It has become unfashionable to talk seriously about Hitler and the Nazis. Unfashionable is of course an unusual word to apply to discussing Hitler and all that he implies. Insensitive, some might say. There’s a sense in some quarters that it shouldn’t be talked about at all because it was a period of events so horrific, so aberrant that it simply cannot be discussed or understood—nothing is appropriate. Conversely, in other places, the sense is rather that this has all been gone over too many times as it is. That it happened a long time ago. That we’ve learned everything there was to learn from it and it could never happen again. In fact, to wonder aloud if it could happen again is likely to attract the withering scorn of pragmatists and hard-nosed realists who have long since moved on and are now engaged in the serious business of taking ideology out of public life and implementing policies based on ‘what works’.
To invoke the Holocaust in discussion today is to invite simultaneous accusations of trivialising and overweening sincerity. This fatigue is best expressed by Godwin’s Law, which asserts that the longer any internet discussion goes on, the more likely it is that someone will invoke Hitler. Once this happens, the discussion is usually declared ‘Godwinned’ and shut down.
If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity.
For all sorts of reasons, that period of history is a painful memory and we would prefer to acknowledge it without having to think about it. In other words, we would like to forget about it. Indeed, the process of social forgetting is well underway. We recall the symbols, the people and the numbers of course. The Swastikas. The yellow stars. Hitler. Stalin. Churchill. Roosevelt. Truman. 60 million dead. 6 million Jews. The World War II mythology lives on too in books, art, movies, stories and games of all kinds.
But how much do we really remember? For instance, it’s hard to imagine any sort of coherent understanding of the twentieth century that doesn’t include nationalism, but it is possible today in some places to be a student of the history of ideas and remain completely ignorant of nationalism as a political force. Furthermore, do we remember that eugenics was not just a Nazi fad but a worldwide preoccupation first championed in the US? Indeed, coerced or compulsory sterilisations were still taking place in the USA as recently as the 1970s.
One of the aims of this publication is to rehabilitate memory. It seems to me that we have forgotten a huge wealth of important things, and, more distressingly, ways of thinking and talking about important things.
One thing in particular we seem to have forgotten about is evil, which has largely been banished from the public discourse. One can still hear the word itself deployed fairly often of course, but almost always simply as a way of explaining away something we don’t understand and don’t want to.
If we want to understand the world and the people in it, we cannot ignore the darkest side of humanity. This it not to deny hope or optimism their essential place, it is simply to acknowledge that for hope and optimism to have meaning, both must spring from a deep awareness of the tragic aspect of humanity. Continue Reading →