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Tech entrepreneur, executive, and investor; father of eight children; Googler.

Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

For as long as I can remember, my family has spent time each year in Cedaredge, a small little town in western Colorado. During our most recent visit, I was caught unprepared in a rain shower and, seeking cover wherever it could be found, I stumbled upon a library book sale. The combination of ridiculous prices, an eclectic selection, and nothing else to do with the rain about me conspired to fill many bags with good old books. Among them was an old edition of William Shirer’s classic Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

At over 1200 pages, it’s not a quick read–but it’s not a difficult one, either. The author is a journalist rather than a historian, and to the great credit of the book, he was a first-hand witness of many of the events chronicled in the book. The result is a rather interesting account of a pivotal period of the past century.

But then, there is a natural drama and grandeur to these events that transcends the pages. We see Hitler’s rise from a penniless wretch on the streets of Vienna to the most powerful man in Europe; we witness the shame of Nevill Chamberlain’s “leadership” contrasted with the breathtaking courage and splendor of Winston Churchill; we marvel as Fate herself seems to conspire to keep Hitler alive against all odds as he survives many would-be assassins only to topple from power due to countless bungled decisions for which only he can take blame.

As I plowed through the book as fast as I could manage, I was fascinated by how much of the history was readily applicable to our own time and place. Let me share some of the points that most resonated with me.

Religion and Wars

Some make the argument that religion is the primordial source of conflict in the world and were we but unshackled from our silly delusions of God’s existence, peace and harmony would break out across the land. (In an era of terrorists blowing up thousands of innocents under the banner of religion, it’s easy to be sympathetic to that position.)

The horrors of the war waged by the Nazis should give pause to that assertion. While not as hostile towards religion as the Communists, the Nazi Party’s leadership openly disdained organized religion and crushed any religious leaders unwilling to support the Party. To replace religion as the moral core of society, the Nazis established a new set of values anchored in the faux-science of their philosophers–and managed to get a significant portion of the populace to embrace them.

The sheer evil of the Nazis is breath-taking. The holocaust, of course. Their half-executed plan to simply starve the Russians and Ukranians–to ship their food to Germany and let them all die. Their reign of terror over all of their occupied territories.

And then, there was Stalin who had guns mounted behind his own front lines to shoot any of his men who retreated; who interned his own country’s POWs when they were liberated because he expected them to fight to the death; who killed thousands of his own people as they fled Moscow when it seemed clear that the Nazis would occupy the city (he wanted them to stay as a show of support).

Religious extremists have no monopoly on evil.

Media Propaganda

The Nazi’s exploited a basic human flaw with great success: we are heavily influenced by repetition. In a particularly memorable passage, the author describes how he personally witnessed countless people from educated backgrounds adopting the silly and baseless ideas of the Nazi party only because they were repeated so constantly through every medium. Even otherwise respectable, credentialed scientists and academics fell victim to the echo chamber.

Are there shared beliefs in our zeitgeist based on shabby science oft-repeated that we no longer question, that even our men-and-women-of-letters champion or fail to challenge? How much original research is in place before the media machine takes over, repeating it a thousand times until many or all believe?

We must question everything and have an anchor in something more than the fashion of the moment.

Deception in Foreign Relations

It is tempting to believe President Ahmadinejad of Iran when he asserts publicly that his government is seeking for nuclear technology only to provide power for his people. Especially when he is courteous and photogenic.

The Nazis bluntly lied shamelessly to any member of the press or foreign statesmen they could find. The sheer audacity of their deception is impressive. They lied about invading every country they eventually crushed. If rhetoric was not enough, they created fake events upon which to base their rhetoric. Yet their actions betrayed their true intentions; it was only the world’s willingness to accept seemingly innocent explanations for their war preparations and their troop movements and their alliances, etc. that led to disaster.

Effective foreign policy must simply ignore rhetoric and focus relentlessly on action.

