Saturday, June 22, 2013

Godwin's Law Redux

There is a constant drumbeat from the right comparing Obama to Hitler. I mean, let's ignore the fact that Obama's signature legislation is a method to ensure that everybody can go to a hospital when they're sick without ending up living out of their car. Because that's exactly the same as slaughtering six million Jews and attempting to take over Europe in a bloody campaign of destruction.

Yeah, let's ignore that. Instead, let's ask ourselves why every single time that somebody disagrees with a politician, it's become de rigueur to compare them to Hitler? Why is the litmus test for political arguments the ability to reduce your enemy to the level of the worst dictator in history? Last week, I pointed out an unintentional violation of Godwin's Law, but let's consider the issue a little, shall we?

Following World War One, Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. This treaty included Article 231, which is commonly called "the guilt clause":
The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.
Using this as a legal basis, Germany was forced to pay reparations to the rest of Europe. Unfortunately, Germany didn't think they'd lost the war - the German High Command told their citizens that the Army had never been beaten in the field, and the defeat was actually due to actions by civilians, particularly Jews, Socialists and Communists (the Dolchstosslegende, or "Stabbed-in-the-Back Legend").

That's right - Hitler didn't start the rumor that Jews were destroying the economy. Antisemitism was well-established in the German culture long before he was born.

So the Weimar Republic resisted the reparations, and defaulted on payments quite frequently. The French and Belgians, realizing that the Germans were able to pay and simply weren't, eventually invaded and occupied the Ruhr valley, which was the center of coal, iron and steel production in Germany.

Take this reduction in raw materials for the Germans and the resulting reduction in cash-flow, and add to it the fact that the German government funded a passive resistance movement among the citizens of the Ruhr by simply printing more money. This led to the famed hyper-inflation of post-WWI Germany.

Technically, the inflation started when the Kaiser decided to fund WWI by borrowing money instead of taxing his people and using his own fortune: the value of the German mark fell from 4 to 9 per US dollar. But the war ended in 1919; by November 1923, the American dollar was worth 4,210,500,000,000 German marks. Or in more concrete terms, in 1919 a loaf of bread cost 1 mark; by 1923, a loaf of bread cost 100 billion marks.

This was the situation when Adolph Hitler rose into power. During the course of his leadership, he brought his people back from the brink of ruin and ensured they could eat.

People want for life to be simple. They want their enemies to wholly evil, so that there's no question that "destroying them" is a bad thing. The reductive power of the human mind wants those we disagree with to have no redeeming features. Homophobes want gays to practice pedophilia and beastiality. Radical conservatives want liberals to be fascists and totalitarian dictators. Radical liberals want conservatives to be inhuman monsters who laugh as children starve in the streets.

The reality is that people are more complex than that. But to see that, to understand the forces that drive someone, is to understand that perhaps evil is not something simple. Perhaps evil and good are in all of us. That bad things are done by good people, and good things are done by bad people, and the world isn't the simple place we want it to be.

Would you like to see the most frightening picture of Adolph Hitler ever taken?

Hitler, holding hands with a little girl and walking in a park. Hitler loved children. He loved animals: he was a confirmed vegetarian and was opposed to vivisection.

Were you aware that Eva Braun took home movies?

Hitler was a human being. It challenges your worldview: he should be a monster, pounding on desks and ordering people to their deaths. But he lived, he loved, he laughed, he played with children.

He also destroyed much of Europe, threw the world into war, and established concentration camps where 11 million people were killed.

Perhaps "good" and "evil" aren't the simple concepts that some people want them to be.

No comments: