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The call for action

Updated on March 26, 2012

Liberals like to comfort themselves with the idea that education and intelligence prevent barbarity. If we know more, if we are smarter, we will not commit evil acts, we will be better people and form better societies. History, I think, fails to support this, but it remains appealing to many. There seem to be so few alternatives to this faith. Religion has not made us better men, and, in fact, has participated in our evils. Populism can support genocide as well as justice. Liberals default to the Platonic--that in knowing the good we will pursue it, and that all that lies between humanity and virtue is an error in identifying and defining the good. Faith that the good, that virtue, will submit to definition, to certainty, remains. Liberals, too, believe that the solution is simple, although the path towards the answer is complex.

History makes me more cautious. Humanity's deeds make me more cautious. We do not want to accept that people willingly commit evil, but I think that some do. We do not want to accept that our societies can willingly promote evil within them, but I think they can, and do. There are very few injustices that we are unable to justify as they occur, though we may afterwards turn against what we once accepted. We are often able to accept harm, so long as it does not happen to us, so long as it does not invade our personal circle of worthy people. We are better at offering words of sympathy to the dead than acting to save and secure the living.

The reasons for our beliefs and our alliances are often parochial, far more narrow and confined to the local difficulties of our personal financial and social situation than to the "big picture" or national dilemmas we claim to be addressing. I am, in tandem with my African project, reading Geoffrey J. Giles' Students and National Socialism in Germany. Many studies of the Nazis and of public responses to Nazis in Germany focus on the theoretical and historical conditions that contributed to the acceptance of the Nazi party as a valid one in the Weimar years. These studies may, I believe, be putting too much into the effort to intellectually frame and understand a response that was not, at base, intellectual.

Giles' study looks at university students and their involvement in the Nazi party. The Nazi party may have been largely a criminal enterprise made up of thugs, some with charisma and some without, but it also attracted a number of educated, middle class men and women, with Albert Speer being the most well-known exemplar of this type of Nazi. What were these men and women looking for? What did they see in the Nazi party that they did not see elsewhere? They did not, by and large, beyond the core of fanatical Nazis, respond to the appeal of the Nazi ideology, to its framing of the world in a racial hierarchy and to its eugenic goals. They appear to have responded to action, to the forcing of something, anything, to happen at a time when movement, change, radical engagement was desirable in and of itself. Communists offered action, and they, too, witnessed an increase in support during the same time period during which the Nazi party drew more adherents. More vital than a program, more attractive than a point of view, was a call to act now, radically and without apology.

Nazi thugs with degrees. The SD, those who led and formed the primary personnel of the Einsatzgruppen, were of this type, seeing themselves as the leaders, the theoreticians, the avant garde of the Party. Their brutality was not eliminated by their training in medicine or law. Their ability to play the piano, the violin, to appreciate the products of civilization, did not render them incapable of barbarity. Some were fanatics. Some were intrigued by the possibilities of personal power offered to them by the party, especially after the seizure of power. Some were merely opportunists with very little commitment to any ideology at all. Some thought they were realizing a national good, one which required a terrible sacrifice, although primarily the sacrifice of other people, lesser people. Some, equally willing to sacrifice other humans, did so without believing that by doing so they achieved anything beyond their personal ambitions and aggrandizement. Education did not make these men better people. It did not improve them.

There are times when as societies, as communities, we feel endangered by stagnation, by a lack of options. The sense that nothing is happening, that we are not moving forward, not moving at all, and that this will remain true so long as action is not taken, overwhelms us. Something has to happen. There has to be a break, a transformation. What action, what break, is not perceived to be the most important issue at hand. Rather it is the promise that something change, that something move when all has been stilled, that life surge into a place of death, that attracts and energizes the populace. In such straits, feeling such desperation, caution and care are not the watchwords of the day.

The Nazi party offered a rather simple, appealing program to German nationalists who felt a great deal of resentment, injustice, and fear. They deserved better, and that 'better' they deserved had been unjustly stolen from them by foreigners from without and by Jews, Communists (according to the Nazis Jews and Communists often formed a single category), and un-German Germans, traitors to the national-racial community. Everything, everywhere, had gone horribly wrong, and only radical action could put it right. Murder, extortion, destruction, torture, all became permissible, even admirable, political tools. There was to be no standing still, certainly no retreat. Beating up fellow students for being Jews or Communists became a heroic action, a laudable endeavor, instead of an instance of hooliganism or criminality. Germany needed to be fought for, and it was students, in concert with World War I veterans and other committed nationalists, who would fight for it, combatting fellow citizens who failed to completely, adequately exhibit or embody their belonging to the volk.

I do not believe that history repeats itself. Certainly not simply and perfectly. The Nazis as the party led by Adolf Hitler are not coming back. This does not mean that other political groupings just as dangerous and animated by similar hatreds, animosities, and resentments, will not arise, but they will be different. Change is necessary, vital, to all societies and communities. Stagnation does no one good. However, change and action are not positive values in and of themselves. We must always consider what changes, what actions, and at what cost. We must always ask where the harm in what we do lies, whom we harm and with what consequences to them and to us. If those we harm are hurt without receiving benefit, if the consequences of our actions are wholly negative for one group and wholly positive for another, we should question its value and its justice. We should be cautious, or we will be evil.


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    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      I find myself disappointed in every group that claims to be speaking for the people, liberal and conservative. All are locked into a "feeling" of superiority in which defining the personality of the enemy is more important than dealing with the substance of the difficulties we face as a nation. I know the appeal of nihilistic rage in politics. I feel it myself when our leaders become just too assinine and obtuse for belief. I feel it when all the conservatives can offer is a vision of the past that never existed (back when we were good, and pure, and wealthy, and, it seems, all white), while the liberals are desperately trying to show the world that they, too, love their country, falling into the trap of speaking like jingoists so they will not fall to some patriotism gap. I understand the appeal, but I resist it insofar as I can, preferring to fight for the good of my country as I am able to see it, to understand it, full of questions but still striving.

      The United States was not finished in the eighteenth century. That was not the best we could ever be, the most we could ever understand; as Barnsey pointed out, in terms of morality (slavery, women's issues, persecution, intolerance) it was not the zenith of human possibility. Promises were made, a goal was stated, which we can continue to realize, more perfectly, more consciously, and, if we try, with less hypocrisy than before. But it demands a lot of us, and, so far, most of us have shown ourselves unwilling to commit to it.

    • Barnsey profile image

      Barnsey 6 years ago from Happy Hunting Grounds

      I am guilty. I am one of those you write about who seeks change for the sake of change. War has always been the strongest, most defining method to doing so, and I am prepared to swallow the evil such a war would bring as long as the results are positive. While I am not completely liberal, nor am I conservative. I find myself somewhere in the middle, often looking at both sides with incredulity. I cry out in many of my own hubs and some of my comments that the people need to unite. I mean it. The divisions of politics and religion should be secondary to what is best for the people and our country. Why am I the only one to see this? I'm not? Then what the hell is going on in this country? Our president has been blocked from making any real change and the idiots who blocked him point at him accusingly as if he was the one who created this mess! Are these people that damn blind? Then I get angry, then I call for class war, then I call for drastic measures. Revolution! What kills me the most is that the conservatives seem to think they are closer to the mindset of our founding fathers so that gives their arguments more ground. What a load! The founding fathers were slave owners and child molesters, I hate to say it, but they were impregnating underage slaves as a pastime!

      On the other hand liberals are picking and choosing their battles, thus revealing their agendas. You can't pick and choose, the good of all or none, that should be the end of it.

      So, yeah, I am guilty. Great Hub!