Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Misquoting Hitler

In my previous post, I expressed my reservations about the idea that punching Nazis is ever actually going to achieve anything. That hasn’t stopped anyone from putting out tweets advocating Nazi-punching as a viable means of preventing the rise of a totalitarian dictatorship (one tweet I saw this morning even implied that not punching a Nazi would allow said Nazi to punch “five minorities”, which makes me want to ask in exactly which parallel universe this is even vaguely true), but I’m not vain enough ever to have thought it would.

Why don’t I just stop following people who tweet that kind of stuff? Because I prefer not to construct an echo chamber for myself, if I can possibly help it. It’s always possible I’m wrong. After all, maybe punching a Nazi might stop him punching five minorities: I haven’t had a chance to put it to the test. I’m just highly skeptical.

So one of the things I’ve seen is a quote, supposedly from Hitler himself. With a few minor variations, it takes on this form:
Only one thing could have stopped our movement — if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
I didn’t know this, but apparently this is widely circulated among various antifascist groups: as one tweet put it, Hitler literally gave instructions on how to defeat Nazis. (I’m sure the author of that particular tweet didn’t literally mean that Hitler stood up one day and said, “Guys — just FYI, next time somebody like me comes along, this is what you have to do.”) If Hitler himself said that the only way to stop Nazis was to attack them as often as you could, then that justifies Nazi-punching, right?

(This post is going to get very long, by the way, but it was well worth writing. It includes some historical context, and you might want read it and judge for yourselves whether, and if so to what extent, it offers any parallels to what’s happening at this very moment.)

A couple of thoughts crossed my mind. First, whatever other justifications you may have — and I’m sure there are many — quoting Hitler is probably not the most convincing argument. We can’t rely on anything he says at all. Besides, it’s entirely possible that he could have been stopped if only a few more politicians at the time had shown a little more backbone and not given in to his bullying — we’ll never know for sure, of course, but reading up on the history of the years leading up to the imposition of the single-party state makes you wonder (the story of how he got his Enabling Act to pass is a real eye-opener). If he’s saying that only a sustained and brutal attack would have stopped him, that was an idle boast: “We were very nearly invincible!”

Second: is this a genuine quote? It’s pretty much a fundamental rule of the internet that you don’t simply believe whatever quotes you see (as Arthur Conan Doyle once said), and it’s always good to get to the bottom of things.

It proved frustrating, as I was constantly finding people asking exactly the same question and coming up against dead ends everywhere they looked. The quote appears on various predominantly antifascist sites vaguely attributed to “Adolf Hitler (1934)”. I did track down a German version, but it contains a relatively recent anglicism, suggesting it was translated from the English, not the other way around.

So I asked one of the people tweeting this if they knew where it came from, and they didn’t answer; but somebody else did, and provided a link to a blog post which — yes! — had a link to the original source.

The good news is that it is, essentially, a genuine Hitler quote. The bad news is that it has been very badly misquoted to the point that it very nearly says the exact opposite.

“Greetings from Nuremberg, the city of party conferences”

The source is about as close to the horse’s mouth as you can get: it’s a book containing the speeches made by Hitler at the 1933 party conference in Nuremberg. The vague attribution “(1934)” can be explained by the fact that the book was published in that year; the speeches, though, were written and delivered the previous year.

The quote is taken from his closing speech, which takes up a monster twelve and a half pages of the book. How anyone was able to sit through that I don’t know, but I decided to concentrate on the immediate context of the quote itself: a few passages on pages 41 and 42 — this part:

If you’re not familiar with Fraktur typefaces, spacing the letters out is the equivalent of italics. This is relevant, because I’m going to translate this passage, and the emphases are Hitler’s, not mine.

A little context: the 1933 party conference took place in the late summer of that year. The last (relatively) free election of the Weimar Republic had been held in March that year, with the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazis) confirmed as the biggest party in government. In November 1933 there would be another election with the Nazis as the only party on the ballot paper. But already by this time the March 1933 parliament had collapsed and dissolved, most of the other parties had “voluntarily” disbanded, and a new law was in place banning the formation of new parties: this was made possible by the Enabling Act, which had been forced through just days after the March election.

