Salutary Lessons from the Evils of Nazi Ideology

A lot of ordinary Germans supported Hitler and were involved in implementing his genocidal policies. Why?

The Third Reich still raises questions that should be disturbing to all who are confident they’re so civilized they could never be part of such horror. Germany was culturally and technologically the most advanced nation in Europe in 1900; 33 years later Hitler was its chancellor, and neither the Third Reich nor the Holocaust could have happened without the involvement of large numbers of ordinary, polite, civilized human beings.

 

The question of why good people suffer evil has haunted human experience since Cain slew Abel. The Bible offers numerous reflections on this question, perhaps most notably Psalm 73. And it has fascinated philosophers, from Boethius onwards. Yet a more intriguing, if less frequently asked, question is surely this: Why do ordinary people do wicked things? And not just wicked things on the personal level—spousal abuse, rape, murder—but on the national and international level, too. A lot of ordinary Germans supported Hitler and were involved in implementing his genocidal policies. Why?

The most famous treatment of this issue is that of Hannah Arendt, whose eyewitness reports from Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem came to form the book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Study in the Banality of Evil. Arendt’s Eichmann is a buffoon, an unreflective mediocrity incapable of grasping the enormity of what he had done. In his own eyes, he was just the man who made sure the trains ran on time. That they happened to run all the way to Auschwitz was an incidental detail of no great moral moment to him.

While more recent research on Eichmann has called into question just how thoughtless and unreflective he was as he carried out his role in the Holocaust, the Third Reich still raises questions that should be disturbing to all who are confident they’re so civilized they could never be part of such horror. Germany was culturally and technologically the most advanced nation in Europe in 1900; 33 years later Hitler was its chancellor, and neither the Third Reich nor the Holocaust could have happened without the involvement of large numbers of ordinary, polite, civilized human beings. How and why?

The Christian answer is that human beings at their core are sinful, depraved, and twisted toward selfishness. That’s true; but the fact that that answer is true doesn’t mean it isn’t trite. The cause that explains everything in general explains nothing in particular. The British were similarly sinful, but they didn’t orchestrate the systematic annihilation of the Jewish population in London. The French had a worse record on anti-Semitism, but they didn’t host the Wannsee Conference. So why Germany? And what of lasting value can be learned, if anything at all, from the catastrophic crimes of such a civilized nation?

In his new book, The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi, distinguished historian Johann Chapoutot offers an account of Nazi life that attempts to answer these questions. Examining everything from the ideological premises of Nazism to its practical application at home and abroad, both in the chaos of war and the implementation of governing, Chapoutot’s work offers a comprehensive view of the world as the Nazis understood and experienced it. And therein lies salutary lessons for us all.

The scale and the depth of Nazi brutality seem to defy understanding. What could drive people to fight, kill, and destroy with such ruthless ambition? Observers and historians have offered countless explanations since the 1930s. According to Johann Chapoutot, we need to understand better how the Nazis explained it themselves. We need a clearer view, in particular, of how they were steeped in and spread the idea that history gave them no choice: it was either kill or die.

Understanding Nazi Ideology

There has been a temptation in dealing with Nazism to dismiss Nazi ideology as shallow, a creed designed by psychopaths and believed by idiots. This is perhaps connected to an understandable fear that explaining the attraction of Nazism might somehow become a means of excusing it. The problem with such an approach is that it feeds the mentality that sees the Nazi “them” so alien to the enlightened “us” that we might just fall into the same ditch without even noticing. Chapoutot refuses such a simplistic approach. And at a time when the public square is polarized, and the dominant voices are found at the extremes, a book that addresses Nazism in all its cultural and intellectual complexity is a most welcome addition not only to the scholarly literature but also to the world beyond academia too.

Chapoutot presents Nazism as a vast, internally coherent and rhetorically compelling system of belief and behavior that was quite capable of adapting contemporary events to become part of its grand, self-justifying narrative. Many of its elements had deep philosophical and cultural roots. Chapoutot identifies a reverence for nature at the heart of the movement. The German race was distinctive and uniquely moral. Differences between cultures were rooted in biology, and biology possessed its own hierarchy.

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