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.

Reader Discussion

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on March 29, 2019 at 09:25:17 am

what a load of nonsense. It never fails to amaze me what new revelation some half-cocked american can get up to in divining the essences of the nazis. Just read their publications if you want to know what their ideas were all about.

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lady percy
on March 29, 2019 at 09:39:55 am

“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…” True, however perhaps not in the sense meant by the author. Nazi’s, and more generally Fascists, are only “right wing” in the sense that nationalist socialists are right of international socialists. To confuse this is to make a categorization error that gets any analysis off on the wrong foot. If one focuses on the bizarre Nazi fascination with a highly romanticized and fictional past, one is likely to miss that fact that all socialist movements are preceded by fairy tales.

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Ron Johnson
on March 29, 2019 at 10:30:24 am

The vision that Chapoutot describes is very much still with us, and is a central part of a kind of internet based counter-culture here in Europe and also in the US. The writings of Alain de Benoist and Guillaume Faye for example, with the idea of 'arcaeofuturism'. The cultural movements of norfolk and martial industrial music are also driven by this idea. So this isn't just a matter of something that was believed in the 1918 to 1945 period in Germany. As far as the historical Nazis are concerned this was very much a part of their ideology but I don't think it was the whole of it. People such as Alfred Rosenberg, Himmler, and Walther Darre were very much inspired by that kind of thinking but that wasn't the case for other leading Nazis such as Goebbels, Goering, the Strassers or Hitler himself - he seems to have regarded these ideas as useful but ultimately nonsense. The distinction with Italian Fascism (which was much more typical of inter-war fascist movements) is important. It was much more about a kind of hyper modernity, one that rejected individualism and bourgeois culture and also emphasised an ethos of struggle and force.

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Steve Savies
on March 29, 2019 at 13:01:45 pm

Slightly off topic: It amazes me that, after a mass shooting like in NZ, writes can freely publish on the possible Naziness of the shooter in particular and "the right" or the "alt-right" generally, as a prelude to going over the same old Nazi ground (what have we found? the same old fear), whereas were Smith to write this piece following a mass shooting or stabbing or running-over by a Muslim and speculate on the tendencies and imperatives to jihad and murder and violence in Islam, he would be arrested and imprisoned in England and, soon, no doubt, here also.

Slightly more on topic: Poulos is wrong, if I understand his statement correctly (I understand it as "new-old politics"). Many people do want that, and desperately so. The people who see the Nazis and the Klan in every gathering of 3 or more white men unchaperoned by a licensed progressive are such people. Like so many Don Quixotes they see giants where there are only windmills. Reliving past heroisms, playing the familiar characters and reading from the dog-eared scripts, LARPing away--Nazis and the Klan simply must still be with us, don't you see? After all, what do you do if you're on stage as Hamlet and Claudius doesn't enter on cue? Hard to play Hamlet without Claudius. So you find a Claudius in the audience and kill him.

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on March 29, 2019 at 13:21:10 pm

I infer from the context that M. Smith has done exactly that. Your cliched stereotype ("half-cocked American") is not an informed response.

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Lawrence Hall
on March 29, 2019 at 15:29:52 pm

Certainly all authoritarians are unique in their own way--some only require that you adopt their religions, while others also require that you adopt their ideas of oppression (marxists), and others go beyond the mind and require that you dress the way they want and not eat what they find they find gross (vegans), and give up your guns and private businesses, and not date outside your race or not inside your gender, etc. Their targets may differ--ethnic minorities, religious minorities, cultural minorities, sexual minorities, capitalists, etc.

But it is not their uniqueness from other authoritarians that make authoritarians who they are. On the contrary, it is the authoritarianism (anti-individualism) that they share in common that primarily and principally defines them.

That some have gone farther than others in persecution (outlawed not only other religions and sexualities, but other cultures--book cultures, food cultures, gun cultures, etc.), or that some are farther along in extermination (moving from phase one (internment) to phase two (genocide)), does not mean that they are not all driven by the same motives and have the same goals.

Yes, Nazis are not the same as the Russians who genocided the Ukranians or the Chinese who genocided the Tibetans, or the Congolese that genocided the Rwandans, or the Iranians who genocided the homosexuals. Yet if we are to try to stop it from happening again, it is far more useful to see what they all had in common that we could've recognized as they were developing, than to say it is impossible to know them before the genocide begins.

The founders gave us a list of ways to recognize authoritarians--they create a caste-system (14A), they try to censor your religion or politics or culture (1A), they disarm you (2A), they think you're guilty upon accusation (6A), they force you to confess (5A), they torture you (8A), they then outlaw what you did yesterday so they can prosecute the rest of your people (ex post facto clause), etc.

It would be foolish to suggest that because we do not all define authoritarianism in the same way that all authoritarians are not (a) motivated by the same herd-mentality [anti-individualism] and (b) do not all have the same goals of conformity or/and extermination.

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on March 29, 2019 at 16:40:06 pm

In practice what was the difference between Stalin and Hitler? What is the difference between the stated goals of Warren or AOC when we compare them to Stalin and Hitler? Nonetheless, the term fascist is thrown around to mean anything with which the socialist/ communist bloc disagrees with.

The NAZI party was socialist, not fascist. At that time in history there was a great fear of communists.

Winston Churchill was working on 'progressive' ideas while preaching against socialism and communism. FDR had communists working for him but sold the ideas to the American people as helping out those who needed it most and ending the depression. Hitler appealed to those who had been humiliated after WWI and wanted to rebuild their country and pride.

In the US you could get a degree at Harvard regarding the supremacy of the white European race. Nationalism brought about the unification of Germany and Italy. Lincoln had no use for black people and wanted them deported to Africa, Haiti or some other location in South America. Half a century with half the Western World looking to their own supremacy makes it certainly understandable how a country can get behind the NAZI party. It is a mob mentality that only later people thought about when the hangover hit.

