History is an important subject of study and discussion. George Santayana once remarked that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, although if we believe those like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee who say that they have found a cyclical pattern in history this might be inevitable in any circumstance. Regardless, in the people and events of the past, there are lessons both positive and negative for us to learn. Whether or not we learn those lessons will have consequences for our lives in the present and for those of future generations as well.
An orthodoxy is necessary to the consideration of history. By orthodoxy I mean a general consensus as to the established facts of history. Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States in 1968. Ed Broadbent was not elected Prime Minister of Canada in 1988. These are basic, established, facts of history. If we reject the concept of an orthodoxy altogether, and treat all historical facts as being up for debate, we will never learn anything from history.
On the other hand, historical orthodoxy must not be so inflexible as to reject legitimate challenges. Governments, in peace and war, present their acts in the most positive light possible to the people they govern. It would be greatly detrimental to the good of our societies and civilization if we blindly accepted every government’s version of its own actions as part of orthodox history.
What is needed, therefore, is both a settled account of the people and events of the past, and an ongoing re-examination of this account which questions it where it may be in error and corrects it if it finds it so to be.
In the rest of this essay we are going to consider a question regarding 20th Century history and what the academic, media, and political establishments all appear to regard as the orthodox answer to the question. I will argue that the orthodox answer is misleading and that this has important ramifications for us in the present day.
Before doing so some terms need to be defined. What is meant by “left” and “right”?
These terms entered political discourse in the era of the French Revolution. They were rather literal terms at the time. The supporters of the Bourbon dynasty, the landed aristocracy, and the Roman Catholic Church sat on the “right” of the speaker in the French assembly, whereas the supporters of the revolution that sought to abolish all three of these and establish a secular, bourgeois, republic of equal citizens sat on the left. By extension, “right” came to refer to all traditionalists, who supported concepts, values, and institutions which dated back prior to the “Enlightenment”, to the era of Christendom and even the Classical Age. Conversely the “left” came to refer to progressives, who believed that man through reason and science could abandon tradition and the past entirely, and establish a golden age for himself in the future. As the 19th Century progressed the term “left-wing” also came to include the economic concept of socialism which the “right-wing” opposed.
“Left” and “right” are related to another set of terms which entered political discussion in the 19th Century. These terms are “conservative” and “liberal”. “Conservative” and “right” or “right wing” were more or less synonymous, although “conservative” could arguably be described as referring to a distinctly English version of “right-wing”. It was coined to refer to the reorganized Tory Party, the party which stood for the established constitution of England, her monarchy, and her Church, after that party had accepted certain ideas from its traditional opponents the Whigs.
“Liberal” on the other hand does not correspond so well to “left” or “left wing”. It has a number of different meanings. In ethical philosophy it is the term for the classical virtue of generosity. In its most basic political sense it refers to the idea that government should not abuse the people it governs but should respect their liberties and basic rights. In this sense of the term almost everybody is a liberal, including conservatives. (1) This basic concept, however, has been developed into more complete political theories which are also called liberalisms, each of which to one degree or another conflicts with conservatism, and, I as a conservative would argue, with reality.
There is classical liberalism, for example, This is what the term “liberalism” generally denoted in the 19th Century, and it is the theory that human beings are at the most fundamental level individuals, and that all social interaction between them should be mutually voluntary, based upon the model of a business contract. This is the theory of John Locke, J. S. Mill, Adam Smith and in the 20th Century Sir Karl Popper and Ludwig von Mises. This kind of liberalism is neither conservative (for conservatism asserts the priority of family and community over the individual) nor left-wing (because it rejects socialism and, indeed, is synonymous with capitalism).b
Then there is “progressive liberalism”. For most of the 20th Century, in North America the term “liberalism” when used without an adjective referred to this kind of liberalism. While “progressive liberalism” builds upon the same theoretical foundation as “classical liberalism” it embraces interventionism by the democratic state as the means of progress. To a large degree this kind of liberalism converged with the left in the 20th Century. It is anti-conservative and embraces socialism to a certain degree.
Let us now consider the question.
“Which was the greater evil in the 20th Century, Nazism or Communism?”
