Yonatan Zunger /
Nazism conceives of the world as a struggle between races. That’s not “race ” as in the 20th-century American “black/white” sense; in the Nazi vision, Jews, Slavs, Britons… The “National Socialism” is a very real idea, too: it means socialism for members of the nation. And they decide who’s in and who’s out. Government subsidies for “good, decent people?”
When I talk about the dangers of Nazism, people often assume I mean it as a term of abuse, as an excuse to attack people I disagree with. This is the unfortunate side effect of people forgetting the real meaning of the word — of treating “Nazi” like some kind of generic slur or term of abuse. It isn’t: it has a straightforward, literal meaning. And it is one that you need to understand.
What is Nazism?
After WWII, there was a campaign to argue that Nazism had no real ideology, that it was just some group of people, to delegitimize it. That had some value, but its downside was that people forgot that Nazism does have an ideology, which never went away.
Nazism conceives of the world as a struggle between races. That’s not “race” as in the 20th-century American “black/white” sense; in the Nazi vision, Jews, Slavs, Britons, and so on are all “races,” too. Nazism believes that races have certain characteristics, which are passed on through the blood, and that they are bound to some land, which it is their right and duty to rule.
There are a few other articles of Nazi belief: for example, that acting (“the will”) is better than thinking (a sign of weaker races), and that the strength of a race is most strongly exemplified through the untrammeled Will of its leaders. It is often combined with Fascism, which adds a belief in the importance of hierarchy and obedience — and if you’re thinking, “Wait, you just made an ideology around obeying people who don’t think?” you may have spotted one of the many ways in which this goes wrong.
The “National Socialism” is a very real idea, too: it means socialism for members of the nation. And they decide who’s in and who’s out. Government subsidies for “good, decent people?” Sure! Just don’t give it to those parasites.
So here’s the important thing: These ideas make up Nazism. You don’t need to wear a swastika to believe in them.
And here’s another important thing: If you’re in the US, you may have grown up hearing “Nazis are the bad guys” — the guys Indiana Jones beats up — without learning why. Or you may have learned about concentration camps, but not about what happened in the ten years leading up to them. All of which means that when other people see Nazis and get very frightened very quickly, they may seem to be overreacting.
Here’s the thing: when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they didn’t build camps. They passed laws restricting jobs for “non-German” races (nations). They argued that money spent on the disabled was simply a drain on society, and we should move them to hospitals. They held angry public rallies which often included violence. Their leaders and militias flouted the law, because they knew it didn’t apply to them. They saw who they could kill and get away with, and gradually, over time, expanded that.
They encouraged “voluntary self-deportation” of unwanted Jews, by banning them from holding jobs. When no country wanted a few million refugees, it was their proof that nobody wanted the Jews. So camps were started up as administrative holding centers, where they could be put to good use — that is, as slave labor. The disabled, moved to remote hospitals, were out of sight and out of mind: so that’s where they did their first experiments of mass murder. I could go on about this for hours, but the point is: this was a story of an ideology which did exactly what it said on the label.
They didn’t do this by showing up one night and starting to kill people, but by slowly, gradually, building up public normalization of what they did.
Nazism is an ideology fundamentally inimical to everyone who isn’t a Nazi. It is a known and proven threat to life.
This is why, when I refer to Nazis in the US, I am not using this as some kind of generic slur against people I disagree with. Nazis are people who subscribe to the ideology of Nazism, whatever organizations they do or don’t affiliate with. Nazism is an ideology fundamentally inimical to everyone who isn’t a Nazi. It is a known and proven threat to life.
Very importantly, (and I can’t believe I have to explain this, either) conservatism is not Nazism. American politics, in particular, has fallen into talking about “The Left” and “The Right” as though these were two monolithic blocks which somehow describe the spectrum of belief — lumping everyone from Hillary Clinton to Bobby Seale on the one side, and everyone from Mitt Romney to Richard Spencer on the other. And since Nazism has risen alarmingly on the far right, around the world — you may recognize some of the ideologies I described above from your own country, right now — and people are talking about how to deal with Nazis in very practical, day-to-day terms, discussions of “the Right” obscure this difference and imply that “Nazi” is just some way to describe “anyone to the right of you politically.” This is most emphatically not true. Nazism is a coherent political ideology, one which has taken active root and must be stomped out, but that is because it is inimical to human life. There is a lot of room between non-Nazi political ideologies and Nazi ones. In fact, there is a yawning chasm between the two, and to attempt to conceal that in order to score some cheap political points simply makes you a fool. (For those who are interested in what conservatism is, and the related roles of it and liberalism in a healthy society, I suggest this thoughtful essay by Robert Hansen.)
