The more I see of national politics, the more this Tweet resonates with me:
I’ve also long found humor in Godwin’s Law, which states that, “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 100 percent.” At that point, Godwin’s Law states, the conversation effectively ends.
But it just so happens that I recently read the William Shirer’s 1138-page The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, so it’s top-of-mind for me. And above all, what struck me from the book was the chapter on the ideas that contributed to Hitler’s intellectual development, and therefore the rise of Nazism.
On Fichte’s death in 1814, he was succeeded by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel at the University of Berlin. This is the subtle and penetrating mind whose dialectics inspired Marx and Lenin and thus contributed to the founding of Communism and whose ringing glorification of the State as supreme in human life paved the way for the Second and Third Reichs of Bismarck and Hitler.
To Hegel the State is all, or almost all. Among other things, he says, it is the highest revelation of the “world spirit”; it is the “moral universe”; it is “the actuality of the ethical idea . . . ethical mind . . . knowing and thinking itself”; the State “has the supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the State . . .”
Particularly interesting to me was the idea that both communism (the extreme left) and fascism (the extreme right) have their roots in the same philosophy.
Heinrich von Treitschke came later to the University of Berlin. From 1874 until his death in 1896 he was a professor of history there and a popular one…
His influence on German thought in the last quarter of the century was enormous and it continued through Wilhelm II’s day and indeed Hitler’s. Like Hegel he glorifies the State and conceives of it as supreme, but his attitude is more brutish: the people, the subjects, are to be little more than slaves in the nation. “It does not matter what you think,” he exclaims, “so long as you obey.”
This philosophy, of course, did not remain purely philosophical. Hitler put it into practice early and often in his tenure as German chancellor (which began in 1933). But he had laid the groundwork at his first public speech after his prison sentence, in 1925 (emphasis mine).
Hitler had gone to the meeting with his mind made up on two objectives which he intended henceforth to pursue. One was to concentrate all power in his own hands. The other was to re-establish the Nazi Party as a political organization which would seek power exclusively through constitutional means. He had explained the new tactics to one of his henchmen, Karl Ludecke, while still in prison: “When I resume active work it will be necessary to pursue a new policy. Instead of working to achieve power by armed coup, we shall have to hold our noses and enter the Reichstag against the Catholic and Marxist deputies. If outvoting them takes longer than outshooting them, at least the result will be guaranteed by their own constitution.”
He exploited that constitution, the Wiemar Constitution — specifically, Article 48 — which allowed the president to suspend civil rights and operate independently in emergencies:
On the day following the [Reichstag] fire, February 28, [Hitler] prevailed on President Hindenburg to sign a decree “for the Protection of the People and the State” suspending the seven sections of the constitution which guaranteed individual and civil liberties …
The decree laid down that: Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searchers, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.
In addition, the decree authorized the Reich government to take over complete power in the federal states when necessary and imposed the death sentence for a number of crimes, including ”serious disturbances of the peace” by armed persons.
He would go on to put that philosophy into practice many more times, always with horrifying consequences. But what can we learn from it in our time, and how can we protect ourselves from it?
It’s ironic that modern-day leftists are called “liberals.” All the things we think of when we hear the term — a fondness for (ever-growing) government intervention in things like education, healthcare, infrastructure, and business — are actually inimical to liberalism, as classically defined. Just to quote the first paragraph from the Wikipedia entry on liberalism:
Liberals … generally support free markets, free trade, limited government, individual rights (including civil rights and human rights), capitalism …
It’s there in the name itself: liberal — liberty from state intervention.
But you’d expect antagonism toward those categories from the modern-day liberal. Modern-day liberals seem to support increased government intervention in markets, fewer individual rights, and there’s more than a slight socialist bent to the current left.
So it’s worth remembering that although Hitler’s big break, as a young man, came at a meeting where he spewed a far-left position. At that meeting, he ranted against capitalism. After all, Nazi is an abbreviation of the German Nationalsozialistische: national socialism.
Hitler has gone down as a fascist, but here we see that he rose as a socialist. Or is it even simpler than that?
If you go even further left than the modern liberal, you run into communism.
I recently exchanged emails with a self-described communist, who also considers herself an anarchist. To understand her ideal construction of the world, think 1960s hippies and kibitzes in Israel — groups of people who don’t support the idea of “government” as we conceive it now, but instead a sort of communal form of making decisions.
She identified as an anti-liberal. She wrote:
The reason I think our points of view are fundamentally incompatible is that yours are just liberalism taken to its extreme — everything is an abstraction, everything is based on the sovereign individual as the basic unit of politics, society is just an aggregate of individuals, the most important freedoms are negative freedoms, I — the individual — get to decide what is best for me and no one can tell me what to do.
That to me is what an angsty teen thinks freedom is. I am not a liberal, I am in fact an anti-liberal, and most of my dissertation work has been me learning about liberalism so that I can learn how to more effectively challenge it.
But here’s the rub: Going against liberalism and individuality leaves you nowhere to run because, as we read above, both communism (the extreme left) and fascism (the extreme right) have their roots in the same philosophy. They both exalt the state — the collective — above the individual.
In that crucial sense, they are the same damn thing.
To me, the question should not be, “Are you on the left or the right?” Both fascism and communism — the logical conclusions of a belief in collective power — are inevitable, once you move toward either side. The better questions are, “Are you a liberal or an anti-liberal? Are you an individualist or a collectivist? Do you reject collective authority over individuals, or do you cheer it on?”
Because the clearest common thread of the writers and thinkers who influenced Hitler is: the subjugation of individual identity to collective identity.
Liberalism — freedom — on the other hand is the ultimate guardian against the rise of a vile dictator and against genocide of the likes we saw from fascist Hitler and communist Stalin.
The more the sovereignty, the ultimate superiority, of the individual is respected, and the more we affirm that no collective — no matter how big, no matter how many votes they garner — may use force to compel an individual to act, the better protected we’ll be against the evils of both the left and the right.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.