Records of History

Rise and Fall would have been impossible to write had it not been for the voluminous records kept by the Nazis–the same records that contributed so well to their executions and imprisonments at the trials at Nuremberg. Some of the most interesting revelations were made possible by the odd memo here or the random piece of correspondence there. These threads would have been impossible for history’s actors to have seen as they were woven in time; historians had to discern the pattern. All thanks to meticulously filed and archived documents, preserved for us.

There is something about the Truth that is larger than any of us, or all of us. We owe it to our successors to clearly present their legacy. As tempting as it may be to manipulate facts and control the narrative–to emulate the totalitarian regimes in their absolute control of the facts–we cannot indulge in this desire.

We need to work out how to effectively archive digital information and how to balance the need for Truth with the right to avoid self-incrimination. I hope we get that figured out before many of us succumb to the temptation to shred a part of our society’s story.

Justice

The man at the head of the machine which caused the deaths of countless millions and further hardships upon most of the entire world never had to face justice. Hitler died on his own terms, so completely that his remains were never recovered. He left behind his belief that the Third Reich fell because the German people did not deserve him.

Some others in positions of authority were executed after the war following the various Nuremberg trials, but so many of these oversaw or directly committed mass murders. To kill one who has killed another is itself hardly justice–for the second killing cannot begin to undo the first–but it has a certain symmetry that feels to some like justice. But you cannot kill such criminals more than once. How do you extract justice from such monsters? Of course, you cannot.

And yet, shortly after sentencing many such to jail terms and executions, the sentences were commuted and the criminals were set free. Men who killed defenseless prisoners of war. Men who burned little children. Terrible people.

Still, the Nazi regime had a gangster element to it–via the SS and its derivatives–that successfully prevented dissent. Had these men refused to fulfill their dreadful orders, they would have reason to fear brutal torture of themselves and their families. Of course, the right thing to do is take a moral stand regardless of the outcome, but then, thanks to the propaganda built on “science” mentioned above, on what moral ground do you stand? Moral relativists at this point must eat their cake as we realize that, without immutable moral anchors, there can for some be no stand to take.

There is no justice in this world, though we try our best.

Comments

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  1. Scholar #
    December 30, 2008

    Regarding religion and the nazis,

    64 out of the 65 million germans were christian so of course they needed to co-opt the religion into their plans. They reformed the church as “Positive Christianity”. Hitler himself was a Roman Catholic which is why the pope performed a remote exorcism, from the vatican, several times. The german soliders all wore belts reading “Gott Mit Uns” (read: God With Us).

    The Nazis didn’t let anything get in their way, including the church, but then that’s how churches have been used historically anyway.

    Trying to say that religion didn’t support it is misleading however. Terrorist bombers say that their god wants them to do it. George Bush says that his god wants him to invade Iraq. The problem in religion is that it’s too easily co-opted by those in power. Unlike all other calls this one is about arguing about invisible minds. Those in power get to say what god thinks and to use that good will instilled since birth for whatever purpose they want.

    In this way religion is an opportunity for control that cannot be argued with. It’s this that the Nazis took like others.

    A population may be swayed by all kinds of ideas but the less supernatural arguments the better.

  2. Jason #
    December 30, 2008

    Great post.

  3. Omar Khan #
    December 30, 2008

    Good post.

    People should realize the role that democracy played in helping Hitler legitimize his powers (just as it does with Hamas)

    Hitler was just a front-man, the voice of the party. The people committing the most crimes were his advisors around him.

    One can even say Stalin killed more people than Hitler.

  4. December 30, 2008

    Excellent post! It is refreshing to see someone involved in the open source universe take such a clear stand of the importance of exposing and confronting aggressors. Dare I suspect you are from “the dark side” (i.e., conservative)?

    It baffles me that so few transfer the lesson from “the shame of Neville Chamberlain’s “leadership” contrasted with the breathtaking courage and splendor of Winston Churchill” to today’s geopolitical events (Muslims’ attacks on the west and Israel).

