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Yes, The Republicans Are Fascists
Claudia Koonz's The Nazi Conscience shows that fascism was less total than we think
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
Are we actually facing a fascist crisis?
People who answer that question “no” generally focus on scale, on totalization, and on explicit aims. Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute, an indefatigable fascist crisis skeptic, for example, argues that “A fascist is something you either are or aren't. It's not clear how one becomes an in-between fascist.” He also declares, with incredulity “Most people, including journalists at top publications, have told me that 50 million Americans are fascists.”
Similarly, when the right calls for the eradication of “transgenderism,” many pundits rush to insist this is not a plan for genocide, since it’s only trans idea that are being targeted, not trans people. (Parker Molloy thoroughly debunks this last argument.)
From movies, television drama, and popular culture, we have generally gotten the idea that the Nazi government was frothingly, explicitly, compulsively racist, and that its popularity, power and brutality were such that there was virtually no possibility of dissent without extreme punishment. The Republican party uses dogwhistles rather than explicitly saying it wants to murder Black people, Jews, and LGBT people (though, again, it’s been pretty explicit on that last.) It includes many people who clearly don’t intend to go out in the street with guns and shoot Democrats. So how can it be fascist?
Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience has some bad news for people who think that we’re too free and not racist enough to be Nazis.
It Takes Time to Build a Nazi Conscience
As Koonz meticulously documents, living in Nazi Germany as the Holocaust built was not all that different than living in the United States right now. People had a lot of freedom to debate. Grotesque displays of interracial violence were frowned upon by most decent people—which was most people. Leaders (definitely including Hitler) avoided straightforward statements of antisemitic animus. If you were not one of the country’s very few Jewish people, you could easily convince yourself that the Nazis were bad, but not that bad. They wouldn’t, for example, commit a genocide on the scale of what the Turks did to the Armenians. Right?
Koonz’s main focus is on how the Nazis managed to get ordinary people to commit mass murder. Arendt and the famous Milgram experiments convinced many that the mechanism of genocide was bureaucratic; Germans followed the orders of duly constituted authorities.
Koonz argues that this interpretation is mostly false. Nazi soldiers killed Jewish people in great numbers not because they were just following orders, but because they truly believed that Jewish people were a dangerous threat, and that true morality meant a passionate commitment, not to universal humanity, but to the German volk specifically. Nazi racial morality, which required the “purification” of parasitic outsiders, made the attacks on Jewish people seem natural and necessary.
The thing is, though, that that Nazi racial morality took some time to inculcate. In 1933, when the Nazis took power, Stormtroopers beat Jewish people in the street and the Nazis declared a national boycott against Jewish stores. Neither of these antisemitic initiatives went over well. Most Germans were repulsed by the street violence, and international condemnation was swift and uniform. As for the boycott, most everyday Germans, and even some in the Nazi party, simply ignored it, in some cases pushing past SA guards to shop at their favorite stores.
Hitler the Racial Moderate
Hitler himself said little about antisemitic policy in 1933—or for many years afterwards. It’s easy now to mock the New York Times reporter who declared in 1933 that “Hitler will abandon his anti-Semitic stand,” or the U.S. Embassy official who said that “Mr. Hitler does not approve of the indiscriminate and general action which has been taken against Jews…” Mein Kampf, published in 1925, is of course a long, vicious, racist diatribe which makes Hitler’s exterminationist aims clear. But once he gained power, he set that rhetoric aside. Observers didn’t fool themselves; Hitler was deliberately working to fool them.
Germans, Hitler and his top aides decided, needed to be indoctrinated in racial morality before they’d be ready to rid the nation of Jewish people. This racial indoctrination took place on many fronts. The Nazis passed laws restricting Jewish participation in professions, in schools, and in public life.
These laws were not absolute—notably, exceptions were made for Jewish veterans. But the appearance of moderation (mirrored, for example, in the insistence that only trans children will be denied healthcare) actually helped build consensus and legitimacy for racism. Lawless vigilante violence against Jewish people caused a backlash; it was obviously cruel and unfair. But the quiet legal segregation and discrimination against Jewish people seemed more orderly, and more considered. Some Jews were exempted, after all, so there was a gesture at a legal process. And as people came to see Jewish persecution as acceptable, they also came to accept that Jewish people deserved it.
