Buying Genocide, Part 3


Nazis as Socialists: How Accurate a Description?

An economic historian, Andrei Znamenski, wrote a nice analysis of the question of whether the National Socialists were really socialists. He begins by noting a fascinating historical fact: in the West outside of Germany, people to this day call the NSDAP “Nazis,” whereas the Germans still call them National Socialists. The full name of the party was of course the National Socialist German Workers Party, but Germans use — and used — just the first two words. Znamenski points out that Hitler and his followers never liked the term “Nazi”; they used “National Socialist” or the initials ND or NSDP. And in the years after the discovery of the Holocaust, “Nazi” — like “fascist” — became a generic term of abuse against political opponents. So we now have expressions like “condo-Nazi” and “femi-Nazi.” But as Znamenski notes, this is odd. Historians and other intellectuals never use “Commies” when writing about the Soviet Union under Stalin — they call people “Soviets” and so on. In fact, Znamenski observes, the Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism. It has instead pushed two versions of the “Hitler Myth.”

One version — the one the communist and socialist Left most embraced — is that Hitler, while manipulating ordinary Germans, especially the bourgeoisie, was a puppet of the large industrial capitalists. That is, this Leftist myth has it that Nazism in particular and fascism in general “were the last-ditch effort of decaying monopoly capitalism that used them [i.e., dictators like Hitler and Mussolini] in their desperate desire to save the [capitalist] system from its final and unavoidable collapse” (550).

The Left in the West has systematically refused to recognize the egalitarian and socialist aspects of National Socialism.

This idea is belied by the facts. Early on (1925–1933), two-thirds of Nazi Party members were workers, farmers, and professionals. By the mid-1930s, industrial workers — who earlier supported by huge margins the Social Democratic and Communist Parties — were drawn over to the National Socialists, primarily because of the Party’s program of full employment. By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background. By contrast, the industrialists overwhelmingly favored the conservative and ultra-conservative parties — the German National People’s Party, the German People’s Party, and the Catholic Center.

The second version of the Hitler Myth — the one most embraced by the progressive liberal and non-communist Left — was that Hitler was a demonic, uniquely charismatic dictator “who took advantage of the German people’s sadomasochistic and authoritative nature — enabled in this by the Great Depression.” Znamenski cites as an example a recent BBC documentary written by Laurence Rees, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.

By the mid-1930s, nearly half of the SS were people of working-class background.

Znamenski doesn’t reply directly to this myth, so I will. I would suggest that it is in fact a pseudo-explanation. To say that Hitler was “charismatic” is merely to say that he was able to make his message resonate with many people. But the issues remain: what was the message? Why was it ultimately more appealing than the communist, mainstream socialist, progressive and conservative ideologies? Saying that Hitler (or Churchill, FDR, JFK, or Reagan) was charismatic is like saying that silent movie star Clara Bow was the “It” girl — the word names rather than explains an historical fact.

Yet, as Znamenski argues, the work of Götz Aly and others enables us to see that Hitler’s regime was indeed both nationalistic and socialistic:

Their goal was to empower all people of “Aryan stock” at the expense of non-Germans. Whereas Stalin cannibalized his own population, expropriating and phasing out segments of society on the basis of their social and class origin, Hitler rejected class warfare and acted as a “benign” dictator toward the German people. His bio-politics aspired to mold the members of the Aryan “tribe” into an all-inclusive “people’s community” (Volksgemeinschaft) by uplifting them not through attacks on “class” aliens but on ethnic and racial “others.” Hence the ideological emphasis of Hitler’s regime on the expropriation of resources belonging to non-Germans and the exploitation of their slave labor. (545).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer. National Socialism was similar to the international variety: anti-bourgeois, aiming for a classless system, but dissimilar primarily in privileging one ethnic group at the expense of others.

Znamenski adds a number of important points, including the fact that Hitler espoused socialist views before he adopted virulent anti-Semitic ones. Underscoring Aly’s analysis of the regime’s purchase of popular support, Znamenski quotes Albert Speer, the regime’s preferred architect and minister of war production:

It remains one of the oddities of this war that Hitler demanded far less from his people than Churchill and Roosevelt did from their respective nations. The German leaders were not disposed to make sacrifices themselves or ask sacrifices of the people. They tried to keep the morale of the people in the best possible state by concessions. (546)

It is worth noting that the top income tax rate in Germany throughout the war was a mere 13.7%, compared to 23.7% in Great Britain, and a whopping 94% in the United States.

One last, provocative point that Znamenski makes is that as the Nazis gained power, their socialist opponents started aping the nationalist aspect of National Socialism. In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which (among other things) espoused militarism and anti-Semitism. They had posters with both the red star and the swastika and their street fighters were called “beefsteak” (brown on the outside, red on the inside).

He might have added the exploitation of their bodies — the hair, the gold teeth, and even the ashes of bones used as fertilizer.

Even more interesting is the response of Stalin to Hitler, a man whom Stalin trusted and admired at some level, but also feared. During the ferocious war with Nazi Germany, a war costing the lives of upwards of 22 million Russians, Stalin started openly appealing to Russian patriotism (as opposed to class warfare) and even loosened restrictions on the Russian Orthodox Church. After the war, Stalin aped Hitler ever more closely, In January 1953, an aging Stalin had the state propaganda organ Pravda put out the story that a group of Kremlin doctors, almost all of them Jewish, had poisoned two of Stalin’s closest aides and taken part in a “vast plot conducted by Western imperialists and Zionists to kill the top Soviet political and military leadership.” This was the Doctors’ Plot, and Stalin intended to have a show trial to set up a national campaign to rid the Soviet Union of “cosmopolitan” and “Zionist” elements. In short, Stalin was going to go after Russia’s (then) 2 million Jews. They would be sent to Stalin’s own concentration camp system, under the pretext of protecting them. No doubt the Jews would have been sent to the industrial camps to be used as slaves to support the Soviet regime. Stalin’s own profound anti-Semitism was a partial motive for his actions, but one suspects that he figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while). Only Stalin’s death a few months later stopped this plan from being implemented.

As fine as Znamenski’s analysis is, however, it requires considerable qualification.

First, there was a salient difference between Nazism and socialism (as that was typically defined), concerning ownership of private property. Specifically, even “democratic” socialist regimes traditionally advocated the nationalization (the socialization or social ownership of) major industries. For instance, Britain after WWII nationalized the coal, electricity, railway, and healthcare industries. And the communists essentially tried to own all industries, virtually socializing all sources of production, even family farms.

In Germany, a group of communists formed their own splinter party — National Bolshevism — which espoused militarism and anti-Semitism.

However, the Nazis seemed ambivalent about socialist economics. While their early party platform advocated nationalization of major industries, when in power Hitler actually privatized a number of companies. These included four major banks; the German railway, then the second largest socialized company in the world; the largest German steel company; several shipbuilding companies; and the company that controlled all the metal production in Upper Silesia.

Hitler’s own description of his economic views is at least unclear, if not downright oxymoronic. He said at one point, “We are socialists; we are enemies of today’s capitalistic system.” However, he also held that socialism of the Nazi sort “has nothing to do with Marxian socialism . . . Marxism is anti-property; true socialism is not.” And he said in private, “I absolutely insist on protecting private property . . . we must encourage private initiative.” Again, Hitler said, “Socialism! That is an unfortunate word altogether . . . What does socialism really mean? If people have something to eat and their pleasures, then they have their socialism.” He also said, “The basic feature of our economic theory is that we have no theory at all.”

One revealing thing that Hitler (after achieving power) said in this regard was, “There is no license anymore, no private sphere where the individual belongs to himself. That is socialism, not such trivial matters as the possibility of privately owning the means of production. Such things mean nothing if I subject people to a kind of discipline they can’t escape . . . what need have we to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”

Stalin figured out that he could help pay for his war against the West by stealing whatever Jewish assets were left, just as this strategy worked for the Nazis (at least for a while)

This has puzzled some commentators, so much that some say the Nazi regime didn’t really have an economic ideology. But it did, of course: it had its own form of corporatism (or “corporativism”). Corporatism permits private businesses but organizes them by industrial sector and tightly controls them (as well as the workers) so that economic production satisfies the state’s needs and purposes. From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

So under corporatism the State is the chief institution. No wonder the Italian fascists summarized this view as: “Everything for the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state.” It is worth noting that this vision (of the various institutions in society not competing and clashing, but of cooperating — under the direction of the state) is a vison shared by more than fascists and National Socialists: it is attractive to many Catholic social philosophers (who have advocated a “Catholic corporatism”), many American soi-disant progressives, and the present-day leadership of both China and Russia.

Under corporatism, people are allowed to keep their private property, including their businesses, even large ones, but only if these are controlled by and run for the benefit of the state. Neosocialism, of which fascism and National Socialism were varieties, can be defined as the state pursuit of socialist social goals (such as equality and “fraternity”) through a corporatist rather than a socialist economy.That is, a neosocialist state will pursue wealth equality, say, or fraternity (e.g., Volksgemeinschaft), not by nationalizing industries sector by sector but by controlling and coordinating the private companies to further these goals, including taxing businesses and redistributing the wealth.

From the corporatist perspective, what was needed was not the elimination of private enterprise but its total control by the State for the good of the people generally.

The concept of Volksgemeinschaft informed the National Socialist form of corporatism. The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries, and control and coordinate labor, industry, farming, the educational system, and the media for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state, which was in turn embodied in the Führer.

The Nazi regime pursued classical corporatist economic policies, including central planning, massive controls, autarkic and one-sided trade policies, and massive spending programs. The regime replaced the trade unions with a unified German Labor Front, under regime control, which banned strikes, lockouts, and summary terminations. The regime replaced all the chambers of commerce with a unified Chamber of Economics, which then was folded into the Labor Front. The combined Labor Front and Chamber of Economics was run by a board of trustees, all appointed by the regime. Small businesses were monitored by shop councils and Courts of Honor that cooperated with small business owners to set working standards and wages — under the supervision of the regime.

The first economic program the regime formulated was a massive infrastructure program, which led to a 300% increase in the number of construction workers. The regime controlled the number of car models made, and (when war broke out) restricted their use. The regime of course rapidly increased military spending, which hit 10% of GDP in 1936, vastly more than that of any other European nation. And while there were regime members who favored free market policies, the faction that favored autarkic policies and a military economy won out — Hitler envisioning a struggle to the death between National Socialism and “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Germany’s trade policy was reconfigured to favor trade with southern and southeastern Europe, aiming to make southern Europe and the Balkans dependent upon the regime, supplying it with raw materials in exchange for German manufactured goods. The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them. Naturally, the degree of state control over the economy only increased with the outbreak and then escalation of the war.

