Nazism, slavery, empire: can countries learn from national evil?

SteveJ

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It is too easy, philosopher Susan Neiman argues, to believe that as soon as the second world war ended, Germany set about the process of atoning for its crimes. It simply isn’t so: after all, 10% of the country’s population had been members of the Nazi party, “and the most shocking, but also important thing, is they were not the uneducated masses. The majority had academic degrees. We like to think that education provides immunity to racist and fascist ideology. And it doesn’t.”

What, then, heralded the start of Germans en masse beginning to face the past? Although some of it can be explained generationally, she replies, as people died off, “that won’t do the trick, as we’ve seen in the United States. And as we’ve seen in Britain where, you know, time has gone by, and people like falling back on national myths of greatness.” In part, she believes the Auschwitz trials marked a moment of change in which the burgeoning of mass travel connected ordinary Germans with other worldviews and there was an emergence of books by Holocaust survivors. She also notes the importance of 1968, “a moment for confronting parents and teachers … and there was a sense of a sudden real wave of disgust and rebellion: what have you done?”
Neiman's mother campaigned for the desegregation of Atlanta’s public schools – an activity that earned her, as Neiman recalls, several late-night phone calls from the Ku Klux Klan. One hot summer’s day, her mother invited an African American friend and her children over for the afternoon, and Neiman asked if they could all go to the outdoor swimming pool. No, came the answer. The lake, then? Still no. Imploring and questioning did not change the answer. In the end, the children played beneath the garden sprinklers; only years later did Neiman realise that it would have been against the law for them to have swum together.
More:
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/sep/13/susan-neiman-interview-learning-from-the-germans
 

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Can't say I share the author's optimism about possible containment of the far right in eastern Germany.
 

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Many Germans after the war saw themselves as victims. It took them a long time to properly address National Socialism. It was basically all blamed on Hitler and other leading Nazis, and they constructed a narrative that positioned themselves as victims of the sins of Nazism as much as anyone else was. So basically the attitude was not one that denied German guilt but it overlooked the people's own complicity within the Nazi system and stressed that they had suffered as a result of it as much as anyone else. Although, Jewish suffering was actually acknowledged early on (more so at the official level than among the public, but it was accepted more than people probably expect), especially due to Adenauer recognising that it was a necessary step towards redeeming Germany's image abroad. I can remember when I studied this that there was a ton of ridiculous quotes from leading German figures and the public alike in the postwar years that equated Germans themselves to victims of the Holocaust.

Also, I'm surprised that the article doesn't make the link between Nazi policy and the US race laws of the Jim Crow era. It's often overlooked, somewhat conveniently, that the latter were a blueprint for the racial policies of Nazism.
 

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Many Germans after the war saw themselves as victims. It took them a long time to properly address National Socialism. It was basically all blamed on Hitler and other leading Nazis, and they constructed a narrative that positioned themselves as victims of the sins of Nazism as much as anyone else was. So basically the attitude was not one that denied German guilt but it overlooked the people's own complicity within the Nazi system and stressed that they had suffered as a result of it as much as anyone else. Although, Jewish suffering was actually acknowledged early on (more so at the official level than among the public, but it was accepted more than people probably expect), especially due to Adenauer recognising that it was a necessary step towards redeeming Germany's image abroad. I can remember when I studied this that there was a ton of ridiculous quotes from leading German figures and the public alike in the postwar years that equated Germans themselves to victims of the Holocaust.

Also, I'm surprised that the article doesn't make the link between Nazi policy and the US race laws of the Jim Crow era. It's often overlooked, somewhat conveniently, that the latter were a blueprint for the racial policies of Nazism.

Well, the first country "invaded" by the Nazis was the German Republic itself. The 1933 elections are still the ultimate cautionary tale for developed democratic countries. And making sure the Army remains loyal to the Constitution is also mandatory.

In the end, WWII was a direct consequence of 1918-1919, but as I've said, 1933 taught us that "populism and extremism" are the first step towards totalitarism.
 
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SteveJ

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Please understand that I have little to no expertise on this subject, and that the following is merely an opinion: I find it very difficult to blame the mass of the German people for Nazism's horrors. They were essentially hostages of their own government...as we all are, to a degree.
 
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Casanova85

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Please understand that I have little to no expertise on this subject, and that the following is merely an opinion: I find it very difficult to blame the mass of the German people for Naziism's horrors. They were essentially hostages of their own government...as we all are, to a degree.
My opinion: a lot of current SJW writers and journalists make the mistake of linking the rise of Nazism with the current post-2001 islamophobia and anti-immigration rants (not truly racism, but pure anti-immigration).

The rise of Nazism is the culmination of the totalitarian philosophies and pseudo-intellectual racist theories of the 19th Century, in an era when democracy, as we know it now, was still a very fragile or even hated concept by most of the planet.

In 1933, a very young republic with a huge inferiority complex (Weimar) made the noob mistake of voting for a blatantly extremist, radical, racist, violent and anti-democratic party, the Nazi Party.

Why did they vote for Hitler? Because the germans at that time didn't know better. Simple as that. There wasn't any democratic experience in 1933. Freedom made them feel dizzy and insecure, especially after the 1929 worldwide crisis. At that time, the UK, the USA and France knew the difference between a) a democratic political system (centered around a Constitution, laws, an elected leader and a Parliament) and b) a liberal/free market economy. The first is sacred, eternal. The second is a whole different concept, an abstract live animal that sometimes dies (1929) and has to be reset (Roosevelt's New Deal).
But Germany back in 1929-1934 made no difference. For them, if the economy had collapsed that meant the political system had also failed and had to be changed from scratch. That must sound monstruous to a democratic person (either in 1933 or in 2019) but as I've said, germans at the time didn't know better.

The democratic politicians of the Weimar republic, who secretly or openly had opposed the old Prussian and Imperial privileges back in 1871-1918, were hunted down, killed or exiled or forced into concentration camps in 1934-1938.

Western Germany was the comeback of those democratic politicians (those exiled or who had survived) and in my opinion they are still the very best politicians Germany has ever produced, because they finally taught the population, with the guidance of the UK/USA, the benefits of a flexible economy and a solid democratic system. In the end "Weimar won". Up yours, Adolf.
 
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SteveJ

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Hey, I was stupid first!
 

Nucks

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Please understand that I have little to no expertise on this subject, and that the following is merely an opinion: I find it very difficult to blame the mass of the German people for Nazism's horrors. They were essentially hostages of their own government...as we all are, to a degree.
It's more complex than that. Yes, the Nazi's instituted a terror state to cow the population and bully it into maintaining the status-quo. However, the general climate in Germany, and to be honest, much of the world at the time, was open to the ideas that the Nazi's were pushing. Racism was systemic in much of Europe, especially antisemitism. I often view what happened with Hitler, to be the logical conclusion to the previous 200-300 years of rising ethno-nationalism. In Germany and the German states and principalities before the unification, the "Jewish" question was nothing new. It was only a matter of time until you had someone say "why not just kill them all".

You might ask a Nazi supporter/voter in Germany if what Hitler did is what they wanted. They'd probably say no. However remember this. Hitler was wildly popular with enough of the population until Stalingrad. He was almost a messianic figure when everything he touched, turned to gold. Yes Hitler stole power once he got enough of it to get away with the theft, but, he was put into that position democratically to begin with. People liked his message. It's not like he was hiding it. His speeches, his book, all of these things said what he intended to do, perhaps not explicitly, but explicitly enough.

So no, I don't think it's really fair to absolve Germany as a whole for what the Nazi's did. The German people empowered them. Elected them. Fought in their armies. Built their weapons. Grew their food. Yes, dissenters were brutally suppressed, but enough of the country supported the Nazi's that it was irrelevant. "I didn't know" isn't a good defense, when your vote, or lack of action results in 50+ million people dying in Europe.
 

