Friday, January 29, 2010

Fascism, Islam, and Freedom of Expression (Nazis & Christians & Pagans, Part Three)

Questions About Nazism and Fascism
Contemporary philosophers, historians and social scientists continue to disagree, often heatedly, over the true nature and even the history (or "roots") of Nazism and Fascism. Here are a dozen different areas of dispute (many more could be given):

1. What is the relationship between the two: is Nazism just a particular subset of Fascism, or is it a distinct phenomenon in its own right?

2. Was Nazi anti-Semitism rooted in previously existing anti-Semitism, or was it some entirely new thing altogether?

3. What are the commonalities among the major Fascist movements in Europe during the inter-war period, especially those in Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, Romania and Hungary?

4. What was the relationship between distinctly Fascist movements and parties on the one hand, and on the other hand the broader "right" or "conservative" political movements and parties? (Alliances with more mainstream rightists were essential to the political success of Nazism in Germany, for example.)

5. What is the relationship between Nationalism and Fascism?

6. What are the intellectual and cultural "roots" of Fascism? For example, what is Nazism's relationship to "Romanticism", or how much does Nazism owe to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche?

7. What is the relationship of Christianity to Nazism and Fascism? Some claim there is no relationship whatsoever, others claim an intimate relationship exists. The same questions have been raised concerning the relationship of Nazism to Paganism, the Occult, Eastern religions and also Atheism.

8. What is the relationship of various contemporary political phenomena to Fascism and Nazism? Is Zionism Fascistic? Is Islam? Is Glenn Beck a Fascist? Is the Hindutva movement in India Fascistic? Is there a real danger of a resurgence of Fascism in the West, or anywhere else, and if so where does the danger come from?

9. Alternatively, should we refrain from using the labels Fascist and Nazi for contemporary persons and movements, because in doing so we trivialize the unique horror of these historical phenomena?

10. Just how aberrant were the racial theories of the Nazis at the time? Wasn't "scientific racism" a mainstream concept in western culture throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th?

11. What could have been done to prevent the rise to power of Fascism and Nazism in the 20's and 30's? And, today, should censorship and other restrictions of individual liberties be utilized as a means of guarding against a return of Fascism, or, more generally, of opposing the "promotion of hatred"?

12. If censorship is to be applied against Fascist literature and other materials that "promote hatred", how are we to determine what material this legitimately applies to?

Now let me give two examples of the kinds of disputes associated with the above questions. Christopher R. Browning has argued (especially in his Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution) that many (or even most) of those who participated directly in the Holocaust did so merely out of obedience to authority and peer pressure. Browning's position is in stark contrast to that of Daniel Goldhagen, whose Hitler's Willing Executioners argues that average, ordinary Germans were personally motivated by what Goldhagen calls "eliminationist antisemitism", so that they may have been (indeed, were) ordinary Germans, but they were no longer "ordinary men."

The difference between Browning's and Goldhagen's approaches to the basic question of why the Holocaust happened reflects a sharp divergence on the issue of Germany's Sonderweg, or "different way". More specifically, Browning and Goldhagen differ not only on the nature of Germany's "different-ness" from other European countries, but, even more importantly, they differ on just how much difference there really was between Germany and other European nations, with both historians focusing on the individual Germans who carried out the Final Solution. Browning emphasizes the "ordinariness" of these men, while Goldhagen portrays them more as monsters than as human beings at all.

A second example of a highly contentious issue is that of the relationship between religion and Nazism. Many historians have simply assumed that Fascism in general, and Nazism in particular, must be utterly at odds with Christianity, or at least with "true" Christianity. Moreover, it is often asserted that even though many Nazis publicly professed to be Christians, they were in fact strongly influenced by Pagan religious ideas of some sort (implying, so it seems, that while Nazis could not be "true" Christians there is no issue with their being "true" Pagans!).