The state would not directly own, but would certainly direct all major industries for the benefit of the Volk, through its embodiment as the state.

The clear Nazi aim was to provide a high standard of living for citizens of the country — an aim that was never urgent for Stalin. But consider another major difference between Stalin and Hitler. Lenin had achieved power by armed revolt and Stalin by systematically eliminating his rivals in the party dictatorship. At no point did Lenin, Stalin, or any of the Bolsheviks ever have to face genuine elections with actual opposition parties, parties with competing ideologies, as the Nazis originally did. This may be part of the reason why Stalin could (in Znamenski’s nice phrase) “cannibalize” his own population, selecting various groups on the basis of alleged class affiliation for use in the Soviet’s own vast concentration camp system. However, the Nazis retained to the end the sense that they needed to keep their base — German workers, farmers, small businesses, bureaucrats, big businesses, the military command — at least materially provided for until the end. And as I explain below, there was a deeper motive for the National Socialist transfer of wealth to German citizens.

In the end, the regime collapsed, because as the conquests were halted and then rolled back — and the number of Jews (and others) whose assets and labor it could completely seize diminished — it ran out of money, men, and machines to continue fighting.

The regime fostered the creation of monopolies and oligopolies, the better to control them.

In fine, the Nazi regime was truly socialist. And it died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Baroness Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

Nazi Anti-Semitism: Was it Unique?

In the last section I focused on the socialist aspect of National Socialism. Let us turn now to the nationalistic side.

It is a question often asked: How could the Germans — arguably the most culturally advanced people in the world at the time — descend into the barbarism of totalitarianism and genocide? I suggest that a great part of the answer lies precisely in that advanced culture.

Let me start by talking about an influential German sociologist who helped shape National Socialist ideology: Ferdinand Tonnies (1855–1936), a star in the German academic world. Tonnies distinguished between Gemeinschaft (roughly “organic community”) and Gesellschaft (roughly, “associational society”). Gemeinschaft is the sort of emotionally tight community that (allegedly) characterizes the family and long-standing ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods. In such communities, Tonnies held, individuals have mutually recognized roles to play in set relationships defined by Wesenwille (“natural will”), which consists of naturally occurring emotions. People behave towards one another in accordance with traditional social rules developed by a shared organic history.

In the end, the regime died as all socialist schemes must, for precisely the reason Margaret Thatcher identified so clearly: it ran out of other people’s assets to steal.

In contrast, Tonnies said, Gesellschaft is the sort of loosely structured and diverse organizations such as governmental bureaucracies and large industrial companies. Such organizations are characterized by Kurwille (“rational will”), relationships based solely on rational self-interest. The growth of Gesellschaft (during the industrial revolution) undermined the ties of family and neighborhood, resulting in an impersonal society and widespread alienation, the feeling of being separated from one’s work and society generally. This is a line of thought that traces back to Marx at least.

Now, Tonnies held that all societies contain both sorts of organizations, though a given society may have a dominance of either Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft. His view was not that societies should aim at one or the other type of association, but rather (in the words of the New World Encyclopedia), “More important for the developed of a successful society is the effort to harmonize the two aspects, and thus to ensure that both individual goals and the needs of the society as a whole are satisfied, while maintaining the element of care and concern for each person as members of one human family.”

In much sociological literature, then as now, so-called observational science is mixed with ethical value judgments. The fact-value distinction — or in Humean terms, the is-ought distinction — is routinely disregarded by sociologists in particular, and social scientists in general.[1] Whatever Tonnies meant about balancing the two types of association, by his very description, Gemeinschaft is more appealing, especially to people of a romantic bent. Isn’t familial concern a better basis for society than cold, selfish calculation? So, while Tonnies opposed the Nazis, leading them to strip him of his emeritus position in 1933, the National Socialists seized on his concept of Gemeinschaft and made it the center of their worldview. More precisely, the Party’s sociological ideology was centered on turning Germany into a Volksgemeinschaft — in this case, an extended Aryan clan.

German socialism is informed by the national spirit, the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

We can now turn to Werner Sombart. Znamenski mentions the key influence that Sombart (1863–1941) played in the development of national socialist ideology but doesn’t spell out this influence. Sombart started as a Marxist, but moved away from Marxism to develop his own rightist critique of (modern) capitalism. He laid his views out in his magnum opus, The Modern Capitalism: Historical and Systematic Presentation of the Overall European Economic Life from its Beginnings to the Present Day[2] — first published in two volumes in 1902, then expanded in 1916, and growing to three volumes by 1927 — as well as The Jews and Modern Capitalism — published in 1911.

Sombart held that capitalism developed in three stages: early capitalism (prior to the industrial revolution); high capitalism (beginning in 1760 or so); and late capitalism (beginning with World War I). In Sombart’s analysis, early capitalism — medieval commerce — was a stable, coherent, supportive system, in which guilds and merchants cooperated, with wages held constant at a “just” level, markets shared equitably by the players, profits and wages guaranteed but held to reasonable levels, and markets with production levels limited and protected from competition with those in other places. But, he argued, because Jewish traders and manufacturers were excluded from the guilds, the Jews developed a hatred for the system, deliberately destroyed it and replaced it by modern predatory capitalism, with its unlimited competition.

In a book he wrote at the outset of WWI, Sombart advocated the theory that the war was the unavoidable clash “between the English commercial civilization and the heroic culture of Germany.” The English, under the influence of their commercial mindset, with its utilitarian emphasis on the happiness of individual people, had lost their warlike instincts. He held that the highest ideal was the “German idea of the State. . . . The State is neither founded nor formed by individuals, nor is its purpose to serve any interests of individuals. It is a Volksgemeinschaft in which the individual has no rights but only duties.”

Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least.

By 1917 Sombart was a full professor at one of the top universities in Germany, and was more renowned as a sociologist than even his longtime friend Max Weber. By the early 1930s, he had moved into the National Socialism orbit.[3] In a 1934 book called German Socialism, he claimed that German socialism puts the “welfare of the whole over the welfare of the individual.” This new socialism requires “a planned economy in accordance with state regulations.” Moreover, German socialism is informed by the Volkgeist (national spirit), the antithesis of the German spirit is the Jewish spirit, and the main goal of the German people and National Socialism is to eliminate that Jewish spirit.

Besides Sombart, there were a number of other academic or intellectual stars whose views informed the development of the National Socialist ideology in the 1920s. These thinkers, whom Jeffrey Herf has called “reactionary modernists,” tried to combine progressive feelings toward modern technology with regressive feelings toward modern democratic government and free market economics. They included sociologist Hans Freyer (1887–1969), philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976), writer Ernst Jünger (1895–1998), legal scholar Carl Schmitt (1888–1985), and historian Oswald Spengler (1880–1936). While these thinkers differed in their receptivity to the National Socialist party — most joining the party enthusiastically, but one of them (Spengler) being critical of it — they were all “nationalists who turned the romantic anti-capitalism of the German Right away from backward-looking pastoralism, pointing instead to the outlines of a beautifully new order replacing the formless chaos due to capitalism in a united, technologically advanced nation” (264).

How enthusiastic Sombart and Heidegger were about technological advance is open to dispute, but that these thinkers contributed ideas that informed National Socialism is not. Freyer held that the highest stage of society is the state in which individuals merge into a collective unity. Jünger wrote that the Jews had to be either completely assimilated or forced to immigrate to Palestine. Spengler argued for a Prussian Socialism, meaning a German nationalistic non-Marxist socialism.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense.

Especially useful to the National Socialists in developing their views about government and law was the work of Carl Schmitt. During the 1920s, he wrote a string of influential essays and books with ideas that the National Socialists found useful. For example, in 1921, he published the essay On Dictatorship, in which he argued that one of the most effective components of the new (Weimar) constitution was the power given to the president to declare a state of emergency, which he characterizes as dictatorial. Considering that this is precisely how Hitler consummated his power after gaining office, Schmitt’s work is prophetic, to say the least. And Schmitt urged that dictatorship means simply power achieved by other than the slow means permitted by republican democracy.

Just a year later (1922), Schmitt published another controversial essay — Political Theology — in which he advanced the thesis that political theory investigates the state in precisely the way theology investigates God. In 1923 — a decade before he joined the Nazi Party — he published a critique of the legitimacy of parliamentary government entitled The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy. In this work he attacked the practices of representative liberal politics in ways that ironically anticipate by a half-century Public Choice Theory, arguing that actual party politics are far from the ideal of dispassionate rational actors debating policy prescriptions with the goal of reaching the best answer for society, but are instead the trading of favors in back rooms. He also questioned the idea that a majority vote represents the will of the people. As an author of the excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Schmitt puts it:

If a majority can overrule a minority, and identify its will with the will of the people, why should it not be possible for the will of a minority to express the will of the people? What if a group of democratic rebels want to establish a democracy in a society where most people are opposed to the principle of democracy? Would they not be justified, from a democratic point of view, to abandon majority rule, to identify their own will as the will of the people, and to subject their compatriots to a re-education dictatorship? Schmitt suggests that such a dictatorship would still have to be considered democratic, since it still appeals to the idea that political rule ought to be base or the will of the people.

This is, of course, a standard fascist trope — suggesting there is such a thing as “the Will of the People” in a collective sense. His was a sophisticated defense and explication of the fascist notion that the dictator can better represent the Will of the People than even — the majority of the people!

The last major work that Schmitt brought out during the period during which the National Socialists were solidifying their general ideology and electoral platforms (the early- to mid-1920s) was The Concept of the Political (1927; with views elaborated in Constitutional Theory, 1928). In this work, he advances the theory that “the political” is what is central to politics, not mere party politics. The political, he held, is always and everywhere constituted by the existential delineation of friend from enemy. Not even friend from other, please note, but friend from enemy. The enemy can be anybody felt by the dominant political group to be different and alien “in an especially intense way.” And the difference that sets the enemy apart need not be nationality — it can be any difference (racial, religious, or ideological) so long as it is felt deeply enough to become a violent struggle with the other.[4]

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy that threatens the people’s interests and wellbeing is tailor-made as a justification for the singularly virulent National Socialist anti-Semitism.

Looking at the work of Tonnies and Sombart in relation to the development of National Socialist ideology, I think we are in a position at least partially to answer the question raised by the work of Goldhagen: whether the reason for Hitler’s support was that the German culture had a uniquely virulent form of anti-Semitism — eliminationist anti-Semitism — that accounted for the German public support of the Holocaust.

