[This is Section 40 of Nietzsche and the Nazis.]
40. Hindsight and future resolve
We know from historical hindsight that it took a world war to defeat the Nazis. Tens of millions of human beings died in that war. Actual human beings who lived, loved, cried, had dreams—and then were killed. Millions of others had their lives damaged and disrupted seriously. Over and above all that, the economic and cultural costs—the wrecking of people’s homes and possessions, the destruction of works of art, the obliteration of historical artifacts, and so on—those costs are incalculable.
The Nazis lost that war, but it was a close call, and there is no guarantee that it will not happen again.
And this is why it is important that we understand what really motivated National Socialism. By the 1930s, the Nazis had the entire political and economic muscle of Germany at their disposal—but more important than that, they had intellectual muscle behind them and they had a set of philosophical ideals that motivated and energized millions of people. That intellectual and idealistic power more than anything made the Nazis an awesome force to be reckoned with.
History has taught us that the philosophy and ideals the Nazis stood for were and are false and terribly destructive, but we do not do ourselves any favors by writing the Nazis off as madmen or as an historical oddity that will never happen again. The Nazis stood for philosophical and political principles that appealed to millions—that attracted some of the best minds of their generation—and that still command the minds and hearts of people in all parts of the world.
And that means we must face the National Socialists’ philosophical and political ideals for what they actually are—we must understand them, know where they came from, and what intellectual and emotional power they have. Then and only then are we in a position to defeat them. We will be able to defeat them because we will understand their power and we will have more powerful arguments with which to fight back.
Arguing over philosophical and political ideals is often unpleasant. And the issues involved are often abstract, complicated, and emotionally difficult. But there are no shortcuts. Perhaps the best motivation for doing the hard work comes from reminding ourselves regularly and often how much more it costs to settle disputes by war.
We may not like that the Nazis had arguments and positions that many people find attractive. We might find it repulsive to take their arguments seriously. We might find it difficult to get inside their heads to see where they are coming from.
But we have a choice: We either fight those ideas in theory or we fight them in practice. We either fight them in the intellectual realm or we fight them on the battlefield. It might still come to fighting them on the battlefield—but that is always the most terrible option, the most expensive in every possible way, and the one we should avoid if there is any other way to defeat them.
So that means that defeating National Socialism intellectually is the strategy we should follow first. Defeating them intellectually means taking their positions seriously, understanding them, and knowing how to argue against them.
The second rule of politics is: Know your enemy. The first rule of politics is: Know yourself. Know what you stand for and why. Know what matters to you fundamentally and what you are willing to do to achieve it—and, when necessary, to fight to defend it.
That is a very large project, and that is why a culture’s philosophers and other intellectuals do important work—or, if they get it wrong, great damage.
As a beginning to that project, let me indicate a clear direction to start in.