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Was Hitler a Man of the Left?

Nazi revisionism in America

Pacific Standard

February 2010

When Jonah Goldberg published his book Liberal Fascism in 2007, George W. Bush was still president, and no one had yet compared Barack Obama to Hitler. In fact Goldberg’s ambition for the book, if you boil it down, was small. He wanted to clarify the word “fascism” for a popular audience and defend himself, as an American conservative, against the knee-jerk label “fascist.” Fair enough. “To suggest that Hitler was a conservative in any sense related to American conservatism,” he wrote, “is lunacy.”

That’s true. Hitler hated almost everything about America, from its messy democratic system to its mingling races, from its seductive freedoms and modern jazz to Wall Street’s rise as a center of international (Jewish) finance. The tragic heroes of American history, for Hitler, were Native Americans: nationalists uprooted from their rightful soil by a bunch of foreigners.

Even in this brief summary it’s easy to see that Hitler’s program trampled across easy categories of “left” and “right.” He was some of both.

But Goldberg tries to argue that Hitler’s statist solutions to Germany’s woes — his whole “National Socialist” platform — was essentially a left-wing, revolutionary movement of workers. Being called “left-wing” would have horrified Hitler, but never mind. “The ‘social space’ the Nazis were fighting to control,” Goldberg writes, “was on the left.”

What’s true is that Hitler took a ragtag, socialist-minded workers’ party in the 1920s and built it up with nationalist, militarist and racist rhetoric, until the Nazis appeared to be something new under the sun. With a mixture of soaring idealism and menacing torchlight parades, he seized absolute control of a wounded Germany. The Nazi party made socialist noises while it cozied up to German industrialists. “The party had to play both sides of the tracks,” writes William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “It had to allow Goebbels [and other propagandists] to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly socialists and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it.”

Goldberg prefers to focus on Nazi big-government policies toward everything from banking and gun control to health care, but he downplays the freakish rants against foreigners, homosexuals and modern art, against weak-kneed liberals, intellectuals and “urban cosmopolitans” — all in favor of German farms, German family values and German workers just struggling to get along. Hitler cleared at least as much “social space” on the right as on the left.

He was no doubt a revolutionary. Hitler posed as a man of the people, standing against German aristocrats as well as the German bourgeoisie, and this fierce populist anger at the comfortable middle classes and their weak-looking Weimar Republic is part of what makes Hitler seem “left-wing” when you begin to read about him.

But the same anger animated loads of Germans back then; parties across the political spectrum wanted to tear down Berlin’s wobbling experiment with Anglo-American democracy and replace it with something glorious, uncompromised and pure, as long as it would bring swift prosperity to the suffering unemployed. It was political romanticism, and in this sense German Communists helped the Nazis along, even if Nazis and Communists held gang fights in the streets. Hitler hijacked their romanticism.

The sticky question for Goldberg and his fans, particularly since the book came out, is whether this romanticism really is just a province of the left. Or is it possible to imagine a grassroots revolutionary movement from the right that dreams of patriotic renewal, resents Wall Street for trashing the economy, hates the lazy liberalism of the latté-drinking middle class, bashes homosexuals and immigrants, mistrusts intellectuals and “cosmopolitans,” loathes dissent, resorts to vicious name-calling and has been known to call for war when no war is needed?

Most Germans can’t figure out what some Americans mean when they compare Obama to Hitler. Goldberg bears a lot of responsibility for this lunacy. He’s also begged people not to go quite so far, though the plea may sound disingenuous from the author of Liberal Fascism. “Some have taken to calling liberals fascists,” he laments in a new afterword to his book from 2009. “That isn’t what I wanted.”

Oh, dang.

Michael Scott Moore


Politics

Somalis and Tolerance

Did a long ordeal as a captive in Somalia turn the author into a Trump-style conservative?

Talking to Jihadis

As people shopped for groceries at an open-air market on New Year’s Eve in the Indonesian coastal town of Palu, a homemade bomb loaded with nails killed at least eight people and ripped apart a kiosk selling pork.

