Shades of Goebbels?

My area of expertise is German politics, particularly German foreign policy.   No one can study Germany without learning about the impact of the past, particularly the Nazi era, and how the Weimar Republic turned to National Socialism.    In fact, this fall I’m teaching a first year seminar which looks indepth at the Weimar Republic, its cultural vibrance, economic instability, and finally its political collapse.    When I look at the state of American political discourse these days, I worry that we are getting veering away from the kind of political debate that should define democracy towards something that looks more like Germany in the early thirties.   Roger Simon at Politico had a column that reinforced those concerns (the link will take you to his most recent column, the one I’m referring to is August 11’s “Over the Top and Beneath Contempt.)”   And the most trusted man in America (according to polls), Jon Stewart, similarly mocked this turn in our political discourse in his show yesterday.  (That’s a link to the show’s website, go to the two bits on “reform madness” on August 11).

I tell myself that I’m too sensitive to this due to my knowledge of German history.   That the tactics may be the same as those put forth by Goebbels and the Nazis, but such tactics worked in Germany in the early thirties because the democracy had been instable from the start, and the depression combined with the loss of WWI put the country in a uniquely vulnerable position.  The people yearned for a strong leader to fix a system in complete collapse.   The US, on the other hand, has had a stable democracy for over 200 years, surviving a civil war, the civil rights movement, McCarthyism, and other threats to our values.

Still, when I read usually cogent bloggers or analysts talking about “enslavement” by the government, or health care reform bringing about “death squads” who will refuse care for the elderly, the utter insanity of the rhetoric, combined with the intense anger that it can inspire, gives me pause.  If the economic collapse continues, if the current hopes that recovery is coming are wrong, where might this go?

On health care we need to do something — the current system is falling apart, and given demographic changes in coming years simply cannot be sustained.   If we wait until it is in complete collapse to fix it, it will be even more difficult.   I’m not sure which of the current proposals are best, but to fear monger about this is simply irrational.  Throughout the industrialized world every country but the US has some kind of health care system guaranteeing coverage.  Some have single payer systems, others have government safety nets, insurance, and cooperation with private insurance.   In none of those countries do “death committees” determine who lives or dies, and more importantly in none of these countries do the people want to do away with their health care system.   In fact, even conservatives in Europe think the US system is barbaric and misguided.

That doesn’t mean we should go the route they did with health care, but it does mean that it isn’t as scary as the Palins, Becks, Limbaughs and Hannitys (and squadrons of political partisan right wing bloggers) want us to believe.    It works fine elsewhere.   Germany does much better than Great Britain, we can learn by comparing systems, but it works.

So why the paranoia and “over the top and beneath contempt” rhetoric?  In part, I think, there is a sense by many on the right that the country is moving to a different place.  Demographically we’re shifting to a point where whites will soon be under 50%, and the traditional “red meat conservative” voter that made up Nixon’s “silent majority” will be an important but less powerful interest group.

This was the fear that Goebbels and the National Socialists pounced upon as they fought to bring Hitler to power.   It wasn’t about policy, it was a culture war.  Could German values be maintained, or were they to give way to internationalist, socialist, pacifist ideas that were “ungerman” and often imposed by outsiders — Jews who wanted to dominate Germany.    Even then, this message had limited resonance.  In 1928 the Nazis only got 3% of the vote, and Hitler was a laughing stock.   Yet as the economy collapsed, they grew in power as Germans yearned for the good old days of tradition, honor and German strength.  Instead they saw the sex and drug cabaret scene, political infighting that showed democracy to be ineffective, and the countries of Europe trying to punish Germany for WWI.   Hitler’s “culture war” was to push aside the hedonism and amorality of  modernism and re-establish traditional German values.   Many religious folk followed him for that reason.