An example of the above position, that of simultaneously distancing Nazism from Christianity while impugning a close relationship between Nazism and Paganism, is to be found in Wolfgang Behringer's Witches and Witch-hunts: A Global History. Behringer devotes a chapter to the subject of Old and 'New Witches', and that chapter is essentially an unhinged rant in which Behringer claims that not only modern Paganism, but feminism as well (along with vegetarianism!) are tightly linked to anti-Semitism, Nationalism and most especially to Nazism:
Neo-paganists today try to present themselves as an alternative to the Christian Church, with numerous sects all over the USA and Europe. However, the roots of the movement are not so pure as some members assume, because they point back to Nazi Germany.... It is not by coincidence that the Nazis used a (neo)-pagan symbol, the swastika, adopted shortly after the First World War, since this points back to their 'occult roots'.
[p. 233]

Quite surprisingly, it was not only neo-paganism that flourished in Nazi Germany, but also a form of radical-feminism, often combined with racism and anti-Semitism. Nazi feminists considered women to be the superior gender, and Aryan women the superior gender of a superior race.... During the upswing of post-Second World War feminism, similar ideas gained momentum.
[p. 235]

It was presumably not by coincidence that the notion of the historical witch-hunts as more terrible than the Holocaust of the European Jewry emerged at the interface of neo-paganism and feminism, where scientific research is replaced by feeling and believing. Although many feminist authors display a leftist attitude, the extremism of the right does not seem far away.
[p. 236]
In contrast to Behringer's view that Nazism is intrinsically hostile to Christianity and has it's spiritual roots in Paganism, there is the view of Richard Steigmann-Gall's Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945, according to which the Nazis were just exactly what they always claimed to be: Christians. What's more, Steigmann-Gall also claims that even those Nazis who did dabble in the Occult (as a great many Christians have done throughout the history of Christianity) never came close to making a real break with Christianity (for example they continued, both publicly and privately, to voice great admiration for Jesus and Luther, and even Meister Eckhart). Numerous quotes from Steigmann-Galls' book are gathered together in a previous blog entry here. Richard Browning (already mentioned above in connection with his book Ordinary Men) has also written a book on The Origins of the Final Solution in which he very clearly places the Nazi Holocaust in the context of the long history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe, and several excerpts from that book are in another earlier post here.

Censorship and Fascism
What is an individual to do who wishes to know more about Fascism and Nazism? Since "experts" have so many and such wide ranging and fundamental disagreements, it is especially important for a person who wishes to be well informed to have free access to the primary sources of Fascism and Nazism. Was Hitler a Christian, or a Pagan, or an Atheist, or what? If we feel that this is an important issue, and a great many people do, shouldn't we take into account what the man himself had to say on the subject of religion, in his own words, and in context?

But in the Netherlands, access to Hitler's writings, and Mein Kampf in particular, is subject to legal restrictions: "selling the book, even in the case of an old copy, may be illegal as 'promoting hatred,' but possession and lending is not. The matter is generally handled as a matter of copyright infringement against the Dutch government, who owns the translation, though it refuses to allow any publishing. In 1997, the government explained to the parliament that selling a scientifically annotated version might escape prosecution. In 2015, the government's copyright on the Dutch translation becomes void."

The quote given above about Dutch laws pertaining to Mein Kampf is taken directly from wikipedia. This is verified by information that is now becoming more widely and readily available thanks to the ongoing trial of Geert Wilders. The wikipedia entry also correctly describes the availability of Mein Kampf in the United States like this: "[Mein Kampf] can be found at almost any community library and can be bought, sold and traded from many websites like and Borders Book Store. The U.S. government seized the copyright during the Second World War as part of the Trading with the Enemy Act and in 1979, Houghton Mifflin, the U.S. publisher of the book, bought the rights from the government. More than 15,000 copies are sold a year." It provides as a reference the article Unbanning Hitler, by Julia Pascal in the June 25, 2001 issue of the New Statesman.

The same wikipedia entry lists Brazil, Mexico, the Peoples Republic of China and Austria as countries that completely ban Mein Kampf. No documentation or references are provided to substantiate that, but it is probably more or less true. Julia Pascal's article, referenced above, states
Officially, Mein Kampf cannot be purchased in Germany, Hungary, Israel, Latvia, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, but the book is readily available in Russia, Romania, the United States and the UK (where it sells a regular 3,000 copies annually).
Geert Wilders has stated that he opposes all forms of censorship, and he has also called for "the withdrawal of all hate speech legislation in Europe", and, in the place of regulations on speech he has called, instead, for a European wide "first amendment". In the same speech (given in Italy in Feb. 2009, linked to above -- here's the video), Wilders said that not only are current restrictions on free speech inherently wrong, but they are even more problematic because of the lack of consistency in how they are applied. As an illustration, he stated that if the Dutch laws criminalizing "hate speech" were applied consistently, then the Koran would be banned just like Mein Kampf. This has been taken completely out of context to stand reality on its head in an attempt to portray Wilders as promoting censorship!

