Why are there Nazis?
Nazi leaders are no particular mystery; it’s pretty clear why someone might want to ride masses of fanatical supporters into positions of power. But why rank-and-file Nazis, now, today, in America and Europe? What motivates someone to sign up as a member of the masses?
Discarding moral arguments for a second, Nazism in this day and age makes little practical sense. It didn’t work out well in the 1930-40s, and it’s worked out even less well ever since. For decades, Nazis have been the butt of all kinds of jokes. Even in today’s increasingly bizarre political climate, it’s difficult to find a restaurant to eat at or a job to work as a National Socialist. Most people really dislike Nazis, and a lot of them are vocal about how disgusted Nazism makes them.
One reason someone might put themselves out there as target of discrimination* and privation is in hope of creating a better future. What is this hypothetical better future, after the Nazis take over and accomplish all their goals? One supposes the “lesser races” will be gone–banished or murdered, doesn’t particularly matter for this conversation–but what will that look like for all the genetic supermen who are left?
You can look it up, but I don’t think it will help. As far as I can tell, the promised Nazi paradise is short on details and always has been.
There is, I admit, a certain magic in a vague promise of “better,” which the adherent can fill with whatever personalized vision of heaven he or she chooses. Yet this nebulous and vague promise has never been the focus of Nazism–not in the way, for example, most Christians focus on heaven. How many Nazis have you heard proselytizing the great White future? The glorious life we’ll all lead, the happiness and fulfillment we’ll experience, the everyday life that will be so much more wonderful than life today?
As far as I can tell, Nazis mostly focus on the things they’re angry about, not the things they hope for.
What is so goddamn appealing about an ideology that offers no practical benefits and doesn’t focus on future happiness?
Hannah Arendt argues that the masses of people who fall sway to totalitarian ideology are characterized chiefly by a kind of selflessness. They truly do not care about their own well-being or have aspirations for the future.
Naziism offers an ideology that claims to be able to explain everything that has ever happened or will ever happen. According to Nazis, every question you might ever ask about humanity can be answered by race; a characteristic determined by birth and requiring no further intervention. If your race of people are better, you are also better. No further personal accomplishment or development is required. You can know everything about the universe and about yourself with minimal effort. The ideology of race is simple enough for anyone to grasp and employ.
Isolation and Loneliness
Arendt has more to say about the nature of the “mass man” who is attracted to totalitarian ideology. These mass people are, according to Arendt, both isolated and lonely.
Isolated people lack a place within society. They do not belong to either a class or a community.
By definition, social and political life governs connections between people: a person alone on a deserted island could have neither politics nor society. Without connection into the social and political world, the isolated individual can have no influence over these forces that necessarily influence them. They must obey social laws over which they have no say, they are governed by social conventions over which they were not consulted. Their opinion does not matter. They are lost.
Worse yet, the mass person is lonely. Loneliness is an elusive internal state, difficult to define, yet understood instinctively by all human beings. Loneliness is different from solitude: one can be hideously lonely in the midst of a large crowd. It is a feeling of disconnectednesss–of being different from and foreign to all others.
At its extreme, Arendt believes that loneliness alienates us even from our own selves. Self-reflection is important for all humans: those moments when we have conversations with ourselves, assess ourselves as though we were an outsider. This split allows us to think critically about our opinions and our actions.** True loneliness renders us unable to perform even this basic action. Against what standard can we judge ourselves, if we lose the thread of common humanity?
Have you ever felt that you’re a garbage person, even though you couldn’t put your finger on why, even if you couldn’t name a specific action or even a specific thought that made you feel this way? I believe this feeling is a flicker of that ultimate loneliness.
In this time and place, there’s a good chance you, the person reading this, feel both isolated and lonely. Me too.
A Sick Society
Our society is full of people who are, to a greater or lesser extent, both isolated and lonely. How many people do you know who cannot stand to be alone with themselves? Who feel powerless at work and in their own lives? Who have few or no friends or organizational affiliations? Who need medication to get out of bed in the morning, to function without crippling depression or suicidal thoughts?
Most of us have no idea what we’re doing day-to-day. God is dead, religion is waning in the Western world, nothing has replaced it. We know we should do the “right thing,” but what exactly is this “right thing” in any given situation? Is there even such a thing as an objectively moral “right thing”? How would we know? Life is hideously complicated, the people we live with and work with are baffling and potentially dangerous strangers. We make life-changing decisions with imperfect information every goddamn day, and we make those decisions alone. What should you do? What if you fuck up? What if you fail? Who will help you? Who will care?
But what if you knew everything? What if you could leave all self-doubt behind and never again wonder what the right answer was? What if you never had to make another decision? What if you never had to worry about failure again? You’re going to die someday: what if your short little life was actually part of something immortal and timeless? Some large group that you belong to by default, working towards an ultimate end; blood comrades, an enormous family? What if you never had to worry about your legacy or meaning or anything, ever again?
That’s the appeal of totalitarian ideology. It’s the appeal of Nazism.
It is far from inevitable that someone who feels this way will become a Nazi. But those who feel most this way are most susceptible to totalitarian ideologies.*** Perhaps you too have longed for some sort of answer, some deep and pure truth that will make this mess make sense, something that will connect you to the world around you. Not Nazism, surely, but…something.
You’re not the only one. As you may have noticed, extremism of all sorts is on the rise lately.
People often refer to Nazism as a disease. What if it’s a symptom instead? What if the actual disease is something else?
We are often told that this is the best time to be alive, and whatever justifications follow that sentence are guaranteed to be material. We do, indeed, live in a time of unprecedented material prosperity. We do not experience famines in America. And though poverty exists, even the very poor have more material possessions than at any time in human history.
Not starving to death on the regular is a giant leap forward for mankind; I don’t mean to discount it. It is, emphatically, not enough. We are rich but we are powerless. We are well-fed and directionless. We are physically opulent and spiritually starving. We are isolated. We are lonely. And, even with our opulence, we are frightened all the time.
This is the part where I’m supposed to propose some kind of answer, but I have absolutely nothing to offer here. Even if I did, anything that would fit into the paragraphs at the end of a blog post would have to be an ideology: a simple and easily-understood idea claiming to solve everything. Communism. Religion. Yoga. Whatever.
We’re starving for these kinds of answers as a society at the same time we devalue and degrade philosophy and the social sciences. We don’t want to struggle with answers and uncertainty, we want a magic sentence and a monthly membership. I don’t have either thing.
Nazis are isolated, lonely people who turned to the magic ideology of racism for comfort. Their isolation and loneliness doesn’t excuse this decision, but it does explain it.
As long as people are frightened, isolated, lonely, powerless, alienated, atomized, there will be Nazis. No amount of punching will stop this.
If we, as a society, wish to stop Nazis, we must collectively find a better way to be.
*Sometimes discrimination is justified. Back to article
**You can and should download Arendt’s essay on thinking here, which does a far better job of explaining what thinking has to do with loneliness than I could possibly do in a thousand pages, never mind 2 sentences. Back to article
***Nazism is one totalitarian ideology. Arendt identifies communism as practiced by Stalin as another. I’d argue evangelical religions could someday be a third. Anything that offers a simple explanation to all the world’s problems qualifies as a potentially totalitarian ideology. Back to article