No Decency (Review of “Liberal Fascism”)
First Exhibit. Here is the July 1, 1933 issue of Das Neue Tagebuch, a newspaper for German exiles in Paris. We read of a Jewish dentist, Maier, who was forced into poverty through a ban on Jewish practitioners. In mid-July, with his wife (also a dentist) on a quick vacation, Maier clandestinely worked in her office, but was later kidnapped by four S.A. men during lunch at his own apartment. According to the report Schwarzschild received, the men had stabbed Maier twenty-one times, broken his feet by crushing them with a copying press, and shot him in the head, causing his skull to explode.
Second Exhibit. Here is the January 20, 1941 Wannsee Protocol, the minutes of a meeting between Nazi leaders at the luxurious Wannsee Villa southwest of Berlin. We read that an alternative has emerged to merely forcing the Jews to emigrate from German-controlled Europe, one that will be of greatest importance to the “final solution of the Jewish question”. All of the estimated 11,000,000+ Jews in Europe are to be “allocated for appropriate labor in the East”, in effect a euphemism for their transport to the death camps.
National Socialism was one of, if not the, most violent ideologies of the twentieth century, and yet one hardly gets that impression reading Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. In the book, Goldberg, the former editor-in-chief of National Review’s online content, has a thesis that is provocative, if nothing else: Nazis and Italian Fascists have more in common with the early 21st century Left than we like to admit, and American liberals have gotten away for too long assailing the wings of the late 20th century Republican coalition (the Christian Right, neoconservatives, and American big business) as fascists, Nazis, and thugs. The basic idea is that just as Nazis and Italian Fascists wanted a totalizing state that monitored citizens’ activities, so Democrats in America today seek state intervention. As Goldberg writes of Hillary Clinton: “her village may have replaced thefasces with a hug, but an embrace from which you cannot escape is just a nicer form of tyranny.” That this idea flies in the face of conventional scholarly wisdom – we all thought that the Nazis and Italian Fascists were nationalist anti-liberals, right? – is the point of the book. Liberal Fascism is meant to be brash, in-your-face, and revelatory.
But Liberal Fascism is not even wrong. More than merely bad history, Goldberg’s book amounts to a revisionist history of the Third Reich that minimizes the Holocaust and daily persecution of Jews, homosexuals, Roma, and Sinti during the period. In this review of Liberal Fascism, I want to do two things. I want to address some of Goldberg’s claims. And I want to suggest that Goldberg’s comparison of 21st century American Democratic Party members to National Socialists constitutes a form of Holocaust denial.
First, let’s turn to Goldberg’s thesis itself. As Goldberg explains, Democrats tend, shockingly, to become upset when he compares them with Nazis, and when he himself is accused of being a Nazi, he responds: “So tell me, except for the bigotry, murder, and genocide, what exactly is it about Nazism you don’t like?” According to Goldberg, he usually gets a “pierced-tongue-tied silence” to this retort. There are, he thinks, four reasons why this is the case.
The first reason, he says, is simple: “the Nazis were socialists.” National Socialist German Worker’s Party, right? Goldberg argues that Nazi ideologues supported measures such as the “abolition of incomes unearned by work”, the nationalization of major industries and large trusts, prohibition of child labor, etc.
Here two of Goldberg’s major flaws as a thinker come through. The first is that he is a lazy researcher. It is true that Hitler and the other men who made up the Nazi Party in Munich in the early 1920s did support the above measures, but Goldberg conveniently ignores that fact that the Hitler made efforts in the late 1920s to jettison these extreme measures of the Party’s early days, and the fact that many of the socialists in the Party were assassinated by Hitler in the Night of the Long Knives, the mass murder of many of the NSDAP’s socialists on June 30, 1934. Gregor Strasser, the man whom Goldberg quotes as evidence of the Nazis’ socialism, was himself shot on that night.
Indeed, one way to test the National Socialism – liberal Socialism thesis Goldberg puts forward is to look to the current experts on Strasserism themselves. Many prominent neo-Nazis in Germany in the 1980s and the late 20th century, like Michael Kühnen and Christian Worch, regard Hitlerism as a betrayal of the nationalistic workers’ revolution Otto and Gregor Strasser promised. If Goldberg were right, we would have seen Worch and Kühnen praising American liberals, and yet Kühnen was to be found less at Clinton’s side than making statements like, “Americanism is the most extreme expression of the bourgeois-materialist way of life and with it, the driving force of modern decadence.” (The usual accusations about an American-Zionist conspiracy abound, too). What seems obvious to even a neo-Nazi eludes Goldberg: German National Socialism, be it for workers or against them (real wages and the standard of living actually fell during the Third Reich as compared to the late Weimar Republic) was about nationalism and racism. Take away the anti-Semitism, arbitrary killings, the Holocaust, terrorist-style diplomacy, and so on out of the program and you could say the result resembles 21st century American liberalism, but really, what are you left with?