The notion that the state’s political unity necessarily requires the delineation of an enemy is tailor-made for National Socialist anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face. The standard form of anti-Semitism is one common in Europe, but also in North and South America, and the Middle East. It is what I call lumpen anti-Semitism — the anti-Semitism of the average, not particularly well-educated Christian. Among many Christians, it takes the form of hating Jews, allegedly because they “killed Christ,” but also generally from “prophet rejection resentment,” the idea that Jews are people who reject the view of Jesus as Messiah, and even more as the son of God. Lumpen anti-Semitism is quite common among Muslims as well, because Jews also reject Muhammad as a prophet. Pogroms aimed at Jews were recurrent in European history. Note, however, that lumpen anti-Semitism is not eliminationist: throughout European history, typically, if any Jews converted to Christianity (or Islam), no further attacks were made on them.

But the Nazi Party’s ideological anti-Semitism was never based on the idea of prophet rejection, or on any aspect of Christian theology, for the simple reason that the Party never allied itself with any Christian religion, in the way some other German right-wing parties had.[5] No, the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitism was what we can call doctrinaire anti-Semitism. It was informed by the rightist anti-capitalism of the German academic right-wing critics of modern capitalism, which held that Jews represent modern capitalism, that they are solely interested in profit and market share, not Volksgemeinschaft, that they want unrestrained free markets and widespread free trade, rather than structured and controlled nationally autarchic markets. This was the justification for the singular twist of Nationalist Socialist anti-Semitism.

What was unique to Germany was the presence in the late 1800s and early 1900s of a group of major academic thinkers — truly academic superstars — whose writings were not widely influential outside the German world but profoundly informed the National Socialist ideology. It was a more “sophisticated” anti-Semitism based on a hatred of modern capitalism rather than a love of ancient religion. It tapped into a pre-existing strain of German romantic pastoralism. And it was given a racial basis by the Nazis. This is what was deliberately spread by the Nazi propaganda regime, certainly exploiting pre-existing lumpen anti-Semitism but twisting it into the doctrinaire anti-Semitism.

The idea that there is a unique form of anti-Semitism indigenous in German culture seems dubious on its face.

If you want to see the Tonnies-Sombart strain of socioeconomic theory in Nazi ideology, there is no better place to look than one of the five major anti-Semitic propaganda movies the regime produced during the period 1939 to 1940, Linen from Ireland (Linen aus Irland, 1939). I have discussed this film extensively elsewhere, so I will be brief here. Suffice it to say that the plot concerns humble German village artisans and a local company owned by a man who, although he is wealthy, has total respect for them. The artisans make linen, and the local company buys it. Together the local tradesman and the company form a cozy economic Volksgemeinschaft — the artisans earn a decent living, taking pride in the craft that they and their ancestors have practiced time out of mind, the company owner gets rich, but not “obscenely” so, and looks out for the artisans in a patriarchal sort of way. The owner and the artisans are able to get the prices needed for them all to live well because the government imposes steep tariffs on linen imported from Ireland — where apparently it can be produced much more cheaply.

Into this German spirit heaven — heaven for the workers and owners, but apparently not for the consumers who are forced to pay higher prices! — steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell. A big company owned by a good Aryan but controlled by a scheming Jewish manager buys out the local linen companies so that they will not oppose a scheme to end tariffs on imported linen. The manager’s scheme calls for importing cheap linen from Ireland and then shutting down the domestic industry. The Jewish manager is portrayed as quite willing to do this and thereby (the film alleges) destroy the centuries-old community and starve thousands of people, because (as he brags) he is a man of the world, not rooted in any community. Only at the end is his scheme exposed and halted.

The Conviction of Ideologues

In this essay have tried to explore a number of points, some specific to National Socialism, and some more general. I explored the general compliance mechanisms of power, purchase, and persuasion. I argue that these tools are not mutually exclusive; any regime will use all three to get citizens to comply with its goals. Clearly, the National Socialists did so. In an earlier essay I argued that they had a propaganda machine second to none, which I illustrated by showing the amount of work the regime devoted to just one tiny medium of propaganda — uniforms and insignia.[6] In this piece I covered in detail how the regime carefully used racially redistributionist economic policy to give German citizens material prosperity, thus purchasing popular support. (In a subsequent essay, I will explore the regime’s use of power to enforce support).

Into this German spirit heaven steps a devil right out of Jewish spirit hell.

This brings us to another subject that I examined: the degree to which the National Socialists were socialists. Here, the answer is probably surprising to most Americans, but as Aly’s work brilliantly establishes, the National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; that is, they pursued the practice common to all socialist regimes of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do. Rather than take, say, 75% of a targeted person’s income (as the present socialist prime minister of France has tried to do), the National Socialists tried to take, and often succeeded in taking, 100% of the targets’ assets, right down to their labor, personal belongings, and ultimately their bodies — hair, teeth and bones. This worked for a short while — only about a dozen years, which is just a blink of the eye in historical terms — in delivering material wealth to the nontargeted “Aryan” Germans. The National Socialists engaged in a radical redistributionist frenzy, but it worked only for a brief period.

The third subject I explored was the nationalist side of National Socialism. I suggested that what was unique about National Socialism was its explicit identification of Jews as the main enemy, and its focus on proper “Aryan” Germans of all economic classes. It wanted a fascist dictatorship of the Aryans, rather than the Marxist dictatorship of the proletariat. This identification with the German nation, presented as a desire for a Volksgemeinschaft, was a crucial feature of Nazi ideology, crafted to win popular support, especially the support of workers and farmers, away from other socialist and communist parties. The strategy worked so well that the communists started emulating the Nazis’ nationalism. Patriotism is a much more powerful identity than class.

The fourth matter I examined was the unique nature of National Socialist anti-Semitism. It transformed the traditional religious lumpen anti-Semitism, based on prophet rejection, into a pseudo-scientific doctrinaire anti-Semitism based on race-genetic theory, Social Darwinist eugenics theory, and right-wing anticapitalist sociological theory promulgated by major German academics. So the National Socialists didn’t just engage in a radical redistributionist frenzy; they engaged in a radical racial redistributionist frenzy.

The National Socialists were indeed profoundly socialistic; they pursued the socialist practice of targeting a subset of the population and then confiscating its assets, but they pushed the practice farther than most socialist regimes do.

How does this understanding of National Socialist ideology help us come at the Goldhagen-Groth dispute? Both authors were right about some things and wrong about others. Goldhagen (and Gellately) are right in thinking that the German people broadly backed the regime, and that anti-Semitism was historically common in German culture. But Groth is right in thinking that native German anti-Semitism was no different from that kind that is present in virtually all Christian and Muslim countries (then and now), not some special “eliminationist” anti-Semitism. More importantly, Groth is right in thinking that the regime’s popular support didn’t rest upon the German people’s anti-Semitism.

He is wrong, however, in his failure to recognize that National Socialist ideology certainly did have a different and more dangerous anti-Semitism than the lumpen variety. The regime’s anti-Semitism was based on racial genetics and anti-capitalist sociological culture. More importantly, Groth is wrong in thinking that the regime did not enjoy broad support throughout its existence. It did have that support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because the regime delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes (at least until 1943). To reiterate a rejoinder I earlier made to Groth, this hardly validates Hitler. Yes, he gave his political base material wealth and national pride, but it was wealth stolen from viciously victimized people, especially the Jews, and it was national pride based on the brutal seizure of other countries’ lands.

Let me end by discussing briefly the issue of the role that ideology played in the “Final Solution.” I’ll repeat an observation made by Stephen Kotkin, who is arguably the greatest authority on Stalin and the Soviet Union. He makes the point that contemporary scholars now have access to archives recording what Stalin and other high-level officials said in private to one another. What scholars have discovered, Kotkin notes sarcastically, is that the communists really were — communist! In other words, the Party officials were true believers in Marxist-Leninist ideology at the highest level.

The Nazi regimed enjoyed broad support, not because the whole populace shared its ideological anti-Semitism, but because until 1943 it delivered substantial material wealth and other seeming geopolitical successes.

I would suggest that anyone interested in National Socialism take the same perspective. The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true. They didn’t cynically target Jews and just call them racially and culturally inferior and dangerous; no, they targeted Jews because they viewed them precisely as such.

Now, was the National Socialism “eliminationist”? It certainly seems to be an open question, in that while the Party’s hostility towards the Jews was made manifest from the start, with a sequence of targeting actions. Yet in reality no attempts to exterminate the Jews in Germany or elsewhere took place before 1941. What was going on?

My suggestion — or better, my speculation — is that we need to differentiate between inherent and operational eliminationism. From 1933, when Hitler achieved power, to 1939 when he invaded Poland and the English declared war upon him, he was content to rack up geopolitical gains and simply harass Jews into emigrating (after seizing most of their tangible assets). The arch-ideologue Eichmann himself kept pushing his “Madagascar Plan” (under which all European Jews were to be dispossessed of assets and then shipped to Madagascar to live) until 1939 or later.

The Nazi leadership were true believers. Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels et al. really accepted National Socialist ideology, including especially its doctrinaire anti-Semitism, as fully true.

This was consistent with what I will call inherent eliminationism. If your anti-Semitism holds that Jews are racially inferior but also culturally dangerous to true Aryans, and you hold that true Aryans will eventually conquer the world, this would seem to imply that eventually, Jewish people must be eliminated. But that is like saying, “Someday, the Messiah will come.” It is more a statement of faith in the future than an imperative for the present.

But in 1939, things began to rapidly change. After earlier geopolitical successes with no military opposition, Hitler’s invasion of Poland finally brought Britain and France into the war. He had earlier threatened to hold Jews at fault if war ever broke out. In 1939, he had his excuse.

I suspect that the planning for the war with Britain and France in late 1938 was a big part of the reason the regime started the production of its first two explicitly anti-Semitic feature films, Robert and Bertram and Linen from Ireland, both produced in 1938 and released the next year (the first just two months before and the second one month after the outbreak of the war). Preparing for the actual use of the Wehrmacht (and recognizing the massive increase in funding this would require) led the regime to start actively preparing the public for the wholesale dispossession of the Jews.

In 1939, planning started in earnest toward the Wehrmacht’s much bigger challenge of invading the Low Countries and France, which again would increase the need for seized assets. Moreover, both Hitler and Goebbels were disappointed with the strength of the anti-Semitic messages of the 1939 films. So the three major regime studios were ordered to start production on major production anti-Semitic propaganda films. These films (The Rothschilds, Jud Suss, and The Eternal Jew) were released in 1940.

