If You Were in Hell, How Would You Know It?

One of the most jarring elements of reading Victor Klemperer’s diaries is how often he and his circle ask themselves whether Hitler, long after he’s come to power, is really going to last. They’re constantly wondering whether some diplomatic or domestic crisis isn’t going to be Hitler’s last. From hindsight, it all seems bizarre: we now how the story ends, we know how the story had to end. But at the time of its happening, that was not the case. You can see precisely why Klemperer and company thought as they did. The Nazi seizure of power and subsequent program was, for them, unprecedented. They could only think in terms of previous coups or crises. Not to mention that they had no choice, some of them, but to hope against hope.

Now we come back to today. We’re all focused and rightly concerned about Trump. We read him through the lens of the past. But in reading this post by Samir Chopra​, I’m reminded of all the bad things that have happened to the US over the past decades. Yes, we protested them and found them objectionable, but ultimately we lived with them and found a way to go about our business: a presidential election in which the majority of the population voted for the candidate who lost; a catastrophic war that was fought for reasons everyone concedes (and conceded within a fairly short time) were lies and self-deceptions, with absolutely no consequences for the perpetrators; a system of capital punishment in which innocent men and women have been killed; and so on.

Like the rest of us, I have no idea whither we are tending. But reading Klemperer’s diaries, I wonder whether we’re properly identifying the paving stones of our descent, and whether, having reached our final destination, we’d even know we were there.


  1. rdpike December 10, 2015 at 10:29 am | #

    NPR just now had a report on some Frank Luntz research showing Trump supporters just support him more when he is criticized by others (with rational effective criticism). It is like their brains have been switched off and they live in a fantasy world of hatred for others. Really quite frightening and hard to accept from rational and analytical thinkers, but I imagine pre-WWII Germany must have felt the same.

    • Glenn December 10, 2015 at 11:10 am | #

      And yet without the overt verbalization of hatred by Democrats, the bombing in the Middle East continues with only a change of style from Bush to Obama in the presentation of bombing justifications.

  2. Roquentin December 10, 2015 at 10:39 am | #

    It’s more fluid than that. It’s not like there’s some well defined line where you end up in a fascist state. Since the term is thrown around as a slur so often now, almost independently of its original political context, we have very strange conception of what it is. Authoritarian and dictatorial aspects exist in every state, always have and always will. I’m fond of bringing up that even the most austere dictatorships now hold sham elections to give off the illusion of democratic control. The thing is, all elections, even those with a “free and fair” stamp of approval have structural similarities to this. There are a relatively small portion of views and positions the population is given a multiple choice form to consent to. Some states just have a few more options on the Scantron.

    We’ve made National Socialism in Germany and fascism in Europe in general into something mystical (your metaphor of Hell is doubly appropriate), rather than just a particularly extreme example of trends and forces which are latent in political regimes and populations everywhere. Genocide and forced population transfers are hardly unique in human history, even in the 20th century. All the hyperbole about the Third Reich and the Holocaust, while completely understandable, is exactly that…hyperbole. I mention my experience in Russia too often, but living there for a month under Putin was when it hit me. His reign was just a caricature of our own, his “managed democracy” just a more crass version of our own system, the semblance of democratic processes were just forgeries a little more obvious. It was a difference of degree, not of kind.

    Once I understood that, a very different picture of history started to emerge. Most of the things we told ourselves about our government and political system were narcissistic, things we said so we could feel better about our power and what we were doing. It’s messed with me ever since.

    • Benjamin David Steele December 10, 2015 at 11:21 am | #

      A very insightful comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. My own mind tends in that direction of understanding, “a difference of degree, not of kind.”

      I’d point out that while fascism was rising to power in Europe, the US was experiencing the Second KKK, Italian Black Hand, and German Bund. There are the standard issues of post-slavery chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, redlining, xenophobic changes in immigration laws, etc. Not to mention eugenics laws, including enforced sterilization. And there was the secret testing done on minorities.