Hitler was never elected by a majority in a fair election.   He was handed power after he struck a deal with conservative parties and business leaders who thought they could control him.  They feared Bolshevism more than a radical right winger.   Then he consolidated power with ruthless efficiency (helped by a terrorist attack on the Reichstag a month after he came to power), using propaganda and short term economic success to win public support.    He was able to do this in part because the opposition was divided, and a violent Communist movement caused many Germans to believe the ruthlessness was necessary.   Then foreign policy and domestic successes from 1933 to 1939 convinced the Germans (and Americans like Charles Lindbergh) that National Socialism might be the movement of the future.  Of course, we know where that went!

Can it happen here?   The rabid rhetoric may have shades of Goebbels, but the American public doesn’t distrust democracy, and a few rowdy town hall meetings are nowhere near the level of violence and partisan war that Germany had in the early thirties.   Moreover, we have a functioning government that can act; Germany from 1929 to Hitler’s rise to power in January 1933 had a government that was divided, with President Hindenberg ruling by emergency decree.   Finally, while the talk radio jocks and shock bloggers can arouse emotion, most Americans are rather sophisticated in recognizing propaganda and questioning claims made by pundits.   Germans in the 30s were used to trusting authority, and the media tactics that Goebbels used (claiming he learned it all from Madison Avenue) were new and effective.

Some might say that comparing the right wing to Goebbels that I’m engaged in the same kind of demonization, comparing them to “Nazis.”  That’s because the Nazis have falsely developed a reputation as being so evil that any comparison to them is to accuse the others of wanting a holocaust.  As I noted in “Humanizing Hitler,” that is an error.   We need to learn from that era in history, and recognize that what looks horrid in hindsight seemed normal and even benevolent while it happened.   Last year I even compared Obama’s campaign tactics to those of the National Socialists; but I’d never say that his political views are the same.

And, finally, my concerns are real.   I see this and as I prepare for my class realize that if the economy gets worse, such demogogues might be able to arouse fear and paranoia, and hope that the US is strong enough to avoid giving in to the dark side (note: conservatives do not represent the dark side, the dark side is made up of demogogues on BOTH the left and right).  I  think we are, but the current state of political discourse in the country troubles me.

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on August 12, 2009 - 15:14

    Even in humanizing Hitler, I think it would be rather rash to identify the right wing as comparative to the rise in power of the Nazi party. You do make some rather pointed examples, such as the foreign influence factor, that back up this point. But I also think it’s easier, given that you are admittedly a little left of center, to make the comparison. When looking over policies and tactics as well, you can compare this newly-rescusitated Progressive party stuff to the Nazis, and the Fascist party of Italy. Given an overall study of all three of those along with communism, there are some pointed differences, but also some very similar commonalities that bind the processes behind each together.
    Not to say that there hasn’t been some hysteria coming out of segments of serious rightwingers in an effort to take the moderate and follow-the-crowd conservatives under their wing for some hardcore tutelage (sp?). There are others, I’m sure on both sides of the aisle that are truly skeptical and warranted to be so, especially given the lack of knowledge on the plans by so-called proponents, who eerily know whats NOT in it, but for whatever reason, they do not know not what actually IS involved.

    The death panels thing, while blown out of proportion, has some roots given the work of Dr. Emmanuel, which also ties in the healthcare rationing idea, which makes it much easier to blow up such an issue.
    It would be akin to having Margaret Sanger on your senior advisory panel as chief implementer, and saying their is no truth to sterilization policies being brought forth by an administration.

    I too am a bit appalled at current political rhetoric and practices at this time. Exactly where it started, and where it will, if ever, end, is anybody’s guess.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on August 12, 2009 - 15:24

    You make good points, Mike. I think people tend to see the foibles of the “other side” more clearly than those on their own. Also, the Obama campaign certainly took politics as marketing to a new level — it really irritated me, and also could be compared to some of what the National Socialists did in their rise to power. I guess its best if all sides settle down and talk about facts. The thing that gets me is that in Europe even conservatives strongly believe health care should be guaranteed. If it were so scary, why do people who have it like it? That said, I’m still not sure what I would support, I need to first see what specific plans get put out there!