The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally.

The war clearly went in Germany’s favor from 1939 until 1941. The regime rapidly conquered the Western half of Poland, the Nordic countries, and France with relative ease. It was only with the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain in 1941 (which ended the possibility of invading Britain) that the regime began to sense its vulnerability, and it was in 1941 that the decision was made to exterminate (rather that force the emigration of) the Jews.

So it was a real change in geopolitical realities that induced the National Socialists to move from merely implicit to actually explicit eliminationist anti-Semitism, and then to the implementation of the Final Solution. The socialistic solution to the nationalistic military program was to target Jews for complete dispossession, followed by the looting of captive peoples generally. This allowed the regime to purchase the support of the average (non-Jewish) German with stolen food, clothing, furniture, and homes.

In the first article in this series, “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” I suggested that one crucial mechanism exploited by compliance agents, especially in totalitarian regimes, is propaganda — persuasion, if you will — and that the National Socialists were adept at that tool. In this article, I’ve put the focus on the mechanism of purchase — that is, gaining compliance by trading items of value; and I’ve reported Götz Aly’s evidence of how attentive the regime was to buying the citizen’s support. Aly nicely points out that the two methods of compliance — persuasion and purchase — were mutually supportive. Dispossessing, deporting, and destroying the Jews was made easier by the relentless and remorseless campaign of propaganda against them.

In the third and final installment of the series, I will turn to the role that power played in the regime’s attainment of popular compliance with its agenda. It is ironic — as Daniel Goldhagen and Götz Aly, despite their differences, agree: the regime’s power apparatus was modest, compared to its reputation. I will examine this idea more closely.


Aly, Götz. Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State. New York: Henry Holt and Company (2005).
Backhaus, Jürgen. “Sombart’s Modern Capitalism,” in Kyklos 42 (Fasc. 4) pp. 599–611, (1989).
Groth, Alexander. “Demonizing the Germans: Goldhagen and Gellately on Nazism,” in Political Society Review Vol. 32, No.1, pp. 118-158 (2003).
Grundmann, Reiner and Stehr, Nico. “Why Is Werner Sombart Not Part of the Core of Classical Sociology? From Fame to (Near) Oblivion,” in Journal of Classical Sociology Vol. 1 (2), pp. 257–287 (2001).
Jason, Gary. “Ein Volk, Ein Fuhrer: A Review of Triumph of the Will,” in Liberty, April 2007, p. 44.
Jason, Gary. “Film and Propaganda: What Nazi Cinema Has to Tell US,” in Reason Papers 35 (1): 203-219 (2013).
Jason, Gary. “Total Regime, Total Propaganda,” in Liberty, July 3, 2016 (2016a).
Jason, Gary. “Whence did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?” in Reason Papers 38 (1): 166-181 (2016b).
Jason, Gary. “Selling Genocide I: The Earlier Films,” in Reason Papers 38 (1): pp. 127-157 (2016c).
Kotkin, Stephen. Interview on Uncommon Knowledge, October 6, 2015.
Ridley, Matt. Interview with Russ Roberts, Econtalk, 2010.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “Carl Schmitt” (2014).
Znamenski, Andrei A. “From ‘National Socialists’ to ‘Nazi’: History, Politics, and the English Language,” The Independent Review Vol. 19, No. 4 pp. 537–561 (2015).

[1] Werner Sombart in particular couldn’t resist making value judgments — especially about Jews — though he feigned being purely scientific in his writings (Grundmann and Stehr, 270).

[2] For a nice overview of the structure of Sombart’s Modern Capitalism, see Jürgen Backhaus.

[3] Reiner Grundmann and Nico Stehr note that Sombart was initially enthusiastic about National Socialism, and say that he — like other reactionary modernists such as Heidegger and Schmitt — only soured on the regime when they realized it didn’t want them for high positions or for policy advice (271). They don’t explain why the regime didn’t welcome these intellectuals, but I would suggest it was primarily because Hitler was profoundly anti-intellectual, neither comfortable around nor deferential towards intellectuals.

[4] Tom G. Palmer in a recent lecture made the point that Carl Schmitt’s perspective is very much alive in Putin’s Russia.

[5] Indeed, there was a fascination with arch-anti-Christian Nietzsche among many of the Nazi hierarchy — including, of course, Hitler himself.

[6] I have written more extensively of the Nazi propaganda machine. Some of my essays of interest might include “Film and Propaganda: The Lessons of the German Film Industry”; “Whence Did German Propaganda Films Derive Their Power?”; and “Selling Genocide: The Earlier Films.”

Editor's Note: This essay is the final part of a three-part series.

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Buying Genocide


“Socialists always run out of other people’s money. It’s quite characteristic of them.”       
—Baroness Thatcher

How are totalitarian regimes able to control the populace and gain its support for even the vilest programs?

In an earlier piece, I suggested that there are three basic methods employed by compliance agents — the people who try to get a targeted group to comply with their wishes — to get what they want. These I termed power, purchase, and persuasion.

The Tools of Compliance

By power I mean force, threat of force, or theft. Of course, the attempt at force may not succeed, if the agent has insufficient strength to overpower — or insufficient guile to successfully steal from — the target.

By purchase I mean trading something that the agent and the target both value — money, labor, physical objects. Again, the attempt may fail — the agent may not have enough of what the target values to pay the target’s price, or they may be unable to agree upon a price. By persuasion (or promotion), I mean offering reasons (other than threats of force or attempted bargaining) to the target. If Fred’s doctor urges Fred to stop smoking or face an increased chance of cancer, the doctor is not threatening Fred — after all, the doctor won’t inflict the cancer on Fred; the cigarettes will.[1] Nor is the doctor bargaining with Fred. He is “arguing from consequences”; that is, he is arguing that Fred’s behavior will objectively hurt Fred, so Fred ought to stop that behavior. Even if Fred’s doctor chose not to argue rationally but decided to manipulate Fred emotionally — say, by showing Fred pictures of his kids crying out “Daddy, please don’t die!” — the doctor is neither threatening nor bargaining.

For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.”

An interesting point from cognitive psychology that I’ve heard Matt Ridley[2] make is that while nonhuman animals often use force and theft to get what they want from other animals, they don’t, strictly speaking, trade with others, in the sense of giving something they value to get something they value more. As Adam Smith put it, “Nobody ever saw a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone for another with another dog.”[3] Applying the point about persuasion to animals: I have never seen a dog offer an argument to get another dog to do something — though a dog does seem to know how to appear or sound pitiable to its owners when it wants something.

Of course, power, purchase, and persuasion are not perfectly distinct categories, as I noted earlier. But they allow us to pursue an interesting discussion — one going back for seven decades in the search for explanations of Nazi totalitarianism. A critical review of this discussion, especially as it appears in a number of distinguished works of the 21st century, provides a framework in which key concepts and controversies can be seen.

The Goldhagen Dispute: Why Did Germans Support the Nazi regime?

Let’s start with an insightful paper by Alexander Groth, called “Demonizing the Germans.” In this paper, the estimable Professor Groth — himself a Holocaust survivor — takes up the issue of the culpability of the German public for the crimes of the Nazis. He reviews two books: Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) and Robert Gellately’s Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (2001). Both these books, Groth says, put forward the view that Hitler’s policies during the 12 years of his regime were based on the “spontaneous preferences” of the German public, not the regime’s “coercion and manipulation.” the regime’s use of the power delivered by its police state and the persuasion delivered by its propaganda machine (118).

Groth concedes that the regime’s policies required the collusion and cooperation of millions of Germans. But he criticizes the authors for pushing their cases beyond logic and evidence. Indeed, Groth holds that Goldhagen’s view of Germans is “almost racist in its sweeping character” (119). He takes Goldhagen to mean that “the Germans let Hitler and his minions, soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats, kill the Jews because they fundamentally agreed with Hitler that this was a good idea” (119).

While the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out.

Groth has many problems with this view. For one thing, it exonerates the rest of the world for its complicity in the Holocaust, and allows us all to sigh in relief that “it could never happen here.” And he points to a logical gap. Everyone, Goldhagen included, recognizes that the Germans involved in the execution of the Holocaust — the men involved in designing the scheme, arresting and transporting the victims, and running the death camps — could at most amount to 5% of the population of 80 million. The other Germans, while not active, did nothing to stop the killings, but passively accepted them. But Groth points out that while the rest of the Germans did not publicly mourn or protest the mass murder of the Jews, the most reasonable conclusion from that absence of protest would be that they just didn’t care, not that they supported it. I would sharpen the point by adding that while there were no massive protests against the Final Solution, there were no massive rallies in support of it either.

Here Groth rightly notes that Goldhagen fails to distinguish among the German non-genocidaires:

. . . those who could not care less; those who rejoiced in Hitler’s policies; those who were appalled by those policies but feared the risks of speaking out; those who had a variety of doubts and reservations about Hitler’s treatment of the Jews but who also were not willing to jeopardize their lives, their careers, and their families to voice them; and, finally, the many Germans confused and misled by Nazi propaganda and information controls. After all, the Nazis never admitted publicly that they were exterminating the Jews. They were just resettling them in the East. (120)

And Groth adds to this point the observation that while the average German said nothing about the Nazi destruction of the Jews, neither did FDR or Churchill, even though the latter were far freer to speak out, far more informed, and far more protected from reprisals. Were FDR and Churchill “eliminationist anti-Semites” as well?[4]

Groth also criticizes Goldhagen’s claim that the vitriolic German anti-Semitic literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries was unmatched in Europe or elsewhere. Groth observes that Goldhagen adduces no evidence for this claim, and mentions similar anti-Semitic literature in Poland and Rumania. (I will suggest later in this piece that Groth is overlooking something about German anti-Semitism that was unique.)

To Goldhagen’s point that whatever anti-Semitism existed elsewhere in Europe, it was only in Germany that an openly anti-Semitic party was elected to power, Groth replies by noting that in the three Reichstag elections prior to April 1933, the Nazis received only 37%, 33%, and 44% — that last vote coming with the full aid of SA thugs in the streets, intimidating voters. Furthermore, while Hitler’s anti-Semitism is blatant in Mein Kampf, how many voters had read the book? How many dismissed much of it as exaggerated? How many who shared the Nazi antipathy towards Jews favored not merely mass murder, but, say, encouraging Jews to convert to Christianity or emigrate? Remember: from 1933 until the outset of the war or later, the Nazis focused on pressuring Jews to leave. Groth rightly notes that there were no exit polls at the time, so we cannot say why those who voted Nazi did so. Moreover, Theodore Abel’s sociological study of essays by 600 Nazi Party members in the period shortly after Hitler achieved power, describing why they joined the party, showed that only about 36% stated anti-Semitic motives.