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So no, I don't think it's really fair to absolve Germany as a whole for what the Nazi's did. The German people empowered them. Elected them. Fought in their armies. Built their weapons. Grew their food. Yes, dissenters were brutally suppressed, but enough of the country supported the Nazi's that it was irrelevant. "I didn't know" isn't a good defense, when your vote, or lack of action results in 50+ million people dying in Europe.
I don't think adult people (not Nazi party members) who voted for Hitler in 1933 wanted (another) world war. They willingly sacrificed, as I've said, a free democratic system for a dictatorship that would end corruption and would improve the economy and production. A far-right version of soviet communism.
There's a difference between 1929-1938 and 1939-1945. Only a few top politicians in the UK (Sir Winston Churchill included) thought the Nazis would ally with Japan and eventually invade Poland and trigger another WW.
 
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SteveJ

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Yes, dissenters were brutally suppressed, but enough of the country supported the Nazi's that it was irrelevant.
I hear you but the above is often glossed over, and it's too easy not to imagine oneself in the public's position. Instead, imagine a climate in which you can't trust your neighbour - or even your own child - not to report you to the authorities; how, in that unenviable & life-threatening position, would an effectively large mass movement of dissent and potential regime change even get started? It's too easy for us to be brave from a distance of time and personal circumstance.
 

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Please understand that I have little to no expertise on this subject, and that the following is merely an opinion: I find it very difficult to blame the mass of the German people for Nazism's horrors. They were essentially hostages of their own government...as we all are, to a degree.
Your reality is whatever is in front of your eyes. If that narrative is effectively controlled by bad actors, you can be led to believe whatever crazy opinion is set upon you.
 

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I don't think adult people (not Nazi party members) who voted for Hitler in 1933 wanted (another) world war. There's a difference between 1929-1938 and 1939-1945.
Perhaps not. Yet, when Hitler rolled into the Sudetenland, when he rolled into Poland, when he rolled into France, and on and on, when he invaded and conquered these countries easily, the people were happy, behind him, and over joyed. He was a messianic figure for much of Germany. It wasn't until they ran into wall in the USSR that suddenly large numbers of people started to question what he was doing.

I also think you might discount the desire for revenge among a part of the country. To redeem themselves. You've got to consider that a sizeable portion of the country were looney tunes far right ethno-nationalist, even if they were not card carrying Nazi's.
 

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I hear you but the above is often glossed over, and it's too easy not to imagine oneself in the public's position. Instead, imagine a climate in which you can't trust your neighbour - or even your own child - not to report you to the authorities; how, in that unenviable & life-threatening position, would an effectively large mass movement of dissent and potential regime change even get started? It's too easy for us to be brave from a distance of time and personal circumstance.
By not putting it into power in the first place.

Like I said "I didn't know" isn't a good defense when 50+ million people died as a direct result of your vote, or lack of a vote, or lack of action before it was "too late".

Also, let's be serious here. The majority of Germany supported Hitler after he seized power right up until he started losing in the USSR. He may not have been elected by a majority initially, and yes he stole power once he was there, but after that? The majority supported him so long as things were going well.
 

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Perhaps not. Yet, when Hitler rolled into the Sudetenland, when he rolled into Poland, when he rolled into France, and on and on, when he invaded and conquered these countries easily, the people were happy, behind him, and over joyed. He was a messianic figure for much of Germany. It wasn't until they ran into wall in the USSR that suddenly large numbers of people started to question what he was doing.

I also think you might discount the desire for revenge among a part of the country. To redeem themselves. You've got to consider that a sizeable portion of the country were looney tunes far right ethno-nationalist, even if they were not card carrying Nazi's.
In 1933, I think they mostly wanted a) the Versailles Treaty gone (or altered), b) the jewish people out of the government and the economy, c) a state-controlled economy (since UK/US capitalism had collapsed).

I think nobody (civilians I mean) wanted a war, at least not until 1938, and certainly not against France/UK. And certainly not the Holocaust.
 

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Something a bit off topic but I wanted to find out how to contact Ian Watkins and goad him. I genuinely want to torment him periodically. I don’t think of him everyday but when I feel like I need to take shit verbally I can send it to Ian.
 

