Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Bush, the Nazis and America

[Concluding a brief series: See parts 1, 2 and 3.]

4: Keeping Conscience

It is clear that, while the Bush/Walker clan was utterly conscienceless in its dealings with the Nazis, and at least a substantial portion of the Bush family's fortune is in fact built upon that blood-tainted business, there is no evidence that they had any serious ideological ties to them. In a literal sense, of course, it is silly to refer to them as "Nazis," since one had to be a German citizen and join the party to earn the name factually. But even in the generic ideological sense, the evidence of even an affinity, let alone an identification, with the Nazi ideology is very thin.

Yet when this aspect of the Bush family's history is raised by their critics, it almost inevitably comes attached to the notion that the "Bushes were Nazis." A site called Unknown News, for example, asks, "Were Bush's great-grandfather and grandfather Nazis?" and answers: "While there are no recorded incidents of them goose stepping or giving the 'Heil Hitler' salute, the short answer to the question is yes...." David Romm asks the identical question. Even a column devoted to debunking the notion (to which Romm was responding), Cecil Adams' "The Straight Dope,", asks, "Was President Bush's great-grandfather a Nazi?" (Of course, when you frame the question that way, it is a bit simpler to knock down.)

And those are all relatively reasonable sites that try to deal with the serious underlying issues. Even more responsible Web sites, including TakeBackTheMedia, which only focused on the "Bush-Nazi connection" (which, as I already noted, is a factually accurate characterization) indulged itself in the accusations about George H.W. Bush's military service, and moreover featured various pieces of parodistic altered photographs placing member of the Bush administration in Nazi regalia. This latter, of course, is also common at some of the more shrill and irresponsible sites attacking Bush as a Nazi, and is familiar to those of us who have seen the ridiculous "Bush=Hitler" signs.

All of these images underscore a crude misunderstanding of what actually is taking place. As I have argued in "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism," there is a significant difference between corporatists and fascists. I provided a general outline there, but let me try to delineate them more clearly:
Corporatists are typically mainstream conservatives who have been a feature of the American landscape since the onset of the Industrial Age. They are supremely self-interested, and their politics over the years (particularly in their resistance to communism and labor unions) have adapted accordingly to resist change in whatever privileged position they enjoy, and in recent years to roll back impediments to that privilege. Their alliances with various ideological factions have shifted accordingly over the years to reflect those interests, at times aligning themselves with extremist factions as a lever against left-wing radicalism, though since World War II corporatists have maintained a steady power-sharing agreement with mainstream liberals that has been closely associated with the rise of the American mass-consumer society. In recent years, that arrangement has become frayed as conservatives have become increasingly aggressive about rolling back features of the post-Depression rise of federal power, particularly progressive taxation and minority civil rights.

Fascists represent a distinct phenomenon related to the mass politics of the 20th century and beyond. At its core, fascism is a kind of ultranationalist populism in pursuit of the rebirth of a mythical national spirit, of which it claims be the sole true representative. Depending on social conditions, it typically is relegated to the fringe of the cultures in which it arises, especially in its nascent stages. Indeed, small proto-fascist groups can be found in nearly every democratic society.

What is essential to remember is that, historically speaking, fascism has only ever taken root as a genuine political power when it has formed an alliance with mainstream corporatist conservatives. While proto-fascist elements have had their moments in the sun in America -- particularly the ascendant Ku Klux Klan of the early 1920s -- they have fallen short mainly because the nation's corporatist conservatives have not deigned to ally themselves with them. This was not true in Germany or Italy, where corporatists such as Fritz Thyssen were all too happy to ride the fascist tide until it began to reveal its true nature and turn on them -- by which point, of course, it was all too late to do anything about it.

In that respect, today's mainstream corporatist conservatives -- and I think it is clear that not only President Bush but the bulk of his administration fit that description -- do not resemble Hitler and the Nazis so much as they resemble the Thyssens and Hindenburgs, the fools who believed that by co-opting their nation's growing extremist contingent, they could control it. And they resemble the Prescott Bushes and Averell Harrimans who only saw the chances for increased profits and consolidation of their power in underwriting the Nazi military machine. In the process, they all combined to unleash one of history's greatest nightmares.

And to the extent that today's Republicans pander to and traffic in extremism within their own ranks, the more they create the actual conditions that give rise to fascism. Especially troubling in recent weeks has been the increasing repetition of the meme that dissent is treason and that therefore liberals are seditious traitors. This ranges from Ann Coulter's attempts to revive McCarthyism to Donald Rumsfeld's charge that critics of the administration are "opposition to the U.S. President was encouraging Washington's enemies and hindering his 'war against terrorism'."

This really is why the questions around the Bush family's connections to the Nazi regime are relevant today. The episode does not point to some secret ideological affinity for fascism so much as it reveals a willingness to empower them if it furthers their ends. The really interesting question raised by the "Bush-Nazi connection" is not so much a hidden skeleton in the family closet as what the episode says about American society's willingness to ignore inconvenient truths of history, and how that affects the ethos of current public policy.

Cecil Adams, in his attempt to debunk the connection, alludes to this when he argues:
So, did Bush and his firm finance the Nazis and enable Germany to rearm? Indirectly, yes. But they had a lot of company. Some of the most distinguished names in American business had investments or subsidiaries in prewar Germany, including Standard Oil and General Motors. Critics have argued for years that without U.S. money, the Nazis could never have waged war.

