Fascism very much could be alive and well in America in today's toxic political climate. After all, the appeal of fascism breeds in unhealthy democracies. We can’t be too careful, says political expert Rob Riemen.
Rob Riemen — founder and president of the Nexus Institute — posits that the type and level of toxicity in today's political climate is a breeding ground for fascism. He argues that most people in fully democratic Germany in the early 1930s didn't think that by decade's end they'd be a fully fascist country, and goes further to say that perhaps history will look back on the 2016 American election in the same way. Is he correct? You be the judge. Rob Riemen's latest book is To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism.
Nietzsche's ideas were used by the Nazi's to justify their atrocities, but did Nietzsche actually support Fascism?
If there was one philosopher the fascists of the mid-20th century loved, it was Nietzsche. He was so adored by them that Hitler gifted Mussolini the complete works of Nietzsche for his birthday. The Nietzschean ideals of anti-egalitarianism, the Superman, and the will to power inspired them to act, and millions died because of it. They adored his ideas, and anointed him as the prophet of their ideology.
And most of it was due to misunderstandings and willful changes.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is purposefully difficult to read. His criticisms of the “Slave Morality” he credits the Jewish people with inventing can seem like an anti-Semitic rant from time to time. When in reality, he saw the Jews as a powerful people with a fine culture, his attacks are on their ideas: not on the people. His idea of the Superman was not a racial concept but rather a spiritual one.
He claimed that the Germans were great because of the “Polish blood in their veins”, and saw German nationalism as a dangerous joke. He ended relationships over his disapproval of anti-Semitism, including ones with his sister and the composer Richard Wagner. After he went mad, he wrote letters urging the great powers of Europe to attack Germany before it was too late.
Then, how did he become the Nazi Philosopher?
How Nietzsche was hijacked is a curious story, and a powerful warning. It begins with his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche. She was reportedly an unintelligent woman; when she asked philosopher Rudolf Steiner to help her understand her brother’s philosophy he was forced to give up after several excruciating attempts to educate her. He sent so far as to write that she, “lacks any sense for fine, and even for crude, logical distinctions; her thinking is void of even the least logical consistency; and she lacks any sense of objectivity.” Her husband was a famed anti-Semite who Friedrich couldn't stand.
She took over her brother’s estate after his descent into madness. She was then able to selectively edit new versions of his works, and created the entire book The Will to Power with his unused notes, in a way as to emphasize the bits that fit in with her political ideology. She withheld his work Ecce Homo from publication for years as it had a great deal in it that would derail her attempts to frame him in her image. In conversation, she developed a remarkable ability to remember conversations with her brother that supported her ideology.
To put not too fine of a point on things, she even met Hitler in the early 1930s when he visited the Nietzsche museum she operated. Hitler attended her funeral in 1935.
Adolf Hitler at the Nietzsche museum.
How did Nietzsche get used by the Nazis?
Just as American politicians like to reference the ideas of dead American heroes like Washington and Jefferson, the Nazis sought great Germans to reference when justifying their new regime. Nietzsche, with the tweaks made to his philosophy by his sister, became the primary thinker for those Nazis looking to justify their beliefs with philosophy.
German universities taught Nietzsche as part of courses on the new order, references to soldiers being the Ubermensch were common, and the will to power was adopted by the Nazis as a key psychological insight. The philosopher Alfred Baeumler claimed Nietzsche had prophesied the rise of Hitler and fascism in Germany.
After the war, the warping of his ideas to suit the ideologies of his sister and later of the Nazis was corrected in large part due to the works of Jewish-American philosopher Walter Kaufmann. The notion that Nietzsche was a proto-fascist can be said to be long debunked.
So, Nietzsche was really a kind and nice philosopher who gave out candy to children?
To give the devils their due, Nietzsche did have incredibly reactionary views on women, viewing the ideal women as little more than a broodmare for potential Ubermenschen. This was a point where the fascists could just run with what they had. Similarly, Nietzsche did reject egalitarianism, democracy, and occasionally ventured into rhetoric that verged on “let’s eat the poor”. He was no saint, but he wasn’t a Nazi either. If reading Nietzsche doesn’t shock you, something went wrong.
Nietzsche’s philosophy is easy to misunderstand and almost as easy to purposefully misinterpret. Even today, the far right is still using bad readings of it to justify their politics. Nietzsche was anti-nationalistic, considered the Jews worthy opponents, despised Christianity, and mass movements of all kinds; it takes a bad reading to consider him a goose-stepping fascist instead of the champion of individual genius that he was.
So, what does this mean for us today?
