The Nazis Aren’t Who We Think They Are

In the wake of atrocities like that visited upon the Muslims of Christchurch, New Zealand, attention inevitably returns to the ideas of the radical right. The discourse surrounding events such as these follows a predictable pattern: Various media personalities scour the manifestos and evidence looking for explanations, but especially for influences. After Christchurch, suspicion fell on Jordan Peterson, but this is an old pattern.

The question “who did the perpetrator read?” inevitably turns to speculation about which authors of contemporary importance on the right might deserve the most blame for inspiring the violence, followed shortly by calls to action against the tools used in the murder, if not also the broader ideas that the perpetrator used to justify their crimes.

Throughout these responses, one can detect the general anxiety that an authoritarian propensity to violence lurks just under the surface of all right-leaning movements. Given the sloppiness with which political activists use words like fascist, Nazi, or “alt-right,” we shouldn’t be surprised at that. These labels have acquired a kind of floating signification much the same way as the word “socialist” enjoys in right-leaning circles.

Nazism carries a particularly difficult challenge for understanding, and not just for Godwin’s Law-related reasons. Sometime after World War II, the very word “Nazi” became a synonym for generic political evil located on the Right rather than a word people used with any kind of precision.

Amidst this inattention, it shouldn’t surprise us that large numbers of Americans and Europeans view nationalism and populism to be harbingers of Nazism’s second coming. Americans have lived in fear of a resurgent Nazi ethos since the end of World War II. This anxiety has taken real but tiny movements of alt-right cosplayers and neo-pagan fascists, and inflated their importance beyond reason. There’s little attempt to understand the actual sources or real currents of Nazi thought, let alone that of its fascist near-cousins. The end result is that almost no one pays close attention to what the Nazis actually believed. This context makes Johan Chapoutot’s The Law of Blood: Thinking and Acting as a Nazi a significant achievement, one that vividly grapples with the reality of why the Nazis acted as they did.

The Law of Blood aims to uncover “the mental universe in which Nazi crimes took place and held meaning,” a task that most historians have avoided in favor of pseudo-explanations like mass insanity or German barbaric exceptionalism. According to Chapoutot, perhaps the most popular recent examination of Nazism in practice—Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men—suffers from similar failures: “His understanding of ‘ideology’ is largely one of simple ‘inculcation,’ or even ‘brainwashing’—something ineffectual and imposed from the outside.” By avoiding a deeper engagement with the substance of Nazi beliefs, we fail to notice that the concerns that actually animated the Nazis were far stranger and more peculiar to Germany than most people realize.

These ideals came to prominence in the wake of 1918, part of the World War I generation’s effort to grapple with the failure of old certainties. Many adherents of these new movements accepted a view of social life as deeply driven by conflict. While those on the Left saw these conflicts as at least potentially resolvable through the transcendence of class, those on the Right tended to view conflict as an essential part of nature. A significant number of German soldiers left the war with the conviction that politics ought to resemble the experience of the front—with the clarifying unity and purpose of battle serving as the model for politics as whole. While the Nazis adopted this view, one common to many among the Freikorps, they took a different direction than most radical parties.

The most fundamental differences appear in their view of human life. Unlike the ideas of the Italian Futurists that drove Mussolini’s Fascism, or the historical progressivism that animated Soviet Communism, the Nazis saw time itself in strikingly different terms. They sought to recapture a life consistent with the origins of the authentic Nordic race, at least as they imagined it into being. Moving forward, then, involved not innovation, but a kind of excavation:

How to access the moment of origin? Nothing to it, really: once simply had to dig, to practice a legal and moral archaeology that sought to unearth the archaic. From this primal, original, natural version an archetype could be constituted, the first and most natural specimen of the Nordic race. “Renewal” was less a matter of creating or instituting something new and more about restoring something ancient.

Rediscovering the authentic German people would require more than a stroll through the Teutonbergerwald or a restoration of Germany’s pre-Christian roots in myth and song. German renewal would mean a thoroughgoing re-enchantment of life—a reunion of the race’s authentic culture with nature.

