The call for action
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.