Wednesday, August 4

Nationhood And “The Root Of All Evil”

I recently told my Beguine editor, Terri Stewart, that, because I regarded the re-election of Trump as quite likely, I considered politics a dead subject for leftists / progressives, at least for the near- and medium-term future, and that I would henceforth write about science, art, philosophy, in other words, anything except politics. I had every intention of abiding by that resolution until I read a column by Hugh Hewitt in the Washington Post of April 27 exulting in his prediction – which, to repeat, is probably accurate – that Trump would not only win the election in 2020, but that the election would not even be “close” (Hewitt’s word, not mine). The reasons Hewitt cites for that prediction, while factually accurate, go straight to the heart of what it means to be a nation – and, in particular, of what it means to be the nation known as the United States of America – because Hewitt’s reasoning reduces nationhood to a mere calculus of economic factors – a reasoning that would argue in favor of voting for Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists in Germany prior to the invasion of Poland in 1939. (To answer your next question, yes, I am aware of Godwin’s Law, and my reciprocal question to you is whether you realize the extent to which objections based on Godwin’s Law serve as a mere substitute for actual thinking. Citing Godwin’s Law is a mere excuse for laziness.) Consider the following parallels, and while doing so, bear in mind the question “Is this really all we are about as a Nation – GDP, wage growth, unemployment, and material / financial prosperity?”:

o GDP diminishment and growth:  1913 – 1939

To get some idea of the chaos that pre-National-Socialist German governments, and Hitler after them,  inherited upon the November Truce of 1918, look at the tables and charts of GDP here. The accompanying text is illuminating, but the tables and charts are more succinct summarizations. In 1918, Germany was a nation in ruins, being crushed under the merciless boot of the victorious Allies, including the United States, by the war reparations required by the Treat of Versailles. Churchill was widely misquoted as saying that “the Huns” (World War I parlance) are always at your feet or at your throat. The charts in the linked article give a vivid picture of the former alternative.

Compare those charts of Germany’s economy immediately after World War I with the spectacular recovery of the economy after the advent of a National Socialist government in 1933, when Hitler was appointed Reichskanzler (Reich Chancellor). The Allies, led by the United States, formulated the Dawes Plan of 1924 to restructure Germany’s reparations debt under the Versailles Treaty, in order to alleviate the effects of the horrific hyper-inflation of 1923 in the Weimar Republic. The Dawes Plan worked pretty much as advertised – until the stock market crash of 1929 initiated the Great Recession, and the US had to stop loaning Germany money. That resulted in a corresponding recession in Germany that was, if anything, even more severe than its US counterpart because the German economy, unlike that of the United States, was already depleted by the recently concluded war. (Hence the French and Belgian armies’ march into Germany in 1923 to occupy the industrial heartland of the Ruhr Valley in lieu of reparations payments.) As the GDP bar chart shows, Germany experienced GDP decrease in the low negative single digits to the high negative single digits between 1929 and 1932.

But beginning in 1933 – the year President Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reichskanzler – the German economy experienced skyrocket levels of growth in the positive high-single- and positive low-double-digits range. The dirty little secret of the “German miracle” of the early 30s, of course, is that this growth was fueled by spending, at first clandestine, later quite open, on military armaments, in direct contravention of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler also mandated the building of the Volkswagen – “people’s car” – which added to the success. But the “German miracle” was largely enabled by investments in armaments. The victors of World War I, also suffering from the worldwide economic catastrophe, were not inclined to object, least of all militarily.

o The result of the “German miracle” was radically plummeting levels of unemployment, which attracted great support for Hitler from unemployed workers.

Unemployed German WW I veteran

Germans went back to work in vast numbers between 1932 and 1939. We can have almost no conception of what must have been the exponential improvement of morale among German workers, who had become accustomed to double-digit unemployment – 30% in some years -- ruinous levels of inflation, and endemic poverty in a once-proud nation. This is especially true among workers who, upon leaving the German army in 1918 / 1919, came back to civilian life, transformed from heroes to beggars for lack of employment. And all this improvement occurred within the context of a political stability imposed with in iron hand by Hitler as Reichskanzler. There were no more street riots between competing political parties, each with its own equivalent of Hitler’s Sturmabteilung, the para-military wing of the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP). A few years after Hitler’s appointment, workers were too busy working for themselves and their families to fight each other. 

Of course, there were straws in the wind like the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 radically restricting the participation of Jews in the life of German society. But (a) Germany had never been exactly a hotbed of pro-Jewish sentiment -- in many ways, Hitler's vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric in Mein Kampf merely echoes public opinion in the Germany of the 1920s and 30s, and (b) people were too busy working in what was rapidly becoming the booming economy of 1935 to notice what happened to people they, as a society, did not particularly like, anyway, much like Trump's animus toward Muslims today. People had other priorities, other things they cared about more to break a lance defending people who had historically been the targets of German -- indeed, European -- animosity, anyway.