Noah and the Dinosaurs

One rule of fundamentalists is that they hate to be interviewed. William Dembski doesn’t. He has a long face and glasses, wears knife-edged slacks and sober ties; he mixes fashion sense with a relaxed wonkishness that announces dedication to reason rather than the Bible-thumping fanaticism he’s been accused

Culture

Denis Johnson, Poet of the Fallen World

“I’m kinda like Ozzy Osbourne,” says Denis Johnson in a distracted moment, explaining that he might not remember to call me back. “My wife was just telling me that.”

Idomeneo in Berlin

Remember the scandal over “Idomeneo” in Berlin? Remember how Islamists went mad when the Deutsche Oper decided to stage a controversial production of Mozart’s opera, unleashing a storm of violence? (Remember how none of that happened?)

The Invention of Love

The last time one of Tom Stoppard’s plays had its American premiere in San Francisco, last spring, I wrote that it “wouldn’t be above Stoppard to spin a whole script around a minor and meaningless point of grammar.”

Pirates

Pirates on the Migrant Trail

Inside the East African migrant corridor, where Somalis (and others) escape to Europe, former pirate financiers are also busy.

Sending in the Marines

NATO, officially, is pleased to have pirates to fight. A mission against sea bandits in the Indian Ocean is not mission creep for the trans-Atlantic alliance, if you talk to its leaders

Battleships Off Somalia

Navies are expensive, and sending warships to Somalia is a hugely inefficient way to fight pirates, considering that the number of successful attacks off the Somali coast this year

Nazis

The Litfaß Polka

Berlin’s Litfass columns and the Nazis: a brief history of anti-clutter campaigns.

Ghosts of Dresden

The Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945 destroyed the baroque center of what Pfc. Kurt Vonnegut called, in a letter home from Germany, “possibly the world’s most beautiful city.”

How to Film Nazis

The big surprise last week during the Berlin Film Festival was a disastrous premiere for a long-awaited feature film, Jud Süß — Rise and Fall, by a talented German director named Oskar Roehler.

Surfing, Etc.

One Hundred Years of Hanging Ten

About a surf pioneer from the author’s hometown, excerpted from Sweetness and Blood.

It’s Called Soccer

Americans live on what amounts to an enormous island, defended on two shores by the sea, and we’ve evolved a few marsupial traditions that nobody else understands.

Tilting at Turbines (in the Severn River)

The morning was clear and cold, with frost on the church steeple and the cemetery grass. I had a quick English breakfast at a white-cloth table, in my wetsuit, and drove to Newnham, a village on the Severn River in Gloucestershire, parking near the White Hart Inn.

Other Prose

This Will Kill That

What if technology makes reading old-fashioned?

The Curse of El Rojo

I’d packed the car lightly — a bag of clothes, a bag of cassette tapes, a backpack of books, a few essential tools.

BOOM

True story about a bomb threat aboard a United flight in the months before 9/11.


Michael Scott Moore is a literary journalist and a novelist, author of a comic novel about L.A., Too Much of Nothing, as well as a travel book about surfing, Sweetness and Blood, which was named a best book of 2010 by The Economist. He was kidnapped in 2012 on a reporting trip to Somalia and held hostage for two and a half years. The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about that ordeal, is out now from HarperCollins.

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VIDEOS

My review of Ingrid Betancourt's first novel, The Blue Line, is up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

While I was in Somalia a man called Geoff Carter wrote about a picture of Indian men surfing on stand-up boards around 1800 off Chennai, which altered the known history of surfing a bit, even though the picture was hiding in plain sight at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

The men from the Naham 3 are all friends of mine — a crew of 26 sailors from southeast Asia who worked on a tuna long-liner flagged in Oman but owned by a company in Taiwan, which abandoned them after Somali pirates hijacked the ship in 2012.

A version of what happened in Somalia is available as a Long Read at The Guardian, and, in somewhat shorter form, for German readers, in Der Spiegel. It’s not even near complete. Enormous parts of the story have been left untold.

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