From 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — and there were no pogroms in Germany.

Groth cites two scholars in support of his view. First he quotes Sarah Gordon[5] saying that even among Party members, there was considerable diversity of opinion on the “Jewish question,” and only a “small percentage” shared Hitler’s “paranoid” anti-Semitism. She claims that more Germans disapproved of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies than supported them. And, she adds, Hitler’s central role in the Holocaust should never be underestimated. She further points out that Germans faced a (minimum) of two years in a concentration camp for aiding Jews or publicly supporting their cause — a fate much worse than regular jail.

Groth then quotes William Sheridan Allen,[6] who focused his research on the Nazi takeover of the town of Thalburg. Allen reported that most of the townspeople were relatively unsympathetic to the anti-Semitism of the Nazi ideology. Jews at all class levels were well integrated into the town’s society. Though there was “abstract” anti-Semitism — a general dislike of Jewishness that showed up in jokes or expressions of distaste, many people just ignored the anti-Semitic aspect of the Party when voting for it. Indeed, “Thalburgers were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around” (127).

And Groth quotes from Saul Friedlander[7] the idea that during the 1930s the German population didn’t demand anti-Jewish measures; in fact, those who supported eliminationist anti-Semitism were only a segment of the Party.

Groth next makes the point that if there were a native German eliminationist anti-Semitism, why didn’t it show up prior to 1933? Indeed, from 1871 (when Germany unified) to 1933, Jews were far better off in Germany than in Eastern Europe by any measure — access to education, participation in social and political institutions, or rate of intermarriage — and there were no pogroms in Germany as there were in Russia and Eastern Europe.

He also cites a survey of 500 German POWs done in 1944. Among men below 30, 33% said anti-Semitism was “helpful” to Germany, while 44% said it was “harmful.” Among men over 30, only 17% agreed it was “helpful” while 60% saw it as “harmful.” (Twenty-three percent of both groups did not reply to the question.) And he notes that when the violence started, be it Kristallnacht in 1938 or the killing camps and Einsatzgruppen later, it was the police, the SS, the SA, and (less often) the regular military who did the killing, not “frenzied, out-of-control German civilian mobs” (130).

Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Groth adds that post-WWII, while Germany has seen some Skinhead and neo-Nazi groups, there has been no mass violence against the Jews, but only “scattered” attacks against synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, and individual Jews. And political parties espousing anti-Semitism have done poorly in German elections.

Here are some points to ponder.

Regarding the Abel analysis of 600 essays about why Party members joined the NSDAP: the fact that only 36% said they were anti-Semitic doesn’t mean that the rest weren’t. If you surveyed Republicans and asked why they are in the party, perhaps two-thirds would neglect to mention “lower taxes.” But if you explicitly asked whether they favored lower taxes, probably 98% would say yes. Similarly, if you asked Democrats why they support the party perhaps two-thirds would not mention increasing taxes on the rich. But if you asked whether they favored that policy, again, probably 98% would say they did.

Regarding Sarah Gordon, to the effect that few Germans were paranoid anti-Semites of “Hitler’s ilk”: Gordon seems as data-light as Goldhagen. What Groth might have looked at is data on attendance at the Nazi anti-Semitic movies. For example, Jud Süss (1940), which pushed the most extreme anti-Semitism, was the sixth most popular film made during the Third Reich. 20.3 million Germans paid for tickets, about 40% of the adults in greater Germany. Compare the big Spielberg hit, Saving Private Ryan (1998), which was seen by about 20% of American adults at the time, and you see how attractive the anti-Semitic film was.

Regarding Groth’s and Gordon’s point that Hitler played a “central role” in the Holocaust: just why did Hitler and his myrmidons favor extermination of the Jews (at seemingly great cost towards the end of the war)? Was it just, say, schizophrenic paranoia? Was Hitler ever diagnosed as a paranoid, or hospitalized for psychotic symptoms? Or was it a deep ideological conviction, and, if so, why? Even if the primarily responsibility for the Holocaust lies with the leadership, the question of popular support still remains.

Regarding Groth’s point — a completely obvious one — that prior to Hitler coming to power, Germany historically had higher levels of integration of Jews into society, and no pogroms: perhaps the German government (for various reasons) did not allow pogroms, whereas the Tsarist government allowed (and even facilitated) them. And Jews were as well integrated in most of the rest of Western Europe (especially England, which had elected a Jew as Prime Minister as early as 1868), and suffered no pogroms either — but only Germany ever freely elected (by a strong plurality) an openly and deeply anti-Semitic party.

The SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. And the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Regarding Groth’s citation (following Gordon) of the survey of 500 German POWs in 1944: the sample size is small (the margin of error is 5%), and its randomness is questionable — maybe German soldiers with attitudes more sympathetic to the Allies surrendered to them more readily. Worse, there is an obvious problem with interviewer error. The Germans were exposing their feelings to — their captors, who the POWs knew were profoundly anti-Nazi. Did those POWs feel free to answer honestly? We need to remember the classic illustration cited by Darrel Huff.[8] During WWII, Gallup interviewed African Americans as to whether they thought they would be treated worse by society if the Japanese won the war, and found that nearly double the number answered in the negative when the interviewer was black compared to those asked by a white interviewer.

Regarding Groth’s point that the actual killers — the genocidaires — of Jews were not civilians, but members of the SS, SA, regular police, and elements of the regular military: the SS, SA and police were formed from civilian volunteers. (The SA and SS had their origins in the Freikorps, organized militias that fought revolutionaries in the German streets after WWI.) And again, the populace often cooperated with the Gestapo and other police agencies, and did nothing to impede the mass atrocities.

Finally, regarding Groth’s point that after the 1940s, while Germany has seen skinheads and neo-Nazis, and occasionally attacks on Jewish cemeteries, synagogues, and individuals, there have been no governmental attacks: this is a weak point indeed. By the end of WWII most of Germany had been devastated, with millions of its civilians killed; the world came to know the extent of the Holocaust and condemned Germany accordingly, and the county was dismembered and occupied for decades. Of course even the most devout anti-Semites would be deterred from repeating their crimes. Moreover, post-WWII Germany was virtually devoid of Jewish citizens — even now, at about 120,000, there would be few left for modern eliminationist anti-Semites to eliminate.

In sum, while Groth offers some good criticisms of Goldhagen, they are in my view hardly definitive.

I turn now to Groth’s views on Robert Gellately’s work. Groth accuses Gellately of a flawed analysis of the data and a “lack of familiarity with the literature of totalitarianism.” This seems harsh, especially considering that both Gellately’s books were published not though some obscure press, but through Oxford University Press. But let us consider the rival contentions.

The Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Gellately argued in an early book[9] that the Gestapo was in fact “a terribly undermanned institution, incapable of policing German society on its own,” so it relied heavily on informants (Groth 131).

To this, Groth makes some cogent replies. The first is more of a dig: if contemporary American students and faculty report feeling intimidated on college campuses by political correctness, it is strange to think that the Germans would not have feared the Gestapo. Moreover, the Gestapo’s power was based not so much on its numbers as on its power to disrupt citizens’ lives, its arbitrary operations, its lack of public accountability, its exemption from the rule of law, and its known tendency to torture and murder freely.

Moreover, the Gestapo was interconnected with the SS, a very large organization — Groth doesn’t mention it, but the SS at its peak numbered 850,000, which is roughly the number of all local police in the contemporary US, a nation about four times the population of Nazi Germany. And the Gestapo worked in secret. So even if it had relatively few agents, the public could have no clue about that, or about the number of Gestapo informants among the public.

Groth is correct about the power of the German police state, and that will be the focus of the third in this series of essays for this journal. But he is on shakier ground when he critiques Gellately’s more recent book, Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany.[10] Gellately asks why the German people almost uniformly followed Hitler from 1933 to the bitter end in 1945. Groth notes that while Gellately acknowledges the role of the Nazi propaganda machine, its strict control of communication (read: its silencing of all opposition), and its institutions of coercion and terror, Gellately concludes that the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. And this Groth does not accept.

By the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately argues that besides using coercion and propaganda, Hitler was much more interested in getting and keeping popular support. So, unlike his rival Stalin, Hitler did not target large parts of his country’s population, confining his police state apparatus to the regime’s enemies and its targeted minorities. The regime sought popular backing until the very end of its existence. And Gellately adds that “many Germans went along, not because they were mindless robots, but because they convinced themselves of Hitler’s advantages and the ‘positive’ side of the new dictatorship” (136).

Furthermore, as Gellately points out, certainly from 1933 to 1939, the regime could show apparent successes in reclaiming lost territory, dramatically lowering unemployment, making more consumer goods available, and building out infrastructure. Gellately points to the rise in Nazi Party membership from about 130,000 in 1930 to 850,000 in 1933, and the SA’s growth from 77,000 in 1931 to 3 million in 1934. In the 1932 and 1933 plebiscites, the Nazis won the plurality of the vote. Gellately further argues that by the outbreak of the war, the Nazi form of anti-Semitism had taken hold.

Gellately additionally notes that unlike most other totalitarian regimes, the Nazis openly discussed their coercive system — in particular, their concentration camp system. I would add that it is striking that while most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities. Similarly, the Nazis were quite open about their anti-Jewish measures and legislation, discussing these laws and rulings in widely circulated papers. The Nuremberg Laws (passed in 1935) were well discussed and widely publicized — as they would have to be: the populace would have to know that having sexual relations with Jews was now forbidden.

Gellately observes that German propaganda was well-crafted and effective, rather than crude and obvious. Here I would note that Goebbels articulated what is now widely acknowledged by propaganda theorists: effective propaganda is often if not typically an exercise in “confirmation bias”: it works best if it takes preexisting attitudes and beliefs and amplifies them, reconstructs them, and uses them to support something. He adds that the regime received thousands of letters a day, which seems to show that the populace supported or at least felt comfortable with it.

Groth offers a welter of criticisms of Gellately’s claims. He starts by noting that Nazi electoral successes actually dropped from 37.3% to 33.1% in the 1932 elections. Yes, a later election, after Hitler was appointed chancellor, showed a plurality of 43.9%, but that (Groth avers) was likely because of the pressure the SA could bring on voters. And in later plebiscites (in late 1933 and 1934), all opposition had been outlawed. Moreover, Groth points out that Stalin routinely won elections with 99% of the vote.

