we accept as undeniably true.

And where better to start than Hitler?

Caveat: Yeah yeah, he was a horrible person and I’m not asking you to respect him or like him or really anything of the sort. I don’t care if you think he’s the worst person the world has ever seen, you’re free to be wrong. Allow me to explain why…

There’s so many ways to approach this. Where do you even begin when analyzing a guy whose very name has become synonymous with evil? How about the evil parts?

Let’s get one thing straight: Hitler probably never killed anyone. He’s sort of a Charles Manson figure; he didn’t get his hands dirty himself, but he certainly ordered the gullible fools around him to do so. This is really the general M.O. of every despot, however, so what sets him apart from the others?

The horrors of the Holocaust are very well documented. I’m going to avoid throwing numbers at you, because Stalin put it best when he said, “One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.” Which brings up an interesting point: by comparison, Hitler is responsible for the slaughter of far less people than Stalin. In fact, it’s not even close.

So, why don’t we hate Stalin so much? It’s a little complex, but you can narrow it down to a few major factors:

- American war propaganda painted our military ally, “Uncle Joe,” in a positive light
- liberals painted a rosy picture of Stalin, likely in defense of Communism
- Stalin killed more people, but he did it much more quietly and away from cameras

Then again, these two combined can’t even hold a candle to Mao, who was also portrayed favorably for the very same reasons as Stalin.

But these comparisons only suffice to make Hitler seem less murderous than these two regimes, which also had far longer to rack up their high death counts.

What is most baffling to me, as an avid reader of history, is how Hitler is seen as the epitome of malevolency. I would argue there are only two major policies of Adolf Hitler that truly made him a bad leader: the systematic persecution of minorities (not only Jews), and the violent invasion of sovereign nations. Beyond this, Hitler was a great leader, and I am not using great lightly.

From the big ideas to the little ones, Hitler turned an ailing country completely around. He transformed Germany from an impoverished and defeated nation following World War I, which experienced untold hardships, to an economic and military superpower that was able to compete on the world stage. It would be tantamount to Afghanistan or Iraq attaining a similar status 15 years from now.

In fact, the general policies which Hitler put into practice remained largely intact after WWII, and are partially responsible for Germany’s continued economic success into the late 20th century. Today, Germany is the 4th largest economy as measured by nominal GDP, and it is the second largest exporter of goods in the world.

What are some of these policies? Well, they’re almost too numerous to name them all. They range from simple cultural changes, like telling mothers to feed their babies milk instead of beer (no joke), to large-scale industrial developments. Most people are familiar with the fact that Volkswagon was a state-sponsored company fostered by Hitler (and he also had a small part in designing the Beetle), but less know about his role in greatly expanding the Autobahn and other public works such as dams.

You also can’t talk about Hitler without mentioning his contribution to 20th century weapons and technology. By the time Germany was gearing up for war, Germany had developed one of the most advanced arsenals at that time, and by the end of the war, German rocket technology was still largely ahead of everyone. This knowledge was used by the invading Russians and Americans to jumpstart the space race. The 1936 Olympics in Berlin was also the first one to be live televised, though it was only broadcast in Germany.

With all these success stories coming out of Germany, there was actually quite a bit of approval for Hitler abroad in the years before his invasion of France. Prominent Americans like Charles Lindbergh were avid supporters. And why wouldn’t they? Hitler turned around a nation crippled by the first World War, and had not initiated “The Final Solution” yet. Instead, news coming out of Germany of minority persecution and eugenic policies merely echoed similar measures being implemented around the globe at this time, including in the US.

No discussion of Hitler would be complete without addressing the ideological responsibility of Hitler, right? Who can we blame, since clearly something drove him to be so murderous and we can learn from it…

Hitler is the quintessential political hot potato. Liberals claim he’s conservative, conservatives claim he’s liberal. Socialists claim he’s a capitalist, capitalists claim he’s a socialist. Christians claim he’s an atheist, atheists claim he’s a Christian. It goes on and on.

The truth is, most of these “debates” are quite simple to answer without much doubt. Regarding the first, Hitler defied modern concepts of “liberal” and “conservative.” I would argue he governed like a conservative and lived like a liberal, because he maintained fiercely nationalistic policies indicative of conservatives, while aspiring to be an artist and vegetarian. But again, these stereotypes are woefully outmoded when analyzing Hitler.

His economic policy is much easier to hash out. While the Nazis called themselves, “The National Socialist Party,” they were anything but “socialist” in the sense of being communists. In point of fact, Hitler expressly opposed communism and violently stamped out communist groups upon attaining the Chancellorship. Hitler associated communism with Jews, and anything Jewish was wrong in the eyes of Hitler.

His religion is another matter of some debate, though it is safe to say he was a theist. He was raised Catholic, and likely remained one his entire life. However, he lived in a country that was predominantly Protestant, so he downplayed his Catholicism in favor of portraying himself as merely Christian.

Claims that he was “atheist” largely come from the antiquated use of the term to imply “barbarism.” Christians also point to the fact that he wasn’t a good Christian, and therefore wasn’t “really Christian.” However, last time I checked, Christians prided themselves on being flawed but forgiven… so I’m not even sure how one can be a “bad Christian.” At any rate, he very clearly identifies himself as Christian several times in his autobiography and in speeches.