    Thanks. You made my day!

    (from an ex-liberal, now independent)

  5. Ben Galbraith #
    December 30, 2008

    Thanks for the comments. (Sorry they were held; I changed the WordPress setting and they should now be immediately available if not flagged as spam.)

    @Scholar: I should have side-stepped the question of religion and the Nazis entirely by pointing out that Stalin did likely kill far more people and his regime was explicitly and entirely non-religious. Very much enjoyed your comment; there’s no escaping that religion is a powerful tool to create blind obedience amongst people who self-identify as “good”.

    @Omar: I meant to mention that but had to end the post at some point. It is fascinating how both Mussolini and Hitler came to power legally–and in Hitler’s case especially, were fanatical about creating a legal framework for their actions (ignoring the earlier “Beer Hall Putsch”).

    @Peter: You called me out–I am a conservative. Thanks for the kind words.

  6. karl #
    December 30, 2008

    >How much original research is in place before the media machine takes over, repeating it a thousand times until many or all believe?

    Which is something which exists in any kind of community. Mozilla community, open source communities, proprietary software communities work the same on using the heavy media (marketing) machine. The big danger is not that much into the tools by itself, but more exactly when the community and its members believe they do it for the good of humanity. It’s where the danger starts, creating all kind of consequences.

    >We must question everything and have an anchor in something more than the fashion of the moment.

    As you said, it is good to stay critics with your own community and your own messages.

  7. December 30, 2008

    Good post.

    It’s really hard nowadays to remind people, that Hitler has got the power through a democratic system.

    When we see today things like the “proposition 8” in California and other similar things, I’m really horrified about the comments “the people have spoken, so we cannot do anything against it”. If there will a “proposition x” “make all African Americans slaves again”, and the majority agress, what then?

    I think that a democratic system should always have laws and procedures which could and should stop any non-democratic movement, before it is able to seriously threaten the system itself, like many European countries already have.

  8. December 31, 2008

    “To kill one who has killed another is itself hardly justice–for the second killing cannot begin to undo the first”

    I would argue justice (at least in the criminal courts; courts of equity are an entirely different matter) is not the undoing of wrongs but rather the process of making transgressors pay the cost of their crimes. We can argue about whether the cost involved in the murder of someone else is the forfeiture of the murderer’s life, but large classes of criminal wrongdoings cannot be undone in any meaningful sense.

  9. December 31, 2008

    Also, why hasn’t anyone invoked Godwin’s Law yet? 😛

  10. Ben Galbraith #
    December 31, 2008

    @Jeff: Hey, Godwin’s Law doesn’t apply if the subject matter is directly to do with Nazism. 😉

    Agree w/ you on our justice system; was speaking in the abstract.

  11. January 1, 2009

    Moral relativists are ultimately corruptible by repetition (and many other illogical methods of argument) because they navigate life without a compass. Their concept of moral true north can be impeached because they have found their flocking instinct more useful than their ability to reason.

    But we are provided with immutable moral anchors by nothing more grand than common sense, and while we need other people to grow that sense, many moral discussions can be voted on only to the extent that 2+2=4 may be. Such sense is the foundation of justice as much as it is science.

    This does relegate justice to being a theory, at best a human approximation of a real idea, which immediately raises the troubling thought that our ideas of justice are as potentially backward as, say, our ideas of physics have been. It points to a widening disparity between our technical and philosophical development.

  12. January 4, 2009

    That was firmly tongue-in-cheek, if it wasn’t clear; the icon used for the smiley (U+003A COLON, U+002D HYPHEN, U+0050 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER P) doesn’t really make that clear, while the text replacement does. 🙂 (That’s U+003A COLON, U+002D HYPHEN, U+0029 RIGHT PARENTHESIS. 🙂 [Dangit, recurring smileys!])

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