While most Soviet camps were hidden away in Siberia or elsewhere in the hinterlands, the Nazis opened their first camps near big cities.

To the point about the Nazi Party’s membership increasing, Groth replies that the postwar Soviet-backed Polish communist party membership rose from 20,000 to 1 million. As to the Nazis wanting popular backing, Groth replies that Stalin’s regime did as well.

Regarding Gellately’s claim that Hitler didn’t confront large segments of the German population in the way Stalin did the Soviet population, Groth scathingly replies that Hitler abolished trade unions and outlawed strikes — wasn’t that confrontational? To Gellately’s point about the Nazi anti-Semitism having taken root among Germans, Groth cites the reports of two senior British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht (November 9, 1938) to the effect that all the citizens they talked to disapproved of the event completely.

Discussing the Nazis’ willingness to disclose the nature of their concentration camps system, Groth rightly observes that this was far short of full disclosure. The camps were portrayed as benignly reeducating communists, socialists, and criminals, and (later) as relocating Jews to the East for their own protection. The public was never told of the torture, rape, and murder that took place in those camps. Groth makes the telling point that not once did Hitler or his Propaganda Ministry ever acknowledge that they were systematically killing the Jews and other targeted groups.

Groth goes on to criticize Gellately’s account of Nazi propaganda as being sophisticated (not crude brainwashing and manipulation) and appealing to preexisting German beliefs and desires. Groth replies that this is a truism: any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did. In this Groth is touching upon the point made earlier, that propaganda is often an exercise in confirmation bias. But he adds to this point another that is interesting:

Here one needs to take note of the symbiotic relationship between “propaganda” and “terror” in order to appreciate why the balance of these factors would predispose a great many people in Germany to deny and repress knowledge of Nazi crimes. At the top of the political system, Hitler and Goebbels set the norms of what it was that made a “good Nazi” and a “good German.” These norms were constantly replayed by the mass of official media — everything from radio to wall posters. Certainly, an “uncompromising hostility” to the Jews was one of the most important norms; ultimately in Hitler’s view, they were Germany’s most implacable and dangerous enemy. Any conspicuous, publicly, or even privately manifested deviation from the norms could potentially bring significant punishment to those involved. (142)

So if Germans didn’t publically defend Jews, Groth suggests, it is because any who did faced brutal treatment. And — he further suggests — the best way for an ordinary (non-anti-Semitic) German to bow to the authority of the regime but still maintain a favorable self-image would be to deliberately not think about the fate of the Jews. Actually, Groth could have invoked cognitive dissonance theory: faced with his belief in tolerance and his awareness that in not helping Jews he is contributing to their destruction, the tolerant German might simply tune out any new, unpleasant information. (Confirmation bias again . . .)

Groth next criticizes Gellately’s inferring from the fact that the Nazi regime received thousands of letters daily the conclusion that the German public was involved and interested rather than passive or powerless, and that the regime could be manipulated from below. Groth replies that the letters could just be “requests for personal favors, petty complaints, protestations of loyalty, and denunciations of other people” (143). And he criticizes Gellately’s data about citizen voluntary reports to the regime. All Gellately can point to is 403 total reports over a 12-year period — which is statistically insignificant, considering the population of Germany.

Any propaganda appeals to what people believe and desire — certainly Soviet, British, and American propaganda did.

Further, Groth notes that when the Gestapo acted, it didn’t wait for letters and other tips. When the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt failed, the Gestapo rapidly arrested the participants and used unrestrained torture, reprisals on families, and so on to get the names of the conspirators and their supporters. One estimate is that the Gestapo rapidly killed 5,000 people, most by simple fiat (no trials), including whole families of the principals.

Finally, Groth wonders whether, even supposing that 60% of the Germans continued to support Hitler even after Stalingrad, coercion wasn’t needed to suppress dissent in the other 40%. He notes that while the Vietnam War still had majority popular support in 1967, the street protests and the support given Senator McCarthy were enough to convince President Johnson not to run for reelection.

Groth agrees with Sarah Gordon that the regime didn’t so much rely on German public opinion as neutralize it, with a propaganda campaign aided by a communication monopoly, and the dictatorial coercion of the police state. And as the conclusion of the war became obvious to the whole population, and the obliteration of German cities more extensive, that coercion became all-important.

Groth concludes with an attack against Goldhagen and Gellately, holding that their view

validates a Nazi or neo-Nazi interpretation of the Fuhrer. He was a great leader of the German people because he carried out, or at least attempted to carry out, the most sincere and universal wishes and aspirations of the whole German nation.

In remembrance of Oskar Schindler, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg, Claus von Stauffenberg, and Konrad Adenauer, Hitler is not entitled to this presumption. Some facts about German public opinion on the Third Reich may perhaps forever remain in dispute. But holding a pistol to the head of a captive has certain moral . . . consequences for the assailant which cannot be removed by the argument that the pistol was not very large, and that if the captive had only been a little braver and more enterprising, it could have been dislodged. (152–3)

While I deeply respect Groth’s fair-mindedness regarding the question of German anti-Semitism and complicity in Nazi crimes (especially considering his personal story), let me make a few rebuttals to Groth’s attacks on Gellately, before presenting a deeper critique.

Let’s start with Groth’s criticism of Gellately’s general claim that while the regime’s propaganda machine and its coercive institutions helped keep people in line, the Nazi regime rested mainly on consensus. This claim Groth dismisses as “flawed analysis,” but is it? Hitler’s regime, after achieving power, dramatically delivered on its promises. It lowered unemployment (which dropped from over 30% in 1933 to virtually nothing by 1939), in great measure from a massive buildup in military and in infrastructure spending. This is what Gellately meant when he suggested that the regime’s real and seeming successes from 1933 to 1939 built popular support.

Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution.

Imagine you are a German worker inclined to internationalism, socialism, or communism, and are initially skeptical about National Socialism. But Hitler achieves power, and lo! He apparently fulfills his economic promises. You and your friends have work, bread, sausage! Again, suppose you are a German businessperson, very nationalistic, but skeptical of (in your view) a group of rowdies led by an ex-corporal who don’t seem to represent German Glory, and call openly for socialism. But they achieve power, and behold! They do rebuild the military in defiance of the Treaty of Versailles, take back the Ruhr and annex the Sudetenland, and achieve union with Austria. In 1939, war does break out and you see the regime rapidly take half of Poland, and rapidly defeat France — erasing in your mind an historic grievance. You might well now support this regime you initially opposed.

Groth’s argument that Stalin was like Hitler in that Stalin, too, wanted popular support seems dismissive if not downright disingenuous. One obvious and huge difference between the two figures is that the Bolsheviks never once faced fair elections with real opponents. Lenin won a revolution, and Stalin climbed to the top of the resulting Byzantine power structure by adroitly killing off competitors. But Hitler, sitting in his jail cell after a failed, farcical putsch, realized that both the Communist Left and the Nazi Right were unable to overthrow the government by revolution — so he would have to appeal for votes. And Hitler and the Party hierarchy crafted an ideology accordingly — based on the identification of an International Jewish Order as the enemy, a stab-in-the-back Nazi Historical Narrative, protectionist economics, and socialist envy of the rich — together with a political platform built on ending unemployment and restoring the national military.

To Groth’s point that Stalin won 99% of the vote, whereas Hitler won only 44% in the last election with other parties allowed, and the 44% is suspect because of the activity of the SA: these points seem contradictory. The fact that the Nazis polled only 44% suggests that the election was fairly free after all. More generally, the elections make it clear that the Nazis were able to win the plurality of votes in free elections in margins between 33% and 40%. Groth needs to ask whether the Bolsheviks could have ever done that well at any point.

Any non-Jewish German couple being given an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property.

Regarding Groth’s comments about those British and American diplomats in Germany at the time of Kristallnacht: again, we need to remember the problem of interviewer bias. Would the average German feel comfortable in expressing support for violent anti-Semitic demonstrations to foreign diplomats — especially from England and America, which according to Nazi ideology were bastions of International Jewish financial power? Indeed, did these diplomats talk to any German workers at all, and if so, how free would those workers have felt in answering the foreign diplomats?

To Groth’s point that the regime never admitted to its own people that it was killing the Jews, two replies are in order. First, any non-Jewish German couple being given furniture or (more obviously) an apartment previously owned by Jews would have to know or strongly suspect that the rightful owners would not be reclaiming their property, and would surely have known or suspected why. But if the people were so completely cowed by the regime’s police and convinced by propaganda, why wouldn’t it just tell the citizens the truth?

Moreover, I think Groth has the relationship between power (coercion) and propaganda somewhat muddled. The relation is symbiotic, but not as he describes it. The propaganda campaign helped solidify popular support for the regime, and make people compliant to its agenda. However, coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech. Specifically, absent the use of power (coercion, terror) to silence all countervailing views, the propaganda of any regime will not be effective long-term.

Critical voices can expose propaganda for what it is — sunlight disinfects — and this is why the coercive power of any authoritarian regime enables its propaganda to be effective. Imagine the damage the satirical power of a Saturday Night Live show could have inflicted on the Nazi Party and its ideology. Imagine if critics had been allowed to do their own documentary on Judaism and the Jews in reply to The Eternal Jew. Groth himself touches upon this when he says:

As long as the Nazis could maintain a communication monopoly supported by terror, the issue of their Jewish policy could be framed for public consumption in such euphemistic terms as “removal of Jews from Germany” and “resettlement of Jews in the East.” An opposition . . . would have framed the issue as mass murder and state-sponsored criminal mayhem. (150)

Finally, to Groth’s criticism that (Goldhagen’s and) Gellately’s view validates the Nazi idea of Hitler as hero, and that this betrays the memory of people who struggled against the regime, two replies. First, Groth cites six anti-regime fighters. But that was six out of 80 million people over a 12-year period — not much of a resistance. And the attempt on Hitler’s life involved military men who were worried about Hitler’s losing the war, not plagued by desperation to save the Jews. Second, maintaining that the very notion that Hitler delivered the goods to the average (non-Jewish) German validates the view of Hitler as a great leader is absurd. Yes, Hitler gave Germans the goods, but they were goods stolen from murdered people and colonized countries. That hardly “validates” Hitler.

Coercion doesn’t so make people want to watch propaganda — it removes the most effective weapon against propaganda: free speech.