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In 1933, a very young republic with a huge inferiority complex (Weimar) made the noob mistake of voting for a blatantly extremist, radical, racist, violent and anti-democratic party, the Nazi Party.

But Germany back in 1929-1934 made no difference. For them, if the economy had collapsed that meant the political system had also failed and had to be changed from scratch. That must sound monstruous to a democratic person (either in 1933 or in 2019) but as I've said, germans at the time didn't know better.
I reckon a lot of people would say that about politics/economic collapses in 2019.

Worth mentioning just for context If it hasn’t already, in the March 33 elections hitler/the nazis didn’t win a majority of the vote. Don’t think they broke 44%. They’d actually lost seats in the previous election (I think November 32).
 

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Worth mentioning just for context If it hasn’t already, in the March 33 elections hitler/the nazis didn’t win a majority of the vote. Don’t think they broke 44%. They’d actually lost seats in the previous election (I think November 32).
Yes, that too. Friggin' Von Papen and a dying-clueless Hindenburg made it possible. Hitler didn't even have a 51% of popular support. Thousands already left Germany in 34-35.
 

SteveJ

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By not putting it into power in the first place.

Like I said "I didn't know" isn't a good defense when 50+ million people died as a direct result of your vote, or lack of a vote, or lack of action before it was "too late".

Also, let's be serious here. The majority of Germany supported Hitler after he seized power right up until he started losing in the USSR. He may not have been elected by a majority initially, and yes he stole power once he was there, but after that? The majority supported him so long as things were going well.
Much of what you've written makes sense to me. I wonder, though, how much of that support was sincere rather than obligated? After all, we've seen how 'overwhelming support' manifests itself under totalitarian rule: multi-minute ovations for leaders' speeches...and God help you if you're the first to stop clapping. I fear we're just not objective enough in our critique of the German public's behaviour; I've even read British historians state that 'the German madness' was patently visible in centuries-old paintings, in the faces of background figures in the pictures. This seems to me to be selective, comforting, self-congratulatory and erroneous 'wisdom' after the event. For instance, we could just as easily note the 'madness' of British masses in Hogarth's Gin Lane (1751) or contemporary photos of Brexit demonstrators...
 
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Charlie Foley

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In 1933, I think they mostly wanted a) the Versailles Treaty gone (or altered), b) the jewish people out of the government and the economy, c) a state-controlled economy (since UK/US capitalism had collapsed).

I think nobody (civilians I mean) wanted a war, at least not until 1938, and certainly not against France/UK. And certainly not the Holocaust.
Sorry for double quoting you but certainly there was not the same degree of National celebration or pride (not sure what is the right word to use here) in 1939 as there was on 1914. Scars of the first WW remained.

Also should be pointed out the level of anti Semitism and reactionary far right sentiment in France at the point. Several populist or counter revolutionary figures. There are threads from the likes of Maurras and Barrès that gave much shape to fascist or Nazi ideology and continued on to FN in the late 90s and today. Can also look at Boulangism re populism, though his views on Germany probably distinguish him to a degree he pulled a broad spectrum of supporters. What’s more, back in university we spent a lot of time looking at how Pétain saw his relationship with hitler as an opportunity as much as a “doing what needed to be done to save france.” When the Nazis first came in in 1940 there were french anti semitism laws that were more anti Semitic than those in place at that time in Germany.

Sorry for poor structure and lack of sources I’m on my phone with dodgy WiFi!
 

Charlie Foley

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Yes, that too. Friggin' Von Papen and a dying-clueless Hindenburg made it possible. Hitler didn't even have a 51% of popular support. Thousands already left Germany in 34-35.
Yeah. There’s that famous zentrum poster from I think 1930 I often look at and think about. A real misunderstanding of the forces they were working against (and with to an extent) even though their own numbers held steady in 1930

 

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There was not the same degree of National celebration or pride (not sure what is the right word to use here) in 1939 as there was on 1914. Scars of the first WW remained.