Most people, I would think, would say that this question is unanswerable. “Sir, there is no settling the point of precedency between a louse and a flea” Dr. Johnson remarked when asked about two minor poets and if it is pointless to discuss degrees of mediocrity it is offensive to many to discuss the degrees of evil between two repressive systems which both imprisoned and killed people by the millions and threatened the security and freedom of the entire world.
Note, however, that many who would respond to the question in this way do not express their true thoughts on the subject by doing so. This indignant rejection of the very question often comes from people who have already answered the question as a means of avoiding having their answer come under scrutiny.
The official orthodoxy on the matter is that a) it is wrong to ask the question because there is no answer and b) the answer is “Nazism”. This position is self-contradictory but to many people challenging it is about the greatest thought crime you could ever commit.
That such an orthodoxy exists is undeniable. Even at the height of the Cold War, self-acknowledged Marxists and even Stalinists could be found among the faculty of major universities across Europe and North America. The student bodies of these universities contain countless radicals who wear t-shirts with Communist slogans or the face of Communist revolutionary Che Gueverra. Could you imagine a similar tolerance being extended to faculty members who identify with the ideas in Mein Kampf or students who dress up as brownshirts? A few years ago here in Winnipeg a couple had their children taken away from them by the child protection bureaucracy because a teacher had called in and complained that the family’s daughter had come to school with a swastika drawn on her arm. Would that teacher have called if the swastika had been a hammer and sickle? (2)
Further evidence of the existence of this orthodoxy can be found in the predictable gut reaction of many to my last paragraph. “Why are you asking these questions? Are you a Nazi sympathizer?” I could turn around and ask “Why are you so upset about these questions? Are you a Communist sympathizer?” If I were to do so, however, I would immediately be accused of “McCarthyism”.(3)
Do you recognize the significance of that fact? It would be far more fair to accuse those who uphold the reigning orthodoxy of sympathy for Communism than to accuse those of us who point out its flaws of sympathy towards the Third Reich. However, there is a word in the English language for someone who accuses another person of being a Communist or a Communist sympathizer and that word carries more opprobrium than the label “Communist” itself. We have no equivalent word for a person who accuses another person of being a Nazi.
All of this is of greater practical importance than it may seem at first glance. A number of organizations exist to warn the public of a supposed ongoing Nazi threat and their publications are taken very seriously by the political left and its academic and media counterparts. People on the right who warned about the threat of Communism were dismissed as kooks, extremists, and McCarthyites even when the Soviet Union was still in power.
Which of these two great evil movements of the 20th Century was the most persistent threat, however?
Sir Winston Churchill was deservedly credited with prescience with regards to the threat posed by Hitler’s Reich. He also warned about the dangers of Bolshevism, however, and he did so long before the Austrian demagogue rose to power in Germany. He continued to warn about the threat of Communism after the threat of Nazism had been done away with. Bolshevism seized control of Russia in 1917, 16 years before Hitler came to power in Germany. Nazism ended in 1945, and the war that brought it down left Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, and Eastern Germany under Communist control. Three years later the Chinese Communists under Mao seized control of their country. Then North Korea, Cuba, North Vietnam, Cambodia, and many other countries fell to the rule of Communism. Domestically, in Western countries, Communists and their sympathizers outnumber by far the handful of people who still admire Adolf Hitler and his regime, and have long done so.
Despite all of this people who warned about the “Red Menace” were dismissed as witch hunters and extremists while draconian “hate speech” laws were passed to counter the supposed threat of resurgent Nazism.
What is the explanation of this? Is it simply a matter of “pas d'ennemi à gauche” (4) on the part of Leftists in control of the official orthodoxy?
Yes and no. While “no enemies to the left” plays a significant part in generating this orthodoxy it is not a simple matter of a leftist establishment regarding “right-wing extremists” (Nazis) as worse than “left-wing extremists” (Communists). The idea that Nazism represents an extreme on the right and Communism an extreme on the left is itself part of the orthodoxy which does not correspond with reality. Nazism was not a right-wing movement. It was in fact a left-wing movement.
This is not to deny that there were right-wing elements in Nazism. George Grant said that “One definition of national socialism is a strange union of the atheisms of ‘the right’ and of ‘the left’”. (5) By “atheism of the right” he meant the philosophy of Nietzsche, but while there is truth in this description, the only significant, recognizably right-wing element of Nazism was its anti-Bolshevism. Otherwise, Nazism was clearly a left-wing movement.
