In the series-within-the-series– “This Evil Force” can be seen “Moving Through Time” — I have argued that the force that has arisen on the political right in our time represents the “re-emergence” to a position of central power of “the Spirit that Led Us to Civil War.” In showing this, my purpose has been to help substantiate the reality of “Evil,” i.e. of a force that maintains coherence and that has a consistent thrust in spreading the pattern of brokenness on whatever it touches.
To document the way such a force has moved, in a coherent fashion, through American civilization, I delineated a set of parallels between the manifestations of this alleged force in the two eras, describing their similarly destructive conduct along three lines: 1) the “Spirit of Domination,” 2) the “Spirit of the Lie,” and 3) the “Spirit of War.”
An alternative interpretation might be offered, however.
Maybe, it could be argued, rather than seeing today’s force as evidence of a coherent pattern moving through time, we might instead say that all forces of evil bear a family resemblance. After all, we’re talking about a force that works to impart “a pattern of brokenness” to whatever it touches. Surely, “brokenness” in the human system (as well as “wholeness”) will have common properties wherever its patterns are manifested.
In making that alternative argument, one could point to that quintessential example of an “evil force” in modern times — the Nazi regime in Germany, from its beginnings in the early 1920s until its destruction in 1945 — and describe some important parallels with the what we see in those destructive eras in America.
With the Nazi example, too, we find:
** The “Spirit of Domination” is in florid display. The whole idea of a “Master Race” implied that other “races” would be subservient to their Aryan masters. And indeed, during World War II, the Slavic peoples in particular who came under Nazi domination were often treated like slaves.
** The “Spirit of the Lie” was likewise an essential part of the modus operandi of the Nazis. It was Hitler and Goebbels who put forward the idea of the “Big Lie,” and the American assessment of Hitler during the war proposed that one of his chief rules was that “people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it.”
** The “Spirit of War” is at the heart of the whole Nazi enterprise. They took a continent at peace and virtually single-handedly ignited a conflagration of armed conflict that was the largest, deadliest war humanity had ever seen.
In all these ways, the “evil force” of the Nazis has parallels to the force that has taken over the American right in our times.
I’m aware that there’s a widespread taboo that’s been imposed in America in our times against bringing the Nazis into any discussion of the forces at work in the American political sphere. This is an understandable reaction to the completely irresponsible purposes to which Nazi comparisons have occasionally — particularly from the right– been put. (Irresponsible, and sometimes — were it not a symptom of such serious pathology — even laughable, e.g. in likening the recent health care reform to what Hitler did.)
But, understandable or not, this taboo is also an unwelcome obstacles to our understanding the nature of our current dilemma. While it is quite true that there are irresponsible uses of the Nazi comparison, not all uses are irresponsible.
I’ve been studying the Nazi phenomenon for more than fifty years. I’ve written about it in most of my major works. And for me, since 2004, it has been impossible to think about the crisis in America today without drawing upon what I know about the dynamics of the rise and operation of that destructive force that created the Nazi nightmare. Impossible, and undesirable: for that important, and much studied piece of world history helps bring into focus some of the deeper realities.
That said, I see important differences, as well as the similarities, between the force that’s operating in America today on the political right and the force for which the Nazi regime was the instrument.
In particular, there was in the Nazi regime an impulse of murderousness that is largely absent from the force that has arisen on the political right in America in our times.
True, when it expressed itself through the GW Bush presidency, this force gave us wars that cost many people their lives. And it is true that, with its current instrument of the GOP as an opposition parties, this force has had an impact on policies that increases the death rate in the nation.
But dealing in death is not a central impetus of today’s GOP, nor was it of the Slave Power. Death by Civil War, and death by depriving poor people of health care, or deaths in the future as a result of failing to respond to climate change — these are are far cry from the kind of murderous impulse that was at the heart of the Nazi chapter of German history.
In no scenario I can foresee will America — even if this evil force gains complete hegemony over the nation — is America in danger of creating anything like an Auschwitz.
The evil force in America — leading up to the Civil War, and again in our times — is far more focused on exploiting (maybe even enslaving) people than on killing them.
So, yes, all evil forces may have a kinship with one another– from one that expressed itself in the Romans crucifixion of thousands of rebellious slaves in the wake of the Spartacus revolt to the one that created the Gulag in the Soviet Union. But no, they are not all alike. Specific cultures have their own patterns, and cultural and historical differences will impart specific patterns of brokenness to the evil forces that arise in different societies.
Let me propose two factors that infused the impulse toward murderousness into the evil that expressed itself through the Nazi regime — one factor being cultural, another a result of the history that immediately preceded the Nazi era.
First, through the German dueling culture, Germany trained its dominant class in an ethic of bloody violence. When the evil Nazi force took over the nation, this powerful socializing agent provided a channel for murderousness energy to express itself. In his outstanding book, The Germans, the German sociologist (and eventual German Jewish refugee) Norbert Elias described how a “cultural syndome” growing out of the dueling culture, created “a particular human attitude, a socially regulated fostering of violence.” “If one asks how Hitler was possible,” Elias writes, “one cannot help concluding that the spread of socially sanctioned models of violence and of social inequality are among the prerequisites of his advent.” (p. 19)
By contrast, if one looks at those parts of America from whence today’s American right-wing force draws most of its power and spirit — such as Koch Brothers capitalism — one finds very little of this kind of violent spirit and tradition of bloodiness. The “Rogues’ Gallery” I presented contains no faces that would wear dueling scars, as did the German elite, as prestigious badges of honor.
A second important source of the murderousness that differentiates the evil force of the Nazis from that which has taken over today’s Republican Party is the trauma of World War I. The Nazis rose to power a scant fifteen years after the conclusion of a war of futile butchery on a massive scale. The impact of that trauma — dealing out death, and suffering death in one’s own ranks, in the millions — cannot have been anything less than huge.
I will not take the space here to explore in any depth how the victors and the losers in that war manifested two contrasting ways in which people respond to trauma: while the victors (the British and the French) responded with a determination to avoid any repetition of the trauma (an avoidance that proved powerful enough to endanger their national survival), the losers (the Germans) responded with a compulsion to repeat it.
We in America have had no such trauma. (9/11 was hardly on anything like the same scale.) And the evil spirit that’s arisen in America does not have any deep fixation on death, or eagerness to control death by filling the landscape with the corpses of others. Dealing in death is not at the heart of the evil force at work in America, as it was in the force of brokenness that took hold in Germany in the aftermath of World War I.
While there is kinship between all evil forces, therefore, there are also differences. While the Nazi example can help bring some aspects of our crisis into clearer focus, because of similarities in some of the gross patterns of brokenness, the two forces also differ because of both cultural and historical dissimilarities.
But between the spirit that led to Civil War and that which infuses the right on America today — I claim on the basis of considerable examination of both eras — there is visible a truly deep kinship, a continuity of important cultural patterns.
More on that kinship in future entries of this series.