Who Is Responsible for “Normalizing Tyrants”?

A couple weeks back over at The Conversation, Prof. John Broich of Case Western Reserve University spun out a piece about how the American media “normalized” Hitler and Mussolini back in the day. Although the article doesn’t mention Trump, the implication of the piece is clear.

Broich is not wrong to point out how much of the American media simply didn’t recognize Hitler for what he was:

When Hitler’s party won influence in Parliament, and even after he was made chancellor of Germany in 1933 – about a year and a half before seizing dictatorial power – many American press outlets judged that he would either be outplayed by more traditional politicians or that he would have to become more moderate. Sure, he had a following, but his followers were “impressionable voters” duped by “radical doctrines and quack remedies,” claimed the Washington Post. Now that Hitler actually had to operate within a government the “sober” politicians would “submerge” this movement, according to The New York Times and Christian Science Monitor. A “keen sense of dramatic instinct” was not enough. When it came to time to govern, his lack of “gravity” and “profundity of thought” would be exposed.

In fact, The New York Times wrote after Hitler’s appointment to the chancellorship that success would only “let him expose to the German public his own futility.” Journalists wondered whether Hitler now regretted leaving the rally for the cabinet meeting, where he would have to assume some responsibility.

Yes, the American press tended to condemn Hitler’s well-documented anti-Semitism in the early 1930s. But there were plenty of exceptions. Some papers downplayed reports of violence against Germany’s Jewish citizens as propaganda like that which proliferated during the foregoing World War. Many, even those who categorically condemned the violence, repeatedly declared it to be at an end, showing a tendency to look for a return to normalcy.

However, this blindness was not limited to journalists. Academic political science disgraced itself, too. I go through this sorry chapter and explore why academic political science wasn’t up to the job in my forthcoming book Patriotism Is Not Enough (you can pre-order today!) and here’s a short excerpt:

The contemporaneous voices that raised the alarm about the nature and consequences of totalitarianism came mostly from outside the ranks of political science. One thinks of Reinhold Niebuhr calling the moment a “crisis” for theology, or the erratic Walter Lippmann’s sudden anxiety over the totalitarian potential of centralized power (“collectivism”) in his 1936 book The Good Society. But even Lippmann had to shake off a default to wishful thinking, such as describing one of Hitler’s 1933 speeches as “statesmanlike” and the “authentic voice of a civilized people” that was “evidence of good faith.” Sounding like a dean of multicultural diversity on an American campus today, Lippmann argued that “to deny today that Germany can speak as a civilized power because uncivilized things are being done in Germany is in itself a deep form of intolerance.” . . .

In general most of the flood of books and academic articles about Hitler’s Nazi regime and the rise of fascism in Europe in the late 1930s partook of the current enthusiasms for historicism, evolutionism, behaviorism and positivism that reigned supreme over the interment of political philosophy. Hitler’s rapid and ruthless centralization of power, entailing the abolition of Germany’s previously robust federal structure, was analyzed with the clinical detachment of a biologist looking at bacteria in a petri dish under a microscope. In some cases the phenomena of fascism and Communism were treated as reciprocal symptoms for the weaknesses of democracy. The diffuseness of fascism as an ideology, in stark contrast with Soviet Communism, reinforced the tendency to analyze it institutionally rather than ideologically or philosophically. Eric Voegelin wrote about debates over the changing political scene in Germany: “At that time there was the great debate among jurists abut whether the Weimar constitution, which indeed was never abolished but only changed, was in fact still the constitution of the Hitler Reich or whether a revolution had occurred. Wonderful discussion among jurists. In the meantime, people were killed.”

Roger Wells of Bryn Mawr College, writing in 1935 about Hitler’s rollup of the previously robust local governments in Germany, concluded: “There is some justification, therefore, for the National Socialist contention that the Deutsche Gemeindeordnung does not destroy local self-government, but, on the contrary, aims to build it anew upon more secure foundations so that it may once again recover and bloom as in the nineteenth century.”

Of course the comparison of Trump to the fascists of the 1930s is ridiculous, and so there is a double ironic cluelessness of Broich’s piece. As Tom Wolfe sagely wrote, liberals are always predicting the dark night of fascism is about to descend in America, but somehow it always falls somewhere in Europe. And as for “normalizing tyrants,” a news media that generally sucked up to Fidel Castro, Yassir Arafat, etc., has no standing on the subject.

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