Christians often further point to his fascination with the occult or his fondness for the works of Wagner which glorify Germanic paganism as evidence of Hitler’s un-Christian ways. This revision and misunderstanding of historical context is easy to make, because most people view religion as unchanging, and therefore anything that seems strange now is “un-Christian.”

In fact, Hitler was like most Christians during his time and all others before and after him: he dabbled in extra-Christian ideology. To understand this, imagine that in 100 years, Christians finally see Christmas as the pagan holiday that it is and stop celebrating it, then look back on all Christians of this era as “not true Christians.” Had Hitler been born 40 years earlier, he would have probably dabbled in spiritualism.

In the end, it’s irrelevant whether Hitler was a Christian, or a liberal, or a communist. None of these ideologies explicitly encourage the negative aspects of Hitler’s policies. The unwillingness of anyone to identify Hitler as a part of their group is merely a human urge to prefer viewing the undesirable elements of our history with something “other,” and not ourselves.

The truth is, we cannot disavow Hitler, because he is a member of the only group that really matters: he was one of us, a fellow human, and any person is capable of the horrors of the Holocaust, just as any are capable of the monumental successes Hitler achieved.

Before I close out, I want to bring one thing to people’s attention: Hitler made some horrible decisions that people don’t even talk about. Historians often point to Hitler’s ability to cut unemployment in Germany, but they rarely discuss how he did it. They tend to point to the public works projects and the revitalization of private enterprise, but what is rarely discussed is the role of Hitler’s anti-feminism.

Hitler clearly stated on several occasions that a woman’s role was to obey her husband and raise a family. Now, this doesn’t make him much different than most conservatives before or after him, but few took active steps as Hitler did to make this a reality. Women were pushed out of jobs and back into the home in Hitler’s Germany. This may have been a blessing for the rest of the world.

Why? While the female workforce of Germany was squandered at home, the women in the Allied nations ran industry while the men went off to war. Germany had sown the seeds of its own demise by relying on the male population exclusively to run both industry and the armed forces, ultimately crippling themselves by the war’s end. It’s arguable that a strong female workforce would have provided Germany with the industrial might and soldiers necessary to stave off Allied invaders much longer, if not indefinitely.

What can I say, I’m a sucker for chauvinistic hubris.


  1. I think Stalin is equally hated these days - same with Mao . The difference is, as you said, Stalin was an ally.

    To me, they were always a Wendy's trio.

    Your post reminds me a little of how some Italian fascists who defended Mussolini and how he made the trains "ron on time." I don't know if you can tag him with Italy's own economic miracle in the post-war era.

  2. Stalin is most certainly not equally hated. Hitler is the gold standard of comparison when it comes demonizing everyone we disagree with. And I doubt most Americans even know who Mao was, let alone be able to point to China on a world map.

    Well, they probably can't point to Germany, either, but I stand by my belief that Americans remain largely unaware of Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. On the other hand, I think you'd have to go to a pre-school in order to find an American who is unaware of Hitler and the Nazis.

  3. I agree of the Three Tenors, it's Hitler, Stalin and the other guy if you want to put them in any type of order.

    Reminds me of the scene in Seinfeld when George asked Ping to take the phone and order the hair cream from China. After asking about the product, Ping answered, "Look like Stalin!"


  4. Some historians call the third Reich the paper tiger. The blitzkrieg was not some fruit of tactical genius, but a tactic used because Germany didn't have enough fuel to keep their tanks in planes in a prolonged battle.

    There's a book out there called The Vampire Economy showing the conditions leading up to war, and how the war in large part was perused due to this idea of that a nation should entirely self-contained economically. The price and wage controls or Hitler's regime created instability and high prices. Hitler's government wished to rid the country of all consequences of a market economy by pulling in more and more new resources so that no imports and hence to interaction with a unplanned economy would be needed.

  5. The price and wage controls or Hitler's regime created instability and high prices

    I'm goint to have to strongly disagree here. Since the Weimar Republic before them, Germany experience hyperinflation which is very well understood today as being a result of the reparations Germany was charged with paying as a condition of surrender in WWI. This abusive policy of the Treaty of Versailles was not repeated after WWI.

    Funny story... Germany started printing money in order to pay off their debts. For those playing "compare America to Nazi Germany," this doesn't make Obama Hitler, it makes him Paul von Hindenburg (I can kind of see it... impotent, whiney, has a name that brings to mind images of flaming wrecks...).

    Anyhoo, the policies of Hitler's economists "worked" quite well. They succeeded in fooling Germany it was experiencing recovery, and perception is reality.

    I take particular offense at your confusing claim that countries have to be self contained (I think that's what you're saying). Every Empire from Egypt to Macedonia to the Persion to Rome to... blah blah blah... to England, to America have exploited smaller, weaker nations in order to attain prominence.

  6. "America have exploited smaller, weaker nations in order to attain prominence."

    I have always struggled with this notion. I say that because it can be stated Rome, Washington, London etc. gained "prominence" before each became an empire. And even once it moved to empire, inferring it was only exploitation doesn't factor the good side of spreading each civilization to new lands.

    Yin and yang. Or something.


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