Also should be pointed out the level of anti Semitism and reactionary far right sentiment in France at the point
. Several populist or counter revolutionary figures. There are threads from the likes of Maurras and Barrès that gave much shape to fascist or Nazi ideology and continued on to FN in the late 90s and today. Can also look at Boulangism re populism, though his views on Germany probably distinguish him to a degree he pulled a broad spectrum of supporters. What’s more, back in university we spent a lot of time looking at how Pétain saw his relationship with hitler as an opportunity as much as a “doing what needed to be done to save france.” When the Nazis first came in in 1940 there were french anti semitism laws that were more anti Semitic than those in place at that time in Germany.
Very good points!

And let's not forget the anti-UK french wave in the '20s and '30s, especially the Navy.

Or the phobia against anything european in the USA in the '20s. And the racist immigrantion laws of that era.
 

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I think nobody (civilians I mean) wanted a war, at least not until 1938, and certainly not against France/UK. And certainly not the Holocaust.
No they didn’t want war (especially having quite recently lost a big one), and they might not have wanted the Holocaust as it happened, but there were plenty of normal people who were just fine with the early Nazi plans of anti-Jewish laws denying them of property, marriage rights, employment opportunities and all the rest of it. Plenty of them were just fine too with the Jews being rounded up, forced out of their homes at gunpoint and thrown into ghettos.

None of that shit could have happened without significant public support, and that support was certainly there. It was only after the war when suddenly no-one had seen anything or supported anything.

Then again it’s not like other countries have anything to be proud about, anti-semitism was just as rife in the other Western countries. Germany just happened to the one that got the authoritarian government willing to take it to its vile conclusion.
 

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There were plenty of normal people who were just fine with the early Nazi plans of anti-Jewish laws denying them of property, marriage rights, employment opportunities and all the rest of it. Plenty of them were just fine too with the Jews being rounded up, forced out of their homes at gunpoint and thrown into ghettos.

None of that shit could have happened without significant public support, and that support was certainly there.
More like the muscle of the SA and then the SS/Gestapo. Even if half of the population was concerned or even disgusted about the situation of the jews in 1934-39, they were too scared and powerless. I'm talking about concentration camps or worse (murder-"forced" suicide).
 

George Owen

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More like the muscle of the SA and then the SS/Gestapo. Even if half of the population was concerned or even disgusted about the situation of the jews in 1934-39, they were too scared and powerless. I'm talking about concentration camps or worse (murder-"forced" suicide).
Exactly. Would be like saying people under dictatorships are to blame for that.
 

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Exactly. Would be like saying people under dictatorships are to blame for that.
And let's not forget the fact that the actual Holocaust (the systematic mass murder) was a secret enterprise done in occupied Poland or Silesia. Relatively far from Berlin and far away from western Germany. Most of the truth was discovered actually in 1945 by everyone, even german military personnel.
 

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And let's not forget the fact that the actual Holocaust (the systematic mass murder) was a secret enterprise done in occupied Poland or Silesia. Relatively far from Berlin and far away from western Germany. Most of the truth was discovered actually in 1945 by everyone, even german military personnel.
This is where the whole ‘we didn’t know!’ theory falls to pieces with even a cursory examination. The anti-Jewish laws were not secret. Jews lived in towns, villages and cities all across Germany. What exactly do you think normal Germans thought was happening when their neighbours were being driven violently out of their homes, beaten in the streets, forced to wear yellow stars and then pushed into ghettos and onto packed trains like cattle?

The German public could claim for the most part that they didn’t know about the extermination camps. That was indeed kept relatively quiet (although the scale and the number of German soldiers involved made actual secrecy a nonsense), but all the violence, theft, murder and ethnic cleansing that led up to it was completely public and largely accepted/supported.
 

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One of the reasons for my stance in this thread is that I think it does us no favours to view the Germans as (negatively) 'special' in their passivity & their support for an unspeakable regime. Despite the excellent arguments against my position, I just worry over our own potential reaction to a government's campaign against, say, Muslim people (for instance). Hopefully times have changed enough so that any such campaign would fail to win over the public - I trust this is so - but I cannot be absolutely sure. This uncertainty saddens me.
 