Almost any philosophy can be hijacked liked this. It’s really not that hard. Examples come to mind without having to try. Every Marxist would claim that at least one of the communist regimes of the last century had twisted the philosophy in a way to promote selfish goals. Utilitarianism can be used to argue that every action imaginable is for the greater good. It might go without saying that the Bible has been used to justify pretty much everything; slavery, abolitionism, war, peace, and so on ad infinitum.
The real thing you should take away form this story is how easy it was to do it. Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche was able to pull it off without understanding the ideas involved; all she had was the proper legal rights and some convenient events working for her. All of it happened despite Nietzsche’s friends objecting to it, and people who had lectured on his works before he went mad did nothing. It could happen to any school of thought, and that should terrify you. Always make sure you get the full story before you make any decisions, philosophically speaking.
When you see Nazis in the streets chanting things like “Jews will not replace us," it can be difficult to comprehend why they would believe such horrid things.
When you see Nazis in the streets chanting things like “Jews will not replace us” and throwing around slurs at blacks, leftists, and other minority groups, it can be difficult to comprehend why they would believe such horrid things. While simple answers such as ignorance or stupidity are attractive, they are too basic to apply generally. After all, the white supremacist leader Richard Spencer has a master’s degree, ruling out the explanation of stupidly in at least one case. While not every Nazi has an education, the root cause of finding such an ideology attractive must lie elsewhere.
This was the same problem that faced Theodor W. Adorno in 1947. A German sociologist who had fled Europe for sunny California during the era of Fascism, he and his colleges at Berkeley attempted to understand why a person might be inclined to support the ideas of fascism and authoritarianism. Using their backgrounds in psychology, they proposed that certain individuals might be mentally predisposed to support authoritarian regimes.
White nationalist Richard Spencer (C) and his supporters clash with Virginia State Police in Emancipation Park after the 'Unite the Right' rally was declared an unlawful gathering August 12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Hundreds of white nationalists, neo-Nazis and members of the 'alt-right' clashed with anti-fascist protesters and police as they attempted to hold a rally in Emancipation Park, where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee is slated to be removed. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Adorno and his associates wrote a book, The Authoritarian Personality, laying out their arguments and proposing possible traits that would-be fascists share. These traits included conventionalism, authoritarian submission, authoritarian aggression, anti-intellectualism, and an interest in the use and projection of power, among others.
So, how do I know if I have these traits? Should I start wearing more brown shirts?
The book, after offering a psychological explanation for why individuals might come to have such traits, then proposes the idea of the “F-Scale”, “F” meaning Fascist, which attempts to indirectly measure a person’s tendencies towards the traits Adorno found to be authoritarian. The higher the score, the more likely you are to support Fascism.
Adorno was open about the theory needing to be tested, and at Nuremberg several Nazi war criminals were given the test. Despite the original theory having nine dimensions of the authoritarian personality, the Nazis who took the test only scored high on three of them. Continued research into the idea has supported the basic hypothesis, but heavily altered the test and proposed reasons for correlations between the traits.
While Adorno treated the tendency to Fascism as a mental disorder, his reliance on Freudian thought and the Western Marxism of the Frankfurt school to which he belonged made his scale seem biased, and later erroneous. The work has been critiqued from all angles, but the core concept has been found to be correct. There are certain personality traits which correlate and are related to potential support for authoritarianism.
The concept remains influential. The F-scale and it’s slew of personality traits have been reduced to three by Canadian Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, who has created a shorter, more accurate, version of the test you can take here. In the updated version of the theory the traits which constitute the Authoritarian Personality are:
Authoritarian submission: a high degree of submissiveness to authorities perceived to be legitimate.
Authoritarian aggression: a general aggressiveness directed at deviants, outgroups, and those designated to be targets by established authorities.
Conventionalism: a high degree of adherence to traditions and social norms that are seen as endorsed by society and the established authorities. This includes a belief that adherence to these norms should be mandated across a society.
The test can also be applied to authoritarians in the left, in so far as they support the use of force to change society from multi-cultural, multi-focused, and disorganized into a homogenous, well organized, singly focused whole. The tests have, however, always presumed the authoritarianism being measured was on the political right, and early versions of the test made reference to anti-Semitism. Current versions often reference homosexuality and nudity as potential examples of deviations from norms.
Why would somebody support Fascism? Is it because they had strict parents? Because they didn’t go to school? Because they have a need for order and conformity? While the root cause of having the Authoritarian Personality is still unknown, it is possible to test for it. Perhaps someday we will understand what makes a person desire such things and have a better idea on how to cure them. Until then, it is all we can do to understand when we are looking at it, and take action.
Hitler is commonly thought to have been an atheist, a claim that's often used in debates about the perils of atheistic belief on a mass scale. But was he?