This would lead the Nazis to attempt the creation of a new religion rooted in what they viewed as the reality of their racial superiority. It issued in a kind of immanent pantheism, one without a sense of transcendence apart from an experience of the race itself. Thus, “the authentic piety unique to the Nordic race was the exact opposite of what was preached by the Jews, and in their wake, by the Christians.” Recovering this authentic faith meant shedding the Judeo-Christian inheritance and the abstract moral universalism that it implied in favor of the worship of their race itself in a kind of pure idolatry. Not coincidentally, their old-new faith also offered a path to understanding their race’s historical failure to dominate the world.

Needing to explain how the German race could suffer the indignities history had visited upon it, while also asserting their racial superiority, the Nazis utilized a bastardized version of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality and its tale of Jewish slave morality subverting the nobles to brand the Jews as the perpetrators of a great conspiracy against them.

To win against such subtle and entrenched enemies demanded the acceptance of racial necessity rather than individual moral responsibility. As Chapoutot demonstrates throughout the book, this cosmic view of an oppressed Nordic race engaged in a titanic struggle to reassert its essential nature combined with the idea that conflict was the law of life, and issued in the Final Solution.

Most people know the saying inscribed above the gates of Auschwitz—Arbeit macht frei, “work sets you free”—but Chapoutot points out that a better way to encapsulate the National Socialist ethos was through the slogan over the entrance at Buchenwald: “To each his due” (Jedem das Seine). As a concept of justice, this meant that Germans and their closest racial cousins deserved moral respect, at least within the greater law of conflict they embraced, and that “lesser” peoples could not claim any such protection. Toward them, Heinrich Himmler and other senior officials would remind their people: “Harshness makes the future kind.”

Over the course of the book, Chapoutot carefully reconstructs how the Nazis applied their ideas in eugenics, civic associations, education, and especially in law, where Carl Schmitt comes in for some deservedly-harsh criticism. The book offers tremendous insight into how the Nazis disseminated and defended their cause at every level, and anyone interested in the regime or World War II ought to read it for that purpose.

But one might step back and ask a somewhat different question regarding the Nazis, one that is still relevant today: What is the great scandal of the Jewish faith that led the Nazis to fixate on them? It appears in Scripture’s record of their life as a chosen people, and, even if one disbelieves in the authority of the Hebrew Bible, there remains the literal fact that the Jews are perhaps the only eternally-recorded and verifiably real peoples.

To paraphrase Walker Percy, we find it unremarkable when we meet Jews every day, but where are the Hittites? And more pointedly for the Germans, where are the true Nordic peoples or Aryans they desired to be? If you look at the historical record, one cannot actually discover an essential France or Germany, but rather myriad cultures that flowed together. For what are other peoples but relatively-recent and often-mythic creations?

In a way, Chapoutot demonstrates that for a people desperately seeking a restoration of glorious unity like the Germans did, the Jewish people posed an intolerable challenge. To the degree that anti-Semitism remains a permanent force in this world, it may be rooted in their distinctive position as a people, always present in time and sufficiently successful that they remain a constant source of envy and malice.

From our historically-blurry viewpoint, over eighty years on, it is easy to forget that the Nazis emerged out of a specific set of distinctly-German challenges. We may meet hyper-modernist fascists and communists again, since the concerns that motivate them remain more abstract. People will continue to desire a return of imposed unity. They will continue to yearn for decisive action in politics. And equality does not seem bound to leave the stage. But it seems more likely that the digital era’s villains will look inconveniently different, and perhaps more faceless. As James Poulos recently observed, “The conditions have changed: nobody wants an old-new politics.” Or more pointedly: very few people today think in terms of eternally-present race which needs reenchanting revival. Most people’s concerns remain far more grounded.

It isn’t that there aren’t Nazis or their near-cousins in our world today, but we use the label far too casually and imprecisely: Nazis are not just nationalists, populists, or authoritarians. They were and are far stranger than that. And reading The Law of Blood can help us understand the actual beliefs that animated them.