Getting Hitler wrong


The Twitter hills are alive with the sound of the Congressional hearing exchange between Democrat Rep Ted Lieu, whom I find generally insufferable, and Candace Owens, the black conservative activist, whom I find generally overrated. As the hearing was about “white nationalism” and Owens was a Republican witness, Lieu chose to play a 30-second grab from a Q&A in Europe in December last year:

“I actually don’t have any problem with the word ‘nationalism.’ I think the definition gets poisoned by elites that want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want.  When we say ‘nationalism,’ the first thing people think about — at least in America — is Hitler. You know, he was a national socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK then, fine. The problem is, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everyone to be German. …”

Owens exploded, accusing Lieu of taking a quote out of context of a much longer answer:

He’s trying to present as if I was launching a defense of Hitler in Germany, when in fact the question that was presented to me was pertaining to whether I believed in nationalism, and that nationalism was bad.  And what I responded is that I do not believe we should be characterizing Hitler as a nationalist… He was a homicidal, psychopathic maniac that killed his own people. A nationalist would not kill their own people. … That was unbelievably dishonest, and he did not allow me to respond to it.

I think it’s preposterous to argue that Owens is some sort of a white nationalist who is defending Hitler. She is defending the concept of “nationalism”, but in the process, she does get Hitler badly wrong.

Hitler was a nationalist, or more precisely a national socialist, to distinguish from the international socialists of communism (or Bolshevism, as it was then more commonly called). Hitler was a socialist in a sense of being a statist and a collectivist, but unlike Marxists he believed that the essential conflict in history was between races, not classes. He was a nationalist in a sense that he believed Germany to be standard-bearer of the Aryan race, which for him and other racial theorists was the pinnacle of development and civilisation; there was no better country in the world because no country was more Aryan than Germany (though most of the northern Europeans were considered close racial cousins of the Teutons).

Contrary to Owens, nationalist do kill their own people, having first redefined who their people are. For Hitler, German Jews, no matter how well assimilated, were not true Germans because they were of a racially different – and vastly inferior – stock. Hitler also considered them to be the carriers of ideologies hostile to the Aryan spirit – both Marxism and capitalism – and active underminers of everything good and pure. Hence the frequent imagery of Jews as an alien and dangerous bacillus. From that point of view, it was clearly a matter of “racial hygiene” to get rid off the Jews from Germany (originally through a mass expulsion rather than a genocide).

As with the Jews, not dissimilarily with other internal opponents, who might have been technically ethnically German but acted against the interests of the German “race”: communists, socialists, liberals, and the general “degenerate” element. These people coule be considered race traitors; not real Germans but individuals infected with foreign and hostile ideas, who couldn’t be tolerated if the great majority were to fulfill their historical destiny.

In any case, Hitler didn’t really kill that many of his “own people”. Certainly, in comparison with his contemporary Stalin, whose victims were predominantly domestic, Hitler was a rank amateur. This is not a defence of Hitler, who more than made up for the fact by unleashing a world war and devastating most of Europe, merely a statement as to the effectiveness of his methods of internal oppression and control – as well as an illustration of the difference in looking at “own people” through a racial as opposed to a class prism.

Just as the fact that Hitler killed own people did not negate his nationalist credentials, the fact that he launched a world war in pursuit of territorial conquest did not make him a globalist either. Hitler did not want “everyone to be German” – that was impossible, in any case, because national identity is a matter of genes, not choice – he wanted everyone to be ruled by the Germans. Not only was it a historical and biological imperative that those superior lord over those who are inferior, but in the specific circumstances of Germany Hitler believed that for the Aryan master race to thrive they needed political supremacy in the west and the “living space” in the east to give the densely populated Germany a room to breathe as well as the material means to support the nation not sufficiently blessed with natural resources.

Hitler certainly would not consider himself to be a globalist. He in fact hated ideologies of “rootless cosmpolitanism” – communism, capitalism, liberalism – precisely because they had no care for factors like race, nation and attachment to one’s land and locality.

Getting Hitler wrong doesn’t make Owens an apologist. But it does underline the importance of knowing history when talking about history. It’s a problem for all those who compare Trump to Hitler, but clearly it can also be a problem for those defending Trump against such comparisons.