While this is quite accurate as far it goes, for some reason, Adams considers this an excuse of some kind: "Hey, everybody did it, and we still do it." This elides the larger question of the real moral culpability that exists for aiding and abetting not just the Nazi nightmare, but violent totalitarian regimes through succeeding years. While it is true that certain American figures -- notably Henry Ford -- faced even greater degrees of culpability for their overt support of fascism, the people who gladly profited from providing essential cogs to the Nazi war machine cannot escape accountability by merely claiming that it was "just business." This defense for all kinds of atrocities is common among American capitalists, and it is at base corrupt and amoral. Indeed, it continues to serve as a handy excuse for the kind of foreign policy that has been practiced ever since the war, and which was specifically shaped by the same self-interested forces that gave way to the Holocaust.

Two other texts -- both balanced, accurate and reliable -- have tackled the larger issue of the role of corporate America's investment in and financial and logistical support for the Nazis, both in their nascent and military-building phases: New York Times reporter Charles Higham's groundbreaking 1983 book, Trading With The Enemy; The Nazi American Money Plot 1933-1949, and Christopher Simpson's 1993 The Splendid Blond Beast: Money Law and Genocide in the Twentieth Century.

Both books -- which deal at least tangentially with the Harriman-Bush connections -- focused on the question of why these captains of industry never had to confront their culpability in the Nazi nightmare. According to Higham, investigations were begun by international tribunals to look into this matter but "the government smothered everything during and even after the war." Higham contended that government officials believed "a public scandal ... would have drastically affected public morale, caused widespread strikes and perhaps provoked mutinies in the armed services," and thought "their trial and imprisonment would have made it impossible for the corporate boards to help the American war effort."

Simpson delves even deeper into this point and ultimately concludes that when it came time for accountability in the mass genocide sponsored by corporatists, international tribunals were stymied by the same machinations of privilege and power that were in fact responsible for the problem. The elites whose fortunes were at stake found that the structure of international law was weak and easily manipulated so that they could simply "get on with business."

As Phil Leggiere argues persuasively in his 2002 article, "The Indiscreet Charm of the Bush Nazi Web Conspiracists":
What … Aaron-Loftus and Simpson substantiate with more detail and in a far wider historical context, is that the relationships between Harriman Bank and other corporations and Nazi-era Germany need to be understood as part of a larger pattern. There is little evidence that the free-form meta-diplomatic modes of international financial deal making developed by Harriman, Bush and company in the 1920s and '30s signaled pro-Nazi or pro-fascist political ideology. However, it did help form a template for U.S. international finance and politics in which support for dictatorships, (financially in the '30s, financially and politically-militarily during the cold war) would become business as usual in U.S. foreign policy. One of the most interesting aspects of both the Simpson and the Aaron and Loftus books is their examination of how the private sector style of international affairs pioneered by Dulles, Harriman, Lovett and Bush in the '30s gradually metaphorphosed, during and after World War 2, into the official realpolitick of the U.S. government, often under the guidance of these same men. The ruling precepts of anti-communism and free trade that guided the international banking elite in the '30s in their dealings with Hitler would become the official policy through which the U.S. would support a wide variety of corporate-friendly dictators throughout the world, from the '50s to the present.

Leggiere's exegesis, by the way, is easily the most thorough and considered account of the matter on the Web, and I recommend it as essential reading for anyone wanting a balanced examination of the facts. I only came across it late in my research for this piece, and was pleased and slightly astonished to see he reached exactly the same conclusion as I had [I should also note that he is a superior writer]. This is its essence:
There are sharp distinctions between the "Bush is a Nazi" vulgarizations of the conspiranoia-ists, and the documented corporate-Nazi connections delineated by Simpson or Aaron. Where one sees ideology, the other sees opportunism. Where one sees intention, the other sees unintended consequences. The theorists who see this historical episode not as evidence of Nazism but of business-as-usual are clearly the more sophisticated of the bunch, but this is small comfort. The results were (and are) the same.

The vast majority of the Bush-Nazi conspiracy discourse is eccentric and clearly over-the-top. However, it is these web-based amateurs, and not our allegedly working professional journalists, who have kept alive a significant, largely ignored, body of evidence. This evidence is only partly about the Bushes. More significantly, it traces the origins of the cavalier, amoral relationship between American and global financial elites and genocidal dictatorships that has characterized U.S. policy for decades.

Americans have a well-noted tendency toward convenient historical amnesia -- witness the broad lack of awareness of such episodes in American history as the lynching era, or for that matter the current popular tendency toward the easy dismissal of minority grievances as "identity politics," which is clearly based on forgetting where such politics originated.

Coming to terms with the American role in unleashing the Nazi death machine is not a matter of "guilt" or self-hating recrimination: It is a matter of conscience, of keeping faith with real American ideals, such as decency and fair play. It is important to understand that having a conscience affects not only our views of the past but our present behavior. The relevance of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is what it says about the kind of politics being pursued by present and future administrations.

It is unfortunate, of course, that a discussion of the "Bush-Nazi connection" is inspired by the kind of partisan attacks that not only afactually assert the nature of the ties but, in doing so, muddy the waters so that the important underlying issues are obscured. Regardless of how the issue arises, however, it is such a serious matter with far-reaching implications, that eventually serious-minded Americans must confront it.

In this respect, the reaction of the mainstream right to the issue has been particularly telling: Rather than deal with the facts of the matter honestly, conservatives have simply tried to pretend that they don't exist. This is a falsification of history that smacks of the same kind of intentional omissions practiced by Holocaust revisionists or the Communist regimes who were, as Milan Kundera put it, dedicated to "obliterating memory."

George Santayana's famous admonition, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," has become such a commonplace that we seem now not to even recognize it when it manifests itself in public view. And when we dismiss the "Bush-Nazi connection" with a sneer and a roll of the eyes, we partake in nurturing the stuff of nightmares.

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