Freedom of speech is not a "left" or "right" issue. And for those who actually oppose censorship and believe in freedom of speech it is not necessary to decide which cases are important and which are not. Anytime that a government attempts to silence its citizens and keep them in ignorance by threatening them with criminal prosecution on the basis of speech and regulating what they are allowed to read, this is an important matter. Of course it is important to know the facts, and this includes knowing what the accused has actually said and written. And of course any thinking person is bound to agree or disagree with what the accused has said and written. But that is not the point, at least it is not the point of freedom of expression.

It seems to me that a great many liberals, progressives and leftists have abandoned the basic principle of free speech. They have decided that Geert Wilders should not have the freedom to speak his mind, because they do not like what he says when he does. He is branded as a "far right" politician, never mind the fact that central to his critique of Islam is his own support for gay rights and women's rights. He is branded as a "fascist", never mind the fact those who do so are themselves engaging in "hate speech" according to the very laws being used to try to silence Wilders!

I can actually remember a time (now it seems like a million years ago, but it was only a few years!) when principled people on the left and the right in the US were starting to come together based on opposition to the invasion of Iraq and the Patriot Act. I don't really like rubbing shoulders with the right-wing yahoos who seem to be the only people in the US who are willing to come down on the side of freedom of speech in the Wilders case. And I don't trust most of them, either. I think they "support" Wilders only because they see it as amenable to their own political agenda. And for that matter Wilders himself is basically just another opportunistic politician.

As discussed in the first half of this post, there is much room for debate about the nature and history of Fascism, and also about the present day dangers of Fascism, or the lack thereof. There are also valid questions about the nature of Islam. The freedom to express ideas, and to debate them openly, should not be sacrificed in the name of fighting "hatred" or in the name of protecting Islam from "insults". I do find it amusing that many of the right-wingers who are thronging to Wilders' camp are themselves proponents of forms of Christianity that mirror the worst of Islam. I also find it to be an outrageous distortion of history to claim that freedom of speech is a "western" value which must be protected against "foreign" influences. Freedom of speech is relatively new to the West, and is far from "indigenous" to the European continent!

This post is part of the series on "Nazis & Christians & Pagans":
[1] Nazis and Christians and Pagans, Oh My! (Part One)
[2] Christian Nazi Quote-fest (Part Two)
[3] Fascism, Islam, and Freedom of Expression (Part Three)
[4] "Hitler was not an occultist": Mitch Horowitz is right but his sourcing is all wrong (Part Four)
[5] Karla Poewe's "New Religions and the Nazis" reviewed by Richard Steigmann-Gall (Part Five)


Anonymous said...

You may be interested in David Niewert's blog:

He has been writing about various incarnations of numerous political groups that are currently active in the United States. Scary stuff. Check out his published books and series listed on the left.

SiegfriedGoodfellow said...


You may find the following sites very illuminating vis-a-vis Goldhagen's thesis :

It would seem that Goldhagen has misused his sources. Given the seriousness of his accusation, this is an extremely important fact to consider. Serious historical analysis requires us to actually UNDERSTAND a phenomenon, so that it will never be repeated. To do so, we must understand it well.

Thanks for contributing to this process.

Apuleius Platonicus said...

Thanks for the links!

Richard Browning's criticism of Goldhagen is actually very severe, especially as public criticism of one academic by another goes. I hadn't really read about Finkelstein's critique, though.

For some reason many people - and most especially Germans! - have taken comfort in Goldhagen's simplistic explanation of the Holocaust. I think this is because people find the reality so horrifying: that the Holocaust really was perpetrated by rather "ordinary" human beings.

It's ironic that Goldhagen's insistence that there is just something inherently different and evil about Germans is, and this is not very subtle at all, just another "racial" explanation for historical events.