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Reductio ad Hitlerum

A young German Jew man manages to escape from a train heading to Auschwitz together with a Polish woman. After wandering through a place they don’t know, they find a Resistance Group that takes them to their leaders. The first question they make to the German man is: “You are not Jewish, right?”

This scene is from a German TV series Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter (Generation War). We don’t actually know if it is a true story or a fictional one –presumably the series is based on the real story of four German young men, between 1941 and 1945—. However, it is not exactly surprising that some groups of the Polish resistance were anti-semitic. It is also not surprising that this scene (along with two others with similar content) created a huge controversy and was considered highly offensive by the Polish authorities.1

But this controversy was not the only one that the series’ producers had to face. The public debate was very intense and the series got cruel criticisms by some people who’d say that it left out the responsibility of “our mothers and fathers” (referring to the original name of the series) regarding the atrocities committed by the Nazism. A controversy that, on the other hand, is not unusual in Germany. For example, in 2004, with the premiere of Der Untergang (Downfall), Bruno Ganz’s performance of Hitler created polemic, because of the human characteristics he gave to the greatest villain in modern history, causing pity and even the understanding of the audience during the sad and painful moments before his death.

But is this humanisation really wrong?

Nazis spit bile

Let’s make a brief exercise: forget, for a minute, everything you know about Nazism, about World War II and the rise of Fascism through Europe, and try to imagine how it was, based only in the movies, series and novels you have seen or read… Done?

Hitler in Iron Sky The Coming Race (© Iron Sky Universe 2017, source).

Probably the image that comes to your head would be worthy of a Tim Curry’s performance. And, of course, we don’t really need to refer to B movies such as Iron Sky, The Black Gestapo o Surf Nazis Must Die —many of them are indeed recommendable, real “masterpieces”— or the Nazis quest for the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade, to find overacting Nazis, spitting bile and with serious psychological issues and an almost comic fanaticism. We can also find them in shows that received several Emmy Awards such as Hitler, the Rise of Evil.

Is it productive to turn Nazis into ridicule characters, for example in The Producers, or villains like in James Bond or mad scientists like in Hellboy? On a first approach, apparently yes. It cannot be denied that this has convinced the society that Nazism is essentially bad. National Socialist ideology, with the alarming exception of some pro Fascist movements such as Golden Dawn or Jobbik, has turned into small sects full of even smaller groups, often ridiculous or even funny,2 which confront themselves on what each consider to be the “Aryan race”.

Turning the Nazis into ridiculously evil figures has led to a complete trivialisation of their symbols and ideology. Nazism, now a term lacking of meaning, is used as the equivalent of absolute evil. In this sense, the German philosopher and political expert Leo Strauss, created the concept of reductio ad Hitlerum in the 50s. This expression refers to the logical fallacy based on disqualifying something only because Hitler liked it or was a Nazi practice: Hitler was A, X is A, hence X is Nazi.

You don’t eat meat? Neither did Hitler!

Nazism and Fascism trivialisation is more complex that just turning these people into a parody, it has also hollowed out the meaning of such words, now used as a common insult or a way to discredit an ideology or social movement, by artificially associated it to supposed Fascist practices, absolutely taken out of context, exaggerated or plainly false.

Maybe the most significant concept, although not the only one, is feminazi, an insult used by some sectors and movements opposed to feminism, to denounce an alleged radical position based on hatred towards heterosexual men, as well as to denounce some supposed discrimination in politics regarding gender equality.

The concept of Feminazi was coined by Rush Limbaugh in 19923, in order to reveal an supposedly intolerant attitude in the practice of feminism which, according to him, is comparable to Nazism, and it has spread and generalised. Nowadays, this expression is present and rooted in society, and it is even used as a way to sort “good” feminism from “bad” feminism, the latter interpreted as hating men.

However, it’s not the only movement that has the Nazi suffix. If we pay attention to the Urban Dictionary there are also: veggienazis, vegetarians who defend their life style or grammarnazis, the people who stand for a proper use of language. The term has generalised in such way that it’s not strange to find it used internet forums to define a person that criticises the differences between a movie and a book, the plot holes in a saga, or the change of authors in a comics series. We can assume that Hitler and his cabinet didn’t care much about these issues.

Even so, beyond the pop culture, the concept of Nazi, and this is more serious, is used arbitrarily in politics. And it is so clear that, for example, in Catalonia it is very difficult not to be a Fascist, depending of whom you ask. For instance, while many politicians opposed to independence call those who support it fascists,4 on many pro-indepence forums and pages, the same happends to the anti-independantists.5

Leaving aside the debate about Catalonia’s independence, during the last decade in Spain, many people, who are far away from the National Socialist ideology have been accused of being Nazis: the Collective for the Housing Rights (PAH),6 the left-wing politician Pablo Iglesias,7 the radical rock band Soziedad Alkoholika,8 or Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena.9

Nazi? What Nazi?