  3. #3 by henitsirk on August 12, 2009 - 16:19

    I think we’ve traded foreign-policy fears of the Bush era for domestic fears under Obama. Crazy rhetoric like this is a sign of fear. I just hope that the Obama administration can continue to set the tone of discourse as they have been trying to do, and the inflammatory rhetoric becomes more marginalized. I think (hope) most people are practical enough to see rhetoric for what it is. Of course, that didn’t happen in Germany 70 years ago, so maybe I’m just naively optimistic.

  4. #4 by Mike Lovell on August 13, 2009 - 13:33

    As for noticing the “sides” argument..i was chosen to take the national republican senatorial committee’s survey for my area…which is funny because i am not a registered republican. But I took the time to read and comprehend the questions…and I left quite a few notes on the lines next to the “yes” or “no” boxes to be checked, essentially noting any exceptions i found with the question, or hypocrisy in the wording……they kept hyping republicans record of responsible fiscal conservativism blah blah blah….I called them out on that, and in the donation field gave them $0 in the “other amount” box on the last page. Told them that if they want my money and to be called a supporter that they have a long ways to go after screwing that pooch! So we’ll see how representative they’ll be toward the average persons views on the survey. I’m guessing they wont bother calling me and getting my opinions anytime soon.

  5. #5 by Eve on August 14, 2009 - 17:07

    I find it interesting to note that in this article, people on the right are the Nazis. People on the right are the ones using the rhetoric. People among “most” (the left, er, the reasonable and balanced who voted for Obama) are the sane who can see through the rhetoric.

    The thing is that the majority of average Germans did fall for the rhetoric. The majority of average Germans did look the other way. The majority of the average Germans marginalized the vocal minority until it was way too late.

    While you guys are busy patting yourselves and each other on the back, you’re marginalizing people who have legitimate concerns. I see equal amounts of rhetoric, accusing, judging, labeling, and marginalizing on both sides and have entirely stopped watching television, reading the paper, or otherwise paying any attention at all to anything political. Instead, I’m doing what I can of a practical nature to take care of my family and consider how to survive if a financial collapse occurs, as it seems it inevitably will when human beings say one thing and do another. We can’t just say we are tolerant, compassionate human beings. We are not doing love until we “love our enemies as ourselves.”

    I really don’t see much on either side. And that is exactly what will lead to ruin to everyone on both “sides” because apparently nobody has really, truly learned that all is one.

    • #6 by henitsirk on August 14, 2009 - 19:25

      OK, sure, both “sides” use rhetoric. Either side may have legitimate concerns, but if they choose to use inflammatory language, it totally undercuts their integrity and distracts from any real message they may be trying to get across. I mean, “death squads”? How is that approaching the issue with any equanimity?

      And don’t forget that in the article and comments, Scott did mention that both sides are culpable:

      “note: conservatives do not represent the dark side, the dark side is made up of demogogues on BOTH the left and right.”

      “I think people tend to see the foibles of the “other side” more clearly than those on their own.”

      • #7 by classicliberal2 on August 15, 2009 - 21:51

        “OK, sure, both ‘sides’ use rhetoric. Either side may have legitimate concerns, but if they choose to use inflammatory language, it totally undercuts their integrity and distracts from any real message they may be trying to get across. I mean, ‘death squads’? How is that approaching the issue with any equanimity?”

        It isn’t about “inflammatory language.” There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with such language, as long as it’s justified. The problem with things like the talk of “death panels” and “death squads” isn’t that it’s inflammatory; it’s that it’s false. Blatantly false. A black lie of the ugliest sort. That isn’t a matter of spin. It isn’t a matter of interpretation. It’s just a flat-out lie. When one “side” is willing to say or do ANYTHING in order to “win,” how is one supposed to react?

