Friday, August 21, 2009

Evoking Hitler

In a recent NewsWeek article (August 24, 2009) entitled "Hitler and Health Care Don't Mix" Jon Meacham suggested that "playing the Nazi card is a bipartisan sin." Citing Churchill, Chicago Mayor Daley and Gloria Steinem, Meacham warns that "deploying Nazi imagery as a matter of course diminishes one of humankind's most potent lessons of its meaning and its power." He suggests that "we are in danger of turning evil itself into a triviality when we draw on the images of Hitler's Germany to make political points in debates that are in no way comparable to the terrors of Nazism." But how does one determine what political points are or are not comparable? With the subject of President Obama's health-care plan being openly compared to Hitler's Fascist policies (see Rush Limbaugh's particular vivid diatribe), Meacham suggests that "it seems reasonable to suggest a moratorium on the deployment of Third Reich imagery and language in domestic political conflicts that, while important, fall immesurably short of Hitler's territorial ambitions and his Final Solution."

I strongly disagree.
Evoking such imagery in reference to a mild, even a seemingly banal event or action does not minimize it; rather, it projects the potential seed in the germ. It warns us where such "innocuous" beginnings may lead and where they may end. Such examples give us context for discussion and permit us to exercise preventative measures when they count. To wait for the germination of evil before acting is to wait until it's too late.

Meacham references this 1982 quote by Gloria Steinem: "A return to a strong family life, women's primary identity as mothers, tax penalties for remaining single, loans for young married couples and subsidies for childbearing, prohibition of prostitution, homosexuality, contraception and abortion: all these were issues that the Roman Catholic Church...and the Nazi Party could agree on." While her juxtaposition is potentially over-simplified and certainly unfair to many Catholics, it does point out that this attitude is precisely where the Nazi Party began when an economically hurting German population embraced its platform. Did Steinem trivialize what Hitler and the Nazi's did? No. She merely pointed out the danger of where such thinking could lead (read her entire article for context).

Meacham admits that the events of the Second World War have become more and more remote, particularly to our younger generations who feel no connection to it or its lessons, and who readily commit to the archives of a dull relic history "the rise of National Socialism, the persistence of American isolationism, the cynicism of the Soviet Union, and the appeasement chic of the British upper classes." But, as Meacham also admits, all these "relics" are alive and well today. And, I submit, precursors to what could become at any time. Let's not forget that Hitler was a charismatic politician (and soldier) whose compelling dissertations about a new life and a new world order seduced the entire German population, including the Deutche hausfrau, long before a war was declared.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

Using the Nazis to suggest something is wrong (even if it was) is a cheap way of putting the message across, rather than reasoned analysid.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point Jean-Luc.

It is important to remember the horrendous evils of the past but as Meacham noted at the end of his article - "That is why the example of Hitler should not be invoked lightly or often. In this case, less is more; to deploy Nazi imagery as a matter of course diminishes one of humankind's most potent lessons of its meaning and its power".

It brings to mind the fable of the 'boy who cried wolf'.

When extreme and inflamatory images are invoked to simply bring extra attention (at best) or to incite inordinate fear (at worst) people will begin to ignore them.

I fear that to embark on your train of thought that society should be afraid that any charismatic author that enjoys engaging in conversation over a beer (or cider) should be feared that they may become the next tyrannical despot.

Viva Le Fromage,


Nina Munteanu said...

Okay, Limburger… you’re pulling my proverbial charismatic cider-drinking despot leg, right?

But we misunderstand, I think, and stumble on semantics. I certainly agree with Meacham and with you that “the example of Hitler should not be invoked lightly”. Having said that, Meacham’s examples were not drawn from that pool (e.g., the remarks about Hitler and the Nazis by Gloria Steinem and Winston Churchill were not made lightly.) The point that I make (and possibly bungled in my post) is that Hitler and his atrocities and—more importantly how he got there—needs to be known and remembered by the public—particularly our youth. We can’t afford to forget the seeds of evil. The comparisons brought up by Gloria Steinem or Winston Churchill drew attention to something worth thinking about and discussing through the evocation of a powerful symbol. These were valid comparisons in my books.

We need to see more reference to and clarification of Hitler’s history and rise to power both in our educational systems and in general public knowledge. We cannot afford to forget the power of evil in all its forms and beginnings, particularly those that appear innocuous or even well-intentioned. Evoking Hitler and Hitlerisms in seemingly "less wrong" events or activities reminds us of this.

So, my point is: instead of avoiding those Hitler references, let's educate our youth to better understand them.

As Santavana wisely said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Alistair said...

I tend to take the view that NOT referencing it enough can lead to the position where it is no longer seen in context of politics and humanity but as only "history" and not relevant to our modern society.
To assume that it couldn't happen again by ignoring the fact that at the beginning it was one step improvements to German economic and social structures is also surely to underplay the importance of the whole. The fact that these were small steps and that they were seen to benefit the majority and therefore built popularity exponentially was the most invidious part of the whole. Lets not forget that for many years the nazi model was applauded in the world political arena for those very steps it took initially.

How much of the onset of nazi socialism is understood in the wider arena or taught in schools these days. I dont think that many people can acually see it in context of modern life.

Nina Munteanu said...

AListair, your use of the term "invidious" is most appropriate.

I agree with your point when you say, "I dont think that many people can acually see [Nazism] in context of modern life." This should be corrected in our schools and in our art and culture.

It is noteworthy that two recent #1 box office ranking films explore the Nazi dialectic/regime, one through fanciful satire (Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds) and the other through elegant metaphor (Peter Jackson's District 9)

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I see what point you make there, Nina.

Nina Munteanu said...

Thanks, Jean-Luc... your opinion matters to me.

Vanessa Rottner said...

Dear Nina,
Thank you for a very thought provoking article. Your point is well taken when you spoke about the 'germination of the seed'. We must always be innately aware as to the dangers of evil and power. For "power corrupts absolutely". This is so evident in the Steven Spielburgs movie Schindlers List. Resonating profoundly into the core of our souls and heart. Inextricably, we are all changed by seeing this movie. Grace upon grace, the Jewish peoples in Poland have given us much more than words can express.
May we walk together in peace...
מייַ מיר גיין צוזאַמען אין שלום. Vanessa

Nina Munteanu said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments, Vanessa. Yes, I do so agree that we need to be reminded and aware.

You mention Schindler's List... It would make a powerful inclusion in a senior high school socials class.

To be free is to be aware. Freedom is an act of responsibility. And our youth deserve to be free.

Let's not let them forget who Hitler was, what he and his regime did and what a country let him do.

...Otherwise, as Goeth said in the movie: "it will all just be a rumour..." And by then it will be too late.