In this section, Hitler is reflecting on the 14-year struggle that had got him to where he was now: the leader of a de facto totalitarian state. What this section doesn’t do is give us much in the way of verifiable facts or instructions on how to defeat Nazis. What it does do is to give us an insight into Hitler’s strategy — or, at the very least, what Hitler wanted people to think of as his strategy.

This is my own translation of the original. It’s as accurate as I was able to make it, but any suggestions for improvements would be gratefully received.

We join Hitler as he explains his method for attracting a following: 
Propagate avarice as the substance of a movement and all egoists will join it. Propagate cowardly subservience and the subserviant will come. Elevate theft, robbery and plundering to [the status of] ideals, and the criminal classes will organise themselves into gangs. Just think of ownership and talk about business and then you can unite your supporters in economic parties. But demand sacrifice and courage, bravery, loyalty, faith and heroism, and that part of society that claims these virtues as their own will come forward.
There are a few rough edges to this translation (really, I have a living to make, and there are limits to how much time I can spend on this), but the basic message is clear: promote as ideals the values you want to see in your followers, and they will come. The weird reference to “economic parties” is, I think, a reference to a political party that existed in the 1920s and catered for the interests of the middle classes. “Gangs” here refers to a specific kind of organised criminal gang that used to exist in Germany.

I’m not sure what to make of the next paragraph, which, as far as I can tell, translates as follows: 
But this has, in all periods, been the factor that makes history. But the formation of nations and states, and their conservation, is the substance of what we include in the word “history”.
Well, Hitler certainly made history, that’s absolutely true. An actual historian will probably be able to say whether or not Hitler viewed history in terms of popular or populist movements, but let’s move on. 
So in the year [19]19 I started a program and laid down a tendency that deliberately slapped the pacifist-democratic world in the face. If there were still people of that kind in our society, then victory would be inevitable. For then this fanaticism of resolve and deed would necessarily attract people who would feel affinity to it. Wherever people with this characteristic were, they would one day have to hear the voice of their blood and, whether they wanted to or not, follow the movement which was the expression of their own innermost selves. That could take five, ten, twenty years, but a state of authority gradually formed within the state of democracy, a core of fanatical devotion and reckless resolve.
This marks the first use of the word which, in the quote that started this blog post, is translated as “nucleus”. That’s a perfectly valid translation, but I think “core” is a better fit.

So, Hitler says that what he did was to attack democracy itself, and thereby attract to his movement people who felt the need to act. In his view, the attraction would be irresistable: if you had the urge to destroy the democratic system, you would be drawn to a movement that was making a show of doing exactly that.

In those days, democracy was a new concept in Germany, and at the same time, times were hard. People put two and two together to conclude that their problems were caused by “democracy”. The modern equivalent would seem to be “the establishment” or “the political elite”.

So we have the image of an unstoppable movement that would, if Hitler is to be believed, almost grow by itself, while Hitler bided his time for as long as it would take. Now comes the paragraph the original “quote” comes from:
Only one thing could have endangered this development: Had the enemy recognized the principle, gained clarity over these thoughts and avoided all resistance. Or if they had destroyed the first germ of this new gathering with utmost brutality on the first day.
Just to clarify: “germ” is in the sense of that part of a seed that grows. Hitler wasn’t comparing the Nazi movement to a bacterium.

Here again is the quote as circulated among various antifascist movements:
Only one thing could have stopped our movement — if our adversaries had understood its principle and from the first day smashed with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement.
Some of the discrepancies are perfectly valid (for example, it’s almost certainly the case that “new gathering” refers to the nascent Nazi movement), but there are two big problems.

First, the quote has been contracted, and leaves out the crucial point that doing nothing at all would have stopped the movement — at least, that was Hitler’s claim: as pointed out above, we really can’t trust him on this, or anything at all. The phrase “avoided all resistance” is simply omitted, and the beginning of one sentence is fused to the end of another.

The second problem seems very minor, and could have been a genuine mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to change the quote; however, it does have a significant impact and distorts the meaning quite badly. Where Hitler originally said “on the first day”, the new version has “from the first day”.