Austrian crowds celebrating the 1938 AnschluB with Germany

We also find it difficult to imagine how seductive Hitler’s siren song of ethnic purity within Germany sounded, when he called for the incorporation of all ethnic Germans in Austria and in Czechoslovakia.  (Read Mein Kampf sometime, and you will find that Hitler considered ethnic Czechs as members of a vast slave race, mere ”Slavs”, i.e. citizens of the “shithole countries” of the 1930s.) Hence the bloodless annexation of Austria in the AnschluB (“joining / unification”) and of the Czech Sudetenland (“Southeast territory”), both in 1938. Not only were there no objections from the victorious powers of World War I, Neville Chamberlain even aided and abetted the latter, returning to England, as that famous photograph shows, talking of “Peace in our time”. In fairness to Chamberlain, et al., it must be remembered that, even in 1938, memories of the Great Recession were still fresh, and the victors of 1918 had no appetite for yet another crusade in Europe. Germany’s pride and prestige had been restored, or were well on their way to being restored, and historical forces seemed to mandate a vote for Hitler and the National Socialists. Fascism seemed the wave of the future, bidding fair to overwhelm the seemingly effete and decadent democracies of Europe and North America. So … cooperate with the inevitable:  just follow the historical breadcrumbs and vote accordingly.

Czech women weeping over the annexation of the Sudetenland

No doubt, absent a knowledge of where history was headed and its subsequent trajectory, this would have been the advice of the Hugh Hewitts of the 1930s:  the economy is booming, German military might is being rebuilt (because Versailles is pragmatically dead by 1938), GDP is growing geometrically, people are working in near-record numbers, etc., etc., etc. In today’s terminology:  What’s not to like?

Well, as we know all too well by now, quite a lot, as it turned out. The analogy I like to use is this. Please consider ... a man is driving a nice, late-model car, slowly following a little child down the street. He even waves at the child and smiles at him. At some point, the man -- well dressed, well groomed, suit and tie -- pulls the car over to the curb, opens the passenger door, and shows the child an open box of candy or cookies. Let's say the child's name is Jimmy. The man says "Hey Jimmy ... I'm new in town and I am a bit lost" -- his face reddens with embarrassment -- "so I was wondering if you could get into my car and point me the way to the nearest 7-11? If you will do that, I will let you have this box of candy / cookies. Deal?" Jimmy, ignoring his parents' advice to never accept a ride with strangers, climbs into the car. Perhaps after some small talk -- or perhaps not -- the man locks the doors of the car and, ignoring Jimmy's directions, drives to a deserted country road and out into a secluded section of forest. What happens from that point on, I leave to your imagination.

This is the image I recur to when I read and re-read Hewitt's column, in fact, when I listen to Trump supporters who praise the performance of the American economy, the increase in the GDP (3.2% last month, I believe), the strengthening of the military -- even Trump's stance toward tyrants like Maduro in Venezuela, with which I concur. Why do I wonder? Because Trump is an amoral, monomaniacal, narcissistic autocrat who knows little of the values and principles of a constitutional republic -- in fact, regards them as impediments to his ambitions -- and who cares to know even less. But he offers us candy -- much of which President Obama and his Administration was in the process of making possible and available, anyway, when the Executive Branch changed hands -- and the Hugh Hewitts of Fox News and the conservative commentariat accept the ride Trump offers.

I often yearn to address questions to them like: Does it not trouble you that ...

o candidate Trump favored the registration of Muslims?

o he advocated the warrantless surveillance of mosques?

o he threatened censorship-by-litigation to silence dissident media outlets?

o he and his Homeland Security Department put children in steel-mesh cages -- and then simply lost track of them with no way to match them up with their parents?

That last question is especially disturbing because, at the Nuremberg trials, the National Socialist leadership were sentenced to death for war crimes that were at least adjacent, if not equivalent, to the abuse of families.

Of course, there is a very good reason, hidden in plain sight, why Hewitt and his it's-the-economy-stupid (ITES) siblings do not raise such questions and are silent about the issues they imply: none of those bullet-point issues is connected with money. Trump's threats to register Muslims, his threats of censorship-by-litigation -- and least of all confining little orphaned kids in steel-mesh-and-razor-wire cages -- have no effect on, e.g. the unemployment rate, consumer confidence, GDP growth, the Fed's prime rate, etc. In other words, none of those issues have any impact on the economy, and, as far as the ITES ideology and its adherents are concerned, the economy is all that matters. One more time: It's The Economy, Stupid.

I would like very much to believe that Hugh Hewitt, however much we disagree otherwise, is fundamentally a decent man. But, like many Trump supporters, he commits the fallacy of reducing nation-hood purely to a congeries of finance- and fiscal-related questions, with no attention paid to issues of values, principles, and fundamental beliefs -- including belief in and loyalty to the US Constitution.

This is where Hugh Hewitt, and increasingly the Nation itself, and I part company. The former apparently believe that keeping orphaned children in steel-mesh-and-razor-wire cages, underfed and running around wearing shitty diapers, is a fair price to pay for a 3-point increase in the GDP. I disagree. But ... hey! ... that's just me.

It is a truism that there are some things money cannot buy. It is equally true that there are some things money cannot measure.

James R. Cowles

Image credits

Hyperinflation chart … Delphi234 … Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication
50 million mark note … Reichsbank Directorate … Public domain
Disabled WW 1 veteran … Bundesarchiv Deutschland … CC by SA 3.0
Hitler photograph … Bundesarchiv Deutschland … CC by SA 3.0
AnschluB with Austria … Bundesarchiv Deutschland … CC by SA
Czech women weeping over the annexation of the Sudetenland … Bundesarchiv Deutschland, photographer unknown … Public domain
Donald Trump … Official portrait, the White House … Public domain
Concentration camps ... Armed Democrats -- Meme Bucket ... Public domain

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