      That was also the time of the supposed Business Plot that Smedley Butler warned about and his complaints the military served big biz. I could also add the violent oppression of organized labor, both by the government and by private Pullman goons. Or other things such as the internment of thousands of Japanese, Germans, and Italians. Also, many people forget that the first several decades of the twentieth century involved the last battles of the genocidal Indian Wars.

      The forces of change in Europe and North America at that time were basically the same. It is hard to know what democracy means during such times. There were those who were trying to maintain control and those who were challenging it. That is basically where we still find ourselves.

    • Glenn December 10, 2015 at 11:35 am | #

      Hitler is used in American political theology as a modern equivalent of Satan, as an absolute and infinite evil in the American psyche.

      No action against an infinite evil by finite beings can ever be sufficient. However large a finite opposition is compared to infinity, any finite opposition is minuscule and fearfully inadequate.

      And in believing Hitler to be as such, no efforts by mere mortals need observe any limits at all.

      This is not to diminish the evils of Hitler, but to say that comparisons are warranted so that by acting in fear of Satan, Americans do not exceed the excesses of Hitler, America’s designated Satan.

      • Roquentin December 10, 2015 at 1:37 pm | #

        I agree completely. It fits very easily into the already existing ideological structure here, particularly among fundamentalist Christians. If you sin against the American Way, you are on the path to fascism with Hitler, the secular Satan at its head.

    • Gene December 16, 2015 at 11:36 am | #

      Well said. Perhaps what you are driving at is Eco’s “ur-fascism” or “perennial fascism.”

  3. John T. Maher December 10, 2015 at 11:18 am | #

    Responding to the famous Sartre line, you would know because other people would be there. So in a sense Trump and other pocket demagogues are arguing in a Laschian manner for only recognized ‘people’ (ie within the political community) who reflect his own values. The reflection of narcissus as Roquentin, whose comments I always find enlightening, points out.

    The Nazi analogy is perhaps fundamentally misconceived. The Nazis were a society organized around ‘optimizing’ science ad technology.This includes as a subset their familiar social race pseudo science and excludes its effects.This pattern has been repeated with a sugar coating in US politics and foreign affairs.Trump himself imagines a better or more nostalgic US with the technology or border fencing and status based border controls. I would guess Trump and his handlers believe they are erasing a slippery slope that the US is already upon. I say the difference is that the Nazis cared more about applied technology while Trump cares more about his version of do it yourself sociology although there is a convergence along some points.

    So I say intellectuals may recognize the slippery slope but technology always offers the hope that better tech will solve the problems inherent in the original iteration. No one wants to do anything about it by rejecting technology or at least reconsidering the import of the wonderful Promethean posts on this bog a few months back.

    • Gene December 16, 2015 at 11:43 am | #

      The Nazis (and later the Soviets) cared about applied technology much as we do — obsessing and overspending on superweapons and missing the boat on serious biology and agriculture due to the mix of corrupt economic, scientific, and religious ideologies. The technological status quo becomes a permanent orthodoxy until it collapses under its own costs and contradictions.

  4. Raven on the Hill December 10, 2015 at 11:50 am | #

    You are, of course, exactly right. We don’t know where the bottom is, or even if there is one above simple tyranny.

    Cue complaints of “alarmism” in 3, 2, 1 …

    • Benjamin David Steele December 10, 2015 at 2:27 pm | #

      Going by history, we know that the US government and ruling elite can go quite low. Even simple tyranny isn’t unfamiliar to the past experience of American minorities.

  5. Raven on the Hill December 10, 2015 at 11:56 am | #

    But the story did not have to end as it did. The outside world, after all, could have intervened. I have read that the biggest concern of US elites was if the Germany would continue to pay its debts; no-one was willing to imagine imperial ambitions, even though the Nazis trumpeted them.

  6. Bart December 10, 2015 at 4:40 pm | #

    One paving stone is the slow disenfranchisement of the voter and how easy it has been to manage. Does Yeb ever get called out for the large voter roll purge for election 2000? Will the supreme court do anything about gerrymandering or this new case about one vote?

    • Gene December 16, 2015 at 11:45 am | #

      A class of people who fail upward until they are too big to fail at all anymore — they are our new legitimists.

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