Americans just love Nazis. Have I got your attention? Great, now let me explain. What I mean is that American politicians — and some of the public at large — often invoke the specter of Adolf Hitler and Nazism as the go-to example of political evil. Depending on their political preferences, some Americans like to accuse their political opponents of bringing on the Second Coming of the Third Reich in America. No matter that far too many people in the good ole’ U.S. of A know precious little about ACTUAL Nazism and the historical context from which in sprang in 1930s Germany; if they don’t like the other side, then the other side must be de-facto Nazis. Because Nazis are bad.
A recent case-in-point: two Republicans in Asheville, North Carolina recently compared the flying of the gay-rights rainbow flag at the city hall to Nazism. Former city councilman Carl Mumpower didn’t mince words when he stated that, “I am equating their methods with the Nazi movement…They are indifferent to the rule of law and indifferent to the vote of the people. And that’s Adolf Hitler all over again in a different disguise.” The “they” that Mumpower was referring to in his granite-headed statement was both the Asheville City Council and U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn, who recently struck down North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage.
Mumpower’s equating of gay rights to Nazism is particularly galling since the Third Reich actively persecuted homosexuals in Germany. But not only is his statement galling, it’s also monumentally hypocritical. As the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum notes, “The Nazis posed as moral crusaders who wanted to stamp out the ‘vice’ of homosexuality from Germany in order to help win the racial struggle.” You got that? A pair of North Carolina Republicans, who fancy themselves moral crusaders in the fight to uphold “traditional marriage,” are accusing their opponents of being Nazis — the very-same Nazis who positioned themselves as moral crusaders against the so-called threat of homosexual influence in Germany. Pot, meet every single kettle EVER MADE.
But this is hardly the only instance in which one U.S. political faction has likened their opponents to Nazis. As Media Matters noted early this year, conservatives in particular just can’t stop describing those wily liberals as another Third Reich. An especially choice instance of this type of lame-brained demagoguery involved hyperbolic venture-capitalist/comical plutocrat Tom Perkins, who wrote an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal (natch) in which he called liberals’ criticisms of the so-called “one percent” a “progressive Kristallnacht.” Perkins was referring to the infamous November 1938 pogrom in which Germans attacked Jews, destroyed Jewish businesses, and sent many to concentration camps. Because criticizing the wealth of spoiled ass-hat billionaires is totally the same thing state-sponsored anti-Semitic violence.
No recent American political figure has received more Nazi comparisons than President Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that lefty protesters had a tendency to equate President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq War. But the sporadic “Left” has little influence on the ostensibly “liberal” Democratic Party, as evidenced by, well, the party’s entire platform. By contrast, hyperbolic conservative activists exert a LOT of influence on the Republican Party, and boy do they like to equate Obama to Hitler. Beyond the super-rich doing it, grassroots conservative activists — especially the various factions of foaming-at-the-mouth goobers in the Tea Party — just love to claim that, “the comparison between Hitler and Obama is striking.” Other Tea Party groups have carried signs with Obama sporting the infamous Hitler ‘stash, because Obama is just like Hitler, of course.
Nazi references run rampant in American politics, and they’re a particularly favored target by those on the Right who want to tie all political threats to the supposed re-emergence of the Third Reich. But when Americans call someone Hitler, or invoke Nazism in general, they aren’t concerned with making any actual, historical connections; rather, Nazi comparisons serve as an all-purpose-catch-all for invocations of current or impending evils. When Americans call their political opponents Nazis, they’re using Nazism as a stand-in for generic evil, all of which the Third Reich represents in an easily recognizable package. Unmoored from its historical context as a sociopolitical movement that happened in mid-twentieth-century Germany, Nazism becomes a generic political boogeyman. In America, you call your political opponent a Nazi because you don’t want to address the actual substance of their ideas.
So, yeah, Nazis are big in America. But the question remains: why Nazis? Why Hitler? After all, there have been plenty of really evil humans in the past and a good-many nasty political movements that Americans could reference as a political slur. Sure, for a while, Communism was big, and it wasn’t unheard of for conservatives to call anyone to the left of Ayn Rand or John Birch a commie pinko, but there just seems to be something about Hitler and his merry band of genocidal Übermenschen that jingles American political bells.
Nazi comparisons are potent in America because Nazism sheds light on the darkest aspects of modern nationalist culture and its accompanying characteristics of patriotism and group-think — characteristics from which Americans have not been immune. Nazism invokes, whether consciously or unconsciously, a shared cultural fear that recognizes the universal human capacity for evil while simultaneously trying to relegate that capacity to the past.