The official title of the Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, a left-wing name if ever there was one. That doesn’t mean much, but the Nazi Party rose to power by appealing to the groups which left-wing movements have traditionally sought out for their support base – the young and the working class. It was distrusted by the most conservative class in Germany – the Catholic aristocracy – from the beginning. The unsuccessful movement to remove Hitler from power during World War II drew its members from this class. (6) The Nazis had no time for the things the traditional right-wing existed to support – royalty, aristocracy, and the Christian Church. Their eugenics program and racial doctrines were both based upon Darwinism.(7) While there was a long-standing and regrettable tradition of mutual suspicion on the part of Christians and Jews in Europe this was not the basis of the anti-semitism of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Their anti-Semitism was based upon the idea that Jews and Aryans were biological enemies in a Darwinian struggle for survival. (8) Even the manner in which the Nazi regime carried out its mass-murder program was clearly based upon the principles of utopianism and progressive industrial factory-line efficiency which is one of its most chilling aspects.
Nazism was primarily a blend of nationalism and socialism, both of which elements were left-wing. Hitler’s socialism may not have resembled most other socialisms (except that practiced in the Soviet Union at the time) but his nationalism was clearly the left-wing nationalism which was born, alongside modern democracy and totalitarianism, in the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau in the 18th Century. In this nationalism, the general will of the people (the nation, the volk) is sovereign and the absolute loyalty it demands of each citizen must supercede all other loyalties, such as those to family, home, church, and neighborhood. It was against this notion that Edmund Burke wrote that true love for one’s country, and indeed for the world, must grow outward from the love for one’s “little platoon” that arises naturally. In Hitler’s demand that children spy on their parents, and neighbor on his neighbor, for the Reich, it is Rousseau’s nationalism and not Burke’s patriotism that was taken to its ultimate extreme.
That both of the repressive, totalitarian movements of the 20th Century were manifestations of the left, of the spirit of progress and modernity, was understood by British satirist and novelist Evelyn Waugh, who in the first volume of his Sword of Honour trilogy describes his protagonist, Guy Crouchback, as eagerly returning to England to sign up for World War II after the pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, because he felt that in a conflict against the alliance of those two evils, “the modern age in arms”, there was a place for him. (9)
It is unlikely that history books and academic classes will be identifying Nazism as a left-wing movement any time soon, however. It is to the advantage of the left that Communism and Nazism are regarded as the extremes of the left and right, not only because it makes the left look better if one of the great evil movements of the 20th Century was on the other side, but because it drives people towards the centre ground of liberalism. This is beneficial to the left because this central territory was completely colonized by them in the 20th Century.
(1) As George Grant put it “Liberalism in its generic form is surely something that all decent men accept as good—‘conservatives’ included. In so far as the word ‘liberalism’ is used to describe the belief that political liberty is a central human good, it is difficult for me to consider as sane those who would deny that they are liberals.” English Speaking Justice (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 1974, 1985) p. 4.
(2) I had not yet started Throne, Altar, Liberty when this happened but was writing essays which I posted to my Facebook page and privately e-mailed to my friends. In an essay entitled “First They Came for the White Supremacists…” (May 27, 2009) I pointed out that it was ironical that the government was “using people’s fears of Nazism as the basis for their experiments in thought control.” Why was it ironical? “What was it about Hitler’s regime that made it so terrible? I always thought that it was the fact that the Third Reich was a tyrannical regime with secret police and a fanatical leader-worship cult that encouraged people to turn in their parents, neighbors, and friends if they were suspected of disloyalty to the state, in which freedom was non-existent and the state was in the hands of a gang of petty thugs who ruled by fear.” I then pointed out that “Yet you can be an avowed Marxist and remain respectable in academic circles. You can hang up the flags of murderous Communist regimes, wear T-shirts glorifying Communist mass-murderer ‘Che’ Guevera, and praise Castro and Mao to high heaven, and nobody will say anything about it.” A month later I took part in a small and brief protest against the actions of Child and Family Services. Lindor Reynolds, a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press interviewed us, and I explained that I believed CFS had overstepped the boundaries of their mandate from Her Majesty’s government in removing children from a home on the basis of the political views of the parents. Reynolds did not think it important to ask us whether or not we agreed with the political views of the parents in question or with the ideology the swastika represented before imputing such agreement to us in her write up. I wonder if it would have occurred to her to have asked if we had been protesting the removal of a child from a home on the basis of his having proudly worn his hippie father’s “Che” t-shirt to school? (And yes, I would consider that to be as much an abuse of state power as the other).