My guess is that this error occured not in translation, but somewhere along the line after translation: misreading “from” as “on” is quite an understandable mistake. In German, the difference is between “am ersten Tag” (the original Hitler quote) and “vom ersten Tag an”: much less likely to have been misread or misheard.

This is extremely important: the misquoted version suggests that Hitler recommended a consistent and sustained attack. In fact, he suggested nothing of the kind: his enemies should have either offered no resistance at all, or else struck decisively and early on, before the movement got too strong to resist.

Hence his use of the word “germ”, in German “Keim”. The German version of the idiom “to nip in the bud” is “im Keim ersticken”: literally “to suffocate in the germ”. He’s just painted a picture of a popular movement irresistably attracting followers and getting stronger all time: if you’re going to strike it dead, you need to do it while it’s still young and weak.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has studied Hitler’s military tactics. It’s a description that can be applied to the strategy of blitzkrieg: a massive military strike early on, before the enemy even has time to work out what’s happening, to neutralize all resistance and avoid a long, drawn-out war of attrition.

In the first half of the next paragraph, Hitler explains why, in his view, offering no resistance at all would have worked: 
Neither happened. This time was no more capable of the resolve to or the execution of an annihiliation, and neither did it have the nerve or possibly even the comprehension for a completely fitting and adequate attitude. By beginning instead to attack this young movement on a civic scale, [people] supported the process of natural selection in the most fortuitous manner. It was then only a question of time before the government of the nation fell to this hardened stock of people! And so I could wait 14 years, becoming progressively more imbued with the realization that our time would have to come.
This was a particularly difficult passage to translate, and I may have made a bad job of it, but it’s clear that Hitler is claiming that the resistance that was offered to his movement unwittingly helped it.

One word that was very difficult to translate for me was the word “b├╝rgerlich”, which I translated as “civic”. If I had more time available, I could find somebody with a doctorate in a relevant discipline and ask for help, but the word has many possible translations. It can mean “middle-class” or “bourgeois”, but can also mean “pertaining to the citizenry”.

The overall impression, though, is that Hitler is saying that what resistance came was too little (and, in the context of what he’d just said, too late). Instead of damaging the movement, it unwittingly helped it. Hitler didn’t need a large movement, he needed a hardened core who would not allow themselves to be intimidated by whatever resistance was thrown their way. The anti-Nazi movement, he seems to be saying, had the effect of removing the weak-willed, leaving a consolidated core of the truly fanatical.

Of course, the caveat here is that this Adolf Hitler we’re listening to here, and if ever there was a movement adept at the art of the “alternative fact”, it was Hitler’s National Socialist movement. And really, this is more of a gloat than anything else.

But still: just because accurately quoting Hitler is not a good way to justify your actions doesn’t mean that misquoting him is any better.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I’m not going to start punching Nazis

In case you missed it, a short video is doing the rounds of the internet of Richard Spencer, the leader of the alt-right movement whose meetings tend to feature cries of “Heil Trump”, being punched. And all of a sudden, my Twitter feed is full of different versions of this video and a whole slew of likes and retweets featuring people seeking to justify the act.

It will, of course, depend on who you actually choose to follow, but I appear to be getting one half of the argument. In essence, it boils down to this: Richard Spencer is a Nazi, and it is the duty of everyone who values democracy to punch any Nazi they see. From what I can gather, the other side of the argument is that violence is wrong, and those using violence to combat violence are guilty of double standards.

Let me begin by saying that I think Richard Spencer’s policies, so far as I understand them, are repulsive and dangerous. At least, that’s my opinion. I also can’t bring myself to feel sorry for him, if I’m honest: if you are going to adopt the rhetoric of a hated and hateful tyrannical regime, you’re not going to be universally loved. Those who live by the sword die by the sword: you reap what you sow. Call it “karma” if you must.

But I must confess I do start to feel uncomfortable when people start using excuses for violence and vigilantism, because I begin to wonder where it ends. One Tweet I saw took the position that violence is only justified when used in self-defence, and punching a Nazi is always self-defence.