In sum, I agree with Groth that the move to tar all or most Germans of the time with some special murderous kind of anti-Semitism is wrong. However, I don’t think he quite makes the case that there wasn’t anything unique about German anti-Semitic ideology. I will return to this point. But even more questionable is Groth’s feeling that Gellately was wrong to say the regime rested on consensus. To be fair to both Gellately and Groth, they were writing a few years before a more powerful explanation of the general support for the regime among the people: the regime purchased its support. Just how and how much the regime did this was not explained deeply until Götz Aly’s seminal research, to which I now turn.

[1] Doctors don’t typically bargain with patients in the sense of “If you quit smoking, I will lower my fees by 10%.” They may bargain about method of payment, and give discounts for fees paid by cash. But of course insurance companies routinely offer lower fees to patients who avoid risky behaviors.

[2] Listen to the Ridley interview here.

[3] The Wealth of Nations, book I, chapter 2.

[4] Groth doesn’t mention this, but in 1943 Polish underground hero Jan Karski told both leaders in person that the Jews were being exterminated.

[5] From her book: Hitler, Germans and the Jewish Question, Princeton: Princeton University Press (1984).

[6] From his book: The Experience of a Single German Town 1930–1935, New York: New Viewpoints (1965).

[7] From Friedlander’s book: Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939, New York: Harper Collins (1997).

[8] In his classic book, How to Lie with Statistics, New York: Norton (1954).

[9] The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing the Racial Policy 1933–1945, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1990).

[10] Oxford: Oxford University Press (2001).

Editor's Note: This review-essay is part 1 of a three-part series.

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Decorating the Dead


My grandmother and her friends used to call Memorial Day by its old name, Decoration Day. People went out to the cemeteries to “decorate” the graves. As a young man, I thought, “What hypocrisy! Millions of people are slaughtered in wars, and they are ‘remembered’ by people who ‘decorate’ their graves!”

The thought still seems unavoidable, especially when you see the Memorial Day ceremonies at a military cemetery. Here are thousands of identical white tombstones, “memorializing” individual men and women who are, for the most part, remembered by no one. And these are only a tiny fraction of the hundreds of millions of people slaughtered by wars and revolutions during the past two centuries — shot, drowned, blown apart, starved to death.

Nor is mass slaughter merely a feature of the modern world. The Iroquois wiped out the civilization of the Hurons, and tried to wipe out the Hurons themselves. They almost succeeded. Where are the tribes of the ancient European world? In many cases, only their names remain to be “memorialized,” by the rare scholar who knows their names.

Yet I believe that the idea of “decoration” or “remembrance” can be more than hypocrisy, if we — like, perhaps, my grandmother and her friends — actually use it as a way of asserting the significance of individual human lives. Though lost to specific memory, the lives of those people whose graves we see beyond the cemetery fence were real and important. If in decorating a tomb we actually do remember that, and at the same time remember the horrors that inevitably occur when the significance of the individual is forgotten, we may do well.

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A Collaboration With History


Alec Mouhibian and Garin Hovannisian are both familiar to readers of Liberty. Their most recent contribution, memories of Nathaniel Branden, appeared in these pages in February.

On April 17, their film, 1915 — co-written and co-directed by Alec and Garin — opened in theaters throughout the country. It concerns a mysterious director who, on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, stages a play in Los Angeles to bring the ghosts of a forgotten tragedy back to life. Liberty interviewed Alec about this very independent film.

Liberty: Alec, will you give us a little perspective on recent events around this film?

Alec: On April 24, 2015, 160,000 people marched six miles on the streets of Los Angeles (and many hundreds of thousands more across the world). They were marching to commemorate and demand justice for an event that took place 100 years ago, on the other side of the world. You may be wondering whether such a thing has ever happened before, but something like it had just happened in 1915, which is set in 2015, on a day very much like the one this April. A few years ago, we saw this scene coming, even if few people thought we were sane when describing it. In our movie, you hear and see glimpses of approximately 160,000 people marching on the streets of Los Angeles, while inside the walls of one haunted, historic theater one man named Simon tries to recreate the reason for their marching, and contrive a destination for them.

Liberty: Why did you set the story in a Los Angeles theater?

Alec: In a theater, history is repeated night after night, with the same actors, each time with different results. So while it might seem on the surface like a fantastic, abstract setting for such a weighty subject, it is for our story an entirely genuine and even “realistic” one. The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

What makes an actor good or bad, a performance true or false or in between? We thought these were important mysteries, especially for a story about how the past carries on in the present, how memory and denial can affect a life in so many ways. The professional challenges of an actor seem very much aligned to the historical burdens of contemporary Armenians. Both inherit a script, a story, which they are impelled to enliven, to honor, to serve . . . or if they can’t handle it, to rather ostentatiously ignore.

The theater itself is a character in 1915, the very first character.

Certainly the sense that theater is dead, or dying, or is constantly said to be dead or dying, is not at all beside the point. Simon, the mastermind of the film, is a true believer in the magic of theater, and he is convinced that one great performance can actually change the course of history.

Liberty: Where did you find your actors?

Alec: All over the world. We knew of Simon Abkarian (Casino Royale, Gett, et al.) and Angela Sarafyan (Twilight, Paranoia), the two leads, and wrote and named their parts for them from the beginning. They were the first two to read the script and expressed an instant desire to assume their roles. There are only two things no actor can just pretend to have: intelligence and face. In Simon and Angela we found two faces no one is likely to forget.

Angela lives in Los Angeles. Simon, one of the top stage and screen actors in France, had to fly in from Paris. The vastly talented Nikolai Kinski, whose last name will be familiar to film buffs, cancelled all his gigs and flew in from his home in Berlin. We had admired Sam Page in Mad Men and House of Cards. Jim Piddock is a prolific and beloved comic actor who comes from England. The rest of our cast we discovered through auditions, set up by our sharp casting director. That is how we found eight-year old Sunny Suljic, who delivers a stunning performance in his feature film debut.

Liberty: How long did you work on this film?

Alec: We began to write the script in May of 2012. We began to raise financing in May of 2013. Our first day of shooting was April 27, 2014. We shot for 20 days. The film was released theatrically last month. On opening weekend it was the #2 debut film in the country, in terms of per-screen box office.

Liberty: What was your greatest difficulty?

Alec: That is like asking someone to choose his greatest ex-wife. All of our difficulties were great, great difficulties. Creatively, the biggest frustration in moviemaking is when you can’t afford to fix your mistakes. The author of a book can go back and rewrite a poor paragraph. He does not need $20,000 to buy a vowel — nor does he have to work around the fact that the letter F is stuck in a Belgian cop show until September.

Liberty: What was your greatest pleasure?

Alec: Those moments on set when our imagination was brought to life in surprising and superior ways — by the actors, the production designer, the cinematographer, the makeup artist, the costume designer, the composer. We had masters in each field and together they did a masterly job. They worked tirelessly, sleeplessly, and with an absolute passion and dedication, not to display their own virtuosity, but to make 1915. Thank God, too, because this was a fragile project that could not withstand any too-major outbreaks of idiocy. Knowing that various talented pros are working as hard as you are and thinking as deeply as you are about how best to realize your vision makes you feel good.

By the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

A note here for future filmmakers. The most important thing is not to experience glories on set, but for the audience to experience them on the screen. Too often the one does not lead to the other. You will realize this in the editing room and thus meet your greatest pain. But we were speaking here of pleasures, and I suppose the collaborative vitality and professional excellence I mentioned is the reason most directors never want to retire.

Liberty: How long have you and Garin been working together? What skills does each of you bring to the project? That is — who is better at camera work, editing, writing, directing, or whatever? Have you collaborated previously?

Alec: We have collaborated on a number of things since middle school: newspapers, screenplays, foreign presidential campaigns, revolutions, poker. We are both writers by origin and Garin is the author of an acclaimed memoir, Family of Shadows. This was our first fictional film. Our only prior experience in filmmaking was a series of TV ads we produced for a presidential campaign designed to overthrow a monstrous post-Soviet regime. Overthrowing a paying audience is an entirely different task.

Some directing duos specialize; we do not. We were equally involved in, and equally ignorant about, all technical matters. The writing process began by forming an outline and splitting scenes but by the end of it we were two mouths with one voice and four eyes with one vision. That sounds like some kind of wretched mutant, but we’ve been assured there are worse things in Vancouver.

Our vision was for a certain kind of film that had never been made before, to tell a certain kind of story that had never been told — that is, indeed, impossible to tell. So the only valuable skill we brought to the enterprise was that of how to bluff.

Liberty: How many times did you get into a fight?

Alec: Never in public. At this stage, even in private, our fights are mostly fought in silence. By the time one of us opens his mouth, the winner has already been decided, the loser wrapping tape, and what’s left is to clean up the mess.

Liberty: Why should libertarians be interested in 1915?

Alec: Because it is a unique, mysterious psychological thriller that ought to provoke them intellectually and possibly lead them to some deep surprises. It has a lot of layers and secrets and even humor. You might hate it, but you won’t be bored. You will want to find out what happens in the end. In short, it should be a rewarding dramatic ride that might awaken some new feelings and questions about the personal meaning of history.

And it is a controversial movie for almost anyone who watches it — not politically controversial, but spiritually. It poses a different challenge for almost every kind of viewer. One of the dramatic themes in the film is the quest for freedom in the face of trauma, and I’m sure that many libertarians have contended with this in their own lives, this case of reality assaulting an idea.

Liberty: If people aren’t near a theater where 1915 is shown, how can they see it?

Alec: Well, the HD digital version can be downloaded from and also from iTunes and Amazon, to be watched at home. I invite them to do so. Oh, and skeptics can even see a trailer. My policy is to only listen to unqualified praise, but Liberty readers who watch the film and run into me at the dog-track can cite the voucher code MENCKENISMYFATHER to tell me exactly what they think.

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Cambodia: Not to Be Forgotten


The Nazis killed Jews, Gypsies, gays, Polish cavalry, retarded people, and assorted other specific groups, intending to annihilate them. The Khmer Rouge killed anyone and everyone, indiscriminately, to make “ecologically sound” fertilizer.

First, the raw materials for the fertilizer — human beings — were made to dig a giant trench. Second, they were made to kneel along the edge. Third, Khmer Rouge soldiers went from one to another ”useless mouth” delivering a sharp blow with an axe to the nape of the neck — to save ammunition.

Over the first layer of bodies, rice husks would be spread, followed by a sprinkling of gasoline. This procedure would be repeated, layer upon layer, until the pit was full. It was then set ablaze. After the pit cooled, the bones were separated from the ashes, ground on giant mortars and pestles, then recombined with the ashes and packaged in jute sacks to fertilize paddy fields.