With such unjustified use of such a serious concept, we can assume that the term will be easily used to define groups and parties that are actually close to the original Fascism born in the in-between wars Europe. Nevertheless, there is a funny reluctance to use the terms Fascist or Nazi (which in many contexts easily defines feminists, ecologist mayors or rock and roll bands) to call a new extreme right wing with hints of xenophobia or populism.

This new extreme right wing is almost never categorised as such, neither in the press nor in the official discourses of governments and political groups. Instead, ambiguous euphemisms like “populist”, “Eurosceptic” or “radical” are used to refer to groups such as the French National Front, the Finns Party, or Britain First. In fact, the same movements have chosen to move away from the Nazi aesthetics and paraphernalia. Then, instead of attacking other “races” directly, they argue against uncontrolled immigration, for example by relating it with delinquency; then, they use a message about the protection of native culture and point out supposed attacks to the western principles by people coming from other countries and cultures.

One of the most remarkable cases is the one of the far-right Catalan politician Josep Anglada. A former member of the openly Francoist party New Force, Anglada was a critical part of the political earthquake that occured in the municipal elections in 2011. Along with his party he managed to obtain 67 city counsellors in 40 Catalan councils. Anglada’s party, even though it didn’t hide its xenophobic inclinations, as it’s shown in his campaign video,10 was indeed trying to avoid a direct connection with Fascism.

Other far-right European leaders have taken one step furter and have even equated other collectives to Nazism. In 2010, Marine Le Pen compared Muslim citizens praying in public spaces with the Nazi occupation between 1940 and 1944. In Holland, the leader of the far-right Party for Freedom Geert Wilders claimed that Islam was “worse than Nazism.”11 Both parties went to the elections in their respective countries this year, and the results were really concerning. Marine Le Pen got to the second round of the French presidential elections with 21.3% of the popular vote on the first round and a 33.9% on the second; whereas Geert Wilders got 13.1% of the votes, which consolidate his party as the second political force in the Netherlands.

The communication strategy of these parties is not new:12 it is to direct the general discontent of a population overwhelmed due to a brutal crisis, by pointing it to a scapegoat,13 easy to recognise and, at the same time, raise awareness about the arrival of an invisible menace that aims to end the western way of life. However, there was one crucial difference in this strategy that helped to avoid the very poor results of some other far-right parties: to get rid of the symbols that identify them with those minority movements. The very same Anglada confessed this, while being filmed by a hidden camera.14

I am not racist, but…

The new far-right virus is not only affecting its own parties, but it is also able to place its message at the centre of the political agenda, which forces the “traditional” parties to propose similar politicies in order not to lose votes to their right. We can cite for instance the terrible show that former president Sarkozy put on by kicking Romani out of the country during his presidency,15 the extraordinary rise of politicians with radical messages such as Fillon or Xavier García Albiol, as well as the reaction and attitude of the European Union towards the refugee crisis.

One case that caused general alarm in these last months is the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, especially due to the support he gets from groups belonging to the so called alt-right.16 Among the crowd who supported and collaborated with his campaign, it wasn’t rare to find people willing to defend to death their right to carry weapons, radical defenders of conspiracy theories and openly racist and sexist reactionary movements.

Nevertheless, we cannot forget that these clearly minoritary groups are not the ones who put Trump in power. As Michael Moore well said, months before the election,17 Trump’s message promising to rebuild the industry and the application of protectionist politics in order to create jobs in the country was very well received by the middle class population, which had become poorer with no hopes of getting any better. Keeping the proper distances, it is difficult not to compare this with Weimar’s Germany.

Sadly, to dehumanise and trivialise Nazism has led the population into not relating far-right ideologies with the terrible consequences that they brought to Europe and to the world. In these days, a head of the Britain First or of the French National Front can perfectly condemn Nazism without losing credibility among their fellow voters.

Re humanise the monster

That monster, whom we have been taught to fear, that monster we have turned into the great villain of history, is coming back with a new mask, and we haven’t been able to identify it. Maybe because the new Nazis do not wear brown shirts, don’t do the Roman salute and won’t even define themselves as Nazis; but still they’ve arrived and grown like a cancer in Europe, whilst we were trying to protect ourselves from the unlikely arrival of overacting bums, dressed as if they were coming from a sadomasochism session, or maybe socially unfit people with high boots and low intelligence.

Illustration by Klifton Kleinmann.

This is why humanisation of the monster is necessary. We must seriously study the rising of Fascism in Europe in order to understand how it was possible for them to get the power. It is necessary, almost urgent, to understand what led millions of Germans to consider Hitler a fair electoral option in order to understand how come none could foresee the arrival of the greatest villain in their own country.

And when we do, maybe we will discover that the monster is closer than it appears to be.

References