And also importantly, Nazism is not the sole property of any one group of people. There have been many Nazi organizations over the past century, and even more organizations which espoused Nazi ideology under slightly different names. Nor is Nazism limited to organizations which specifically support it; its ideas have spread, virulently, without having to have a central office. Nazism is a disease; swastikas are just symptoms.
Speech and Counterspeech
Before we talk about what you do about Nazis, there’s a very important thing to remember: The 10–80–10 rule. In pretty much any society, 10% of people (give or take about 5%) are going to be heroes, no matter what: people with strong moral compasses, unwilling to be swayed from that. Another 10% (give or take 5%) are going to be villains, no matter what: they will engage in villainy and violence for the sheer fun of it. But the large majority of the population — the 80% in the middle — is neither. Instead, they will set their norms of what is acceptable by watching people around them.
Nazism is rarely the preferred ideology of the majority. But as it approaches the 10% threshold, something very important happens: Nazi ideas start to become a part of normal discourse. Around 15%, it’s perceived as a serious part of culture. And around 20%, you can take power. (I mean this last number very seriously; in the last US election, as in every other election for quite some time, the winning candidate got about 19% of the total population to vote for them. 50% of the voters is not the same as 50% of the people.)
And this is something which Nazis understand deeply and use.
In particular, consider arguments of the form “I don’t think [this person or group] is human.” Maybe they shouldn’t have the same civil rights as you, or they shouldn’t be asking for “special” rights which other people already have. Maybe they just shouldn’t be considered qualified for some jobs — I mean, are women really capable of being engineers?
In any society, 10% of people (give or take about 5%) are going to be heroes, no matter what. Another 10% (give or take 5%) are going to be villains, no matter what. But the large majority — the 80% in the middle — will set their norms of what is acceptable by watching people around them.
These arguments are fundamentally illegitimate, and unlike most other political arguments, they do not have a counterspeech remedy: trying to speak up against them helps them. This happens for a few reasons.
- The people targeted by the argument can’t, by nature, offer a meaningful rebuttal. Quite apart from asking just what the counterargument is to things like “I think you and your family should be deported or killed,” implicit in the entire argument of inhumanity is that the person’s arguments themselves shouldn’t be taken as seriously. The most common form of this is “oh, you’re just self-interested; we need other people’s opinions to really have a conversation.” This inherently excludes the people directly affected from the conversation: now society is having a conversation about people’s humanity that doesn’t even include them. And that, implicitly, is already an answer to the question: if we don’t need to involve them directly, they really weren’t full people, were they.
- This creates an asymmetric burden on the people affected. Once “are you a person?” or “are you fundamentally qualified to have your job?” or the like becomes a question people routinely ask, people from this group will be effectively required to prove their credentials anew to every person they meet. Consider how much less effective you would be at your job if every person you interacted with assumed you weren’t actually the real person doing your job until you proved it to them. (Or, in the case of many readers of this, you don’t need to imagine much at all. This was the core argument of the manifestbro, after all.) Again: having the conversation itself achieves the instigators’ goals.
- Finally, one should recognize that the real target of this conversation is neither other Nazis (who already believe it), nor the groups affected (whose opinion the Nazis don’t care about). The real target of this conversation is the 80%. By having the conversation, over and over again, this creates an appearance that this is part of the normal discourse, and a real open question in society — thus implicitly recruiting the 80% to assist in achieving goals (1) and (2).
Nazism can be considered to occur at three levels of intensity within a society. At the lowest level, overt Nazism is rare and shocking, and if someone steps in public advocating these ideas, everyone else backs away quickly. In circumstances like these, counterspeech does serve two important points: first, the general encouragement of counterspeech as a remedy, and second, giving the general public a shared opportunity to condemn Nazism, and in so doing, reaffirm the social compact against it. This was the theory behind the ACLU’s long-running defense of the rights of groups like the Nazis and the Klan to march, even through neighborhoods of Holocaust survivors.
Once Nazism and Nazi ideals go above the popularity threshold where there is instant, universal condemnation not only of the ideas but of the people who would dare utter them, this dynamic changes completely. The effects listed above become dominant.
