Godwin's Law, in the event you've not heard of it, is the debating principle that states that in every argument, eventually someone will accuse their enemies of being a Nazi. "You're just like Hitler," they'll say. "Gay rights advocates are Nazis! Conservative Christians are Nazis! Cops are all Nazis! Hitler banned guns! Being concerned about gun violence makes you a Nazi! Hitler Hitler Hitler! Nazi Nazi Nazi!"
But as much as his name is the go-to insult for any opponent, and being a Nazi is just shorthand for "an opponent I despise," Hitler's National Socialism was a very, very specific thing. It involved discrete patterns of thought. It was a cohesive ideology and way of understanding the world. To understand it, you must know it. You must engage with it.
Ad fons, or so the saying of my Reformed faith goes. "To the foundations," that means. To understand a thing, go to its source.
And so, with that as my purpose, I girded up my loins, invoked a sequence of protective prayers around my soul, and waded into a book I'd never read. It was the bible of National Socialism, the heart of that darkness: Adolph Hitler's Mein Kampf.
For some reason, I'd visualized a pithy little pamphlet filled with terrible aphorisms. Perhaps it was memories of reading Chairman Mao's Little Red Book echoing in my head.
Oh Lord, was I wrong.
Sweet Mary and Joseph, but that book was long. It was huge, and remarkably, amazingly drab. Much of it is dull, interminable political inside baseball, as Hitler rambles on about the Hapsburg dynasty and minutiae of contemporary German/Austrian Parliamentary processes and personalities. In between some remarkably tedious droning, there was the clear seedbed of horror, a fevered, passionate hatred, and the clear conceptual foundations for both war and the systematic extermination of millions of human beings. Mein Kampf is a monstrous book, an evil thing.
Now that I've read it, and taken the spiritual equivalent of a long hot shower, I have a better sense of both the methodology and approach of National Socialism. Here, seven takeaways, a listicle of evil, what it really means to be like Hitler:
1) It's All About the Outrage. At the beating heart of Mein Kampf is umbrage, the absolute certainty that Other People are Responsible for Our Suffering. "Mein Kampf" means "my struggle," and that's what Hitler means for his reader to feel. He...and you, the reader...are in a desperate struggle against a nefarious Other, who is seeking to destroy all that you hold dear.
That Other, in the five hundred and twelve times he names it, are the Jews. But as Hitler himself admits, it does not have to be. It just has to be an enemy, against which a movement or a nation can be organized. As Hitler puts it:
"The art of leadership, as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary and taking care that nothing will split up that attention into sections. The more the militant energies of the people are directed towards one objective the more will new recruits join the movement, attracted by the magnetism of its unified action, and thus the striking power will be all the more enhanced."I've read this before, seen this principle used as a baseline for organizing a mass movement. It's articulated repeatedly in Saul Alinsky's The Rules for Radicals, for pointed example.
To get a people moving, there is nothing more effective than an enemy to demonize and hate.
2) Politicians are All Corrupt. Hitler spends a great deal of time attacking politicians. They are all pocket-lining, incompetent fools, he asserts. All they know how to do is speechify, and none of them do their jobs. They need to be replaced, all of them.
His attacks on politics as usual, through a simple redirection of force, becomes an attack on the idea of representative democracy itself. Our representatives are just suck-ups and weaklings, and that's the only reason they are in power.
"Surely nobody believes that these chosen representatives of the nation are the choice spirits or first-class intellects," he snarks.
Throw the bums out. Having accepted that premise, it's an easy move to Hitler's answer: they need to be replaced by men of Will and Honor, people who can really get done what needs to get done.
By which he means himself, and the Nazi Party.
Hitler was clearly tapping a deep wellspring of popular cynicism about governmental incompetence, and particularly the incompetence of representative government. Sure is a good thing that there's none of that in America these days.
3) The Press is The Enemy. Hitler hated the press. As far as he was concerned, the media were primarily responsible for the collapse of German pride, sappers of the will of the people. Again, he taps a deep and abiding cynicism, this time about the media. For example:
"It took the Press only a few days to transform some ridiculously trivial matter into an issue of national importance, while vital problems were completely ignored or filched and hidden away from public attention."Why does the press do this? Well, it's the "Jewish Press," as far as Hitler is concerned. Because Jews engage in objective thinking, which saps the vital essence of a people. That's the idea, at least.
From that foundation of racial hate and cynicism, Hitler makes the move to asserting...at great length...what the press should be doing.
