When Jonah Goldberg published his book Liberal Fascism in 2007, George W. Bush was still president, and no one had yet compared Barack Obama to Hitler.
Goldberg’s ambition for his book, if you boil it down, was small. He wanted to clarify the word “fascism” for a popular audience and defend himself, as an American conservative, against the knee-jerk label “fascist.” Fair enough. “To suggest that Hitler was a conservative in any sense related to American conservatism,” he wrote, “is lunacy.”
That’s true. Hitler hated almost everything about America, from its messy democratic system to its mingling races, from its seductive freedoms and modern jazz to Wall Street’s rise as a center of international (Jewish) finance. The tragic heroes of American history, for Hitler, were Native Americans: nationalists uprooted from their rightful soil by a bunch of foreigners.
Even in this brief summary it’s easy to see that Hitler’s program trampled across easy categories of “left” and “right.” He was some of both, like most people.
But Goldberg tries to argue that Hitler’s statist solutions to Germany’s woes — his whole “National Socialist” platform — was essentially a left-wing, revolutionary movement of workers. Being called “left-wing” would have horrified Hitler, but never mind. “The ‘social space’ the Nazis were fighting to control,” Goldberg writes, “was on the left.”
What’s true is that Hitler took a ragtag, socialist-minded workers’ party in the 1920s and built it up with nationalist, militarist and racist rhetoric, until the Nazis appeared to be something new under the sun. With a baffling mixture of idealism and torchlight parades, he seized absolute control of a wounded Germany. The Nazi party made socialist noises while it cozied up to German industrialists. “The party had to play both sides of the tracks,” writes William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. “It had to allow Goebbels [and other propagandists] to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly socialists and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it.”
Goldberg prefers to focus on Nazi big-government policies toward everything from banking and gun control to health care, but he downplays the freakish rants against foreigners, homosexuals and modern art, against weak-kneed liberals, intellectuals and “urban cosmopolitans” — all in favor of German farms, German family values and German workers just struggling to get along. Hitler cleared at least as much “social space” on the right as on the left.
He was no doubt a revolutionary. Hitler wanted to clear off German aristocrats as well as the German bourgeoisie, and this fierce populist anger against the comfortable middle classes and their weak-looking Weimar Republic is part of what makes Hitler seem “left-wing” when you begin to read about him.
But the same anger animated loads of Germans back then; parties across the political spectrum wanted to tear down Berlin’s wobbling experiment with Anglo-American democracy and replace it with something glorious, uncompromised and pure, as long as it would bring swift prosperity to the suffering unemployed. It was political romanticism, and in this sense German Communists helped the Nazis along, even if Nazis and Communists held gang fights in the streets. Hitler hijacked their romanticism.
The sticky question for Goldberg and his fans, particularly since the book came out, is whether this romanticism really is just a province of the left. Or is it possible to imagine a grassroots revolutionary movement from the right that dreams of patriotic renewal, resents Wall Street for trashing the economy, hates the lazy liberalism of the latté-drinking middle class, bashes homosexuals and immigrants, mistrusts intellectuals and “cosmopolitans,” loathes dissent, resorts to vicious name-calling and has been known to call for war when no war is needed?
Most Germans can’t figure out what some Americans mean when they compare Obama to Hitler. Goldberg bears a lot of responsibility for this lunacy. He’s also begged people not to go quite so far, though the plea may sound disingenuous from the author of Liberal Fascism.
“Some have taken to calling liberals fascists,” he laments in a new afterword to his book from 2009. “That isn’t what I wanted.”
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