lessons from the Holocaust Museum

I recently visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. It reminded me of two very important things. First: the situation with Hitler in Germany in the 1930’s was unique, and there is no person and no situation that is comparable. Second: Hitler was just a human being, like any other, and what happened in Germany in the 1930’s is a reflection of one of the basic forces that lives in the human heart.

Yes, of course I realize that these two conclusions seem contradictory. But I sincerely think that they represent one of those profound contradictions that is both true and important to think about in order to gain understanding.

First: Hitler was unique. There is nobody who is “like” Hitler, and the moment that you try to invoke his name as an analogy in any political discussion you have already lost the argument. The fact is that the magnitude of the atrocities that happened in the 1930’s and 1940’s in Germany was due to a coming-together of a large number of factors that fed off of each other: the depression in Germany after World War I, the terms of the Treaty of Versailles and the psychological impact they had on the people of Germany, the subsequent world-wide depression in the 1920’s, Adolf Hitler’s own pre-occupation with racism and purity, the effects of the early stages of mass-communication technology on people not accustomed to it… the list goes on and on. Change any single factor, and nobody can predict what would or would not have happened. The rise of the National Socialist faction in Germany was by no means inevitable.

In this sense, to draw any parallel between any person and Hitler, or any situation and Germany in the 1930’s, is a gross over-simplification. So let us dismiss any of the arguments that have flown through the airwaves lately:

President Barack Obama wants the government to build roads and railways across the country… and so did Hitler! But Barack Obama is not “like Hitler.”

President George Bush used the term “homeland” to refer to the United States, and Hitler used the term “homeland” to refer to Germany! But George Bush is not “like Hitler.”

Rick Perry decreased unemployment by allowing average wages to plummet… and so did Hitler! But Rick Perry is not “like Hitler.”

A small group of German marines refused to take the loyalty oath, just like a small group of American marines are standing up to the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, therefore…. “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is just like Hitler?

Let’s face it: nobody is “like Hitler”… except for Hitler. The end, please-and-thank-you.


So why do people respond emotionally to the argument? Why is it that some people hear a comparison and it “feels” like it has some merit?

The fact is, Hitler was a human being. He was not a devil, and he was not an alien. And the psychological and genetic make-up of Germans is no different in toto than the psychological and genetic make-up of any other humans. What happened in Germany in the 1930’s was the result of a specific confluence of events, but force that acted there was different from other human forces only in degree, not in kind.

So that comes to the second point: Hitler was just a human being. The German people are just human beings. The fear that we feel when we “see a Hitler” anywhere around us today is not a fear of some alien, unconscionable, inhuman Entity. It is a fear of something all too familiar: the hunger for fascism in the human heart.

On a very deep level, when the circumstances are just right—poverty, fear, pride, humiliation, anger—human beings have an inexorable thirst for fascism. In the year 2011 we have done a good job of suppressing it and controlling it through ideals of democracy and freedom. But the hunger is still buried just under the surface. On some level we all know it, and we all fear it. We can see it again and again in political strife around the world: it comes in different forms and circumstances, but the underlying hunger is the same.

And when we see “a Hitler” in any human being, we do not fear that person or any single trait that the person possesses. We fear our own reaction to him. We fear the knowledge that there is a tendency in large groups to be drawn to fascism. We fear the mob—the hive mind—that we all know that human beings are biologically drawn to in times of stress and fear and excitement. So we don’t fear “patriotic rhetoric”, we fear our own response to it. We don’t fear national roads, we fear our own desire to be coddled. We don’t fear authority, we fear our own deep-seated desire to feel the comfort of not questioning it.

When we see “a Hitler” in any leader, it is not because we think that that person is somehow different from the “norm” in human society: it is because we fear the power that any human has over a human society that we know hungers (or can hunger) for fascism. It is a hunger that is kept deep down, powerless and helpless, in most of us most of the time. But we know it’s there. And we know that it can be unleashed in any group of humans, by any particular human, when the dice fall the wrong way.

And so I present to you this simple plea:

You stand in a crowded room where the intense and charismatic speaker holds an audience captive with his words. You stand in front of that leader, and look at him, and ask, “Well, is he like Hitler?” But you are asking the wrong question, and you are facing the wrong way. You need to turn 180 degrees. Now, you are facing the audience: see what you find there. Now you are looking at humanity expressing its deepest and most basic instincts. That is where you have to look for fascism, or you will not see it until it’s too late.