Friday, October 9, 2015

Ben Carson's Nazi Obsession

Photo of a parade of rifle-bearing marksmen taking part in a "shooting festival" in rural Germany in 1935, during the period of Nazi rule

As someone with a PhD in German history, I spend a lot of time tearing my hair out when people make completely specious statements and silly analogies relating present day events to Nazi Germany.  There's a reason they do so, namely that the Nazis have become a stand-in for the ultimate evil.  To liken your political opponents to Nazis is to say that they are inhuman, the harshest judgement possible.  This of course is also the reason for Godwin's Law, since comparing one's opponents to Nazis is a sure sign that you are out of ideas and are making outlandish accusations.

Ben Carson is full of bad ideas and is nothing if not outlandish, and he above all other contemporary political figures has an obsession with comparing liberals to Nazis.  This week he repeated the old gun nut canard that Hitler took power because of gun control, and that guns in the hands of Jews would somehow have rescued them from the Holocaust.  Not only is this statement patently false, it is deeply insulting to the memory of the victims of the Shoah.  It basically amounts to saying, "If you'd been more like me, you wouldn't have died."  It's a different version of what Carson said about the recent mass shooting in Oregon, where he attacked the victims for not doing more to stop the shooter.  Both of these statements are vile and disgusting, and I feel like even responding to them or acknowledging them is some kind of crime.

(These statements on Carson's part display a deep sickness of the soul. Like other conservatives, he lives in a world of autonomous individuals where he feels that the misfortunes of others are always, ALWAYS the fault of their own, even if they are shot dead by a raving gunman or rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to the gas chambers.  But I digress.)

This was not the only time Carson has made Nazi comparisons, however.  Back in 2014 he memorably said that America as a whole was like Nazi Germany, and claimed the IRS was being used to stifle dissent. Here's him defending himself to Wolf Blitzer: 

"The people in Nazi Germany largely didn't believe in what Hitler was doing. But they didn't say anything? Of course not, they kept their mouth shut. The fact that our government is using instruments of government like the IRS to punish its opponents, this is not the kind of thing that is a Democrat or a Republican issue. This is an American issue ... A lot of people do not feel free to express themselves."

The first part of this sentence is patently false, and downplays the most disturbing aspect of the Nazi state.  (The second part is just laughable.)  By the late 1930s, most Germans DID support it, that's what's so frightening about it.  Those people considered "Aryans" who were not leftists saw great benefits from that state.  They got free vacations through the Strength Through Joy program.  They got the apartments confiscated from Jews.  They reveled in the sense of national rebirth.  The Gestapo was a much smaller operation than the later Stasi because the Nazi regime had a lot more popular support than the Communist regime in the East did.  Just chew on that for a minute.

Of course, Carson doesn't know that, because he has a limited, ahistorical, view of Nazis as superhuman monsters, the ultimate villains who gained power purely through oppression.  Yes, they did plenty of that, but there was plenty of consent, too.  A large portion of the German population even became party members (including Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, who would shockingly be chancellor during the 1960s.)  In Carson's mind there is but a simple equation: government is bad, Nazis are bad, government is Nazis.  It is impossible for people like Carson to view the Nazis in their proper historical context because viewed as the horrible yet real and often ordinary people that they were, they are no longer potent symbols in his crusade to make liberals and their policies out to be diabolical.

Here is a man, after all, who has said that the Affordable Health Care Act was worse than slavery.  That is a statement that is, if possible, even more insulting and stupid than his recent comments about gun control.  It is especially jarring considering that Carson himself is descended from slaves.  When he makes slavery and Nazi comparisons they are intellectually meaningless and simply do not deserve a long, fact-based response from a historian such as myself.  Carson is your angry uncle who shares crazy right wing internet memes.  He's the creep who barges into your conversation in the bar to tell you about something he read on the internet.  He's the guy at work you never want to get stuck in the break room with.  He is the student you pray doesn't show up to class.

He also happens to be polling in second place in the Republican primary.  That he has been able to say the things he has said about Nazis, slavery, Islam, etc. is really a reflection of just how insane the Republican base really is.  The Nazi comparisons show that both they and Carson view their political opponents as pure evil.  While it might be tempting to laugh off their bad history, calling one's opponents Nazis -and hence evil personified- implies that they must be dealt with in a violent fashion.  Carson and his ilk are playing with fire, pretty soon someone will get burned.

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