Denise Affonco, an ethnic Eurasian French citizen, was convinced by her husband, a Vietnamese Communist, to stay in Phnom Penh and welcome the liberators. She lost everything, including her entire extended family, except one son. Hers is a story of a miraculous four-year survival under the Khmer Rouge’s countryside resettlement policy.

What makes this book special is that there aren’t many Cambodian genocide survival stories in English. It is a miracle that the story has been written and published. Days after they arrived to liberate her, the Vietnamese insisted — and paid her — to record an account of her four years in hell, to be used in a subsequent trial-in-absentia of Pol Pot and Ieng Sery. She did; and as an afterthought squirreled away a carbon copy of what she had written. Twenty-five years later, in Paris, she heard an academic opine that the Khmer Rouge did “nothing but good” for Cambodia. She then realized it was time to publish her account.

The book has the immediacy of something written on the fly. There are quite a few translation and run-of-the-mill typos, but they do not detract — you’ll not easily lay it down. Reportage Press is a small UK outfit. A portion of the proceeds are contributed to a scholarship fund, set up in memory of Affonco’s daughter, who died of starvation. The book is available from Amazon and

Editor's Note: Review of "To the End of Hell: One Woman’s Struggle to Survive Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge," by Denise Affonco. Reportage Press, 2005, 165 pages.

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Elizabeth Warren and the Poison of Identity Politics


Seven months ago, I considered Harvard Law School Prof. Elizabeth Warren from a libertarian perspective. The establishment media darling and Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Massachusetts didn’t offer much to like.

Since then, she’s become considerably more entertaining. And thought-provoking, though not in a way she would have intended.

During the past few weeks, Warren has been caught in a moronic controversy that has put her campaign on the defensive, led supporters to question her political savvy, and — perhaps most damaging — confirmed the impression that she’s a charlatan. The gist of it: for about 15 years, from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Warren listed herself in various academic professional directories as a member of a racial minority. Specifically, an American Indian.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Reporters from the Boston Herald asked Warren about her claims of minority status: why she’d made them, then stopped making them, and whether she’d “played the race card” when applying for teaching positions at posh law schools such as Penn and Harvard.

Like a raw amateur, Warren denied ever having claimed minority status in a professional setting.

Then, faced with hard evidence from several directories (including the Association of American Law Schools’ annual directory of minority law teachers), she “clarified” her answer. What she’d meant to say was that she’d never made the claims while applying for teaching jobs.

But there were more rakes in the yard . . . and Warren promptly stepped on them. When reporters asked her to explain in detail her claim of Native American ancestry, she babbled:

My Aunt Bee . . . remarked that he — that her father, my papaw — had high cheekbones, like all of the Indians do! Because that’s how she saw it. And she said, “And your mother got those same great cheekbones and I didn’t.” She thought this was the bad deal she had gotten in life. . . . I was listed [in the minority directories] because I thought I might be invited to meetings where I might meet more people who had grown up like I had grown up. And it turned out that’s — there really wasn’t any of that.

Note the passive voice of “I was listed.” By all accounts, she did the listing. Her nervous rhetoric betrayed her effort to shirk responsibility for the mendacious act of including herself among minority professors. And some pundits focused on the lazy, verging on racist, generalizations behind the dizzy professor’s words: “high cheekbones” are something “all of the Indians” have.

Not exactly Prof. Kingsfield.

Warren’s campaign rushed into damage control mode. Smoother spokespeople explained that, on a marriage license application in 1894, Warren’s great-uncle claimed that his grandmother — a woman named Neoma O.C. Sarah Smith — had been a Cherokee. The campaign then produced a Utah-based genealogist who confirmed that Neoma, Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother, was at least half Cherokee. (According to some, the initials “O.C.” meant native Cherokee; according to others, contemporary documents described Neoma as “white” which, by the practice of the time, could mean she was half Indian.)

If Neoma was a full-blooded Cherokee, Warren is 1/32; if she was half Cherokee, the professor is 1/64. A thin reed, but the campaign was determined to hang Warren’s robes on it. Staffers pointed out that Bill John Baker, the current chief of the Cherokee nation, has a similarly slight blood connection to the tribe.

Really, this is madness.

When I was in college, we read Mark Twain’s satiric short novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, which rightly ridicules racial distinctions based on 1/8, 1/32, or 1/64 ancestry. The story is often dismissed as an angry product of Twain’s bitter late period — and it is angry. But it’s also a strong perspective on the games that identity-politics practitioners such as Warren play. And have been playing for more than 100 years.

Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma.

Warren’s handlers can spin the story — but the damage is done. On the Internet, ever merciless, the dismissive nicknames have started: Pinocchio-hontas, Fauxcahontas, Sacajawhiner. As Hunter S. Thompson famously wrote, paraphrasing Lyndon Johnson: in some cases, the substance of a charge isn’t important; the response — however skillful — is damaging in itself.

(Actually, what LBJ said was: “I don’t care if the story [that his opponent had sex with farm animals] is true. I just want to hear the son of a bitch deny it.”)

A few days after Warren’s campaign came up with the marriage license application, the story took an ironic turn. While Neoma’s provenance remains murky, her husband — a man named Jonathan Crawford, Warren’s great-great-great-grandfather — served in a Tennessee militia unit that rounded up Cherokees and herded them (literally, on foot) to Oklahoma. About 4,000 Cherokees died on that “Trail of Tears.” So, even if she’s part Indian, Warren is also descended from an oppressor in one of the most disgraceful episodes in US history.

Here we reach the logical end of racial identity politics — a muddle of conflicting conclusions based on incomplete or contradictory government documents. Statist bureaucrats love categorizing people; but their categories are usually false, so they don’t hold up over time.

And a mediocrity like Elizabeth Warren ends up being vilified by partisans both Left and Right.

The Boston Herald’s populist grievance merchant Howie Carr put Warren’s miscues in the disgruntled right-wing frame:

The problem the elites have understanding the power of this story is simple. They’ve never been passed over for a job they were qualified for because of some allegedly disadvantaged person who wasn’t. . . . [T]he upper classes have no comprehension of the “rottenness” of this system. . . . [S]omeone in the Harvard counseling office might sadly inform a young Trustafarian that he might have a problem getting into the law school. But then Someone who knows Someone picks up the phone and young Throckmorton suddenly bumps a kid from Quincy with higher LSATs . . .

In this worldview, Warren’s shenanigans cost a “real” disadvantaged minority person a slot teaching at a first-rate law school. But the problem with right-leaning populism is that it embraces rentseeking. It settles for asking that the corruption be administered equitably.

Carr comes close to the truth when he tells the story of the smart kid from working-class Quincy — but falls just short of real insight. He gives in to emotional paranoia about the corrupt phone call. The best solution isn’t to “fix” the crooked preference system; it’s to eliminate rentseeking entirely because it always leads to corruption. The kid from Quincy doesn’t need a redistribution system that spreads spoils equitably; he just wants to be evaluated objectively.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

On the Left, partisans voice contempt for “box-checking” by free riders like Warren. Last summer, the Coalition of Bar Associations of Color passed a Resolution on Academic Ethnic Fraud. The resolution noted that “fraudulent self-identification as Native American on applications for higher education ... is particularly pervasive among undergraduate and law school applicants.”

In a recent editorial, The Daily News of Newburyport wrote:

It seems clear that Warren’s “box-checking” on law reference application forms was designed to help further her career. Similarly, Harvard Law School benefited by citing Warren as a minority faculty member at a time its diversity practices were under fire.

Warren’s claim that she checked the box claiming Native American heritage in her application for inclusion in the Association of American Law Schools desk book so that she could meet people with similar backgrounds is laughable.

This touches on a critical point: identity politics corrupts institutions as well as people. In 1996, when Harvard Law School was criticized by campus groups for a lack of racial diversity among its faculty, officials touted Warren’s supposed Cherokee roots. According to a Harvard Crimson story at that time:

Although the conventional wisdom among students and faculty is that the Law School faculty includes no minority women, [spokesman Michael] Chmura said professor of law Elizabeth Warren is Native American.

These days, Harvard’s press office says that the university doesn’t make official pronouncements about employees’ ethnic or racial backgrounds. Which seems a bit . . . carefully . . . timed.

Of course, the whole story beggars belief. Warren skeptics are even showing up on Daily Kos, the left-wing political opinion web site that practically launched the professor’s political aspirations. Its Native American columnist Meteor Blades recently wrote:

What’s unclear is whether Warren checked the “Native American” box solely out of pride or because it might perhaps give her a one- or two-percent edge over some other job candidate without that heritage. She says she didn’t. . . . What Warren also didn’t do was step up in 1996 when it became clear that Harvard, under pressure from students and others about the lack of diversity on its law faculty, was touting her Native heritage. . . . What Harvard did was despicable. What Warren didn’t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

If she’s lost Daily Kos, Warren is in deep trouble.

Others on the Left are distancing themselves from Warren, frustrated that she was supposed to be a winner and now may not be. In the online magazine Salon, Edward Mason noted:

The story about Elizabeth Warren’s Native American heritage refuses to die. . . . Some Democrats, haunted by the infamous meltdown of Martha Coakley against Scott Brown two years ago, are wondering if it’s déjà vu all over again. “The people in Washington are saying, ‘The people in Massachusetts are a bunch of fuck-ups who couldn’t run a race for dog catcher,’” said one veteran Massachusetts Democratic insider.

But, to me, the most relevant material came in the reader comments that followed Mason’s cautious story. One commenter earnestly tried to make sense of the hullabaloo:

At no time on any census was OC Sarah Smith, nor any of her off-spring listed as anything other than White. . . . As a contrast, my Great Great Grandmother was listed on the Census and Marriage Certificate as White Indian (Cherokee) but even my relative may not have been full blooded. There is no actual evidence, other than family lore, that Sarah Smith was Cherokee, and zero chance she was full blooded Cherokee. At best, and there’s no evidence to support this, Warren could be 1/64 Cherokee.

To which a Warren supporter replied, without irony: “Fuck off, racist.”

Identity politics is a poison that sickens people, intellectually and spiritually. It abandons them in a madness of paranoia, pettiness, and profanity. Ambitious statists like Elizabeth Warren believe that they can manage the poison more effectively than the little people whose support they assume they have. But they’re lying — to themselves first and to the little people eventually. And inevitably.

rsquo;t do enabled Harvard to get away with it. She was wrong, very wrong, to let that pass.

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