Comparisons with Hitler and the Nazis are thrown about freely these days. Compulsory vaccination, the Tea Party movement, President Obama, Planned Parenthood and Donald Trump have all been compared to Hitler and the Nazis.
People who talk like that have forgotten, or maybe never knew, just what Hitler and the Nazis stood for and what they attempted to do.
Over the weekend, I read an article about Hitler by the historian Timothy Snyder and an interview with Snyder about his new book, Black Earth, which made clear just how distinctively evil Hitler was.
He thought Germans had a right and duty to kill off members of inferior races to reduce their population and make room for Germans, and to treat the survivors as work animals.
The slaughter of World War Two and the death camps were only a foretaste of what would have happened if the Nazis had won.
As Snyder wrote, Hitler thought that, literally, nothing mattered but the biological struggle for survival between different races. There are racists, like Harper Lee’s fictional Atticus Finch, who believe that some races are inherently superior, but that the superior race should treat inferiors with justice and kindness provided they “know their place”.
Hitler would have none of this. He thought kindness toward the weak was a fatal weakness in the struggle for existence. He saw the world as overpopulated, and believed Germans could create living space for themselves only by slaughtering the inhabitants of eastern Europe and taking their land..
Nations and governments were of little importance in Hitler’s mind. Ultimate reality for him was the racial struggle for existence.
Hitler hated Jews more than anyone else because he saw the Jews as the source of universalism—any belief that all human beings have certain things in common, and should be treated fairly and compassionately. He hated Christianity, scientific humanism, liberalism, capitalism and socialism because, in different ways, they saw humanity as one.
The reason he hated such ideas is that he thought that, to see your racial enemy as in any way human, weakened you in the racial struggle.
He thought that all forms of universal morality and ethics were intentionally fostered by the Jews in order to weaken the Germans and other races. He believed that, in fact, Jewish influence had made the Germans dangerously weak by fostering humanitarianism.
He saw Slavs, Negroes and other races as vermin, but he saw the Jews as an infectious disease.
Dictatorship, slavery, ethnic cleansing, white supremacy and racial segregation are all great evils, but Hitler and the Nazis were a greater evil.
When I was younger, I was much influenced by Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, which was about the similarities between Hitler and Stalin. She pointed out how both engaged in mass slaughter, and how both sought to break down any institutions or laws that stood between the individual and the absolute power of the state.
Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong were not content with enacting repressive laws. They eliminated any law behind which their enemies might shield themselves.
But after reading Snyder’s article and interview, I see how Hitler was distinctive even among totalitarian rulers.
Stalin and Mao rationalized their mass killings by asserting this was a necessary stop toward creating a world in which everyone was well off. Hitler’s goal was not well-being. For him the racial struggle for existence was unending, and mass slaughter of inferior or rival races was good in itself.
If you define evil as hatred of the good, Hitler was a benchmark for evil.
Hitler’s World by Timothy Snyder for The New York Review of Books.
Timothy Snyder’s Black Earth Offers a New Theory of Hitler’s Anti-Semitism, an interview by Edward Delman for The Atlantic.
I’ve not had a chance to read Black Earth, but everything that Snyder asserted in his article and interview is supported by other books I’ve read on Hitler and Nazism. I particularly recommend The Wages of Destruction: the Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy by Adam Tooze. Hitler’s Empire: How the Nazis Ruled Europe by Mark Mazower also is good.
Of course you can be a lesser evil than Hitler and still be extremely evil. I can be strongly opposed to President Obama, Donald Trump or anyone else without having to liken them to Hitler or the Nazis.
I made some minor changes and additions a few minutes after the original post.