I once had the unsettling experience of being served by a guy in Tesco who had a swastika tattoo on the back of his hand. Not that the experience itself was unsettling. He asked if I wanted help to pack my bags and when he handed me my receipt he politely told me about fuel savings for my non-existent car. In other words: it was a typical Tesco checkout experience. It just had more than the usual amount of Nazi symbolism.
I was reminded of this as I read about Tim’s experiences with the football fans singing their anti-Semitic songs. As shocked as I was to learn that such things still happen, it wasn’t much of a surprise. People who think the gas chambers of Auschwitz provide a funny end rhyme for a football chant might well be the kind of people to wear a swastika tattoo and vice versa. Trying to understand why they sing about the gas chambers or wear the swastika on their hands is another matter…
History is largely a mental state. Unless personal to us, actively thinking about it rarely gives us pain. Quickly think or read the words ‘Rwanda genocide’ and what do you genuinely feel? Unless you were there or had family involved in that that atrocity, the words probably makes you feel no more or less than the phrase ‘Renault Clio’ or ‘A.C. Milan’. Only when you think about that genocide with more focus do you produce a physical response: a chill run down your spine. Look at a photograph of the mass graves and you might have a more physical response — revulsion, shock, — but even that is different to the reality of being there. You can perhaps intellectually position yourself in a place where your emotions lie shallow on the surface, where individual stories somehow parallel your own. Tales that end ‘and that was the last time he saw his father alive’ would touch any of us who have lost our fathers. Suddenly, you feel emotions about events that are far removed from your reality.
Yet all of these take acts of will. You generally have to think about history before it really affects you. The rest of the time, history is an abstraction and it’s only through social agreements that we deal with them with any degree of tact. The child talking loudly during a remembrance service learns to be quiet if they’re scolded.
Another accepted convention of our civil society is reverence for the Holocaust. I am neither Jewish nor have relatives who suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Yet I know that respect is due. Education, upbringing, and a sense of common humanity demands that. I know the facts and even if the numbers are beyond my comprehension, I understand the significance of numbers that are beyond comprehension.
All of this is perhaps just a long way of saying that many of the people who wear swastika tattoos or sing anti-Semitic songs really don’t understand or feel the history they’re invoking. Others, of course, do know and there’s really very little we can say beyond that they are probably sociopathic or worse. We point our fingers at those that willfully insult and intend to hurt. Yet, at the same time, how often do we do something similar but on a far less objectionable scale?
Do people gathering around the bonfire to burn their traditional Guy Fawkes really understand the anti-Popish origins of the tradition? Could they conceive of the horror of actually burning a man alive at the stake? A few years ago, mannequins of Jimmy Saville were being thrown on bonfires as if a nation was exorcising its demons. Yet it was another abstraction. We laughed. It seems like a suitable end for some awful shell suit and blond wig. But did people really want to throw Jimmy Saville on a bonfire? And if you answer that you did, then have you considered what that would involve? The sights, the sounds?
I wrote recently about the habit of comparing things we dislike to the Nazi regime. Seinfeld has the famous ‘Soup Nazi’ but there are many more commonplace examples. I’ve been particularly drawn to the number of times I’ve seen Hitler’s name littered throughout debates about Donald Trump. It bothered me so much that I recently started to spend my evenings slogging my way through all 1500 pages of William Shirer’s ‘The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich’. It had occurred to me that I largely knew Hitler’s biography but I had not actually read the kind of account that would let me to argue for or against the proposal that ‘Trump is like Hitler’. How could I condemn people for using Hitler as a reference point if I didn’t fully understand that comparison?
It is easy to be ignorant of history. History is unknowable. At some point, we have to acknowledge that facts have gone missing but that end is no reason not to begin. Yet, too often, words like ‘Hitler’ and ‘Nazi’ litter our commonplace speech merely as tokens of something offensive. In terms of depth of understanding, they are no better than the lout who wears the swastika on his hand simply to say ‘I wish to offend you’.
There is a difference and I don’t make an equivalence between those seeking to offend and those trying to express their how offended they feel by Trump. Yet I am saying that both are reductive, discarding history and replacing it with a signifier which is, in itself, trivial. Yet isn’t that shameful and isn’t it also dangerous to make our most dreadful history into something so banal? Has the swastika become so meaningless that a guy can go through life with it tattooed on his hand and end up working for Tesco? How trivial has our understanding of recent history become that we treat Hitler’s name so lightly? To describe Donald Trump as being ‘like Hitler’ is meant to demean Trump but, surely, doesn’t it really elevate Hitler?
It elevates Hitler because even Trump’s enemies know his ‘crimes’, if that’s what they are, are trivial compared to the crimes of the Fuhrer. What has surprised me the most about Shirer’s analysis of Hitler’s rise is, really, that the politics read almost as an irrelevance. The real story of the Third Reich is the story of Hitler and the thugs, villains, and outright psychopaths with which he surrounded himself. Hitler was not simply a product of his context. Nor was he an absolute evil. He was a warped human being whose passions, vices, dreams, disappointments, hatreds, and loves all contributed to his rise and downfall. He was a peculiar child, adolescent, and young man; already victim to a pathological hatred of Jewry and obsessed with German nationhood. His sense of his own power was thwarted when he unsuccessfully applied to study art at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He joined the army where he was wounded (recent studies possibly confirm the old song regarding his lost testicle). He decided that his future lay in politics. He developed skills and became a great orator, often making impassioned speeches that lasted hours. He was also a gifted propagandist, having a hand in the symbolism of the Nazi party. He knew he could use the party to further his dreams of a unified Germany, made weak by the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the Treaty of Versailles. His plan involved setting up a structure of government in opposition, including his own security forces, amounting to an insurgent movement which led to his imprisonment. In prison he wrote the first rambling volume of Mein Kampf. His career would have ended there had the Great Depression not happened and the ruling elite not made some disastrous decisions that allowed the National Socialists to rapidly expand their vote. The German people looking for people to blame bought into the rhetoric offered by the National Socialists and it was on the back of this that Hitler rose to power.
The Nazis systematically murdered six million Jews and five million non-Jews. Surely that is enough detail to know that Donald Trump is nothing like Adolf Hitler.
We are right to be sickened by the louts singing anti-Semitic songs and the guys with the swastika tattoos but surely we should also be careful not to make Hitler banal. We think we know history but in no way do attempt to feel it. If we did, we perhaps wouldn’t say the glib things we say and would feel greater shame when the greatest crime of the 20th century is used for fun or insult.