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)

"What exactly is Geert Wilders being charged with?"

Below is an informative and fairly objective article from January 19th, the day before Geert Wilder's trial began. It was written by Folkert Jensma and it originally appeared in the online English language edition of the Dutch media outlet NRC Handelsblad.

(Also, here is a pdf of an English translation of the official "summons" to Geert Wilders, containing the charges against him.)
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Has Wilders broken the law?

Published: 19 January 2010 17:45 | Changed: 20 January 2010 09:49

Geert Wilders’ inflammatory anti-Muslim statements are well known. Are they illegal?

By Folkert Jensma

Rumour has it that Geert Wilders, the leader of the populist PVV party, hopes to call Mohamed B., the man who killed Theo van Gogh, as a witness in his up-coming trial which starts this Wednesday. Probably to establish the connection between the Koran and violence that Wilders assumes. The prosecution, however, will focus on the Dutch criminal code, particularly the two articles the politician is alleged to have violated: 137 c and d. Wilders is charged with slandering a group and sowing hate, and discrimination on the basis of race or religion. He has targeted Muslims on the basis of their religion, the prosecution will argue, and non-western migrants or Moroccans on the basis of their race. The trial is expected to last months.


What exactly is Geert Wilders being charged with?

The case against him involves 21 pages of quotes drawn from interviews, newspaper articles, websites and a description of Wilder’s anti-Islam film Fitna. It was initially dismissed by the public prosecutor’s office which saw no chance of winning a conviction. The prosecutor consulted with its own expert think-tank on discrimination and two independent professors. All recommended against prosecution, stating that Wilders’ public statements would prove insufficient to win a conviction

Don’t politicians enjoy extensive freedom of expression?

Certainly. They cannot be prosecuted for what they say in parliament or local councils. But outside parliament, politicians are basically just citizens. There, they are governed by the normal limitations to freedom of speech established in article 7 of the constitution and in article 10 of the European treaty on human rights. Broadly interpreted, that states that freedom of opinion is a characteristic of democracy, including opinions that are “disturbing, shocking or hurtful”. Limits to that freedom can only be enacted by law and in situations where they are “urgently needed in a democratic society”. To prevent people’s (religious) feelings from being hurt for instance.

Where does the judge place the limits?

The judge examines whether a statement is “unnecessarily offensive” in relation to social discussion. Judges then carry out a “contextual examination”: who says it, what he says, and what is the origin of the statement. Politicians, artists, columnists, imams and other professional participants in public debate get extra leeway.

Why didn't the prosecutor want to try Wilders at first?

Wilders’ criticisms are largely limited to Islam, a religion, and that’s allowed, after all. In general, it is accepted that article 137c is intended to protect groups of believers from being attacked on the street. Not to prevent criticism of religion. The prosecutors’ office also doubts whether Wilders has committed a crime as defined in article 137d, “sowing hate”. Professor Henny Sackers said that wasn’t the case. It’s true Wilders has a clear aversion to muslims, he says, but “that’s all there is to it”. There’s no evidence of incitement or provocation. There’s no “implacable desire” to “exterminate” Muslims.

“Sowing hate” has been interpreted differently. Professor Theo de Roos thinks Wilders may have indeed infringed this article. He thinks someone has to express extremely rancorous opinions on Muslims, and promote these views to others. Wilders does do that, in his opinion, since he gives speeches and interviews and publishes statements. But is he “sowing hate”, which, according to the professor, implies “existential threat”? Considering his comparison of Islam and fascism, it is likely he is considering this. That comparison contains a threat of extreme violence.

Is that why the court forced the public prosecutor to try him?

The Amsterdam court of appeals found that Wilders was trying to drum up conflict and dissension. Group slander seems to be possible to prove. Wilders’ statements on Islam have been so consistent that it ‘seems clear’ he wants to use religion to hurt muslims as a group. The court found that freedom of political speech should lead to a socially acceptable contribution to public debate. This is not the case here. The criminal code therefore has a role to play if “the contribution to public debate is unnecessarily injurious to a group of believers in encroaching on their religious dignity, while that contribution simultaneously incites hatred, intolerance, enmity and discrimination”. There are citizens, and politicians, “who have been sentenced on the ground of less far-reaching statements than Wilders’,” the court stated last year.

Is there a chance that Wilders will be sentenced?

Yes, given the position the Amsterdam appeals court has taken. But the district court doesn’t have to follow that position and can make its own judgement. A conviction for group slander is least likely. How the Amsterdam magistrates will pass judgement on an important politician for sowing hatred and discrimination on grounds of race or religion, remains an open question. For now.

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The People's Historian: Howard Zinn 1922-2010

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that in America we treat Labor History as a kind of pornography, in the sense that it isn't really considered "proper" reading material, and there's something questionable about anyone who takes an interest in it.

My first encounter with Labor History was reading about the Anarchist Harmarket Martyrs in high school. When I discovered a big fat book on "The Haymarket Affair" (I think that was the title, I cannot remember the author!) in the school library, it called out to me with the siren song of forbidden knowledge. The more I read, the more thrilled I became and the more I could hardly believe what I had discovered!

And so when Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States came out (after I had graduated from college), that book was not a revelation to me. But it's popular reception was. Fidel Castro once quipped, "It is not enough for the truth to be true. The truth must also be told." But even that is not enough. The truth must be told well.

There are in fact many great labor historians and some of them have been very good writers. Samuel Yellen is one that particularly comes to mind. Philip Foner was the Grand-Master of the Craft in America, but he was never famous for his ability to thrill the reader. But it was not until Howard Zinn came along that we had someone who managed to write books that tell about the struggles of the working class, but that were also books young people would excitedly praise and lend to each other, like a new favorite album (er, CD, er, I mean pirated mp3 download).

Here's another nice, and much more thorough, appreciation by Paul Street over at Z Magazine: Howard Zinn: The People's Historian.