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One of the reasons for my stance in this thread is that I think it does us no favours to view the Germans as (negatively) 'special' in their passivity & their support for an unspeakable regime. Despite the excellent arguments against my position, I just worry over our own potential reaction to a government's campaign against, say, Muslim people (for instance). Hopefully times have changed enough so that any such campaign would fail to win over the public - I trust this is so - but I cannot be absolutely sure. This uncertainty saddens me.
I think the main thing is to separate ‘negatively’ and ‘special’. I have no doubt at all that if a fascist regime had started in the UK or France instead, the public compliance would have been the same.
 

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One of the reasons for my stance in this thread is that I think it does us no favours to view the Germans as (negatively) 'special' in their passivity & their support for an unspeakable regime
I think most reasonable people recognize that, under the right circumstances, Nazism could have emerged from a number of European contexts. Fascism had mass appeal across the continent.
 

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This is where the whole ‘we didn’t know!’ theory falls to pieces with even a cursory examination. The anti-Jewish laws were not secret. Jews lived in towns, villages and cities all across Germany. What exactly do you think normal Germans thought was happening when their neighbours were being driven violently out of their homes, beaten in the streets, forced to wear yellow stars and then pushed into ghettos and onto packed trains like cattle?

The German public could claim for the most part that they didn’t know about the extermination camps. That was indeed kept relatively quiet (although the scale and the number of German soldiers involved made actual secrecy a nonsense), but all the violence, theft, murder and ethnic cleansing that led up to it was completely public and largely accepted/supported.
Plus a significant part of the Holocaust didn't happen in death camps, especially during the earlier stages of Operation Barbarossa, but through mass executions carried out behind the frontlines. The rather small and specialized SS Einsatzgruppen took the lead in these operations, but regular Wehrmacht units were also involved, directly and indirectly. If one realizes the scale of massacres in the wake of the German advance, and the logistics and cooperation required, a large number of German men were either directly involved in these genocidal activities, must have witnessed them, or must have gotten word of them.

Then there were the vast "regular" war crimes of executions, spontaneous murders, rape, looting and burning, forced prostitution, and so on.
 

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I think most reasonable people recognize that, under the right circumstances, Nazism could have emerged from a number of European contexts. Fascism had mass appeal across the continent.
Yet the fascist societies of Italy and Spain, for all their brutality, neither reached the barbaric heights of the German version, nor its temporary grade of social uniformity. I absolutely agree with your statement when you use the term Fascism - but I also think there are good reasons not to use Fascism and Nazism interchangeably. I can't spell it out entirely, but central traits of the latter seem rather particular to German society's path into modernity to me.

Of course it also depends on what you mean with "the right circumstances", and how far back you'd start out with a speculative alternative historical development.
 

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Yet the fascist societies of Italy and Spain, for all their brutality, neither reached the barbaric heights of the German version, nor its temporary grade of social uniformity.
I know it's a clumsy analogy but just look how the Republican Party's main players have fallen in line behind Trump and his godawful policies; and maybe that's all it takes for consequent horror to take hold, as it did with Hitler and Stalin: a cult of (particularly malign) personality, unquestioned leadership, and expedient politics beyond the standard restrictions of statesmanship.
 

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Yet the fascist societies of Italy and Spain, for all their brutality, neither reached the barbaric heights of the German version, nor its temporary grade of social uniformity. I absolutely agree with your statement when you use the term Fascism - but I also think there are good reasons not to use Fascism and Nazism interchangeably. I can't spell it out entirely, but central traits of the latter seem rather particular to German society's path into modernity to me.

Of course it also depends on what you mean with "the right circumstances", and how far back you'd start out with a speculative alternative historical development.
I’ll defer to you on this, not quite my area. But would be interested to hear more on the bolded - it’s something I’ve come across before with vague references to the counter-Enlightenment/Romanticism, etc. which seem to have had their intellectual home in Germany.

As for the right circumstances? Obviously it’s impossible to say anything for certain when dealing in counter-factuals, but it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me to speculate that if the Great War had played out differently, a defeated, humiliated France in 1918 might have produced its own regional variant of what I clumsily referred to a Nazism above.