  6. #8 by Mike Foster on August 15, 2009 - 16:29

    Considering the type of discussions that “get the press”, I think this article does a good job of assigning blame to both sides. Both sides use fear-mongering and rhetorical propaganda – and I would say that most of them do so ignorantly. To say that one side is more wrong than the other is counter-productive. The objective reasoning in this article and discussion is quite refreshing… but let’s take it further.

    In spite of the wealth of historical warnings, people are still easily divided and conquered by the simple “us vs. them” tactic – but I submit that there are not “two sides”. It is equally erroneous to attempt to redefine the two sides as “us vs. the government” because “The State” is a self-perpetuating abstraction – it is not a thing nor a group of people.

    I think Eve hit the nail right smack on the head with this comment: “We can’t just say we are tolerant, compassionate human beings. We are not doing love until we “love our enemies as ourselves.””. In the past humans fought “evil as thing”. Today we know that “evil” is not a thing – it is mental; it is a self-destructive paradigm.

    Excellent article. Great discussion. Big kudos to all.

  7. #9 by Scott Erb on August 17, 2009 - 13:01

    I do think that the talk radio/Fox news group does an especially dishonest job of political discourse, and they happen to be on the right. (I hear MSNBC is similar from the left, but I haven’t seen that station). I do see similar things on the left, but talk radio, which is essentially an appeal to emotion, seems to work better on certain themes: fear, anger, a sense that you are ‘losing America’ to some other force, etc. The left got some of that with the more vitriolic anti-war and anti-Bush rhetoric…I think the left is a little better and preventing those voices on its side from becoming mainstream — Limbaugh and his ilk are becoming very linked with the mainstream GOP.

    In Germany pre-1933 the left (Communists) and right (especially nationalists and Nazis) were constantly fighting, yet before 1928 the Nazis only got 3% of the vote. What happened was that the depression caused fear and shock, making people more susceptible to those who would blame someone else. The Communists message was too focused on workers, the Nazis had an appealling “fight for German culture, values, and to reclaim our place in the world” message. Hitler also made secret deals with business leaders and conservative politicians, pretending to be deep down a true German conservative (which, of course, he was not). The public was politically engaged, but ultimately after a terror attack Hitler used the fear pent up in society to get every party (except the Social Democrats — he’d already exiled the Communists) to vote to give him dictatorial power — for a short emergency period, he assured.

    I think part of my role in life at this time as a teacher is to help students see through the lies, and thus I find it important to keep reading and pointing out the problems and dangers. I may be biased by my read of German history to see the danger from the right as greater — they appeal to fear of losing tradition, losing national strength, somehow losing a ‘culture war’ about the identity of the country. Those are stronger and more likely to gain dominance. The left, especially Communists, have had limited mass appeal. (I’m talking the extremes here, not mainstream conservatives and liberals, all of whom believe in democracy and can ‘agreeably disagree.’) And, as a social scientist, I also find myself fascinated by the times I find myself in, and feel like I’m witness to a remarkable — if also potentially tragic — point in human history. I almost feel like an anthropologist studying a very strange world.

  8. #10 by Scott Erb on August 17, 2009 - 14:47

    One more thing — Hedges (the subject of the blog entry after this) was just as critical of “Brand Obama” in his talk as he was of the Republicans. To him Obama is really no change — it’s still corporations writing legislation, the US isn’t coping with the problem (indeed, we’re spending our way into more debt). John Dewey, the American philosopher, noted that since the Greeks we’ve had a false dualism of theory and practice, or mind and matter. He said this came from the fact that philosophy emerged as part of the elite class which did little work. They looked at work as demeaning, so they put philosophy above it. Dewey’s pragmatist approach suggested dispensing with the dualism, look for meaning in practice, and not try to theorize about a ‘perfect world’ based on what one can imagine.

    Perhaps pragmatic discussion of the issues we agree are facing the country would do much more good than left vs. right politics.

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