Is it, though? If I punch a Nazi who just happens to cross my path, what am I defending myself from? The theoretical possibility that one day he may come to power and enact policies which will be disadvantageous to me? I mean, he might; but there’s a theoretical possibility that anyone I meet might stab me in the back. It’s not a particularly good argument.

And who decides who is a Nazi and who isn’t? In the case of Richard Spencer it seems clear, despite the fact that since the word “Nazi” means “member of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party” we’re already using it inaccurately. Spencer clearly draws much inspiration from that movement, that’s good enough for me.

But how about somebody who thinks there’s something in what Spencer says? How about somebody who voted Trump? Somebody who once shared a Breitbart article on Facebook?

More importantly, though: exactly what does punching a Nazi achieve? It might give the puncher the satisfaction of a job well done, but beyond that? If we’re defending ourselves from a theoretical future Nazi dictatorship, how does raining blows on somebody prevent that? Do we think that the likes of Spencer would go home, holding a blooded hankerchief to the nose, and think: “Goodness, some people don’t like me. I should turn over a new leaf.”

The issue here is actually quite a simple one, because it’s a basic human tendency. I am certain every single human does it. You do it, I do it, we all do it, even if we don’t want to admit it even to ourselves. I’m trying my hardest not to do it right now, but I have no way of knowing how successful I am.

We discriminate.

We can’t help it, because it’s pretty much hard-wired into our brains. We need to have some way of distinguishing between things that threaten us and things that don’t. But we modern humans, thanks to our innate ability to use language, have developed some very highly sophisticated and incredibly subtles ways of discrimination.

Basically, we divide humanity into two parts: one good, and one bad. But we carefully do it so that we’re always in the “good” part. No matter how many different ways we divide humanity, we always draw the line so that we ourselves are on the “good” side.

We can be phenomenally clever with this. We are even able to put ourselves on the “good” side while pretending to put ourselves on the “bad” side: if I say, for example, that I’m a racist, I’m not dividing humanity into “racist” and “non-racist”; I’m dividing it into “deluded” and “self-aware”, and putting myself on the “self-aware” side.

Following this line of argument much further, of course, we have to conclude that my simply saying “We all discriminate” is making exactly that distinction in exactly that way, as is this paragraph I am typing now, and we disappear into a pretty nasty paradox. I’ll simply have to ask you to bear with me and consider whether or not my basic point here makes sense to you.

This is the same phenomenon behind all those competing theories about how Donald Trump got elected, or how Brexit happened. Every time you see one of those essays, always imagine the author carefully constructing the argument in order to be innocent. The simpler the argument, the more likely it is to be self-serving. “People voted Trump because they’re all racist” means “I didn’t vote Trump, therefore I am not racist.” Conversely, “People voted Trump because they wanted to get rid of the political establishment” means “I voted Trump because I believe mainstream politicians are trying to destroy me.”

And this is why I’m not going to start punching Nazis. The sequence of events thus far is:
  1. Spencer divides humanity into “good” white people of European stock — people who look like him — and everyone else, who are “bad”.
  2. Somebody else divides humanity into “bad” Nazis, and the “good” people who actively resists them, and so justifies landing a punch.
  3. Countless other people divide humanity into “bad” people who attack, and “good” people who merely defend themselves. Some put Spencer into the “bad” group, some put him into the “good” group. They all put themselves into the “good” group, of course.
But this is a lazy, and ultimately counter-productive, way to go about it. Quite simply, humanity doesn’t divide up so neatly, and all of these divisions are arbitrary. But the more we do this, and the more importance we attach to these divisions, the more polarized society becomes, and before you know it, we’re drawing up the battle lines.

There are better ways of resisting and counteracting extremism. Forcing people to decide between one of two extremes is not at all helpful.

Friday, January 20, 2017

How not to be green

A few days ago, I spotted an advert for a device that promised something little short of a green revolution. I say “advert”: it was actually one of those social media posts that people reflexively share, not realizing that they’re basically doing the job of advertising the product for free, which is what the company intend them to do.

