In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt introduced the phrase and theory of the “banality of evil.” She didn’t mean there was anything banal about the horrors of the Holocaust, but rather that most of the perpetrators were...boring. Most of them weren’t sociopaths. They were average, middle-management types looking to ingratiate themselves to their bosses. The terrifying thing to take from this is that a much, much larger percentage of the population than we’d like to believe have it in them to act in exactly the way Eichmann did. The Milgram and Stanford experiments at least partially bear her out.
This idea, that there’s a potential Nazi in all of us, has certainly taken root in the West. Applying it to political opponents has also increased in frequency the further we move from the evils of the actual Nazis. The current president is mentioned in the same breath as Hitler so often that it barely registers anymore. There’s no question that it’s a phenomenon mainly of the political left (BusHitler, etc.) but it certainly can be bipartisan. (Remember why Hank Williams Jr. was dropped by Monday Night Football? Sure, they brought him back...after six years.)
It’s all become rather absurd. No person with a modicum of knowledge of the subject can possibly believe that any American politician of any import even comes close to Nazism. No adult in America today hasn’t been taught what the Holocaust entailed. Right? But what if they don’t know? What if we charitably assume that at least some of these people use “Hitler” and “Nazi” as pejoratives akin to the way many on the Right use the word “socialist.” The film and photos exist, but do they retain the emotive power they once held? At Nuremberg, everyone in attendance is visibly shaken when film footage is offered by prosecutors. Goering could not even look at the screen. But these were people who did not grow up with violent or gory images in movies and on television. Most of them, even hardened combat veterans, had never seen anything like it, real or fake.
The comparisons to Nazis that result from fairly mundane and middle-of-the-road political disagreements have led to an interesting phenomenon: people, especially young people, will avail themselves of Nazi comparisons while clearly lacking any grasp of why the comparison is vulgar and inappropriate. To them the Nazis were bad because….well, because they were racists and that’s the worst thing you can be. If you have no historical knowledge beyond “Hitler was bad” then it becomes much easier to call a political opponent Hitler: you actually think that your opponent is racist, so in a way you have to compare them to Hitler.
You, dear reader, are obviously worldly and erudite. But ask yourself this: if you weren’t, how much would you really know about Nazis and the Holocaust? What if all you had was the knowledge you gained in the American public education system? Perhaps if people had a better grasp of the atrocities committed by the Nazis to their fellow human beings they wouldn’t feel so eager to toss the comparison around. There really is just no apples-to-apples analogy to be made for the dehumanization that occurred in the concentration camps, either in kind or in scale. Sometimes it’s best to go back to the accounts of people who were there, who saw the end results of Nazism with their own eyes:
We continue to uncover German concentration camps for political prisoners in which conditions of indescribable horror prevail. I have visited one of these myself and I assure you that whatever has been printed on them to date has been understatement. If you would see any advantage in asking about a dozen leaders of Congress and a dozen prominent editors to make a short visit to this theater in a couple C-54s, I will arrange to have them conducted to one of these places where the evidence of bestiality and cruelty is so overpowering as to leave no doubt in their minds about the normal practices of the Germans in these camps. - Eisenhower cable to G. Marshall 4-19-45
The things I saw beggar description...the visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty, and bestiality were so overpowering as to leave me a bit sick. In one room, where were piled up 20 or 30 naked men, killed by starvation, George Patton would not even enter. He said he would get sick if he did so. I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in position to give first-hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.” - Eisenhower letter to Marshall April 1945
When I found the first camp like that I think I was never so angry in my life. The bestiality displayed there was not merely piled up bodies of people that had starved to death, but to follow out the road and see where they tried to evaluate them so they could still work, you could see where they sprawled on the road. You could go to their burial pits and see horrors that I really wouldn’t even want to begin to describe. I think people ought to know about such things. It explains something of my attitude toward the German war criminal. I believe he must be punished, and I will hold out for that forever. - Eisenhower press conference 6-18-45
I was there when we opened the gates. Some of these poor wretches running out were so emaciated they actually died from the excitement of being liberated. I saw it happen several times. These people in the camps --they were like walking skeletons. You could see all their bones. The gates opened and these people ran out yelling, “I’m free! I’m free!” And some of them died right there. I was horrified to see what the SS had done to these people.-- Roy Gates, from We Who are Alive and Remain: Untold Stories from the Band of Brothers by Marcus Brotherton
The following lengthy excerpt is taken from a letter dated May 7, 1945. The author was a young medic with the 116th Evacuation Hospital, Pfc. Harold Porter. It was addressed to his parents in Michigan. It was written on the letterhead of the former commandant of the camp, a place called Dachau. Pfc. Porter begins by noting that the Army has not yet decided if letters will be censored for content as far as the conditions of the camp are concerned, but he will write as if it will be allowed and mail it later if he can. (Full text of the letter, and others, available in pdf form on the website of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library.)
It is difficult to know how to begin...I know you will hesitate to believe me no matter how objective and focused I try to be. I even find myself trying to deny what I am looking at with my own eyes. Certainly, what I have seen in the past few days will affect my personality for the rest of my life.
…. But as we came to the center of the city (Dachau) we met a train with a wrecked engine--about 50 cars long. Every car was loaded with bodies. There must have been thousands of them, all obviously starved to death. This was a shock of the first order, and the odor can best be immagined [sic]. But neither the sight nor the odor were anything when compared with what we were still to see.Their faces purple ,their eyes popping, and with a hideous grin on each one. They were nothing but skin and bones. Coyle had assisted on 10 autopsies the day before (wearing a gas mask) on ten bodies selected at random. Eight of them had advanced T.B., all had typhus and extreme malnutrition symptoms. There were both women and children in the stack in addition to the men.
...Behind the furnaces was the execution chamber, a windowless cell twenty feet square with gas nozzles every few feet across the ceiling. Outside, in addition to a huge mound of charred bone fragments, were the carefully sorted and stacked clothes of the victims, which obviously numbered in the thousands. Although I stood there looking at it, I could not believe it. The realness of the whole mess is just gradually dawning on me, and I doubt if it ever will on you.
The Pacific Theater will not come immediately for this unit; we have around 36,000 potential and eventual patients here. The end of the work for everyone else is going to be just the beginning for us.
….Today was a scorching hot day after several raining cold ones. The result of the heat on the corpses is impossible to describe, and the situation will probably get worse because their disposal will certainly take time. Love, Harold
In all likelihood, the tactic of calling people Nazis as a knee-jerk response in our political discourse isn't going to abate anytime soon. The Nazi/Hitler comparisons are almost always used when a racial issue is involved, and we aren’t going to become less obsessed with race anytime soon, either. If, God forbid, another Hitleresque leader rises to power somewhere, hopefully we won’t have hyperbolized to extinction our most evocative analogies. We already scrub the worst of the images and make sure the viewer is warned that they may be “disturbing.” Of course they’re disturbing. Being disturbed by them is the whole point of seeing them in the first place, isn’t it? Being disturbed is how we ensure “Never Again.”
Nobody is a Nazi if everyone is a Nazi. Suggesting that someone is analogous to the perpetrators of the most beastly acts in human history because they don’t think a universal basic income is a good idea is a game with diminishing returns. Eventually your protestations will all fall on deaf ears. You debase the sufferings of the victims of actual Nazism and cheapen the sacrifices of those who fought, and died, to end it. You betray your own ignorance of history and shallow understanding of contemporary politics. You should save the hyperbole for when you really need it.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.