(3) The word “McCarthyism” is derived, of course, from the name of Joseph R. McCarthy, who was the Republican Senator from Wisconsin from 1947 until his death a decade later. McCarthy, in a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1950, accused the US State department of being “infested with communists”, stating that he had a list of known Communist agents who were employed by the State department. The speech was widely reported in the press, McCarthy was summoned before a Senate subcommittee headed by Senator Millard Tydings which had been charged with investigating his allegations, and later McCarthy himself would investigate alleged Communist infiltration of various branches of the American government, including the US army. By the end of his life, the media had made his name synonymous with “witch hunting”. There has been evidence, however, right from the beginning, that McCarthy’s accusations were not as wide of the mark as the press maintained. In McCarthy and His Enemies: The Record and Its Meaning, published by Henry Regnery of Chicago in 1954, William F. Buckley Jr. and L. Brent Bozell examined McCarthy’s earliest allegations, those heard by the Tydings Committee, in great depth and demonstrated that while not all of them could be shown to be Communists, there was evidence in the vast majority of cases that a security risk existed. Since the end of the Cold War, the breakup of the Soviet Union and the ensuing new access to Soviet archives, and the declassification of the files of the VENONA Project in 1995, new evidence has come to light that suggests that McCarthy’s accusations only touched the tip of the iceberg with regards to Soviet infiltration of the American government in that era. See Arthur Herman Joseph McCarthy : Reexamining the Life and Legacy of America's Most Hated Senator (New York: Free Press, 2000) and M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted By History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and his Fight Against America’s Enemies (New York: Crown Forum, 2007).
(4) “No enemies on the left”.
(5) Grant, op. cit., p. 103.
(6) Claus von Stauffenberg, for example.
(7) Since WWII, the left has tried to portray eugenics and “racism” as “right-wing” phenomena. This is grossly misleading. Eugenics, which developed out of the theories of Charles Darwin and his cousin Sir Francis Galton, was regarded initially as a progressive development in science. Eugenics programs received broad support from across the political spectrum. Left-wing intellectuals rallied behind it. Here in Canada, Tommy Douglas wrote his master’s thesis in support of eugenics in 1933, the same year Hitler came to power. In notoriously left-wing Sweden eugenics was practiced until the late 1970’s. While it received right-wing support as well, including that of Sir Winston Churchill, and the right-wing Social Credit government in Alberta had a sterlization program for decades (a fact about which Jane Harris Zsovan has recently thrown a book length hissy fit) the most notable principled opposition to eugenics in the pre-Hitler era came from socially conservative religious leaders. Theories of racial supremacy also arose out of the “Enlightenment” and its emphasis upon the natural sciences and were thus originally considered to be progressive.
(8) Dr. Jacob Neusner, an academic rabbi and a pioneer in the scholarly study of Judaism within the context of the mainstream American university, in an essay entitled “Sorting Out Jew-Haters” which appeared in the March 1995 issue of Chronicles Magazine, distinguished between the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany in which “Jews are a separate species within humanity, peculiarly wicked, responsible for the evil of the human condition” and other negative attitudes towards the Jews. He points out how only this specific anti-Semitism as an “encompassing worldview” could have had the horrific consequences it had in Nazi-occupied Europe. This is the opposite approach to that of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen whose books argue that the Holocaust was the natural product of the teachings of Christianity and the German mindset. Neusner is correct.
(9) As the trilogy unfolds, from Men in Arms through Officers and Gentleman to Unconditional Surrender, Crouchback increasingly becomes aware of the fact that his old-fashioned notions of chivalry and honour are being punished while people with less noble concepts are rewarded. The extent to which modern notions have pushed out traditional principles is made clear to him when the new alliance is forged between Britain and the Soviet Union.
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