The Nazis put a great deal of effort into buttressing that racist intuition. They elevated enthusiastic Nazi academics like Heidegger; they created racist think tanks; they directed funds to a gutter racist press, and also to a more erudite eugenics highbrow literati, who forswore grotesque caricatures and calmly debated the fine points of Jewish supposed iniquity.
Das Schwarze Kopf was a respectable, intellectual antisemitic Nazi publication. This article, titled “Is This Unmanly?” promotes the idea that German fathers should care for their children. It’s the kind of respectable conservative article which, if it appeared now, might be cited by someone like Shadi Hamid as evidence that we aren’t facing a fascist crisis.
“Yes, But” Nazis
There was not, Koonz emphasizes, any one point at which a single racist line was enforced. There were arguments about whether Jewish people were biologically inferior, culturally inferior, or theologically inferior. Some academics or officials even were what Koonz calls “yes, but” Nazis—those “semi-Nazis” Hamid refuses to believe in—who could, Koonz says, “welcome ethnic fundamentalism and economic recovery while dismissing Nazi crimes as incidental.” Nazis didn’t necessarily have to hate Jewish people personally. They just had to believe that the pure German volk had a great destiny, and that their loyalty lay with that volk. Once they agreed to that, the genocide took care of itself.
Koonz shows us that in its own day, to its own constituents, the Nazi party seemed reasonable, moderate, and moral. How could 50 million Americans be fascists? Hamid asks incredulously. But millions and millions of Germans were fascists in much the way Republicans are Republicans—they embraced a white identity party as essential for patriotism and purity, and then picked up as much of the racism and violence as they wanted from there. Which could be not much, but generally was more and more over time.
Fascism Hasn’t Changed, But Antifascism Has
If there’s a hope in Koonz’s book, it’s not in the Republican party’s basic decency. On the contrary, the Republicans, like the Nazis, have redefined “basic decency” in such a way that it involves the justification of disenfranchisement, segregation, and increasing extremes of violence. Koonz does argue in a recent essay that the Nazis were more competent than the current Republican party, and took advantage of class resentments in ways the GOP can’t credibly manage.
But I think the real difference between the contemporary US and Nazi Germany is in the strength and breadth of antifascist resistance.
Part of that is simply numbers. The Jewish presence in Nazi Germany was miniscule; they made up only about .75 percent of the population. That’s even less than transgender people, who are thought to make up about 1.6% of the population, and it’s vastly less than the 7.1% of the US population that is LGBT, the 13.6% that is Black, the 18.9% that is Hispanic.
Percentages aren’t the only factor in resisting oppression; whites in apartheid South Africa kept power for decades despite being a small minority. But the US also has a specifically antiracist tradition which is much more useful for analyzing and resisting fascism than the vague universal humanist appeals that were the main ideological counter to Nazi racial morality. There’s a reason that fascists like DeSantis and Rufo are so intent on rooting out Critical Race Theory and books about gay penguins, not to mention Black and antiracist professors in universities. We have many more antiracist, antifascist intellectual tools now than German Jews did in the 30s, and as Koonz shows, fascists are hugely dependent on clearing and subverting rival intellectual traditions in order to get the public on board with monstrous policies.
It’s important to identify, cultivate, and protect resources for resistance. But we shouldn’t let the fact that fascists haven’t won yet fool us into thinking that they aren’t fascists. The Nazis, at one point, hadn’t killed that many people, and signaled their intentions with discrete dog whistles. People at the time were certain that Germans of good conscience wouldn’t collaborate with Hitler if he really intended to do what he said he was going to in Mein Kampf. But it turned out that conscience is a very malleable thing. If the Christofascists do get in a position to start murdering their neighbors in large numbers, Koonz’s book shows that they will feel not shame, but pride.
You can find an index of all my substack posts on fascism here.
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