Nazism is popularly thought of as an ideology underpinned by atheism, but a closer look at Hitler's speeches and writings show a somewhat ambiguous outlook on religion. Although few historians claim that Hitler was a Christian, there's no unanimous consensus regarding his exact religious beliefs, or lack thereof. However, as historian Samuel Koehne writes in an article for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, there are three main schools of thought:
Paganism was strangely intertwined with the völkisch populist movement that swept across late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany. The groups that arose out of this movement differed in their emphasis on race and nationalism, but many expressed a desire to revive arcane pagan traditions and customs among the volk — the “people " — as Koehne notes:
"In fact, when the Nazis first celebrated Christmas in Munich (in 1920), they did so as a solstice celebration, and the report of the event in their own newspaper noted that the dire situation in which Germany found itself had been "prophesied in the Edda and in the teachings of the Armanen in ancient times." They were referring here to passages on the apocalyptic Ragnarok or "twilight of the gods" in the poetic Edda."
In a 1920 speech, Hitler, who was raised in the Catholic Church, said that Aryans had built “cults of light" wherever they settled throughout history. While Hitler might have identified with the fervor of the völkisch movement, it's unlikely he believed in the metaphysical validity of its paganistic aspects. He seemed more concerned with the utility of religious belief, as Koehne writes:
"It is well established that Hitler quickly drew away from the esoteric world of the volkisch movement, because he did not want the kind of secret society of initiates that characterised that tradition. He wanted to build a mass movement. As a result, in Mein Kampf he wrote strongly in support of the Catholic Church and its traditions of authority and dogma. This was not out of any love for the content of church doctrine, but because he believed that the Nazis could use such forms to create their own "political confession," moving from "volkisch feeling" to an absolute faith in the rectitude of Nazi racial nationalism."
Hitler's views on the utility of religion are clear in remarks he'd often make in private, according to Albert Speer, a close associate of the Führer. In Speer's “Inside the Third Reich" he quotes Hitler as saying:
You see, it's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion, too, would have been more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?
...and also in his Mein Kampf:
This human world of ours would be inconceivable without the practical existence of a religious belief. (p. 152)
However, Mein Kampf also shows a bizarrely racialized interpretation of Christianity:
"Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord. . . . And the founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of his estimation of the Jewish people. When He found it necessary, He drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God."
Hitler's interpretation of the gospels resulted in something dubbed “positive Christianity," which made its way into Article 24 of the 1920 Nazi Party Platform:
"We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state's existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such upholds the point of view of a positive Christianity without tying itself confessionally to any one confession. It combats the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and is convinced that a permanent recovery of our people can only be achieved from within on the basis of the common good before individual good."
Hitler frequently mentioned “natural laws" when he spoke of religion, depicting the world as one governed by social Darwinism, as seen in this excerpt from "Hitler's Table Talk":
"By virtue of an inherent law, these riches belong to him who conquers them. The great migrations set out from the East. With us begins the ebb, from West to East. That's in accordance with the laws of nature. By means of struggle, the élites are continually renewed. The law of selection justifies this incessant struggle, by allowing the survival of the fittest."
In the same monologue, Hitler firmly denounces the ethos of Christianity.
Christianity is a rebellion against natural law, a protest against nature. Taken to its logical extreme, Christianity would mean the systematic cultivation of the human failure.
For these reasons, some have concluded that Hitler was a deist, as Koehne writes:
He famously argued in a major speech of 1938 that Nazism was 'a volkisch-political doctrine that grew out of exclusively racist insights' and was based on the 'sharpest scientific knowledge.' Yet in this same speech he stated the Nazi 'cult' was solely one which respected nature, and so that which was 'divinely ordained.'
It's ultimately impossible to know exactly what Hitler's religious beliefs were. But what seems certain is that Hitler had absolute faith in two things: hyper-nationalism and himself.
Has CRISPR co-creator Jennifer Doudna invented the Pandora's Box of genetic engineering, or can CRISPR be used for the forces of good?
Jennifer Doudna was a pioneer of CRISPR, which is a gene-editing technology that is being increasingly studied and used across the world. Jennifer relates the genesis of CRISPR to us and explains the pros and cons of giving birth to such a potentially world changing process. On the positive side, she tells us how scientists are already combining her technology with stem cell research to potentially rid the world of sickle cell anemia. On the negative side, she describes a vivid nightmare she had early on in the process wherein she meets Hitler with a pig nose—a David Lynch-ian vision that represents the negative possibilities of what could happen if CRISPR falls into the wrong hands. While the Pig Hitler scenario is a lot less likely to actually happen, Jennifer understands the duality of her role in CRISPR's creation.