Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Who Goes Nazi?

-- by Sara

In 1939, Time magazine named Dorothy Thompson the second most influential woman in America after Eleanor Roosevelt. The first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany -- and still then the wife of Sinclair Lewis -- she was one of the country's leading voices against fascism. She'd seen it up close in Europe, and was furiously outspoken about its creeping influence in America.

In the August 1941 issue of Harper's, Thompson wrote a short piece, based on her long European experience, outlining which Americans at any given dinner party might be expected to "go Nazi." It's still in Harper's archives, and it's as insightful and prescient now as it was on the eve of America's entry into World War II:
It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times–in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis.

It is preposterous to think that they are divided by any racial characteristics. Germans may be more susceptible to Nazism than most people, but I doubt it. Jews are barred out, but it is an arbitrary ruling. I know lots of Jews who are born Nazis and many others who would heil Hitler tomorrow morning if given a chance. There are Jews who have repudiated their own ancestors in order to become “Honorary Aryans and Nazis”; there are full-blooded Jews who have enthusiastically entered Hitler’s secret service. Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.

It is also, to an immense extent, the disease of a generation–the generation which was either young or unborn at the end of the last war. This is as true of Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Americans as of Germans. It is the disease of the so-called “lost generation.”

Sometimes I think there are direct biological factors at work–a type of education, feeding, and physical training which has produced a new kind of human being with an imbalance in his nature. He has been fed vitamins and filled with energies that are beyond the capacity of his intellect to discipline. He has been treated to forms of education which have released him from inhibitions. His body is vigorous. His mind is childish. His soul has been almost completely neglected....

.... Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. They may be the gentle philosopher whose name is in the Blue Book, or Bill from City College to whom democracy gave a chance to design airplanes–you’ll never make Nazis out of them. But the frustrated and humiliated intellectual, the rich and scared speculator, the spoiled son, the labor tyrant, the fellow who has achieved success by smelling out the wind of success–they would all go Nazi in a crisis.

Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them.

Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t-whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi. It’s an amusing game. Try it at the next big party you go to.
The whole thing is an easy but rewarding read -- an perceptive look at the way class, power, motivation, and character intertwine in the individual political choices we make in the face of authoritarian power. Thompson watched people sort themselves on one side or another of an invisible line that, in Europe, had already hardened into a battle front. From the distance of 67 years, she reports to us what she saw, how they got there, and who among us will be most likely to take us there again.

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