I’ve been reading the massive, but excellent, World War II novels by Herman Wouk, who recently died at the age of 104. The Winds of War deals with the situation leading up to the war and the beginning of it. War and Remembrance takes the story until the end of the war. Wouk, who was Jewish and a veteran of the war, wrote quite a lot, amidst the battles and conferences and life on the Home Front, about facts and ideas relevant to anti-Semitism and why Hitler rose.
I mention all this because in my mind it dovetails a good deal with commentary on the terrible situation in America today.
Certainly the half-baked comparisons of Donald Trump to Hitler are part of it. “Half-baked” is the right phrase. He doesn’t hate anyone, from anything I can tell, except perhaps people who are critical of him, but even them he doesn’t do anything bad to except maybe fire them, if he can. He hasn’t persecuted anyone or put them in camps. He hasn’t sicced the IRS or FBI on his enemies. He hasn’t even denigrated entire groups whose differences are based on something they can’t help. You can call him a lot of bad things with complete accuracy, but not “Hitler”.
The reason the comparisons are not completely irrelevant are entirely to do with his supporters and the way he rose, and that’s what I want to talk about today. In essence, the situations are alike, as overreach in a conflict of identities.
Out of many World War II conflicts of identities, two are most relevant. Non-Jews versus Jews, and the winners in the First World War versus the losers. Religion and nationality, basically, were the identities. One could say that it was the uncultured versus the cultured, but that would be revisionist history. Universities and newspapers went over to the Nazis aplenty.
Anti-Semitism was a centuries-old story, but this particular clash of nationalities was a somewhat new kind. In response to a war begun and prosecuted in considerable part by German militarism, and whose destructive effect was magnified by technology to a degree with which no one had any experience, England and France in their horror and shock were easily able to rationalize to themselves being self-dealing and particularly contemptuous of and hard on their enemies. The 1920s roared for them, while Germans were carrying baskets of millions of marks to the market just to buy bread. But to England and France any analysis of the rightness of their demand that Germany pay the cost of the war in gold, began and ended with “but the War!” Out of which Hitler rose.
The parallels to 2016 are clear, I think. Successful, powerful identity-based groups being self-dealing, and contemptuous of and hard on their defeated enemies, both culturally and economically, and having an all-purpose rationalization (something along the lines of “but social justice!”) to deflect any criticism. Relying, in fact, just as did England and France, on norms that made any escape by their enemies of the box they put them in seem impossible. We’re just lucky that enough norms remain that we wound up with someone as relatively harmless as Trump. The warning, however, should be heeded.
A huge percentage of problems crop up as a result of a mismatch between politics and pressures. Peace and justice frequently depend on there being a norm among leaders to say, in essence, “Yes, we have the power, politically speaking, the self-justification, to go farther against our opponents, but we won’t. There is a point of taking at which the long-term consequences begin to be poisonous.” It’s a discounted-future-rewards problem, but also a Prisoner’s Dilemma. You can’t get only one side to have that norm, because being on the losing side over and over swiftly gets old. Identities, particularly identities like religions or Wokeism that are based in considerable part on moralizing and righteousness and not being “that other side that’s immoral and unrighteous”, tie our hands and make that kind of norm less likely.