The Wayback Machine
Censoring Nazism before it began ... or begins
It’s a famous stoner sesh debate: what if you could go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler before his rise to power? Would it be OK to kill a baby if you could stop World War II by doing so? Is it OK to kill one innocent life to save millions? And could you stop bogarting the joint and pass it over this way?
These discussions, like many THC-fueled rambles, miss an important point. We don’t have to kill baby Hitler, we simply have to stop him from becoming Der Führer. And one way to do that is by nipping his rise to power in the bud.
After some consultation with my friend Mr. Peabody (and an edible I found in my drawer), I’ve decided to take a trip back in time. We may not be able to get Hitler into art school. But let’s see if we can shut him down while he’s still just another wild-eyed radical ranting in the street.
Set the Wayback Machine, Sherman. We’re off to the Weimar Republic.
European laws against hate speech and incitement took off after the French Revolution and the Paris Commune. Once the rabble started wheeling out the guillotines, the political classes started working to shut down rabble-rousers. Generally anti-dissident rules were pushed by conservative parties, while Leftists and center-right politicians favored freedom of speech and the press. This shifted when reactionaries began moving away from royalism to ethnic nationalism.
In March 1893 a number of German Jewish intellectuals founded the Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens (Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith). The Centralverein’s stated purpose was to defend German Jews against those who “slander, libel, or injure us in our capacity as Jews.”
Toward that end, CV lawyers kept a close eye on anti-Semitic publications that might run afoul of German laws, and provided legal assistance to Jews who had been subjected to anti-Semitic abuse verbally or in print.
The Centralverein became increasingly busy in the wake of the Great War as angry Germans blamed Jewish perfidy for their loss. This sentiment became much louder as the Versailles reparations led to the hyperinflation of 1922-23.
In November 1923 Adolf Hitler led an abortive “Beer Hall Putsch” against the Weimar Republic. Sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for treason, Hitler was released after 9 months and soon published the book he wrote while incarcerated, Mein Kampf.
The CV and the Weimar government both saw the NSDAP as an existential threat. Many NSDAP sympathizers were fined for libel and a few of the loudest even wound up behind bars. NSDAP spokesman Joseph Goebbels served time for anti-Jewish rhetoric. Julius Streicher and Karl Holz were jailed for articles that ran in their paper, Der Stürmer.
Dozens of Nazi newspapers were shut down. From 1925 to 1927 Hitler was banned from speaking publicly in Germany. Weimar officials were well aware of the threat the NSDAP posed to the Republic. They took steps to neutralize that threat — the same steps we use today in our efforts to stop “extremists.”
For those without a Wayback Machine, here’s a spoiler: they failed. And for those with a Wayback Machine: set the dial back to 1917 and see how well similar strategies worked for the Czarists against the Communist menace. There is debate over whether censorship efforts helped these groups more than harmed them. There is no debate that these suppression efforts failed spectacularly.
Instead of arguing about how we can shut down totalitarian rhetoric, why don’t we turn our attention instead to how totalitarians come to power.
Tsar Nicholas II was unpopular from the beginning of his reign in 1896. After Russia was defeated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5), popular unrest forced him to accept a Duma (legislative assembly) that became a hotbed of anti-Tsarism. When Russia suffered a second ignominious defeat in the Great War combined with an economic crisis, the people had had enough. The royal family ended up dead and, after a brief power struggle, Lenin became the leader of a new Soviet Union.
Communism was also popular in another country which had just lost the Great War, Germany. The White Russians who fought against Communism wound up emigrating to the West or to a gulag. Germans wound up following an Ethnic Nationalist path instead and rebooted Kaiser Wilhelm’s Second Reich for another crack at Great War.
In both Germany and Russia power coalesced around charismatic strongmen. As a result modern thinkers tend to assume that totalitarianism needs a magnetic Fearless Leader. But this isn’t always the case. Setting the Wayback Machine to Revolutionary France we find that Marat was “short in stature, deformed in person, and hideous in face” and Robespierre was infamous for his lengthy and boring speeches.
The conditions that favor totalitarianism are also conditions in which a good public speaker can rise to power. To paraphrase George R.R. Martin, chaos can be a ladder. But charisma is just one skill that totalitarians can use in their rise to power. What is most important in the rise of totalitarianism is not a charismatic leader, but an environment favorable to strong and brutal leadership.
And if you’re thinking to yourself right now “Gee, America is looking at an economic downturn and is moving closer every day to a world war that it can’t win,” then congratulations, you’ve been paying attention. If we really want to avoid totalitarianism, we don’t need to worry about Substack Nazis with a handful of subscribers. We need instead to defuse a ticking time bomb that will leave us ripe for a shift into authoritarianism.
This is admittedly harder than censoring badthinkers. It’s even harder now that COVID showed the professional-managerial class how easy it is to make frightened people follow orders and turn on anyone who questions them. But making bamboo air traffic control towers in the jungle won’t make cargo fall from the sky, and deplatforming obscure “Nazis” won’t stop a beleaguered republic from seeking an emperor.
I don’t believe that Donald Trump is the culmination of America’s slide toward dictatorship. Rather, I think that he’s a symptom. There are definitely Trump supporters who look to him as a God-Emperor playing 4D chess with lesser mortals. I’m more interested in those who are convinced that Donald Trump will cancel voting and declare martial law within minutes after he wins the 2024 election.
A fair bit of this is performative, and being used for its own authoritarian ends. If you’re dealing with the Next Hitler, you need to stop that threat by any means necessary. Charlotte Corday murdered Marat because she felt it was better that one man die so that 100,000 could live. Who wouldn’t “fortify an election” to save free America from becoming a dictatorship?
But there are also many who, by all appearances, believe sincerely that Trump is a dictator waiting in the wings alongside his army of Nazis. And their hysteria has started to take on a decidedly … erotic … turn. As Holly MathNerd famously put it in a November 30 Note:
We learned from COVID that frightened people will accept all sorts of restrictions if they are frightened enough. We’ve also learned post-COVID that many will clamor for those restrictions long after they’ve been proven ineffective. Are those people frightened, or do they miss the feeling of having a Science to trust and an army of Grandma-killing antivaxxers to hate?
The “Nazi”-hunters are screaming about dangerous tyrants, and insisting that the only way to stop them is to enact tyranny. They want to save our freedom of speech by taking it away, and save our right to vote by throwing one of the two candidates off the ballot. They don’t want to avoid authoritarianism, they want to make sure that they’re governed by the right sort of authoritarian.
Those who think they want a totalitarian government generally assume they will be at the top of the heap. But the Reign of Terror, the Night of the Long Knives, and the Stalinist purges suggest that early adopters are most likely to wind up early victims of their shiny new regime.
Trump might become a tyrant in his second term, though I wouldn’t bet money on it if his first term was any indication. We could say the same of any Commander in Chief, and even note that some of our most respected Presidents curtailed civil liberties on one pretense or another. I am less concerned with a leader who might take my rights than I am with the large and ever-growing number of Americans who want so ardently to give their rights away.
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