Let’s take a general view of the central tenants of Nazism. Above all, there was the idea of a unified, powerful nation-state underpinned by a core belief in Aryan racial superiority over all other supposedly “inferior” races. White supremacy led the Nazi-controlled German state to purge its population of Jews, homosexuals, eastern Europeans, Gypsies, and other groups whom the Nazis deemed of lesser value than supposed ethnic Teutons.
But the Third Reich didn’t stop at its own borders. The Nazis believed that a racially homogenous Germany had the right to forcefully expand and conquer the rest of Europe (and eventually, the world). The “superior” Aryan population — the Master Race — was destined to dominate over areas populated by racial inferiors. Indeed, among Nazism’s driving forces was its incessant militarism; its cultural belief that war and violence could purge the world of “undesirables” and claim Germany’s rightful place as the supreme ruler of humanity. This potent combination of militarism and white racial supremacy eventually resulted in the Holocaust, during which 6 million European Jews were summarily exterminated in what remains the worst instance of “ethnic cleansing” in modern history.
Of course, the long arc of U.S. history also involves its own themes of white supremacy, the vast territorial expansion of an increasingly powerful nation-state, and the violent conquest and subjugation of non-white peoples. The near two-centuries long forced removal and relocation of Native Americans onto federally designated and administered reservations was the most significant legacy of an American ideology of white supremacy merged with a Manifest Destiny to expand the (white) American empire from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
While there is heated debate among historians over whether the American treatment of its native peoples constituted a genocide, there is no disputing that Indian Removal was born of white supremacist nationalism. President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830, spoke for millions of (though not all) white Americans in his famous speech to Congress in which he outlined how removing Indians would “place a dense and civilized population in large tracts of country now occupied by a few savage hunters.” For Jackson, and for many Americans in the nineteenth century, “the waves of [white] population and civilization” were “rolling to the westward,” and “the benevolent policy of the Government…in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements” would soon come to “a happy consummation.”
Although genocide wasn’t the goal of American Indian Removal, the results where nonetheless violent and tragic. Hundreds-of-thousands of Indians died from exposure, starvation, and from outright warfare with the United States government. This mass death and relocation took place in the name of a racially unified, expansionist American nation-state. In the words of nineteenth century journalist John O’Sullivan, “we are the nation of human progress, and who will, what can, set limits to our onward march? Providence is with us, and no earthly power can.” Among those earthly powers who couldn’t stop this “human progress” were America’s native peoples.
The United States also displayed its racialized nationalism via the enslavement of millions of African-Americans and the continued relegation of blacks to second-class citizenship for decades after slavery’s demise. The notion of a white “master race” who ruled over an inferior black slave race was codified at the highest levels of American government and embraced on an intimate, social level in the South. Even in the regions where slavery was illegal, white supremacy was a potent cultural force, and it remained so well-after the Civil War and into the twentieth century. During the Second World War, for example, critics as diverse as the NAACP and the Axis Powers pointed out the hypocrisy of an American nation that fought for freedom against the dictatorships while still maintaining a segregated armed forces and a system of domestic racial apartheid.
Americans with even a basic grasp of history understand how ugly shades of racial subjugation and expansionist nationalism influenced their own past. Some choose to look at history as, in part, an abject lesson in the human capacity for evil: even those who purport to represent freedom can fall prey to the darkest of human impulses that lead to violence and domination. For other Americans, however, the fact that some of Nazism’s ideological underpinnings have also influenced U.S. history leads them to embrace denial and oversimplification. For them, Nazism was evil incarnate, therefore, it is the antithesis of all-things America, as are their political opponents.
On the one hand, the continued use of Nazi comparisons in U.S. politics does highlight the American ability to (eventually) overcome the worst political ideas that the world has to offer. We know that the Nazis were bad and we don’t ever want to become just like them. The U.S. of the past was a white supremacist nation bent on, at times, violent national expansion, but it never became the kind of totalitarian one-party state that defined the European fascist powers. Heck, the United States fought — and won — a war against fascism even as it continued to struggle with the legacy of its own past, in which racism had a profound influence. Many Americans are aware of the uglier aspects of their history, and they want to continue to move beyond it, and that’s a good thing.
But while the presence of Nazis as all-encompassing political boogeymen in U.S. politics might serve as a useful reminder of the benefits of American freedom, more often than not, such comparisons are reduced to pointless, hyperbolic fear-mongering. So what’s say we lay off the Nazi comparisons. Barack Obama is not Hitler. George W. Bush is not Hitler. Only Hitler was Hitler. The sooner Americans recognize these points, the sooner they can reconcile the best and worst aspects of their own history and move forward to create a better (and fascist-free!) future.