This device is installed in the kitchen. You put left-over food in it, which it then apparently grinds up and magically transforms it into the perfect fertilizer for your garden. That way, your food waste doesn’t go to landfill, and it also means you don’t have to buy chemical fertilizers: the perfect green solution!

I imagine that most of you have already spotted it. For those who haven’t, I should explain that gardeners have been “magically” transforming food waste into fertilizer since time immemorial: the process is known as “composting” and involves no technology more complex than a large wooden box.

Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t actually smell.

The truly worrying thing about this amazing device is that it claims to do this within 24 hours, which means either that it’s a scam, or it uses vast amounts of power. The vast amounts of power must come from somewhere, and even “clean” wind energy comes at a cost: in this part of Germany, the cost of surprisingly large numbers of trees, since the only place you can build a wind farm in hilly country is on hilltops, which are very often forested. (I once got into conversation with a northerner — a flatlander, therefore — who actually told me I was lying about that last point, because what kind of idiot would build wind farms on hilltops? There are times when you’re left with no choice but to quietly drop the subject and tiptoe away.)

It strikes me as one of the odd paradoxes of our time that so many people are paying lip-service to supposedly “green” initiatives, while at the same time we as a society are becoming increasingly less green. A controversial statement, I know, but stay with me here: the idea of a “green” solution that is actually, objectively, less green than the age-old solution the manufacturers are pretending doesn’t exist is a perfect illustration.

So you have a five-year-old car which is not the most fuel-efficient. Do you (a) replace it with a new electric car, or (b) walk, cycle or take public transport as often as possible and the car only when completely unavoidable?

If you answered (a), you would almost certainly be responsible for more environmental damage than you would cause if you changed nothing at all: your old car has to be scrapped and a new car built, and an electric car’s batteries contain some quite rare materials that have to be mined at great cost to the environment.

“But,” you protest, “public transport is not an option for me: the bus only goes once an hour.” That never worried your great-grandparents, and in any case if you truly want to save the planet, you’re going to have to make some personal sacrifices.

I do, of course, understand that in many parts of the world — large areas of the US, for example — public transport is virtually non-existent, which is why you need to persuade your President that Trump-branded streetcars are just the thing to Make America Great Again, or at least to Make America Move Again.

Trump Trams, made in Detroit. Make it happen, America. Just don’t tell Donald Trump it’s to help save the environment.

(Disclaimer: Building trams may require lots of power and natural resources. Dammit, this isn’t as easy as I thought.)

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Farewell, quirky Christmas tree

If you’re in Germany and like to do things the traditional way, you put your Christmas decorations up on Christmas Eve and don’t take them down until after Twelfth Night. If you’re in a rural area where local volunteers provide a service to pick up and dispose of spent Christmas trees and they announce they’re coming round on 14th January, you wait until then to strip your tree and dump it outside. Well, normally, you’d have done that on 13th, unless the tail end of Storm Egon threatens to blow it into the path of unsuspecting cars.

Which explains why, if you’d been spying on me at breakfast this morning, you’d have seen me suddenly point excitedly out of the window, leap out of my seat and start wrestling with the tree.

The tree, by the way, was a rescue tree. In the same way that if we’d got our cats from a shelter we’d have come home with a one-eyed tom and a kitten with a limp, my wife took pity on this hard-luck case:

Please give this tree a home.
Yes, we loved our special tree, and we don’t care what anyone says: it was a delight to have around and we wouldn’t have had it any other way. Of course, we would have loved it more if it hadn’t dripped resin all over the floor, but that’s one reason we don’t have carpets.

Of course, even though we had already stripped the tree, it was still not the easiest thing in the world to get it outside. When you buy a tree, they have a special machine to bundle it up into some netting so it will fit through any door. We don’t have one of those machines lying around in our living room, so I had to try to squeeze it through the patio door, as my wife held it open and gave me useful pieces of advice like, “Take a run-up!” All of this before I had quite finished my first coffee.

I made it in time and returned to find the floor green with the needles that had been shaved off the tree during its passage through the door.

So, farewell, Christmas tree; you were a part of our lives for three weeks, and now you have gone to that great forest in the sky. We shall miss you, and will always remember the... the stickiness you brought to our tiles.