14% of people, when asked if they support or oppose neo-Nazism by that name, answered either neutrally or positively towards it, plus an additional 9% “don’t know.”
Where do we sit relative to those thresholds today? A Reuters/Ipsos pollconducted just a few weeks ago (N=5,360) found that 14% of people, when asked if they support or oppose neo-Nazism by that name, answered either neutrally or positively towards it, plus an additional 9% “don’t know.” Perhaps more significantly, much larger percentages supported ideas straight out of Nazi discourse, such as “America must protect and preserve its White European heritage” (31% favorable, 29% neutral, 5% don’t know) and “Marriage should only be allowed between people of the same race.” (16% favorable, 14% neutral, 4% don’t know)
On Punching Nazis
However, at the lower end of this range, there is an important second dynamic to consider. The Nazis going out and speaking are not entirely deeply-convinced, dyed-in-the-wool Nazis. They are generally a combination of those and the most eager second group: people who claim to be joining “for the lulz,” but are really joining for the companionship and sense of belonging. Note that these are not nice people: these are people who are finding their sense of belonging among goddamned Nazis, are actively advocating their ideas, and are standing side-by-side with the most committed. But unlike the most committed, many of them are also very aware that joining this gets them some things (social bonding, a peer group) and costs them nothing.
The moment the costs of being a Nazi go above zero, that calculus changes, and this is why punching Nazis serves a very important social role during this window: it causes the less-committed Nazis to vanish very quickly. (For an illustration of this, compare the attendance figures at the Nazis’ first and second Berkeley rallies, or before and after Charlottesville and the murder of Heather Heyer. The moment the stakes became real, a lot of people vanished.) This vanishing reduces the Nazis’ effective percentage of the population considerably, and at these levels, even one or two percentage points makes a huge difference.
There are, of course, two very serious downsides to this. The first is the normalization of political violence, which is incredibly dangerous. People who think otherwise do not know what civil war looks like.
Antifascism is something which only happens when fascists are not only open and active, but have the tacit support of authorities. It’s what happens when groups from Nazis to the Klan know they can threaten and terrorize, and the cops will shield them. This, indeed, happens systematically: cops at Nazi rallies “prevent violence” by shielding the Nazis, but oddly don’t shield counterprotesters. In fact, they tend to arrest counterprotesters a lot, and just happen to be elsewhere when they’re the targets of violence.
Antifascism is like a fever: a dangerous symptom which may nonetheless be the thing keeping you alive. It’s an immune response to Fascism replicating beyond safe levels.
Antifascism is a case of the public arming itself because the state monopoly on violence has failed to provide the protection and justice which is its justification for existing — and like any similar case, is a symptom of something very, very, serious. In this sense, antifascism is like a fever: a dangerous symptom which may nonetheless be the thing keeping you alive. (Your body heats up because it’s hoping the heat will kill the infection faster than it kills you.) It’s an immune response to Fascism replicating beyond safe levels.
The second problem is something much simpler: The fever may not be enough to save you. Punching Nazis has an effect when the 1–2% of weakly-affiliated Nazis — what they’re currently calling the “alt-light” — can be scared off. Once Nazism reaches a larger threshold, around 15% of the population, things begin to happen catastrophically. Antifascism, along with most other kinds of resistance, becomes illegal; laws restricting the public’s right to object to anything from government corruption to military orders become necessary to “protect the public.”
If antifascism is the fever that fights the infection, and journalism is the antibiotic, we apply them rapidly and in the hope that they will stop before it is too late. Because once those have failed, the further treatments have horrible costs and consequences for the patient. After all, there is only one thing that has ever stopped Nazism once it crossed such a threshold, and it did not come cheaply.
Never forget what Nazism is — and that when it appears, it needs to be stopped immediately and vigorously. “Nazi” is not a slur, and it should not be used for anyone who does not advocate those ideas. But it should be used for those who do. And for them — neither peace, nor sympathy, nor quarter, nor mercy.
Dedicated with love to the men and women of the Eastern Front, who defined determination in the face of impossible odds. We have not forgotten what you did and what you lived through, and even knowing that price, we are prepared to do the same.
And no, in response to the inevitable question: I am not speaking metaphorically. I am being as plainly literal as I possibly can, because people seem to keep misunderstanding what Nazis are and why they’re dangerous. Short of doing an interpretive dance, I don’t know what else I can do to convey that.
Thanks also to Robert Hansen for his comments on this essay, which led to some useful revisions.