"Who goes Nazi?" — A reflection after 71 years

I was recently sent an article from the August 1941 issue of Harper’s Magazine, written by Dorothy Thompson, titled “Who goes Nazi?”[1] The article, written shortly before the United States’ entry into World War II, details the sort of person who, as the title suggests, would “go Nazi” if given the chance. Ms. Thompson drew on her experiences living through the rise of the Nazi regime in the 1930’s, and came to the conclusion that Nazism is not, in actuality,  “divided by any racial characteristics.” Instead, Nazism is better described as a “disease of a generation” that afflicts a particular kind of person, whose “body is vigorous…mind is childish..[and] his soul has been almost completely neglected.” According to Thompson, this persona, rather than one’s being German, or even one’s being Jewish, that determines whether or not Nazism will take hold.

Thompson illustrates this concept by imagining a cocktail party with various attendants, referred to by letters. She describes their situation and then assesses how they would confront Nazism. She identifies several personality profiles of those who would flirt with, reject, or embrace Nazism, but what they all have in common is a lack of perspective and a desire for power and recognition solely for one’s own benefit. Whether it is the wealthy Jewish banker, the conniving wife, the powerful labor leader, or the “ruthless,” insecure intellectual, all are solely interested in bettering themselves at the expense of the world. Their vision stops at the tip of their nose. In contrast, those who would reject Nazism are secure, humble, and interested. They care about, or at least understand, others, and for that reason the sort of power offered by a totalitarian regime is unappealing.

It is interesting to compare Ms. Thompson’s assessment of the driving factors behind The Enemy to those of today. While the world is significantly more gray, with few clear-cut cases of right and wrong, I would wager that most of civilization would count members of Al Qaeda and other extremist terrorist groups as The Enemy of the modern era. However, while their leaders are driven by false notions of morality like the Nazis, the sort that their world appeals to are very different. Terrorist organizations do not recruit those who crave power, necessarily; one of their main tenets is sacrifice for the betterment of the cause, and death tends to put a stop to power-gathering. In fact, their entire image is counter-organizational; they do not seek to put large swathes of the world under control, but rather to break apart the existing fabric of society and plunge the world back into the Dark Ages. It is not a movement for the ages; it is fueled by a flash of anger and it will die in time, though the damage will be dear if not mitigated.

Given the nature of the new Enemy, one can consider the sort that its vision of the world would appeal to—namely, the disaffected and downtrodden who have given up on this life and only care to try to make a mark on the world. Similar to Thompson’s Nazi profile, these sorts do not truly seek to care for or understand the rest of humanity; instead, they see the world as having failed them, leaving revenge as the only option.  They do not see glory in building a better future. Instead, the ease of destruction and destabilization appeals to them, much like a child throwing a tantrum.

This sort of movement is not one that can be destroyed with bullets or bombs. Even the killing of Osama Bin Laden, while cathartic for the United States and the world, did not truly change much. The failure of individual terrorist organizations would not stop it, because the root is not in the organization, as it was with Nazism, fascism, and most of the other enemies of civilization. Instead, the root is disaffection at one’s inability to affect one’s surroundings in a constructive way. Fighting will slow the tide of anti-civilization, but in order to truly stop it, the areas that are most vulnerable must grow and prosper. If a person sees strapping a vest full of bombs to himself as the only way to change his situation, he will take it. Alternatives must not only exist, but also must be perceived. I am of the opinion that people tend towards good rather than evil, but they must see it as an option before it will take hold.

[1] http://harpers.org/archive/1941/08/0020122

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