Will it hit the US as socialism/ communism and make us suffer 70 years of inanity before we start to wake up?

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on March 29, 2019 at 19:10:42 pm

NAZIs were fascists who despised the communists and treated them like tgd other undesirables in German society. Nominal ownership of private property while controlled by the state is difference enough to the socialists. What makes them little different is the subsuming of the individual to the needs of the state...

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OH Anarco-capitalist
on March 30, 2019 at 09:51:33 am

One can get carried away with the 'ideology' of the matter, though the distinguishing characteristics from Nietzsche through Mosse can be discerned, albeit not without noting the similarities as Bullock did in integrating Hitler with Stalin in his work. The key is the politics and economics which, while tailored to the ideal of the volksgeist, nonetheless employed the socialist cum progressive tools of state control of private means hierarchically planned from a dictatorial perch through a matrix of administration. And the use of the expression 'right', even 'alt-right' comes nowhere near the kind of order advocated in such 'scientific' fashion by Hitler, Speer or any of the other Nazis at the helm; any more than the term, properly constrained to its French denotation, applies to any brand of American 'conservatism' apart from media hype. Incidentally, maybe the label over Buchenwald was really 'Judem das Sein'? Awkward to have Aquinas'/Ulpian's definition of Justice ( 'the constant and perpetual will to attribute to each his due') over the entrance, though that fit Hitler's penchant for the classical?

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on March 30, 2019 at 16:49:51 pm

I think this is pretty close to the mark. It is useful to explore how Hitler himself describes development of his political thought, particularly if memory serves, in chapter 2 of Mein Kampf. We may consider, as an illustrative example, of how Hitler claims to have become an anti-Semite.

Hitler claims that during his time in Linz, (again, going from memory here), that he had no major problem with the Jews there. This changed when he moved to Vienna, and he became more aware of politics in general; the infirmity of the Habsburg monarchy, the impotence of the Austrian legislature in protecting the rights of ethnic Germans, the tensions between ethnic Germans and Czechs, the hostility of Social Democracy to these concerns, etc. Hitler claimed that he began to perceive shadowy Jewish manipulation behind these issues. He claims to have purchased some anti-Semitic pamphlets; he reports an encounter with a Jew wearing a caftan and black side-locks, and wondering if this man could in any sense be considered German. He details his suspicion that Jews were behind decadent and salacious entertainment. He goes on a bizarre rant about Jewish hygiene, and perceives Jewish conspiracy behind German misfortune in general and thus, his in particular.

There are several possibilities when analyzing Hitler's explanation of his anti-Semitism:

1.) That he is being honest, that he reasoned his way into being an anti-Semite based on his own experiences.

2.) That he adopted anti-Semitism that was endemic and expanded on it and formalized it into a political cause.

3.) That he realized that anti-Semitism had political appeal that he could exploit.

4.) That he was a latent anti-Semite who unreasonably blamed Jews for his and his countrymen's misfortunes and could be open about his bias in the environment of Vienna.

5.) Other.

6.) Any combination of the above.

What Hitler does not comment upon specifically, but which is noticeable in his writing, is that his overt embrace of anti-Semitism seemed to coincide with his growing political ambition. It is not clear why he would extrapolate his experiences in Vienna (where he reports buying anti-Semitic pamphlets, and thus suggests that there was at least a measure of political anti-Semitism already established) to negate his professed attitudes when he was in Linz, rather than the other way around. One must wonder if his overt political anti-Semitism was the result of his underlying personal views being enhanced and amplified by his political ambitions and the political environment; that were it not the case that his personal prejudices made for good politics, he might never have found his political footing. It seems logical to conclude that Hitler did not reason himself into anti-Semitism because of thoughtful reflection on the Jews. The extent to which he pursued anti-Semitic policies after gaining power cannot be supported by any type of reasoned argument. Hitler was able to exploit irrational, pathological and even fanatical attitudes because he had good political instincts and was a gifted speaker.

Political movements, revolutions and "fundamental change" do not have to be based on reason, virtue or justice, and usually are not. Perceptive, sociopathic and downright evil politicians can advance all manner of atrocities by invoking improbable perils and legitimizing remote grievances. It does not matter if the premises are political, religious, ethnic, cultural, economic, class-based, or whatever. The will to power is not picky.

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on March 31, 2019 at 04:14:09 am

We know the Nazis were right-wing because they exterminated the Jews due to the envy of their success, and it's the right who envy success , want affirmative action and want to raise taxes to redistribute to the unsuccessful; whereas it's the left/progressives that celebrates success, want to lower their taxes, and want meritocracy?

"The nazis were on the right, no, your other right."

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on March 31, 2019 at 12:54:37 pm


Like the "12 years remaining before imminent destruction of the planet."

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on March 31, 2019 at 12:55:41 pm

Forgot the pasted text:

"politicians can advance all manner of atrocities by invoking improbable perils"

Like the “12 years remaining before imminent destruction of the planet.”

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on April 01, 2019 at 05:16:44 am

"The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history. Before long that nation will begin to forget what it is and what it was. The world around it will forget even faster."

The nazis were no different in this than the soviets or Chinese or Iranians or Venezuelans. In fact all leftist parties do this, just look at the university you teach at. How much of Heller did they teach before 2008?

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G. Reyn
on June 01, 2020 at 06:28:21 am

[…] which those tyrants espoused, and upon which they built their regimes. Similarly, on the Right, Hitler’s policy of genocide cannot be explained in terms of Realism or even of nationalism, only by the historicized ‘race science’ that imagined such an enormity as an engine of […]

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