Hitler is dead. His memory lingers on, but how it lingers is going through a transition just now as the people who were adults in the 30′s and 40′s pass on and the lessons of that era become second-hand.
Today, in popular culture, three attitudes seem to dominate about Hitler and Nazi references. One attitude, which may soon be crowded out by the other two, casually applies the comparison to anyone uptight. In Seinfeld there was the “Soup Nazi.” You might call someone a “fashion Nazi.” Maybe this use was like the return of that other “N” word, an attempt to desensitize us to a troubling epithet from the receding past.
A second attitude on the rise has people using “Hitler” and “Nazi” like shouting fire in what they think is a burning theater. The names become succinct labels for warning us against the people and parties we are convinced will lead inexorably to our doom.
The third attitude, perhaps a response to the second, discourages references to Hitler and Nazis on intellectual and aesthetic grounds as cheap shots and distracting exaggerations. The theater is not on fire. Hitler was an exception and it’s crude to continue bringing him up.
The saying, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” raises questions about what it means to learn from the past. What are the lessons of history? How do past events become lessons? What kinds of remembering of the past prevent us from repeating it, and what kinds don’t?
Remembering is never complete. We learn lessons by abstracting generalizations from details. We call the process interpretation. Think of a potentially troubling episode from your own life–a troubling childhood, an unsuccessful business, or a difficult romantic partnership–something complex you aim to learn from. You may have spent some time pouring over the particulars, trying to make sense of them. To make peace with that episode, by now you have probably packed and labeled all of that complexity, like a box of tangled wires in your garage neatly labeled. The label is the lesson you take from that history. Chances are the other people involved in that troubling episode have labeled the boxes differently. Different interpretations can be drawn from the same facts and they will all be simplifications from the facts.
What simplifications should succeeding generations take from Hitler?
One lesson we might draw from Hitler is to never allow an official interpretation of the past to take hold. Hitler imposed absolute control over how history was interpreted. To avoid repeating that mistake, perhaps we should just carry forward the facts of Nazi Germany and let everyone be their own interpreter. This detail-focused approach may feed the attitude that discourages comparisons to Hitler. Based on details, no one is Hitler.
Hitler was an ideologue. Another lesson we might draw is to keep things concrete and practical. We should stay away from interpretation and theory because abstraction breeds ideological convictions that get us into trouble.
These days our strongest political movements proclaim themselves to be practical and realistic. In our culture, theory, ideology, interpretation and abstraction are pejorative terms. Abstraction is what elitist do and it’s what makes them so out of touch with the real world.
Our anti-theoretical culture may contribute to the attitude that has us calling people “Hitler” like shouting fire in a theater we think is burning. Most of the people calling people “Hitler” don’t make a substantive theoretical argument why the comparison is apt. It’s a gut thing. We want freedom and if someone gets in the way, he’s Hitler.
With the ones who lived through it passing on, Hitler’s memory will be carried forward by us, and we weren’t there. It’s our box of tangled wires now and how we label it matters a lot.
It seems hardly the time to discourage reference to Hitler or to fall into gut-based comparisons. It’s a great time for us to consolidate the lessons to face boldly and thoughtfully the challenge of abstracting the right lessons.
So my Question for you (Q4U) is this: What do you think are the key take-aways from Hitler? As simple as possible but no simpler. As abstract as necessary to prevent tyranny from any taking over from the left, the right, or any direction, and yet not so abstract as to be toothlessly vague and abstract.
In other words, how would you know another Hitler if he came along?