The Nazi System Uniquely Rejected Western Civilization

The World and I, January 2004 | Go to article overview

The Nazi System Uniquely Rejected Western Civilization


There is one crucial respect in which I dissent from Dennis O'Keefe's review of Gulag by Anne Applebaum. He takes the standard conservative position that the Soviet system was more evil than the Nazi system because it killed more people. Even if one ignores differences in the size of the populations and the fact that the Soviet Union lasted for 70 years, and thus provided more time to kill people while the Nazis had power for only 12, there is good reason to regard the Nazi system as more fundamentally evil. The Soviet system was a variant of an Enlightenment project that remained within the Greek tradition of rational discourse, while the Nazis utterly rejected that tradition and the Western civilization that flourished within it.

The early Enlightenment philosophical consensus combined two strands of doctrine. One strand included the concept of democracy and human rights; the other exaggerated the power of theory and the possibility of progress toward perfection. Thus, almost any measure could be defended in some variant of Enlightenment philosophy if it was part of a march toward perfection in democratic government and human rights.

Although the latter variant of the Enlightenment project gave rise to great evil in the heretical French and communist revolutions, the communists doctrinally endorsed the Enlightenment's espousal of human rights and rational discourse. However beastly and anti-Semitic Stalin was, this constrained him from officially endorsing anti-Semitism or from publicly opposing the human rights that his dictated 1936 constitution falsely claimed to implement.

Because ideals such as democracy and human rights continued to be inculcated in Party schools and because they were enshrined in fundamental Party documents, this provided a ground for critiquing behavior from the vantage of agreed-upon ideals. However hypocritical Khrushchev may have been in his secret speech of 1956, it relied upon these elements of fundamental doctrine to reinforce his critique of Stalin.

This was not true of the Nazi movement. Like Heidegger, who gloried in the nonrational irruption of Being into being-in-the-world, the Nazi movement rejected in principle reasoned argument and human rights. Not even Stalin dared to do this. Communism was an evil system led by heretics within modernity. But it was a heretical variant of an Enlightenment project that fostered democracy and human rights, and that had the resources to defeat Nazi and communist totalitarianism. The Nazi movement, unlike communism, was a revolt against Western civilization, reasoned discourse, and human rightSI was very interested in "The Shifting Sands of Power Delivery" by Benjamin Carreras. …

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