Owning The Hitler Brand

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Most of us heard that little nugget of wisdom when we were children, and I don’t imagine many of us believed a word. We grow up in a world where all of our authority figures punctuate their arguments with a name. Atheist, idolater, harlot, bum, bigot, fool, weakling, coward…it sometimes seems that fully half of our native tongue is devoted to the verbal assault on our fellow man. In politics, the art and science of name calling has become a multi-billion dollar enterprise; those who are possessed of the talent and will for true nastiness are the gatekeepers of power.

The last two years have seen America rise to the pinnacle of this less than noble pursuit; no longer does the application of a name or label have to employ even the slightest grounding in reality. In fact, we the people have become so good at calling each other names, that if a term brings the appropriate level of cruelty or spite to a conversation, we need only redefine it to suit our needs. This isn’t a new talent, teenagers of every generation have fundamentally changed the definitions of words like “hot” and “cool”, but now we have the ability to apply the same process to the names and places of history. We have heard “Marxism”, “Communism”, and “Fascism” thrown around the media like so many grains of wheat. But when it comes to historical names, none has such power to stir up fear, anger, and violent rage quite like Adolf Hitler.

And none should; Adolf Hitler was and remains, in my mind, the absolute epitome of evil. His name is stained with the blood of over 50 million people (the total death toll in World War II, including casualties in East Asia and the Pacific Rim has been estimated at between 62 and 79 million). His stated rationale for violence was national pride. His tools were numerous, and his blood-lust eclipsed that of any human before or since. Yes, there are reasons aplenty for not wanting any association with the name Hitler. And that is where the redfining comes into play.

For many Americans angry at the election of Barack Obama, the push for health care reform, the stimulus package and (Bush) bailouts, a good old political tar and feathering of the President was called for. For two years, we have seen every kind of political caricature imaginable plastered on posters and tee shirts, and displayed at rallies throughout our nation. Many of these exceeded the boundaries of taste, civility, and Christian morality. The President has been painted as the Joker from the movie The Dark Knight, and re-imagined as Vladimir Lenin. But the image that has consistently enraged and perplexed liberals the most, has been the “Obama as Hitler” construct.

Juxtaposing the President and a Hollywood villain is ugly, but easily dismissed. Juxtaposing the President as the leader of Soviet communism was hyperbolic, but easily moved past. Hitler, on the other hand, was unforgivable. For the reasons stated above, there are simply no mainstream politicians in the modern history of our nation who exist high enough on the continuum of evil as to deserve that label. The heat and persistence of these attacks, combined with their implicit acceptance by the Republican mainstream, has placed the Grand Old Party in a difficult spot. Many in that party were stung by criticisms after the security legislation that followed 9/11. Some writers (myself included), pointed out the dangers off too much security; Military Commisions and the Patriot Act were both reminiscent ( in scope and the potential for abuse) to some of the laws passed after the Nazis took power in 1933. They were not direct comparisons of personality or intent, but even tangential comparisons can be painful.

Comparisons such as those mentioned, combined with the Hitler posters and references associated with President Obama, proved too much. Some on the intellectual fringe at the edge of the Republican Party took action. Scholars like Jonah Goldberg took up the challenge of redefining Hitler and the Nazis as proto-liberals more closely identified with Stalin than with modern conservatism. Personalities like Glenn Beck who have shown little need for either facts or the skills (like reading) needed to understand them, wasted no time in jumping on Goldberg’s ideas. In Glenn Beck’s world, the official title for which Nazi is the abbreviation, National Socialism, is proof that the Nazis were Socialists in the modern (conservative) definition of the world.

I suppose it isn’t the most far-fetched idea to float aimlessly across Glenn Beck’s brain; it adheres to a brand of common sense that many other purely conservative notions avoid at all cost (like cutting taxes as a way to balance the budget). The problem, of course, is that the notion is dead wrong on every point that matters. The German National Socialists believed in a single party rule that propagated government support for Aryans (or more specifically, the Nazis profoundly stupid definition of Aryans, a people associated in real history with Iran and India). Communism, Marxism, and liberalism were specifically identified by Hitler and the Nazis as the subversive ideologies of the Jew. Hitler and the Nazis consolidated their power in Germany by framing the Communists for the arson of the Reichstag (the German Congress).

Another important fact to consider is the very idea of the political spectrum with its right and left construct. The spectrum of politics we all grew up with, begins on the far left with communism. Socialism and liberalism are left of center, conservatism is to the right of center, with fascism at the far right. Hitler and Mussolini were both fascists, but comparing them politically to American Republicans is no more valid than comparing Lenin to a Democrat. it is a matter of context, scope, and scale; one might compare those extremes in the same way as one compares a tricycle to a school bus. Both objects may exist to move a small child over some distance, but they are typically easy to tell apart.

These important facts of history and politics are lost on many Americans, but are completely removed from the world views of those like Representative Bill Shuster (R-Pa). The shootings in Arizona and their aftermath gave rise to a great deal of questionable sound-bites and revisionist history. In his Shuster’s mind, it is important to connect Hitler with Democrats, at least as a means to protecting the Republican brand. Speaking about the Arizona shooter, he said this:

“I don’t know. We’ll uncover that as we go forward…But from what I heard, his two favorite books were Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto—that tells me the guy is on the left. People like to associate Hitler with the right, but in fact he was a socialist himself.”

Many liberals have themselves to thank for any attempts to link the shooter with either party. Most, like myself, have watched the rhetoric of the right become more violent and reckless with every passing day; my first thoughts when the shooting happened drifted immediately to Sharon Angles’s “Second Amendment remedies”. We are however, wise to remember to listen, observe, and think before speaking. Like so many other topics, the tragedy in Arizona has cast a light on our most questionable political practices, and that is a solitary positive amidst great sorrow. That so many people who ought to know better jumped before learning all of the facts however, is further testament to the absolute position we Americans devote to name calling. Shuster’s response, and the pseudo-intellectualism that gives it foundation, reveal a very dangerous side effect. History has always been written by the victors; rewriting history for the sake of a winning political point seems an ugly development of an already regrettable paradigm.

The Rational Middle is listening…