Wednesday, June 17, 2009

National Socialism and Higher Education

Today's ran an interesting piece reviewing The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower: Complicity and Conflict on American Campuses, a new book by Stephen H. Norwood (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Norwood has generated some controversy, as any discussion (rather than mere condemnation) of Nazi Germany will do. While I was writing my PhD thesis, my research in social memory theory raised questions about how Hitler and the Third Reich are remembered in American and European memorial frameworks. Specifically, I'm fascinated that Hitler and symbols evoked with him (the swastika, but also the terms Nazi, National Socialism, fascism, and so on) are associated in Western memory with evil, even pure evil.

I certainly wouldn't want to suggest that this association isn't appropriate; Hitler—and to a greater extent the general populace who followed him—make vivid the potentials of human depravity and wickedness (though Hitler isn't as historically unique as we too easily think). But this association (again, appropriate as it certainly is) between Hitler and evil is socially constructed, and this social construction is what fascinates me. In other words, there was a time when neither National Socialism, Adolf Hitler, fascism, the swastika, or anything else associated with the Third Reich automatically conjured images and feelings of evil, either in Europe or in the United States. Undoubtedly some voices within European and American political discourse in the 1930s always saw the National Socialist movement as dangerous; but the dangers posed by the German state were topics of debate rather than the foregone conclusions that they are today, conclusions that motivate visceral, almost primitive emotions of anger and outrage.

So what changes, whether historical, social, cultural, or whatever, explain this change in the place and function of fascism in Western social memories? Is it simply the historical development that the Allied nations didn't know the extent of the Third Reich's pugnaciousness, and in the course of liberating Western Europe we learned the extent of the awful truth? If so, we might believe that everyone in 1930 America would have agreed with us today about the evils of fascist Germany, if only they knew about Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau, and other details of the Final Solution. But is that really all that's wrong with fascism? Was Hitler evil only because he killed a lot of people, or is fascism reprehensible on a more fundamental level? (hint: Yes.) And if so, how do we evaluate American and European institutions that admired, valued, and advocated National Socialist structures and/or policies other than the murderous ones?

This last seems to be the question driving Norwood's book. I think I'll have to order a copy, as soon as I'm given permission to spend more of the family's resources on books.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What changed the perception of the Nazi's was the publication of the photos and the documentation of the evidence of the death camps. The images convinced everyone who saw them that they were in the presence of pure evil.

Of course there was already present in the consciousness of the West the conviction that human beings were created in the image of God and therefore valuable. The clash between the concept of the image of God and the visual images of twisted, wasted corpses, convinced the public that whatever produced this is evil.

Last summer I was researching the Nazi policy on environmental issues--and in some ways they were pretty progressive--I'm reluctant to say.

But I'll leave it at this: maybe if the Nazis had not tortured and murdered so many innocent people for purely arbitrary reasons, maybe they would not have been so bad.


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