Hitler argues that the goal and purpose of all media needs to be instilling patriotism and national pride. It must intentionally create propaganda--he's unafraid of that term--that stirs the emotions of the lowest common denominator. It does not matter if this propaganda is "true." It only matters that the people believe it, and that it serves the purpose of patriotic endeavor.
As Hitler puts it, good propaganda is exactly like advertising or marketing. The goal is not to tell the objective truth. It's to sell your product. Or to proclaim your ideology.
The best propaganda, in other words, speaks to the folks in your society who primarily use their lizard brains, whose higher functions are ruled by their passions and emotions.
4) The Military Is the Heart of Culture. Hitler's National Socialism was fascist, and central to fascism is complete reverence for all things military. That's what the fasces--the bundle of sticks with an axe-blade that is the symbol of fascism--represents. Hitler talks, at great length, about the refining fire of martial endeavor, about the nobility of the military and the abuses suffered by veterans. The military is, as far as he is concerned, the very best part of national identity.
Why? Because in the crucible of conflict, where your life is on the line, men become stronger. Or they die. And because this is done in the service of the nation, soldiers are the truest, most tested patriots.
As he presents it, the German army only lost because it was betrayed by the press and subverted by the Jews. It made no errors. It was about to win, until victory was snatched from it by the Other.
He has nothing but contempt for talk of peace. Peace makes a people weak. Those who call for compromise and finding nonviolent solutions with the Enemy are just parasites or subversives.
5) Passion is Primary, Critical Thinking is to be Avoided. The goal of National Socialism is passion, which is peculiar, given the tone and language of Mein Kampf. It's a cold book, bright-eyed and distant, written in a tone that most closely resembles the distant, unforgiving prose of Ayn Rand. It is, itself, a little distant.
For those few in control of the system, being dispassionate is key. The scientists and the elites must be cool, rational thinkers.
Yet for the rest of the people, what Hitler prescribes is passion and emotion. Outrage, yes, but also all other emotions. Fierce love. Tears. Laughter. Joy. The reason for this: motivating the masses. To stir the heart of a folk is to call them to the Great and Noble End which you are pursuing. Make them feel the feels. Stir their heart, because it is from emotion--anger and pride in particular--that the strength of a people is found.
What's remarkable is how up front he is about his methods. Right there in his book, the idea that leaders must manipulate the emotions of their followers, that they should mask objective truth.
6) Liberal Intellectuals are the Enemy. Why? As Hitler describes it, this is because they undermine the spirit of patriotism that shapes a nation's pride and purpose. Liberal intellectuals tend to be internationalists, who see value in other cultures and other races, and this distracts from building up national identity. They also insist on critiquing the behaviors of a nation, which drains morale and the vigor of the folk.
Worse yet, liberals insist on looking for common ground with the Enemy, or finding reasons that the Enemy isn't really as bad as all that.
For example, Hitler has pages of venom directed at those German Christian liberals who argued that Jews were just another faith, and that they could be truly German.
He also notes with rage that liberals had taken charge of the educational system, and that they were using education to corrupt the spirit of German youth. The purpose of education, Hitler suggests, is not to create objective, critical thinkers. It is to teach the greatness of a people, to inculcate pride and patriotism, and to cement their commitment to the national purpose.
7) The Goal Is Purity. What mattered to National Socialism was racial and ideological perfection. That was its goal and purpose. All compromise, accommodation, and weakness were to be cut away.
For Hitler's National Socialism, that meant racial purity. The Aryan and Germanic ideal was only diluted by efforts to blend in or mix with other cultures and races. Efforts to create states that included multiple cultures were inherently doomed, because they were inherently corrupted.
From that also rises a focus on ideological purity. That means that any variance from the party line, any whiff of compromise, any move away from the One Purpose? It is to be viewed as suspect.
National Socialism, as Hitler lays it out in Mein Kampf, represents a radically binary, absolutist worldview. There is Us, and We are Good. And then there is Not-Us, which is inferior or the enemy.
And there, from the darkest heart of twentieth century evil, are seven key features of Hitler's thinking, of what it really means to be a Nazi.
It's important to have a grasp on these principles. Why? Because while Godwin was right about our compulsive overuse of the Nazi/Hitler card, that doesn't mean that there aren't movements and leaders that actually resemble National Socialism.
And just because we falsely cry wolf, over and over again, that doesn't mean that wolves don't still roam hungry in the darkness of our culture, looking for an opportunity to rule.