With the possible exception of Satan, few historical figures have a darker reputation than Hitler. Hitler is so roundly and unequivocally hated that it’s nearly impossible for anyone to say anything nice about him at all. Praising him or even trying to explain his actions rationally is enough to earn a commentator a time-share in Hitler’s pitch black reputation.
But surely the man was not entirely bad. Beyond that, his contributions to Germany probably weren’t all bad either—after all, he did at least give us the Volkswagon Beetle. But people are generally afraid to say anything nice about Hitler. The more superficial reason of course, is that Hitler apologists might be accused of Anti-Semitism, racism, fascism, or whatever.
But I think there is a deeper, more insidious reason: by wholly damning Hitler, we attempt to justify ourselves. Because, setting Hitler aside for a moment, the real tricky part of understanding Hitler’s Germany is Germany far more than it is Hitler. We have to explain to ourselves how a whole nation endorsed what is obviously, in hindsight, perfectly evil.
That’s when this startling realization surfaces: Most of us probably would have gone along with Hitler. Most of us blindly follow orders without asking questions. Each of us wants to think he or she would be the lone Bonhoeffer choosing death in defiance of Hitler. Nearly all of us are wrong. Deep down, we’re all well aware that, even in our “enlightened” age, we goose-step along with our neighbors to get by, to fit in, to survive. We are very comfortable voting for and endorsing megalomaniacal authoritarian blowhards even still, and we are deathly afraid of being viewed as different. But we hate thinking of ourselves as mindless lemmings, so we create a historical fiction to defend our self-image. In other words, we have to blackwash Hitler.
You’re not even allowed to call Hitler rational, lest you potentially implicate all of our minds in Hitler’s evil. No. He was insane. He was a mad dog. He was wholly and completely bad. He was an alien kind of inhuman evil. Hitler was a demon. He hypnotized all of Germany. He was barely human. Germans were brainwashed by a supernaturally empowered charismatic dark lord. Or else.
Because if, God-forbid-Heaven-preserve-us-Lord-have-mercy-knock-on-wood, Germans weren’t brainwashed … Well, that means most societies are still capable of doing exactly what they did.
If you broaden your perspective a little bit, you can see that “blackwashing” a scapegoat applies to more than just Hitler. It pops up in any area where people want to distance themselves from a democratic evil—a terrible thing the majority of a population once endorsed.
Because democratic evils terrify us. They prove how weak most of us are. Democratic evils undercut the value of civilization. They complicate our relationship to politics. Democratic evils prove that following the rules isn’t enough. In fact, following the rules often causes democratic evils.
Ironically, the tool we use to obscure the reality of democratic evils—blackwashing—is one of the most powerful ways to prepare a society to commit democratic evils in the future.
Stay tuned for more about blackwashing tomorrow…