This gets to Goldberg’s second major flaw as a thinker. He is bad at telling his reader whyparallels are important; he is unable to distinguish between various historical parallels and sort out which ones are important. You’ve probably heard this objection phrased as, “Well, Hitler was a vegetarian, so does that mean that vegetarians are Nazis, too?” Goldberg, in dropping socialism as an argument for a Nazi-liberal link, confuses observation with argument. Even if it were true that Nazis had similar economic positions to 21st century Democrats (Jews in America haven’t been dispossessed of their property recently), for this argument to be successful, Goldberg would have to tell this why this parallel ought to frighten us. Toilet cleaners, park custodians, and fire departments all existed in the Third Reich, but so what?
This objection defeats Goldberg’s three other reasons for the Nazi-liberal parallel: that Nazis were anti-Christian, that Nazis promoted public health measures like anti-smoking laws, and that Nazis opposed open scientific research. The latter two arguments are contradictory (how did the Third Reich lead the world in cancer research in the 1930s if it was opposed to good science?) but more to the point: who cares? Yes, religious oppression existed in the Third Reich, but Goldberg forgets that “anti-religious” actions in the United States tend to take place through the regulated Supreme Court, not arbitrary dictatorship. Even if Goldberg had some argument about the procedural justice of these decisions, he would also have to explain why, for example, not having school prayer, is tantamount to – or a possible slippery slope toward – the imprisonment of theologians à la Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While liberals like former Princeton professor Sheldon Wolin and journalist Chris Hedges have to be careful when they assert a GOP-fascist link, the issues on which the American Right and Left accuse each other of proto-Nazism are telling. Goldberg points to anti-smoking campaigns, universal health care, and It Takes a Village; liberals point to the shameful conditions at Guantánamo Bay (Richard Durbin, Amnesty International), the exterminationist sentiment of Jerry Falwell towards homosexuals (Hedges), and the illegal extraordinary rendition, rape and torture, and denial of appeal to German citizen Khalid el-Masri (the ACLU).
Now that I’ve addressed some of Goldberg’s main claims about the supposed Nazi-liberal link, I want to turn to the most shameful aspect of this book. At the beginning of this piece, we saw glimpses of some of the astonishing everyday violence in the Third Reich and the planned epic genocide for occupied Europe. As Cambridge economic historian Adam Tooze puts it, “explaining the Holocaust is surely still the fundamental interpretative challenge facing any historian of the Third Reich.” Goldberg himself echoed this sentiment in September 2003: “To leave out all the genocide and murder is to leave out a pretty important part of the story.” Holocaust denial, or any historical interpretation of Nazism that minimizes the Holocaust (e.g., Marxist historiography in the GDR) is not only offensive to those who did not live to tell it, but also bad scholarship.
Jonah Jacob Goldberg and Doubleday Publishing are the disgraceful author and publisher of this book on the history of National Socialism, the first mainstream author and publishing house to my knowledge to produce a book that dismisses the importance of the Holocaust in order to sell books, advance someone’s career, and turn a profit. Something must have occurred to Goldberg in the years between 2003, when he criticized American liberals who compared Bush to Hitler for this same point, and now, when he is more than glad, as we have seen, to write: “Except for the bigotry, murder, and genocide, what exactly is it about Nazism you don’t like?” In order to slander the American Left, Goldberg has distorted history to fit his thesis, and he has come up with an interpretation of National Socialism that, like Holocaust denial literature, minimizes stories like those of the Jewish dentist Maier and instead depicts National Socialism as just another version of modernist politics, not all that different from Wilsonian America or Hillary Clinton’s current proposed policy program.
When authors like Jonah Goldberg write Liberal Fascism, when Michelle Malkin, another right-wing author, writes In Defense of Internment (another disgraceful book attempting to justify the internment of Japanese-Americans), when Ann Coulter tries in Treason, to justify McCarthyism in retrospect, and when Doubleday and other houses publish these works, the damage extends not only to those in the past, but also to the author as intellectual. To write such a book shows a great flaw in character. This article is dedicated to the conscience of Jonah Goldberg. It has been dead for some time.